Adoration of the Shepherds
69.7 cm x 90.7 cm (27 7/16 in. x 35 11/16 in.)
(Genoa, Italy, 1627 - 1703, Genoa, Italy)
Medium and Support:
Oil on canvas
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, The Suida-Manning Collection, 2017
Piola was, with his pupil Gregorio de’ Ferrari, the leading painter in Genoa during the second half of the 17th century. With the catalyst of Pietro da Cortona’s High Baroque cycles, in a manner so fluent as to seem automatic, Piola generalized the lessons of Rubens and Van Dyck’s dynamic naturalism and translated them into the grand scale decoration of the native Genoese tradition. Few palaces in Genoa and scarcely a church in Liguria lack a work with the undulating rhythms, variegated modelling, and softly modulated light that are his trademarks. Piola’s works may not be sound in structure or deep in characterization, but they do convey a ease, even a joy, that are estimable and historically relevant.
Although reduced to a small, horizontal format, this picture depends strictly on Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s great altarpiece of 1645 for San Luca in Genoa. The setting with a broken column symbolic of the Synagogue, the delightful incorporation of the bacchanalian shepherd and still-life motifs, and the fluid rhythm leading toward the radiant Child are virtual quotations. Soprani, the 17th-century biographer of the Genoese painters, writes that the young Piola was so taken with Castiglione that he learned to imitate his style. One of these imitations, “a very beautiful small panel of the Nativity,” was so successful that even experts equivocated about its authorship. Except for the material of its support, Soprani could have been referring to the present picture. Principally it is the slacker drawing, difficulty with space, as in the interval between the boys and the Virgin, and impatient execution in the background that identify it as a very early work by Piola. The picture is a landmark of the artist’s development and of Genoese painting on the threshold of its greatest achievments.