These recently discovered and hitherto unpublished pictures, which have never before appeared on the market, are exceptionally fine works by Gaetano Gandolfi, who, along with his brother Ubaldo, was the pre-eminent painter in Bologna in the second half of the eighteenth century. Dated by Donatella Biagi Maino to circa 1765 (private communication, 15 December 2016), these two unlined canvases display the virtuoso handling and rich palette that define the artist’s mature work. Biagi Maino compares the present pictures with Gaetano’s Meeting of Ulysses and Circe, dated 1766 and now in the Museo Civico, Piacenza, and with the artist’s Pentecost – an altarpiece thought to have been completed in 1766 for the church of SS. Giovanni and Paolo in Rimini but destroyed in 1944, and only known through a bozzetto now in a private collection (see D. Biagi Maino, Gaetano Gandolfi, Turin, 1995, p. 352, no. 30, fig. 36). Daniele Benati, however, has proposed a slightly later dating for the two pictures, dating them to circa 1770 (private communication, October 2019).
In 1760, with the financial assistance of the Venetian merchant Antonio Buratti, Gandolfi traveled to Venice. This year in the Republic marked a significant turning point in his career. The influence of painters such as Piazzetta, Tiepolo, Ricci and Pittoni was immediately evident in the development of Gaetano’s style and would inform the Bolognese artist’s work during these highly successful middle years until the 1780s. Despite being an ardent and long-standing critic of Jacques-Louis David, Gaetano developed a more neoclassical style later on in his career before his untimely death in 1802 while playing a game of bocce.
The subjects of these canvases are taken from Gerusalemme Liberata, Torquato Tasso’s epic poem from 1581 that follows the vicissitudes of the warring Christians and Saracens. In the first picture, Erminia, the daughter of the Saracen King, is shown encountering a shepherd and his family, while she searches for the injured Tancred. In order to avoid detection she has disguised herself in armor, and the shepherd thus mistakes her for one of the knights fighting in the Crusade. It has been suggested that the model for Erminia was Gaetano’s wife, Giovanna Spisani, whose portrait he painted soon after their marriage in 1763 (Private collection; see D. Biagi Maino, op. cit., p. 347, no. 13, fig. 14). The pendant depicts Rinaldo and Armida, an episode from Canto XVI in which Tasso tells the story of Christian knights who went to liberate Christ's tomb in Jerusalem. Rinaldo has been seduced by the beauty of the magician Armida, who keeps him in the magic garden of her enchanted palace. The lovers are being spied on by Ubaldo and Carlo, the two Danish knights who have come to release their companion from Armida's spell.