Nocturnal Atmospheres on Touchstones

A characteristic technique of early 17th century Veronese painting

Dead Christ, Mary Magdalene and Two Angels (early 17th century) by Pasquale Ottino (Verona 1578 - 1630)Museo di Castelvecchio

Touchstone is a dark stone tablet (basanite, slate) that was used in the assaying of precious metals - gold in particular.

It has a fine-grained surface on which the soft metals leave a visible trace. 

The stone is an extremely black and shiny marble of calcareous origin quarried near Salò on the Lake Garda.

Since the black background eliminated any illusion of spatial depth, the subject was painted in the foreground plane and strongly highlighted, resulting in a nocturnal effect in perfect synchrony with the paintings of late Mannerism and early Caravaggism.

The subjects are predominantly religious, as the stones were intended for devotional use in homes and monasteries. However, there also seems to have been an increasing demand from private collectors for subjects from classical mythology and ancient history, as well as portraits.

The popularity of these works and the continuing demand for them explain why so many replicas have survived, despite the fragility of the medium.

Adoration of the Shepherds (early 17th century) by Alessandro Turchi, known as l'Orbetto (Verona 1578 - Rome 1649)Museo di Castelvecchio

In this work by Alessandro Turchi representing the Nativity, the effects of the light strokes on the dark background are masterfully used in the miraculous interpretation of light, which enlightens the figure of Baby Jesus.

Risen Christ appears to the Mother (1620) by Marcantonio Bassetti (Verona 1586 - 1630)Museo di Castelvecchio

In this painting by Marcantonio Bassetti, the black background accentuates the idea of Christ's nocturnal appearance.

A halo of light radiates from his head and the luminescent cloth stands out in the dark along with the banner of the Resurrection while Christ shares a touching moment of intimacy with his mother.   

Liberation of Saint Peter (1620) by Marcantonio Bassetti (Verona 1586 - 1630)Museo di Castelvecchio

Also in this piece by the same artist, the theme lends itself to being depicted on touchstone. 

Set in the solitude and darkness of the prison, the two figures leap out from the background.

Joseph and Putifarre's Wife (early 17th century) by Pasquale Ottino (Verona 1578 - 1630)Museo di Castelvecchio

The black support enhances the plastic game of drapery furrowed by deep shadows, so that the gray-blue and yellow highlights stand out in this work by Pasquale Ottino. 

Saint Roch (17th century) by Dario Pozzo (Verona 1598/1599 - after 1652)Museo di Castelvecchio

Once again touchstone turns out to be the best medium to represent this nocturnal scene with Saint Roch on his pilgrimage, followed by his loyal canine friend.

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