Italian art: Agostino Tassi
- WTI Magazine #151 May 21, 2022
Writing about Agostino Tassi concisely and without falling into immediate preconception is difficult, but it is also very interesting because the artist, the greatest quadraturist of the early Baroque, in this case is decidedly overpowering as a thug.
Probably as a result of his conviction for a brawl, served in part on the grand ducal galleys, he was relegated to Leghorn, where he could live under conditions of freedom or semi-freedom as long as he participated in the work desired by the Medici, who intended to turn the city into a major port. His quadratic skills in these works were apparently already remarkable.
In 1603 he married Maria Connodoli, who in 1610 eloped with a merchant from Lucca. Very little survives from this decade and more of activity: a few figure drawings are preserved in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, whose tiny figures hint at those of Claude Lorrain, his pupil in Rome before 1625.
Tassi then left for Rome, where he arrived in July 1610, when he was almost 32 years old. From this period the documentation on the painter, who was involved in numerous court cases, is endless, though relatively unhelpful in putting fixed points on his work. By March 1611 he was already in the service of Pope Paul V Borghese, for whom he painted the ceiling of the old royal room in the Quirinal Palace together with Orazio Gentileschi.
Borghese commissions alongside Gentileschi quickly multiplied, but only the Casino delle Muse then Pallavicini remains of them. The architecture painted by Tassi in the vault recreates quite convincingly a loggia populated by figures, while his landscapes in the lunettes below show an obvious derivation from those of Brill in the casino next door, executed almost simultaneously.
The collaboration between Tassi and Gentileschi came to an abrupt end in March 1612, when the latter denounced his friend for his violence against his daughter Artemisia in May 1611. With a promise of marriage that he never kept, Tassi convinced the young woman to consent to a long love affair. Found guilty of "virgin rape," he was sentenced to exile from Rome for five years, although he did not leave the city until April 1613, following a new conviction for brawling that should have removed him from all papal states for five years.
He actually took refuge near Rome, in Bagnaia, where he took over the direction of works, which had previously been Cavalier d'Arpino's, for Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto in the new casino at Villa Lante. He remained in Bagnaia until September 1615, intervening in part on rooms conceived by the cavalier. In the loggia, now much damaged, he managed to expand a modestly sized space, illusionistically tripling its length and elevating it with the addition of tall painted aviaries.
Without having completely served his sentence of exile, Tassi returned to Rome as early as the end of 1615, presumably at the express wish of the pope, who appreciated his skill as a quadraturista, unique in the Rome of those years. He settled in the parish of S. Spirito in Sassia, at the beginning of the Gianicolo salita, where he was already living at the time of his rape trial. In the Quirinal Palace he undertook in 1616 the decoration of the huge new royal hall, completed in about a year in collaboration with Giovanni Lanfranco, Carlo Saraceni and numerous assistants.
Already from his arrival in Rome he was practicing in all declensions of landscape painting, views, coastal scenes, representations of contemporary events, architectural caprices, fires, nocturnes, and sea storms, subjects that had not yet achieved great fortune in Rome. From September 1619 Tassi was again in prison, perhaps not continuously, charged with various crimes, the most serious of which was incest with his sister-in-law Costanza, and was finally released in March 1620. In fact, he managed to prove that the depositions against him were false and organized by his enemies, who tried to kill him as soon as he was released. Pretending to be dead, he escaped the attack without sustaining any major injuries.
During this period he began the great building site of the Lancellotti Palace, which kept him busy in alternating stages for almost a decade. He began with the Hall of the Palafrenieri, conceived perhaps for theatrical performances, in which the walls are completely negated by a two-story portico that opens onto sweeping views of the sea and the Roman countryside. The landscape patterns are enlivened by a new morning light from which will derive that of the vaults in the rooms of the Aurora and Fame in the Casino dell'Aurora Ludovisi, which Tassi painted with Guercino in 1621.
Until his death Tassi ringed up court cases and masterpieces in every part of Rome, a man whose dual reputation as a gifted painter and abject human being come down to us with equal power.