The Blue Blot

notes, finds & fragments of research

Pulcinella under the Hammer ~ Bumping into an Old Childhood Friend again

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Attributed to Marco Marcola (Verona 1740-1793)
The education of Pulcinelli (a set of four)
Oil on canvas, each approximately 71.8 x 95.0 cm.
Bonhams London (Knightsbridge), ‘Old Master Paintings’
(auction 22274), on 29 April 2015, Lot 86 (catalogue)
Estimation GBP 15,000-20,000

One of the most wonderful memories of my childhood is sitting in a theatre simply captivated by dancers performing Stravinsky’s ballet ‘Pulcinella’. Even though I had to sit still, had to wear fancy clothes, and was beforehand very much instructed to behave – it was tremendous fun. Short (vital for children), lively, and exciting.

It was not only a great introduction to the ballet as an art-form but also one of my first encounters with a character from the Commedia dell’Arte. And ever since, various characters seem to find their way onto my path; almost like old friends you come across in odd unexpected places.
The Commedia dell’Arte is a very old form of satirical theatre which began in Italy in the 16th century, involving characters representing each an old stereotype of Italian people (stock characters) in a setting of improvised sketches with (enlarged) classic themes from daily life. The often masked characters are still known today as they have become known figures in the arts and even found their place in sayings of several languages. Among them are, for instance, the penny-pinching merchant Pantalone from Venezia, the impish servant Arlecchino from Bergamo, the Capitano, an arrogant captain from Milano, and Il Dottore, the pedantic doctor from Bologna. Some others, the so-called Zanni, I mentioned briefly before (Five Reasons to feel Sorry for Oneself…) as they were depicted in a Watteau painting. And now, as I was browsing through the new auction catalogue of Bonhams’, I stumbled upon a series of four paintings themed with Pulcinella, or, better said: Pulcinelli, as it involves a bunch of them.

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Pulcinella is a bit of a fool but also imaginative and naively positive. For example: He would walk down the street and stumble over a brick. Instead of picking it up and throwing it away or, even, shrugging and continuing his way; Pulcinella walks back, because he’s curious to see whether it will happen a second time. And, of course, it does. Then he comes to the conclusion that, because it makes him trip not only once but twice, this must be a very special brick and so he takes it home. You laugh at him, but at the same he’s endearing.
From the first recordings of his character the dress of Pulcinella has stayed somewhat the same. He wears a black or auburn half-mask (eyes and nose), a white unfitted shirt and pants and a white pointy hat. Pulcinella is a hunchback with a pot-belly; and has birdlike features, like the beaklike nose on his mask, a cockerel’s walk, and a squeaky nasal voice. This also relates back to the name which, as has become a commonly accepted theory, is derived from the Italian diminutive for chicken (pulcino). Pulcinella’s gender is not fixed; he can be male or female.

On these paintings, which are going under the hammer, next week, various Pulcinelli are depicted in a sort of school like environment. In four scenes it shows students learning how to become Pulcinella through lessons in dancing, studying libretti, making music and home-making. The last scene is considered to be a part of the general character of Pulcinella, which is to be a stereotype of the common working classes. As the Bonhams’ catalogue describes it: ‘Pulcinella is often seen as representing the working man, he is self-centred, a gourmande and is known for being unable to keep a secret.’

I wonder who will buy this charming set at next week’s auction. Hopefully the paintings will stay together and perhaps go on display in a museum were children can discover Pulcinella and his (hi)stories – as they are bound to encounter him later in life as Kasper, Jan Klaassen, Mester Jakel, Vasilache, Vitéz László, Polichinelle, or (Mister) Punch – as he is known in other forms and languages. For me, in any case, it was very nice to bump into this old childhood friend, and as a result seeing the ballet again.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (1920),
performed by the Dutch Scapino Ballet.

The other 4 parts are available on Youtube as well.
(last seen: 25.04.2015)

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