Italian Art 101 – Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, forgotten genius

Violent, mercurial and generally feared, he was also a pioneering and technically innovative artist years ahead of his time. But despite being one of the most skilled painters of the 17th century Baroque period, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664) is probably not a name with which you are familiar.

Castiglione - self portrait

Castiglione – self portrait

Scowling at us from beneath a plumed velvet hat, Castiglione’s beard, hair and moustache bristle wildly in his self portrait, perhaps reflecting his prickly character. But look a little deeper and you start to see the artist.

Young Giovanni started out in Genoa (Genova), in Italy’s north west. The port city was a melting pot of traders from all over Europe, the Middle East and Africa creating a wealthy cosmopolitan mix. Successful traders built palazzi and churches which in turn attracted artists from all over Europe who came to decorate them. Even from a young age Castiglione was exposed to a wide range of cultures, styles and techniques with his peers of the time including van Dyke, Rubens and Rembrandt, all of which combined to create a stylistic magpie in Castiglione.

Castiglione - camels

Pastoral sketches

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The twenty-something youngster started out drawing pastoral scenes of animals which, whilst skilled and certainly popular in Genoa, were deemed rather provincial. If he was to break out of the Genovese market and find himself a patron, the goal of most artists, he would need to expand his repertoire. And so he took himself off to the Papal courts of Rome, where competition for religious, mythical or historical paintings was fierce.

Castiglione’s style of drawing and painting already set him out as a pioneer. He sketched in oils on paper using brushes, not pen and ink. And without any preparation or under-drawing, he painted fluid, freehand, frenetic scenes using the oil to create texture, volume and depth. His work is extremely energetic and quick, often leading people to think that his pictures were just preparatory sketches, but Castiglione considered them completed works.

Castiglione - Red Sea

The Crossing of the Red Sea

In Rome he broadened his subject matter, under the tutelage of French artist Nicholas Poussin, creating energetic multi-figure scenes from Christianity and the classics and vibrantly capturing each person’s expression to tell the story. In his mid-1630s painting of the Crossing of the Red Sea ( above ) he skillfully captures the action packed, crowded scene depicting the urgency and crush with each stroke.

Casiglione - head of an Oriental

Head of an Oriental

Not only was his style innovative but his techniques were too. He was the first artist to combine drawing and printmaking to invent the technique of monotype. Instead of simply sketching or painting onto paper, or etching onto a copper plate and using ink to transfer the image to paper, Castiglione drew onto a metal plate in ink, then transferred the finished image to paper via a printing press. He also washed the copper plates with viscous ink then used brushes or rags to remove it leaving a powerful scene with depth created by contrasting inked areas with the removed areas. The image is unique – a monotype or one-off – and although it is possible to take further “ghost images” none is as good as the first.

Monotypes suited Castiglione’s spontaneous style as no preparation was necessary. And he was really ahead of his time as the monotype technique was not used again until Degas in late 19th century followed by Picasso and others in the twentieth century. And although Castiglione worked as a painter, it was his drawings, prints and monotypes for which he was to become famous.

So why have we never heard of this artist? There are a number of possible explanations.

Castiglione’s temper and violent streak certainly left their mark. He was known to quarrel with his clients on a number of occasions even going so far as to destroy works to spite clients who disagreed with him. Not only did this mean he often needed to relocate in haste to escape the authorities but it also meant that he never landed a true patron to champion his art either during his lifetime or afterwards.

There were also rumours that ill health later in life, including possible gout, left him unable to produce the detailed, fluent pictures as he had trouble holding his brushes.

But ultimately his failure to make it into the hallowed halls of art down through the ages could have been due to something even more banal. He simply fell out of fashion. Castiglione was popular during his lifetime and even for a few decades after his death, aged 55, in Mantua. But as the years progressed, public tastes changed favouring more precision and less of the flowery flourishes of the Genoan.

Castiglione - the Genius

The Genius of Castiglione

On his death his workshop contained over 250 pieces, including his astonishing allegorical piece, The Genius of Castiglione. Depicting the artist in his signature feathered cap, he uses chickens and rabbits to represent fertility, the trumpet to herald fame and the wreath to illustrate creativity. The genius of the piece was to represent Castiglione’s skill and intellect calling on clients to unravel the many symbols within the picture. It acted as an advert for his work – he was no shrinking violet!

The Castiglione works were posthumously sold as a complete collection and later bought by Joseph Smith, the British Consul to Venice. Smith subsequently sold the group onto George III in 1762 to decorate the newly built Buckingham House. Normally now held at Windsor Palace as part of The Royal Collection, some of Castiglione’s finest pieces have recently been on show at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, in their first ever British exhibition. Hopefully this is the first of many exhibitions of his work and maybe, after the passage of 350 years, Castiglione’s reputation can finally be rehabilitated again.

Ultimately Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione proved himself to be a versatile, innovative and prolific artist and was particularly unusual among Italian artists of his period in being interested in and responsive to foreign influences. His etchings, particularly his self portrait, certainly owe a lot to Rembrandt whilst his religious scenes are most notable for their highly skilled treatment of animals, as learnt in Genoa, and for their crowd scenes, as taught by Poissin. But this is no second rate Rembrandt derivative. Despite leading a violent and turbulent life, Castiglione produced works of grace, originality and rare beauty, which were highly esteemed during his lifetime and for a while after his death. Let’s hope we don’t lose this flawed genius again.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 1609–1664.

Useful information

Castiglione, Lost Genius exhibition ran until Sunday 16 March 2014 at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The Gallery Shop sells the catalogue after the exhibition shuts.

You can also search through his works here –

And finally, exhibits may also be displayed at Holyrood House in Edinburgh later in 2014 but no dates are yet confirmed.

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3 Responses to Italian Art 101 – Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, forgotten genius

  1. Fishink says:

    A Talented artist, for certain. Not a name that was too familiar but glad i know more. Thanks for the art class : )

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