Alessandro Magnasco and Antonio Francesco Peruzzini - inv. 252
Of the four large-size paintings attributed to Magnasco in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum (inv. 249 250 and inv. 251), this differs from the others in its subject and spatial construction.
In the upper half of the painting not only the tops of trees stand out, as in the other three canvases: here, only one part of the background is made up of vegetation; the other is a massive rock dominated by a mighty building. In the middle, very tall mountains can be glimpsed, lit up in the distance. There is little light, instead, in the lower part of the canvas, where the scene of Saint Anthony Abbot’s temptations is depicted. The only source of light is the fire lit by the hermit, seemingly to protect himself from the dangers of the night rather than to provide heat or the wherewithal for cooking. A simple traveller would position himself as close as possible to the flames, though not the anchorite: he remains at a distance, half-naked, his back bent, drained by the hardships he is putting himself to. A big book, in a sorry state due to being constantly read, lies by his side, on the ground. At mid height several flying figures can be made out: the demons tempting the saint.
It might seem surprising that an episode from the life of a hermit saint of the 3rd-4th century AD should be chosen as the subject for a canvas that was almost certainly destined to decorate a noble house. We must not forget, though, that, ever since the Renaissance, the episode of the temptations of Saint Anthony was chosen for reasons that had little to do with faith resisting the snares of evil. Indeed, this very subject permitted the artist to paint female nudes, satyrs and other figures from classical mythology in a religious painting without provoking any scandalous reactions.
As for other painters, so for Magnasco too it must have represented a wonderful occasion for being able to mix different figures in the same painting, creating an effect of variety and surprise particularly appreciated in the art of the 18th century.
In the past, the canvases were attributed to Magnasco, but now, after restoration, only the figures are held to be by him, while the landscapes are considered to be by Antonio Francesco Peruzzini.