Object of the Month: December

David bagpipes(Coming in just under the wire …) I had already selected this Christmas print from the Fitzwilliam Museum collection when I was astonished to have another confirmation of my theory that Everything is Connected to Everything Else. I’m reading the Souvenirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun: she describes the difficulty of finding quiet lodgings in Rome in 1790 (she was always hypersensitive to noises in the night). ‘There was besides a Madonna at the corner of the street, and the Calabrians, whose patron saint she was, came to sing and play on instruments before her niche till daybreak.’

David Allan, the artist who created the print, was born in Alloa, Scotland, in 1744. His artistic proclivities became apparent at an early age, as he was expelled from school for drawing a caricature of his teacher. Aged 11, he was apprenticed to the printers Robert and Andrew Foulis of Glasgow, booksellers and printers to the university, whose editions of classical authors achieved legendary status. They had the foresight – or the foolhardiness – to start an academy for young artists, paying for their education and travel for study, from which Allan derived much benefit, but which, alas, eventually meant that both Foulis brothers died in debt.

Local patrons, Lord and Lady Cathcart, supported Allan by raising funds among their friends which enabled him to travel to Italy. (The Cathcarts’ stay in Russia, by the way, when Lord Cathcart was the not very politically adroit ambassador to court of Catherine the Great, led to the empress commissioning the famous ‘green frog’ service from Wedgwood (most of the 1222 pieces are now in the Hermitage, some in the V & A, and it’s not clear if Catherine ever used it). Lady Cathcart was the sister of Sir William Hamilton – another link in the chain of connections to Vigée Le Brun.)

Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante, painted by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun in Naples, 1791.

Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante, painted by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun in Naples, 1791.

Allan left for Italy in the summer of 1767, and remained for most of the next ten years. As was normal at the time, he aspired to be a history painter, and submitted several canvases on lofty themes to the Royal Academy and to the Roman Accademia di San Luca. But he also depicted the everyday life of Rome, Naples and the various Mediterranean islands he visited, and was particularly drawn to dances and musical events, like the one depicted here.

Calabrian musicians, by David Allan. Crwdit: the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Calabrian musicians, by David Allan. Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Described in the Fitzwilliam catalogue as ‘Calabrian Shepherds playing the Pastorale to the Infant Jesus on Christmas at Rome’, and created between 1773 and 1775, the etching shows a young girl, her rosary beads hanging from her wrist, praying on her knees (obeying the carved injunction ‘Dite Ave Maria’) before a roadside shrine to the Virgin and Child, with its ever-burning lamp, while to one side two poorly dressed men play bagpipes and an oboe-like instrument respectively. The bagpiper wears a rough sheepskin waistcoat with a wide belt, while the wind player is shrouded in a long, ragged cloak. Behind them is a more shadowy figure, also wrapped up to his nose in a cloak, and wearing a tricorn hat. Over the wall at the rear looms Trajan’s column, and the dome of the church of Santissimo Nome di Maria is also visible, locating the shrine close to Trajan’s Forum (though it is also of course possible that the scene is a capriccio, bringing together disparate elements to form an imaginary scene).

The church of the Santissimo Nome di Maria, in Trajan's Forum, Rome.

The church of the Santissimo Nome di Maria, in Trajan’s Forum, Rome.

Somewhat to my surprise, the Calabrian pipes and reed instrument duo are a Thing. The bagpipe is called a zampogna, and the reed instrument a piffero, described as a shawm or folk oboe. (There is a documentary film about the zampogna: click here for a preview.) The piffero supplies a tune, and the zampogna the background drone. This reminded me that, in the baroque period, ‘pastorale’ music was intended to imitate the simple tunes played by shepherds on their bagpipes: two appropriately seasonal examples are the short instrumental ‘pifa’ in Part I of Handel’s Messiah and the sinfonia at the beginning of Part II of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

Moreover, the image of Calabrian peasants with their instruments became something of a genre subject. J.M.W. Turner shows pifferari resting in the foreground in his ‘Modern Italy: the Pifferari’ (painted in 1838), though the figures are subordinate to the wonderful landscape.

'Modern Italy: the Pifferari', by J.W.M. Turner. (Credit: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.)

‘Modern Italy: the Pifferari’, by J.M.W. Turner. (Credit: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.)

The French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), best known for his Orientalist works, produced at least two versions:

Two versions of 'pifferari' groups by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Two versions of ‘pifferari’ groups by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

pifferari Gerome 2

and the musicians were also the subject of early photographs.

A hand-coloured photograph by Giorgio Sommer (1834–1914).

A hand-coloured photograph by Giorgio Sommer (1834–1914).

The zampogna itself has a much bigger wind-bag than the Scottish or Northumbrian pipes: made from a whole goatskin (with the hair kept on (on the inside)) and usually with two chanters, it was (is) clutched to the chest rather than held under the arm. The reeds are made from sections of the giant cane (Arundo donax), and the chanters and drones (all of which are mounted in the neck hole of the skin and point downwards) are carved from olive wood.

Although the zampogna/piffero tradition is thought of as coming from southern Italy and Sicily, an early image in fact appears on the outside of the church of San Virgilio in the village of Pinzolo in the Trento region.

The fresco on the outside wall of the church of San Virgilio, Pinzolo.

The fresco on the outside wall of the church of San Virgilio, Pinzolo.

In a Dance of Death painted by one Simon Baschenis in 1539 (and possibly related to the terrible consequences of the Peasants’ War of the late 1520s which spread south from the German lands), a seated, crowned skeleton plays (more northern-looking) bagpipes while two others accompany him with long shawms. On which cheerful note(s), a very Happy New Year you you all!


The monarch Death plays the bagpipes, with two friends.

The monarch Death plays the bagpipes, with two friends.

This entry was posted in Art, Cambridge, History, Museums and Galleries and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Object of the Month: December

  1. Pingback: Object of the Month: February | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  2. Pingback: The Maker of Devils | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  3. Pingback: Object Of The Month: November | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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