These pendant character studies contrast the pessimism of Heraclites’ worldview of the universe as inherently and necessarily unstable with the live-for-the-day cheer of Democrates’ ‘atomic’ theory. The traditionally perceived polarity between the two philosophers was at least partly based on misinterpretation of their metaphors, and dates back to Juvenal’s Satires. However, this interpretation became particularly popular in 17th Century Italy, Holland and France after the publications of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) (1), and, specifically in Italy’s case, the concomitant spread of Neostoicism, a philosophical current, which was particularly popular in the Naples of the 1660's. Other contemporary examples in this same vein were produced by Hendrik ter Brugghen (1628); Rembrandt van Rijn (1665); Jusepe De Ribera (1630’s); and Salvator Rosa (1660).
While the similarity of the present works to Giordano’s series of ten Riberesque philosopher ‘portraits’ (2), which scholars date to the 1650’s, might argue in favour of a proximate date, the floral surrounds by Giuseppe Recco beg a later date of after 1666, when the artist is first recorded to have had contact with Giordano. Like Giordano’s earlier philosophers, Democrates and Heraclites share the strong naturalistic and anti-ideal tendencies that were so prized in Neapolitan Neo-stoic intellectual circles; circles in which Giordano himself participated. All of his philosophers are depicted as simple people, dressed in shabby clothing and with a physicality and verismo, which must spring directly from the live model. Interestingly, in the case of our paintings, however, Giordano has not seen fit to illustrate the opposition of the two philosophers in the traditional manner whereby Heraclites is generally a bearded, older figure, while Democrates is the more vibrant and youthful. Instead, our philosophers appear very similar and in age and physiognomy, and it appears that Giordano may even have used the same model for both philosophers, perhaps to illustrate the duality of human nature; an approach which would have meshed neatly with his Neo-stoic interests.
Giuseppe Recco (3) was the most accomplished member of a family of artists, who specialised in grand still-life paintings, particularly of fish. His approach to still life painting was similar to that of his Neapolitan contemporary Giovanni Battista Ruoppolo (1629-ca.1690), with whom his works are sometimes confused, but his style is more austere and tenebrist, with a sincere scientific observation of texture and contrast. He initially began in the tradition of his father Giacomo Recco [1603- before 1653] and (probable) uncle, Giovanni Battista Recco [1615-1660], painting naturalistic arrangements of flowers, fish, game, and kitchen scenes. His influences derive largely from the Spanish realist tradition of the Bodegón painting, though it is possible that he may have visited Lombardy and been exposed to the work of Evariste Baschenis, as well.
If our philosophers represent an early collaboration between the artists, it was one that clearly developed into a fruitful association as the later monumental mythic/allegorical canvases in the Pagano Collection, in Naples and the Medinaceli Collection in Seville vividly illustrate. We are grateful to Nicola Spinosa for his suggestion of G.B.Recco and his confirmation of the dating.
1) ‘Democritus and Heraclitus were two Philosophers, the first of which,
finding and deeming humane condition to be vaine and ridiculous, did
never walke abroad but with a laughing, scorneful and mocking
countenance: Whereas Heraclitus, taking pitie and compassion of the very
same condition of ours, was continually seene with a sad, mournfull, and
heavie cheere, and with teares trickling downe his blubbered eyes.’, excerpt from M. de Montaigne, Essays, chapter xi, ed. 1603, translated by Florio.
2) Examples of this series survive Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome; the Hood Museum of Art, Hanover; and in private collections in Naples and Milan.
3) Prof. Nicola Spinosa originally proposed attributing the still life element to Porpora but in an oral communication dated 15 January 2005 revised his opinion and confirmed that the flowers are by Recco.