A Hundred Different Towns...

Written by  Berenice Giovannucci Vigi
The imagination of the landscape artist Giuseppe Zola, a leading light of 17th century Ferrarese figurative art, was both fertile and inventive.
In 1971, Palazzo dei Diamanti was the venue for an exhibition organized by Eugenio Riccomini in which sixty brilliantly restored paintings introduced the public to works and artists that were all but unknown, including Giuseppe Zola, present with twenty large canvases.

With the exhibition L'Arte del Settecento emiliano, held in Bologna in 1979, Ferrarese painting was enhanced by new contributions, including some of Zola's finest pieces, like the Paesaggio con l'andata a Emmaus, the Scena portuale con rovine and the Paesaggio con donna a cavallo e un viandante, on loan from the Cassa di Risparmio.

Then, in 1981, after constant research into 18th century Ferrarese painting, I was able to make a substantial contribution to the Zola catalogue with the publication of the five important Paesaggi (Landscapes) in the Palazzo del Municipio in Ferrara, today in the Museo Civico Schifanoia; a homogeneous group of paintings that represent a high point in Zola's vast production.

Born in Brescia on 5 March 1672 and brought up in his father Antonio's goldsmith's shop, Giuseppe Zola apparently took his first painting lessons when still very much a youngster with Giuseppe Tortelli, a mediocre self taught artist who had spent time in Rome and Naples before moving to Venice, where he probably taught Zola.
The local historiography does not say when or why Zola went to Ferrara. Presumably he went there when still very young. There, he seems to have taken lessons from Giulio Cesare Avellino, a painter of landscapes and ruins known locally as il Messinese.

That Zola's early artistic training was limited to a familiarity with the work of an artisan like Avellino seems improbable in the light of an overall reading of Zola's work. In the absence of any biographical or chronological data, Riccomini was right when he surmised that Zola had spent time in Venice towards the end of the century; a sojourn that is necessary to explain his "far MORE discerning AND modern cultural keyboard" that was already in tune with the compositional suggestions and pictorial effects of the finest examples of the landscape painting that for some decades at the time had become widely established in Venice, a school heavily influenced by a naturalistic renewal in the styles of Titian and Giorgione.

The local historiography of the 18th and 19th centuries, faced with the qualitative differences in Zola's many paintings, simply divided his career into two distinct periods. A first period inspired by the painting of the great 17th century landscape artists was followed by a second period, in which, owing to a large number of commissions, and a greater surety of touch, his style became faster and less diligent.

This division between "before" and "after", which referred to the differences between Zola's interpretation of the grande natura and the overly relaxed execution of many minor paintings, was seized on by Riccomini who added a critical assessment of this highly diversified production in a bid to shed light on Zola's working method.

The artist's fertile inventiveness seems strongly influenced by a complex amalgam of cultures, certainly mediated by the enormous diffusion of the graphics of the genre, blended with the impressionism of the Venetian landscape tradition as well as Nordic and Roman naturalism.

The landscapes recorded in the sources as hanging in the rooms of the former Monte di Pietà belong to Zola's first period, with its limpid vision of a rationally recreated atemporal nature and its simple yet attentive transcription of the details of everyday life. In these wide-ranging canvases, which represent some of Zola's finest work, the earthy colours and tonal greens illuminated by sudden flashes of light are enhanced by signs of the influence of Marco Ricci, suggestions in their turn influenced by the imaginative iconography of Peruzzini, the flamboyant dynamism of Tempesta and the pictorial teachings of Salvator Rosa.

Thus the classical ruins that form the backdrop to the romantic encounter in Scena portuale con rovine, like the heroic presence of the Roman ruins in Paesaggio fluviale con ponti e cascata, are recollections of Ricci's "vestiges".

The serene atmosphere of a delectable nature - an ideal onlooker at everyday human life, classically orchestrated on rigorously defined perspectival planes - which permeates Paesaggio con donna a cavallo e un viandante and the Paesaggio fluviale con lavandaie e un bambino suggests an interpretative affinity with the Venetian Bartolomeo Pedon, an artist Zola may have frequented in Venice.

The Venetian-style colouristic effects in the extremely fine painting recently acquired by the Cassa di Risparmio, the Paesaggio fluviale con Gesù che guarisce il cieco nato, is also to be included in the context of these canvases. The same serene atmosphere also pervades the Paesaggio con il riposo nella fuga in Egitto, in which the natural landscape zig-zags away into the distance all the way to the blue-grey rocky peak at the centre of a luminous perspective.
A completely different sense of space informs the Paesaggio con l'andata a Emmaus, a painting of splendid pictorial quality, in which Zola seems to have assimilated, through Ricci, the open spatial articulation of the Dutchman Cavalier Tempesta, with the great trees at the centre of the composition and the brilliant illuminism typical of Paul Brill or Eismann.

The landscape is more distant and generic, a natural, timeless scene, rationally recreated to serve as a background, in the story of Giuseppe venduto come schiavo dai fratelli. But the definition of the physiognomy and the theatrical gestures of the protagonists in the foreground of this biblical story betray a certain awkwardness.

A different spirit informs the Paesaggio con il riposo di Erminia and the Paesaggio con Erminia che scrive ti amo sull'albero, pictorial transpositions of Tasso's poetry close to the intellectual poetics of Annibale Carracci and Domenichino, and to that "classic ideal" of nature as a placid spectator of the fable, told here with a calm lyricism devoid of heroic emphasis.