8 December 2020

Mario Minniti - painter

Sicilian influenced by long-time collaborator Caravaggio

Caravaggio's Boy with a Basket of Fruit, thought to be a young Minniti
Caravaggio's Boy with a Basket of
thought to be a young Minniti
The painter Mario Minniti, who has acquired some historical notoriety over his long association with the brilliant but hot-tempered Renaissance great Caravaggio but went on to enjoy a successful career in his own right, was born on this day in 1577 in Syracuse, Sicily.

Minniti first encountered Caravaggio - born Michelangelo Merisi - when he arrived in Rome at the age of 15, seeking an apprenticeship following the death of his father.

Caravaggio was just a few years older than Minniti. They became friends and Minniti, who was blessed with boyish good looks, is thought to have been the model Caravaggio used in a series of works commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, one of the leading connoisseurs in Rome.

These included his paintings Boy with a Basket of Fruit, The Fortune Teller, The Musicians, Bacchus and The Lute Player.

As well as learning Caravaggio’s style and techniques, whose influence shone through in many of his own works, Minniti became close friends with his mentor, with some historians buying into the theory that they were lovers and that Caravaggio was obsessed with his young model’s beauty.

Others dispute this, however, not least because Minniti is known to have been married twice. They also point out that, in 16th century Italy, it was normal for men possessed with qualities associated with female beauty, such as pale, smooth skin and full lips, to be admired by other men, who saw such characteristics as signs of aristocratic breeding.

Caravaggio (above) took refuge with Minniti at his home in Sicily
Caravaggio (above) took refuge with
Minniti at his home in Sicily

They argue that Minniti and Caravaggio, in fact, shared an appetite for flirting with other men’s wives and girlfriends on alcohol-fuelled nights out and that in many of the street brawls that marked Caravaggio’s time in the Eternal City, Minniti was at his side.

He may even have been present on the fateful May day in 1606 when Caravaggio is alleged to have killed murdered Ranuccio Tomassoni, reputedly a ‘wealthy scoundrel’, in the Campo Marzio district of central Rome, not far from the Piazza Monte D'Oro.

The incident led to Caravaggio being condemned to death by order of Pope Paul V, after which he fled the city, first to Naples and then Malta.  When he arrived in Sicily in 1608, forced to take flight again after another violent incident, he is said to have stayed with Minniti, who had by then returned home to Syracuse.  Minniti even found some work for his former employer, including a commission to paint the Burial of Saint Lucy for the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia in Syracuse. 

The influence on Minniti’s painting style led to him becoming known as “the Sicilian Caravaggio” and while his use of chiaroscuro - the dramatic contrast of light with dark shadows - was clearly inherited from Caravaggio, his style evolved into something that was more clearly his own, involving a the lively realism typical of the Baroque period.

The Miracle at Nain, which is on display in Messina, is one of Minniti's best-known works
The Miracle at Nain, which is on display in
Messina, is one of Minniti's best-known works
Like Caravaggio, Minniti benefited financially from the huge programme of church-building that took place in his lifetime, which meant that he was seldom short of commissions.

His readiness to embrace the Baroque style, characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to evoke drama and exuberance, made him popular with the Catholic Church, who had determined that the arts should communicate religious themes and direct emotional involvement in response to the Protestant Reformation.

Minniti spent much of his time in Syracuse and Messina, as well as Palermo, and also took  commissions in Malta.  Among his surviving works are the Miracle at Nain, which can be seen at the regional art gallery in Messina, the Martyrdom of Saint Lucy and Miracle of Saint Clare, (both at the regional art gallery in Siracusa), Saint Benedict, Madonna with Child and Saints Cosimo and Damian (Church of Saint Mary, Modica), and Saint John the Baptist (Messina). 

Some critics claim that Minniti’s work too often lacked variety, and that he overdid certain motifs. Nonetheless, he is regarded in Sicily as one of the most distinguished painters of his era, one of the few Sicilian painters of the early 17th century whose work is preserved. 

Minniti died at Syracuse in 1640, at the age of 62.

The Sicilian Baroque cathedral in  Syracuse, rebuilt by Andrea Palma
The Sicilian Baroque cathedral in 
Syracuse, rebuilt by Andrea Palma
Travel tip:

The Syracuse of Minniti’s day was largely destroyed in the earthquake of 1693, but it was rebuilt, thanks to the largesse of the island’s Spanish rulers, in a way that makes it one of the most beautiful cities in southeast Sicily, with a wealth of buildings constructed in the architectural style that became known as Sicilian Baroque. There are several ancient ruins, however. The Parco Archeologico Neapolis, situated within the city, comprises the Roman Amphitheatre, the Teatro Greco and the Orecchio di Dionisio, a limestone cave shaped like a human ear. The Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi exhibits terracotta artifacts, Roman portraits and Old Testament scenes carved into white marble.  Syracuse as a city is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The Piazza del Popolo is a feature of the Campo Marzio district of central Rome
The Piazza del Popolo is a feature of the
Campo Marzio district of central Rome
Travel tip:

The district of Campo Marzio is situated in the centre of Rome, comprising an area that includes Piazza di Spagna and the Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti - otherwise known as the Spanish Steps - and Piazza del Popolo, as well as the fashion district with the Via dei Condotti at its centre, overlooked by the Pincian Hill.  During the Middle Ages it was the most densely populated quarter of the city. It is bordered by the Tiber, the Quirinal hill in the north and the Capitoline Hill.

Also on this day:

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

1685: The birth of perfumier Johann Maria Farina

1881: The birth of architect Marcello Piacentini

1925: The birth of former prime minister Arnaldo Forlani


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