C. Di San Pietro - L’Alzana
Cagnaccio Di San Pietro (Natalino Bentivoglio Scarpa)
(Desenzano del Garda, 1897 - Venice, 1946)
oil on canvas, 200 x 173 cm
signed and dated on the lower right: “1926/ Cagnaccio/ di S. Pietro”
Venice, Art Collection of the Fondazione di Venezia
L’Alzana, referred to in the title of the painting, was a large rope used as mooring cable or for the tugboat trailer of the boats that were drawn along the channels by beasts of burden or men at the limit of being destitute; a humble and degrading activity represented with extraordinary verism in 1873 by the Russian painter Il’ja Repin, in the Boatmen of the Volga (St Petersburg, Russian Museum), a painting destined to enjoy lasting international success, up to becoming an emblem of the people’s oppression.
Presented at the XV International Art Exhibition of the city of Venice, L’Alzana was immediately reproduced in the magazine “Emporium”, accompanied by a brief comment by Ugo Nebbia: “that which is his Alzana - two men who are half-naked, exhausted in a sweltering atmosphere while pulling a heavy barge - is an effort materialised with some virtues, the certainty of forms, sharpness of detail and happy intonations […] but it is an effort that too partially reaches the planned result; because the composition reveals something unsystematic and immature, which can’t resist emptying itself. As it seems little able to resist the same fatigue the two vigorous figures, which in essence leap in the void”.
Albeit with a critical emphasis, the publicist punctually grasped those characteristics belonging to what the pictorial language was that had been experimented by the artist since 1920 and which had come to full maturity in this ambitious and demanding work, in which coexisted the verism style exacerbated by the attentive rendering of swollen muscles, tightened tendons, bulging veins of the two men in the foreground, with the unnatural immobility, almost anguished, of a suspended atmosphere where every effort is pointless.
Dense in moral and ethical meanings, L’Alzana qualifies as a stronghold in the artistic path of Cagnaccio who in his production of the Twenties addresses repeatedly subjects of social inspiration, next to still lifes, smooth and glistening, of a Flemish matrix, and portraits that are influenced by the lesson of Felice Casorati. In this repertoire, inaugurated with the presentation of the triptych Madre / Mother (1923, Venice Camera del Lavoro) at the International Exhibition in Venice in 1924, also belong Lagrime della cipolla / Tears from the Onion (1929, Venice Camera del Lavoro) and Attesa / Waiting (1934, Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea), the latter, in particular, shows close similarities with the work under consideration for its monumental dimensions, for the photographic arrangement of the framing, for the glazed pictorial material and for the same atmosphere of immobility and suspension that seems to suggest the inability for redemption of the people in the lagoon. With this production, although expressed in a particular pictorial language derived from Fifteenth century Veneto art and dense with references to popular culture (see the devotional image on the bow of the boat), the artist fits in fully in the lively cultural climate of Venice, of openness and continuous and consolidated exchange with Germany and Austria, approaching the coeval research on an objective rendering of reality, of a reality that is deeper and moral, conducted by those artists who were joined in the definition of Magical Realism, coined by art critic Franz Roh in his famous essay of 1925.