This previously unpublished picture has recently been identified as a work by Alessandro Magnasco, dating to circa 1700-5. The lively brushstrokes in the head and knotted hands of the figure of Vulcan, as well as the earthy palette, are easily associated with this artist. While this picture is undeniably characteristic of Magnasco's painting style, it is unusual within his oeuvre from both a technical and thematic point of view.
Venus at the Forge of Vulcan with Cupid blindfolded is the only known mythological work by Magnasco. In it he depicts the moment when Venus asks her husband, Vulcan, to craft a suit of armour for her son, Aeneas. This favor is complicated by the fact that she has been unfaithful to him, and he has taken revenge upon her and her lover, Mars. The blindfolded Cupid signifies the haphazard nature of love, and the evidence of the shining steel breastplate between the two main protagonists implies that Vulcan has submitted to her request, despite himself.
One is struck by the monumentality of the figures here, which dominate the picture plane to the relative exclusion of the background. This arrangement is almost unique in Magnasco's work, but the existence of works such a, The Presentation at the Temple (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford) and St. Ambrose refusing Theodosius admittance into the Church (Chicago Art Institute, Chicago) both previously attributed to Sebastiano Ricci, reveal that Magnasco did experiment with this compositional device. It is no coincidence that these works date to the first decade of the eighteenth century, during the artist's Florentine sojourn, 1703-circa 709.
In Florence, Magnasco worked for Grand Duke Ferdinando II de' Medici, who also patronized such pioneering painters as Sebastiano and Marco Ricci and Giuseppe Maria Crespi. From them he learned to favor the human figure within the composition, undertaking works on a larger scale (120 x 170 cm.), such as the present painting. It is interesting to note that two other works of precisely same size, Saint Anthony Abbot and the Saint Paul the Hermit (previously,Sonnino collection, Venice), also date to this decade.
If the young Magnasco was inspired by the experimental environment in Florence for this composition, he looked elsewhere for inspiration for the figures. Dr. Mary Newcome Schleier suggests that, 'While Vulcan's head and his hands with their wide fingernails are frequently to be found in Magnasco's pictures, the modelling of Venus' naked body and her facial features reflect the work of his master Filippo Abbiati (up to 1703) and suggest a dating around the first years of the 18th century for this important picture.' She points out that the precise source for this Venus must have been the female figure in Abbiati's Samson and Delilah (Venegono Inferiore, Seminario Arcivescovile, circa 1690) (private communication). Furthermore, the facial features of Venus, particularly the drawing of the eyes and her fixed gaze resemble that found in two portraits painted by Magnasco during this period (both in private collections). The figure of Cupid was taken from the angels in Magnasco's own Saint Francis consoled by the Angel, also painted around 1700 (Galleria di Palazzo Bianco, Genoa).
Anna Orlando had confirmed the attribution to Magnasco (verbal communication, April 2003) and will include this work in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist.