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Gaetano Gandolfi

Italian, 1734 - 1802

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Gaetano Gandolfi was born in 1734 and raised on a farm in the Po Valley, where his father worked as a land agent. He followed his older brother Ubaldo to nearby Bologna for training at the Accademia Clementina, the major teaching institution in the province of Emilia-Romagna for painting, sculpture, and architecture. They had been preceded to the city by a third brother, Rinaldo, a skilled worker in iron and bronze. A formative influence on Gaetano's figurative drawing style was undoubtedly the tutorship of the sculptor-anatomist Ercole Lelli (see Mimi Cazort and Giovanna Perini in Bella Pittura: The Art of the Gandolfi. Exhibition catalogue by Mimi Cazort, with an essay by Giovanna Perini. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1993, pp. 12-13, 24), and his early proficiency as a draughtsman was quickly recognized: he won numerous medals at the Accademia Clementina for drawing between 1751 and 1756.

Both Gaetano and Ubaldo, as well as Gaetano's artist son, Mauro, remained associated with the academy as members and, periodically, as teachers throughout their careers, or until it closed in 1803. As was common with many Bolognese artists, who were ever reverent toward their predecessors in the city, Gaetano seldom ventured outside the precincts of Bologna. At age twenty-six he spent a year in Venice (so far as is known, not under any official tutelage) at the expense of a young Bolognese merchant, Antonio Buratti. This experience enabled him to absorb the Venetian coloristic and painterly tradition, apparent in his subsequent work. In 1788 he spent six months in London (with a short stop in Paris) at the invitation of Richard Dalton, George III's librarian and an itinerant collector of art for the royal collections.

During the last quarter of the eighteenth century Gaetano was the leading decorative painter in Bologna. Most of his palace frescoes have deteriorated or been destroyed, but elegant bozzetti have survived for the Aurora of 1770 for the Palazzo Guidotti, for the Allegory of Abundance of the same period for the Palazzo Centurioni, and for The Abduction of Deijaneira of around 1782 for the Palazzo Montanari.

The church as patron was declining in affluence during Gaetano's lifetime, but he, along with his older brother, maintained a monopoly on the commissions available, an example being the vast banquet scene of The Wedding at Cana for the refectory of the convent of San Salvatore. Gaetano's altarpieces still grace many of the churches in Bologna and in the prosperous villages that proliferate throughout the agriculturally rich Po Valley. He also provided devotional works for private patrons. He left few formal portraits, but he drew and painted charming likenesses of his wife and children on many occasions (Bella Pittura: The Art of the Gandolfi. Exhibition catalogue by Mimi Cazort, with an essay by Giovanna Perini. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1993, nos. 37-38). His major religious commission was for the cupola frescoes for the church of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna from 1776 to 1779, now known primarily through bozzetti (Bella Pittura: The Art of the Gandolfi. Exhibition catalogue by Mimi Cazort, with an essay by Giovanna Perini. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1993, nos. 49-52).

Gaetano died suddenly in Bologna in 1802 at the age of sixty-eight, while playing bocce with friends, a fitting demise for a man known for his genial conviviality. He was a prolific draughtsman working in both pen and chalk, and the grace and fluidity of his drawings have been compared to those of his Venetian contemporary Giambattista Tiepolo. Examples of his enormous output in this area are to be found in many public collections in North America and Europe.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 48.

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