One of Hall’s major figure paintings, Roman Wine Cart was created toward the end of his first trip to Italy as a showcase for the controlled, highly finished painting style he learned as a student in Düsseldorf. It depicts a festively attired peasant couple riding leisurely into Rome in a...
One of Hall’s major figure paintings, Roman Wine Cart was created toward the end of his first trip to Italy as a showcase for the controlled, highly finished painting style he learned as a student in Düsseldorf. It depicts a festively attired peasant couple riding leisurely into Rome in a canopied wagon, presumably to play music and sell their casks of wine. The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine appear in the distance. The couple’s rural origin is suggested by such details as the hay used as padding between the wine casks and a fur pelt hung over the canopy for warmth. One of many representations of European peasantry that proliferated from the 1840s onward, the work depicts a specific category of Italian peasant. The bagpipes hanging inconspicuously beside the driver and the inscription “Rome Dec/22nd 1851” at the lower left suggest that Hall’s protagonists are zampognari or pifferari, named for their musical attributes. These peasants, originally shepherds from the mountain regions of Calabria and Lazio, traveled to Rome, Naples, and other large cities during the Novena (the nine days before Christmas) with their pastoral instruments, the zampogna (bagpipes) and piffero (wooden flute). In return for a few coins, they played in pairs before street and household shrines dedicated to the Madonna, imitating the shepherds who came to Bethlehem on the first Christmas. Artists of the Romantic era were attracted to the pifferari, whom they saw as picturesque modern-day troubadours. Hall may have first encountered the pifferari as subjects in French and German art. They were Italian counterparts to the peasants of French painters Jean-François Millet [17.1485] and Jules Breton [41.115]—tenaciously independent, unchanged by time, long-suffering, untrammeled, yet perhaps more mysterious because of their wandering ways. The pifferaro’s lot was a hard one. Essentially migrant workers, they came into town during the winter, when shepherding and field work were unavailable. Some brought goods to peddle, while others hired themselves for any manual labor. For all the picturesqueness of their piping, their welcome was limited: they were driven out of town on the second day after Christmas. In his depiction, Hall exchanged the pathos of peasant life for a homely sentimentality more in keeping with the manner in which American country life was represented. In doing so, he produced a remarkably empathetic portrayal of lower-class Italians. In New York, where Hall’s canvas was exhibited at the National Academy in 1853, former tourists could readily imagine themselves on such a pleasure ride, while wishing the contentment expressed in the picture to be theirs. This text was adapted from Diana Strazdes in The Lure of Italy: American Artists and the Italian Experience, 1760–1914, by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., et al., exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1992).
Lower left: G.H. Hall/Rome, Dec/22nd 1851; Reverse: Roman Wine Cart./Rome. Dec 22nd/1851
1851, the artist; by 1853, E.P. Winans (died 1887), New York. Miss Jennie Brownscombe (1850-1936); 1916, gift of Miss Jennie Brownscombe to the MFA. (Accession Date: March 2, 1916)
Gift of Miss Jennie Brownscombe