Reviewed Puzzaretto and his Pupils Touring exhibition, various regional centres until June 2018
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, as the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque, Rome began to gain new prominence as an artistic centre. The Eternal City drew talents of the calibre of Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci and Peter Paul Rubens, painters who dominated their era like giants. For part of this period, Rome was also home to another painter who would have struggled to dominate anything bigger than a Shetland pony. He was known as Puzzaretto, and if not for the peculiar aesthetic inclination of a tinned-meat tycoon, his name would have been all but lost to posterity.
History honours the great of each era. It takes the efforts of an obsessive like Luther Krillside to preserve the memory of the less than great. Puzzaretto would scarcely rate a footnote in art history if Krillside’s agents hadn’t rescued his works from the neglect they arguably deserved. What can be said is that they constitute the only exhibition of paintings by a malodorous, pox-riddled seventeenth-century midget of limited talent that this country is ever likely to host.
Luther Krillside made an enormous fortune selling date-expired tinned meats in South America after the First World War. Botulism outbreaks made no dent on his conscience, and indulging his fondness for an insignificant aspect of the Italian Baroque would have had just as much impact on his bank balance. None of the paintings in this exhibition would bring much at auction today, and they must have been available for pocket change when Krillside started buying them. What piqued Krillside’s interest in Puzzaretto in the first place remains as obscure as Puzzaretto himself.
Gian Galeazzo Sporco, known as Puzzaretto (‘Little Stinker’), was born around 1585, in Pistoia or Piacenza, or perhaps Chioggia. Like most of the details of his life, his origins are unclear. What little is known is curious enough. He was no more than 135 centimeters tall, and his nickname came from his cavalier attitude to cleanliness.
From scraps of information gleaned from contemporary sources, it has been established that Puzzaretto was active in Rome between 1600 and 1617. It is also known that he fled the city after a knife fight with a burly Benedictine monk named Fra Livido. Livido was an enforcer for the dissolute Cardinal Onofrio Semprini, one of the most corrupt men in the Vatican at the time. Semprini was notorious for his collection of erotic art and it is possible that he had commissioned some from Puzzaretto. It is quite likely that Livido had been sent to ensure Puzzaretto’s silence, but it appears the diminutive painter was having none of it. He allegedly crippled the monk by slashing his buttocks, and was forced to spend the rest of his life in hiding. Perhaps concealment was a relatively easy thing in his case. He died in Lucca, or possibly Livorno, in 1621, almost certainly of syphilis.
If Puzzaretto’s dirty pictures had survived, they might have possessed curiosity value. His remaining work is noteworthy only for the peculiar inconsequentiality of his subject matter. Like most art of the period, it has its basis in religion, but rather than tackle the drama or mystery of major biblical events, Puzzaretto seems to have focused on preludes and aftermaths. The Morning after the Wedding at Cana, for example, shows Christ looking rather disappointedly at some disciples who have apparently enjoyed the results of his miracle a little too much. Recent cleaning has revealed that one of them is throwing up.
A similar quirky banality informs Disciples Visiting a Baker, which is believed to depict the purchase of provisions for the Last Supper. A thematic nadir is achieved in the so-called Following the Entry into Jerusalem. Here Puzzaretto focuses his attention on a man sweeping up palm fronds and donkey dung. The nearest approach to a significant event can be seen in St Antony of Padua Curing a Sick Hen. Portrayals of supernaturally assisted veterinary medicine being somewhat rare, the best that can be said for this picture is that it is almost in a class of its own.
Given their subject matter, Puzzaretto’s works could have provoked a pitying smile. Unfortunately their lumpen composition, bilious tonality and leaden execution prevents even that. The accompanying works by Puzzaretto’s few known students show that what little he had to teach was applied with even greater ineptitude.
This is the first time works on show have been seen outside the Krillside Collection in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, home to the surviving oeuvre of Puzzaretto and his school. Regional gallery-goers may well wonder what they’ve done to deserve the dubious honour.
Tim Harris is a Melbourne writer and comedian who has worked in radio, screen and print since the 1980s. Credits include Fast Forward, The Games and columns for the Age.