Biography/Paintings of Italian Baroque Painter & Etcher.

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Jacob Leading the Flocks of Laban
(c.1632) Private Collection)

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Castiglione (1609-64)

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, known as "Il Grechetto", was one of the most versatile Old Masters of the 17th century, exploring both Mannerism and Baroque art. Active in his native city of Genoa, as well as Rome, Naples and finally Mantua, where he worked at the Gonzaga court, his Baroque painting embraced still life and animal pictures in the manner of the Flemish Baroque master Frans Snyders, as well as naturalist style religious art in the tradition of the Dutch Baroque. Rubens, Van Dyck and Bernini were other influences. Castiglione was also famous for his drawing, and developed a lively sketching technique using oil paint on paper. He was a major exponent of printmaking, notably etching, in which the influence of Rembrandt is unmistakable. Unlike most Italian Baroque artists, Castiglione was remarkably open to the methods and techniques of foreign artists, which only added to his commercial success. His own work remained influential until well into the 18th century. Among his best Baroque paintings is Noah Leading the Animals into the Ark (1655, National Gallery, Washington DC).

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Castiglione lived in Genoa until 1632. His masters included Paggi, de Ferrari and - during his second stay in Genoa between 1621 and 1627 - Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). He then turned to genre painters of Flemish origin, particularly to a pupil of Frans Snyders (1579-1657), Johann Roos (in Genoa from 1614 to 1638). From him he took a type of painting showing heavily laden animals and which suggested both Pieter Aertsen (1508-75) and Joachim Beuckelaer (1533-73). Jacopo Bassano (1515-1592), whose work was certainly not well known in Genoa, must also have had an influence on him.

By now he was a naturalistic painter in the north European tradition, producing what were in effect animal scenes, although on the pretext of a biblical subject, such as Abraham's Journey (Dusseldorf Museum of Art) - subjects that he was to continue to use throughout his career. He also produced etchings (including some of turbaned heads), showing that he had studied those of Rembrandt (1606-69); he was in fact the first Italian to discover the Amsterdam virtuoso. Caravaggism, therefore, came to him via northern European painting, and throughout his life Rembrandt continued to be a source of inspiration, especially in his graphic work.


Rome: First Period (1632-35)

Castiglione left Genoa for Rome in 1632. He spent two periods there, the first in 1632-5 and the second in 1647-51. Between these two visits he is thought to have passed some time in Naples, where he is mentioned in 1635, as well as in various other Italian towns, principally Genoa (c.1645). During his first stay in Rome he came to know the circle of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and his patron Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657). Stylistically, he was close to Pietro Testa (1612-50) and Mola, who were also in Rome.

His style grew less Flemish and, in the years 1630-5, he developed a facility for Poussin's neo-Venetianism. His repertoire broadened, his style became better ordered and his colour warmer; at the same time his composition grew lighter and his drawing more fluent. He elaborated a technique of sketching in oils on paper, probably inherited from Flemish and Venetian Renaissance art, that allowed him to employ a colour such as vermilion, which he was the only artist to use at the time. He also invented the technique of monotype, which consisted of making a single copy from a metal plate bearing a drawing in ink. These two processes allowed a greater freedom, particularly in developing chiaroscuro effects.


On his return to Genoa, Castiglione painted large religious compositions in a markedly Baroque style: The Adoration of the Shepherds (1645, Church of S. Luca); St Bernard Adoring Christ on the Cross (Church of S. Martino at S. Pier d'Arena); St James Expelling the Moors from Spain (Oratory of S. Giacomo della Marina). The first-named of these is notable for its sense of space, while in St Bernard the feeling of ecstasy which Castiglione was to develop later in his sketches appears for the first time. Rubens (1577-1640) was at this period the most important influence on Castiglione, as appears in the painting of St James expelling the Moors, which is drawn directly from Ruben's hunting scenes.

Rome: Second Period (1647-51)

During his second stay in Rome, Casstiglione drew away from Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), who had by then become too classical and intellectual for him. Through the Raggi and Fiorenzi families, he became acquainted with Bernini (1598-1680) and Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669). Under the latter's influence he employed the 'grand manner' (derived from Mannerist painting) for a time (the Immaculate Conception for the Church of the Cappuccini in Osimo, Minneapolis Institute of Arts). But the dominant note in his painting is the fantastic and the picturesque, as appears in Diogenes (Prado) or the Offering to Pan (Durazzo Collection, Genoa). These works are akin to the strange studies of Testa and exercised a considerable influence upon the Neapolitan painter Salvator Rosa (1615-73).

Gonzaga Court: Mantua

The last period of his life, from 1651 to 1665, was spent mostly in Mantua, where he was painter at the court of the Gonzaga family. His brushwork became freer after a journey to Venice in 1648, under the influence of the great Venetians and of a contemporary, Johann Liss (d.1629), but mainly through contact with the art of Fetti, his predecessor at the court in Mantua. Although he continued to paint philosophical and picturesque subjects, the human figure now became the main centre of interest in his paintings (The Discovery of Cyrus, National Gallery, Dublin). The latent influence of Bernini and Rubens appeared in drawings such as Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law (British Royal Collection), strengthening the Baroque tendency that had already been noticeable in Genoa in 1645.

Between 1659 and 1665 he worked in Mantua, Genoa, Parma and Venice, but remained permanently in the service of the Gonzagas. He then reverted to his early style of oil painting, producing compositions that are often distinguished by a heap of game in the foreground and tiny figures in the distance. But Mannerism gave place to the Baroque, as is evident in the Money-Changers Expelled from the Temple (Louvre) or the Journey of the Children of Israel (Brera).

Rather like Bernini and Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), Castiglione ended his career on a mystical note with a series of drawings and sketches of Franciscan saints in ecstasy or Christ on the Cross. Thus, at the end of his life, he seems to have been the leader of a movement of mystical Genoese painting that began with Strozzi and also included Piola and de Ferrari.

Castiglione was survived by his brother Salvatore Castiglione (1620-76), an official at the Gonzaga court, and a son Giovanni Francesco Castiglione (1641-1710), also an artist, who became a talented imitator of his style.


Historically, Castiglione was a significant figure in that phase of Italian art when it was being regenerated by Flemish and Dutch painting. As a Baroque painter he exploited the style at all levels. He possessed a virtuoso technique that could be turned to rustic genre painting or the 'grand manner' and he was also an extraordinarily good draughtsman and engraver. In the 18th century he had a great influence upon Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734), Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) and particularly Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) (Adoration of the Shepherds, Louvre). Paintings by Castiglione can be seen in several of the best art museums around the world.

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