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Domenico Piola

(1627–1703, Genoa)

The Family of Darius III before Alexander the Great. Pen and brown ink over graphite, brown and bluish-grey wash. 44 x 58.4 cm. Circa 1690.

Domenico Piola is certainly the most important representative of the Casa Piola, the school of painting which bears the name of his family and largely determined the look of Genoese art during the mid to late 17th and early 18th centuries. Domenico, son of the painter Paolo Battista Piola, was trained by his prematurely deceased brother Pellegro Piola (1617–1640) and Domenico Capellino. What really shaped his stylistic development, however, was the powerful example set by the art of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione. By about 1670 Piola had advanced to a mature style, which was mainly to be seen in his wall and ceiling frescoes and made him one of the founders of Genoese illusionistic wall painting. Although his early drawings still betray the strong influence of Castiglione, Piola soon developed his own, unmistakably personal artistic style.

The present depiction of the family of Darius III before Alexander the Great can be seen as a fully valid and extremely high-quality illustration of this mature style. The skilful and varied pictorial composition melds with a charming, fluid drawing technique, the characteristic features of which are a pen technique which often only partly hints at the contour lines and an all the more vigorous use of the brush to produce sweeping washes. Particularly charming in the present example is the contrast between the brown washes of the foreground, by means of which the artist carefully structures the manifold figures, steps and pillars, and the bluish-grey tone he employs for the arrangement of the palace architecture in the background.
The drawing, which illustrates the leniency shown by Alexander to the family of the Persian king Darius after their capture, is also remarkable for its highly finished format. This is a very detailed, albeit preliminary drawing in reverse for Piola’s painting on the same theme of 1690, which is now in the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa (oil on canvas, 158 x 220 cm, inv. no. PB 1695). There are a few other minor differences in the composition and pictorial details between the preliminary drawing and the final painting. The background architecture in the drawing, for instance, has less staffage, whereas the painting contains a small group of figures.

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