Work in Focus: Six Canvases of Birds by Carlo Antonio Raineri

Written by Silke Lohmann | 12 July 2021

These six canvases are an important testimony to the Genoese period of painter and illustrator Carlo Antonio Raineri, who, along with his son Vittorio, dedicated the entirety of his life's work to the depiction of birds within a floral setting.

Raineri was born in 1765 in Mantua, Italy and died in 1826 in Milan. Having already adorned Palazzo Perego, Villa Reale of Monza and the Castle of Jerago the artist moved from Milan to Genoa towards the end of the 18th century, where he executed several series of ornithological panels to decorate the country villas of local aristocratic patrons. 

He almost always signed "Carlo Antò Raineri" and these works are dated between 1794 and 1796, only two complete series are known to date, of twenty-eight and thirty-six panels respectively. They are now divided into several private collections, but were partially reunited for the Raineri exhibition held in 1994 in Casalzuigno (Varese). It is therefore assumed that these six panels, which repeat some of the subjects of those exhibited in 1994, were destined to be part of a larger series - a conclusion that is supported by the traces of numbering on the back of their wooden supports.

These panels with the ornithological subjects that the painter presents are directly taken from the monumental Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, which was written by the Comte de Buffon and included hundreds of bird species in volumes entitled Histoire naturelle des oiseaux (1770-1786). Buffon attached much importance to the illustrations and all birds were illustrated by François-Nicolas Martinet. He was born in 1773 and well-known for engraving illustrations of birds by some of the most influential ornithologists in 18th-century France. For Raineri these books were an absolute gold mine and he copied many of the birds. He tirelessly reimagined their scientific presentation by exploring vibrant colours and adorning them with precious decorative elements, almost enamelled and rocaille, which can be linked to the artist's affection for chinoiserie.

The birds of these six canvases all belong to exotic lands which are distant from each other, but they are united via highly improbable geographical juxtapositions that reveal the whimsical nature of the series. We begin by finding the parrot of the East Indies (cfr. Buffon, Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, t.VI, pl. 552) alongside the demoiselle crane of Numidia (ibid., T. III, pl. 241); the common goldeneye sea duck (ibid, t. IX, pl. 802) and a boatbill (ibid, t. I, pl. 38); three pheasants, common and Chinese, which would appear to be the only examples taken from the 'Ornithologie' edited by Martinet himself (see Martinet, Ornithologie, pl. 40 and 42) varied with a dizzying, almost mechanical, twisting of the head. Another, although without it's partner, is accompanied by a miniature hummingbird whose beak is too short to match any species that currently exists in nature.

Next we see a parrot from the island of Luçon in the Philippines (Buffon, t. III, pl. 287) with the Gavia arctica siberiana, a red throated loon in Buffon's illustration, transformed even insofar as it's scientific name by Raineri's canvas, to an imagined blue-necked variety (ibid., t. IV, pl. 308). Finally, we note the panel which displays a black cayenne cuckoo (ibid., T. VI, pl. 512), the motmot of Brazil (ibid., t. IV, pl. 370) and a black passerine from Guyana (ibid, t. VIII, pl. 704), containing in the lower right the truncated signature of the artist ("Carlo [...]"). 

This suggests that the other canvases in the series were also originally signed but were later cut laterally in order to be adapted to the confines of a new location: the paintings in fact coincide in height with another noteworthy series on canvas by the artist (all signed lower right), but differ in width by about twenty centimetres.

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