View of Messina Harbor

Louis François Cassas French

Not on view

This majestic view of the port of Messina only came to light in 2013. Executed on an uncommonly large single sheet of paper, the scene depicts the bustling activity of the harbor, with its dense array of ornate ships at dock, tended to by sailors, while the quay hums with commerce as goods are loaded and unloaded, bought and sold. An ambitious work, no doubt intended for a wealthy patron, the composition is framed at right by a lush stand of trees and at left by the sweeping curve of the weathered but still imposing façade of the Palazzata, designed by Simone Gullì in 1622. Baron Vivant Denon described arriving at the port in 1788, feeling that he had discovered "le plus magnifique Port que la nature ait jamais formé, entouré du plus beau Quai qui existe dans aucune Ville de l’Europe, décoré d’une façade presqu’uniforme dans toute sa longeur, & interrompu par nombre d’Arcs servants d’entrées à autant de rues qui y aboutissent." (Jean Claude Richard, abbé de Saint-Non, Voyage pittoresque, ou description des royaumes de Naples et de Sicile (Paris, 1781–6), vol.IV, p.12. The text was provided by Vivant Denon and edited by Saint-Non).

Detailed and pulsing with life, Cassas’s view of the Palazzata may also have been its final artistic record, for the Metropolitan’s drawing, bearing the date 1783, must have been made just days or weeks before the Calabrian earthquakes of February 5-7, 1783 devastated the city and killed at least 12,000. All of Europe heard the news and shuddered at the horror of the destruction (for a comprehensive study of the disaster, public reaction to it, and the surviving images, see Madeleine Pinault-Sørensen, "Images du désastre de Messine, 1783," in L’Invention de la catastrophe au XVIIIe siècle, du châtiment divin au désastre naturel, Etudes publiées sous la direction de Anne-Marie Faivre-Mercier et Chantal Thomas, postface de Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Genève, Librairie Droz, 2008, pp.355-77). The damage was still fresh when it was recorded in drawings by the Irish painter Henry Tresham (ca.1751-1814) who had accompanied John Campbell (1755-1821), later Baron Cawdor on his Grand Tour to Italy. He drew the crumbled remains of the façade walls from what would have been the interior, carefully framing through an archway the still-standing marble statue of Neptune sculpted by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli from 1553 to 1557 (fig.1). The ghostly ruins were described by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in 1787,

"Rien de plus triste que l’aspect de la Palazzata, rangée demi-circulaire de véritables palais qui entourent et marquent la rade sur une longeur d’un quart de lieue. De tous les édifices, bâtis en pierre et à quatre étages, plusieurs façades subsistent encore tout entières jusqu’à l’entablement, d’autres sont écroulés jusqu’au troisième, au deuxième, au premier étage, en sorte que cette rangée de palais, auparavant magnifique, se présente aujourd’hui affreusement ébréchée, voire transpercée, car le ciel bleu apparaît à travers Presque toutes les fenêtres" (quoted in Pinault-Sørensen, 2008, p.358).

One can only assume that Cassas had left before the tremors hit, for there is no evidence of his having witnessed or recorded the aftermath.

As a record of Messina harbor in its baroque glory, Cassas’s drawing can be compared to those of other artists who had visited before him, especially as Sicily had become a more common destination for French pensionnaires in the second half of the eighteenth century (Pinault-Sørensen, 2008, pp.361-68). Closest in sensibility to Cassas was Louis Jean Desprez (1743-1804), who had trained as an architect and would later work as a scene designer. He had travelled extensively in Sicily and Southern Italy in the employ of the abbé de Saint-Non, and his 1779 drawing of the port of Messina was engraved for the 4th volume of Voyage pittoresque et description des royaumes de Naples et de Sicile (Paris, 1785) with a caption explaining that it depicted the harbor as it appeared before the earthquake of 1783 (fig. 2). Desprez chose as his vantage point a spot near the center of the quay which gave prominence to the fountain of Neptune but downplayed the dramatic curvature of the Palazzata.

Although no studies for the Metropolitan’s drawing have survived, Cassas’s working method was similar to Desprez’s in that he first made plein air studies and then created his large, highly finished drawings in the studio, leaving us to speculate on which parts of his composition reflect empirical reality and which constitute embellishments. Clearly, based on centuries of drawings and maps, we can be certain that the repoussoir of beautifully delineated trees and foliage at the right edge of the composition sprang from Cassas’s imagination, either out of a need for balance or a sense of whimsy. As for the boats, so precisely rendered in their ornament and functional detail, their degree of realism is more difficult to judge. Densely layered in a foreshortened space, they offer a tempting level of specificity. One the galleons displays atop its main mast what appears to be a British union flag, while the sail of the second galley is decorated with a lion bearing a book and a sword, possibly referring to the flag of Venice. Other details are puzzling: why are a number of the sails unfurled, even catching wind, when boats at port should have their sails rolled and tied? Moreover, would galleys still have been in use in the 1780s? Certainly, their heyday had passed, although they were important symbols for the city of Messina, and an ephemeral galley was built in the fountain in the Square of St. John of Malta every year in early August for the feast of the Assumption of St. Mary, from which fireworks would be set off. The two canons Cassas included at lower left also recall the port’s historic military importance.

Yet, for an immense and highly pictorial work, presumably made for an aristocratic patron on the Grand Tour, plein air realism was not necessarily the goal. Cassas’ close observation and ability to render buildings and boats with precision are here put in the service of a sweeping and evocative vista, appealing to the prevailing taste for the splendors of Italian landscape and architecture, animated by picturesque vignettes of local life. From the sailors nimbly scaling the boats’ rigging, to the figures peeking from behind the Palazzata’s decorative awnings, to the musicians strolling on the quay, Cassas has portrayed the quotidian theater of daily life against an elegant backdrop. That the city was on the eve of catastrophe only adds to the significance of this recently discovered drawing.

Perrin Stein (August, 2017, excerpted from an entry in "Voyages en Italie de Louis-François Cassas, 1756-1827, exh. cat., Musee des beaux-arts, Tours, 2015)

View of Messina Harbor, Louis François Cassas (French, Azay-le-Ferron 1756–1827 Versailles), Pen and black and brown ink, brush and brown and gray wash, over traces of black chalk; framing lines in pen and black ink

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