Oil on copper
14.4 x 21.2 cm (50.5 x 55.5 cm framed)
An attribution statement by Fabrizio Dassie is available upon request. This painting will be included in the monography consacrated to this painter which is under preparation (to be published early 2022).
In this astonishing night scene, the tranquillity of country life evoked in the foreground contrasts with the violent destruction by a flood of fire of the two towns seen in the distance. And yet a curious detail reminds us of the tragic meaning of this scene...
1. Jan van Bunnik, a Dutch painter in Rome’s spotlight
Born in Utrecht in 1654, Jan van Bunnik (also called Jan van Bunnick) was a pupil of Herman Safleven (1632 - 1685) for three years from 1668; he then moved to the Duchy of Kleve where he met the painter Gerard Hoet (1648 - 1733) who is said to have convinced him to go to Rome. Once in Rome, he was welcomed by the Bentvueghels community, which comprised most of the Flemish and Dutch artists. He also benefited from the advice of Carlo Maratta who encouraged him to explore Italianate landscapes.
He then prolonged his stay in Italy, going back and forth between Rome and other artistic centres (Naples, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice, and Modena, where he stayed for eight years at the court of Duke Francis II of Este), before returning to Utrecht for the end of his life, after a long journey through France.
2. Description of the work
This painting is typical of the fusion between the Flemish tradition of extremely meticulous copper painting and the discovery of Italian light.
In a setting that could evoke the Alban Hills, south-west of Rome, a landscape opens onto an undulating foreground. Various characters appear in the foreground: a rider takes his horse to drink from a stream at the foot of a fortified house, a herdsman leads his flock to the fields. A supernatural light illuminates the scene, still immersed in a deep night, as day breaks on the left.
A lake can be seen in the distance, and at the edge of this lake a first city, followed by a second city on the horizon. An arc of fire ignites the city on the lake shore, while a second arc can be seen in the distance. We grasp the true meaning of this picture and of the dramatic scene that is playing out before our eyes: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is narrated in Genesis (XIX 23-26) as follows:
"By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land. But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt..»
In cruel irony, the detail of Lot's poor wife, transformed into a statue of salt for not having obeyed the divine injunction, appears in the foreground, but this detail is only intelligible once the overall symbolism of the painting is understood.
This detail seems to be quite typical of the caustic and somewhat playful humour of the Bentvueghels: were we not also quietly contemplating the scene of divine destruction? And if the landscape does indeed represent a view of Lake Albano, as I think it does, the second city in the background, partly hidden by the hills, can only be ... Rome, over which the day rises to the left of the painting, i.e. to the East...
Underneath a classical and reassuring first impression, there is a truly baroque breath in this little copper, which is perhaps strangely relevant to our contemporary preoccupations: as day follows night, the established order of the cities is destroyed by divine will; Lot's poor wife, punished for her disobedience, is metamorphosed into a salt statue. Behind apparent order, the world is only mutation, instability, metamorphosis.
To give full scope to this terrible scene, we have chosen to frame this small painting in a large, probably 17th century Venetian, stained walnut frame. Although Italian, it is based on a model inspired by the Dutch frames of the period, thus prolonging this fruitful encounter between the Nordic and Italian traditions.
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