Saint Stephen Protomartyr

Author: Giuseppe Gesualdo Russo (Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto (?), documented between 1770 and 1805) attr.

Dating: Late 18th - early 19th century

Material: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 105x75 cm

Location: Milazzo, Cathedral of Santo Stefano Protomartire


The work is located in the sacristy of the cathedral of St. Stephen of Milazzo, perhaps coming from the Duomo Vecchio. The young saint with a halo is represented in an ecstatic attitude with his gaze turned towards the sky, and holds with his right hand his iconographic attributes presented in the foreground: the stones, the allusive book of the diaconate, the palm within three crowns. The inscription on the book, 'LAPIDES TURRENTIS ILLI DULCES FUERUNT', in reference to martyrdom by stoning. He wears liturgical vestments, typical of the period, described in great detail: the white cassock enriched with embroidery on the wrists; the carmine red dalmatic falling down with a flap on the saint's leg, which allows a glimpse of the blue lining.

The unknown painter cares for a precious description of the details: the embroidery applications with phytoform scrolls, the tassels falling down on the chest, the golden trimmings. A 19th-century liturgical vestment from Milazzo Cathedral, made of red silk and gold giral embroidery, with the Proto family coat of arms has the same decorations as the dalmatic of the saint portrayed. In the absence of archival documentation, it is only possible to date the work, which can be chronologically assigned to between the 18th and 19th century. The painting is stylistically attributable to the hand of painter Giuseppe Russo, active between the 18th and 19th century in Milazzo and the Tyrrhenian area of Messina. The physiognomy of the saint's face can be compared with certain physiognomic stereotypes typical of his works on sacred subjects, usually populated by several characters. Moreover, the same descriptive prediction of the sacred vestments is present here as in some of his certain paintings visible in San Lorenzo (Frazzanò, Church of S. Lorenzo) and in the Messa di San Gregorio (S. Marco d'Alunzio, Church of S. Nicolò). It can be assumed that the artist was inspired by the statue of Saint Stephen Protomartyr, which was commissioned for the cathedral, together with the saint's coffin, from the sculptor Filippo Quattrocchi, documented in 1786 in Milazzo.

The statue, made in 1784, arrived in Milazzo from Palermo in 1786, to the great jubilation of the population. On Russo's activity, it is worth noting the contribution on the painting of the Milazzo area by Biliardo, with a brief mention of several works attributable to the painter. For a more in-depth examination of his production, I refer to a recent article of mine (Bottari, 2013, pp. 549-562), which highlights the considerable contribution of the artist, now considered a "minor", within that circle of local artisans-painters, who have not yet been the subject of adequate study: these were families of artists such as the Viscosi, the Bonsignore, or painters who worked individually, such as Antonio Buongiorno. The painter was already living in Milazzo in 1785. His canvases can be found in the cathedral of S. Stefano, the church of S. Giacomo and the church of the Rosario. His most important commitment was the complex of decorative works for the church of the Carmine, chronologically assignable to the end of the 18th century, comprising four altarpieces and probably six of the eight ovals set into the side walls, in which the collaboration of the Viscosi, or Vescosi, painters culturally close to him is ascertained: Antonio, Filippo and Vito Viscosi, painters from Pozzo di Gotto and documented in Castroreale. Based on his few certain works, a large number of devotional-type altarpieces can be attributed to Russo, which probably had a certain importance in the past, given their prominent location within ecclesiastical buildings.

Painters, such as Russo, took advantage of the circulation of sketches and cartoons by well-known Neapolitan and Roman masters, such as Conca and De Matteis, variously reused, often lapsing into a sort of sweetish repetitiveness "like a reassuring sermon repeated from church to church to the ranks of the devout, who recognise themselves and feel reassured by it". Influencing this imitative immobility was the ancient custom of Sicilian sacred patronage to request works similar to those already appearing in rival churches or confraternities, in a sort of devotional competition. Having both worked as restorers, we know that Russo was also a collaborator of Domenico Giordano, who is remembered as the restorer of frescoes by Filocamo and Paladino and known for the fresco in the church of the Madonna del Rosario in Milazzo, and for the entire fresco decoration of the vault of the Dominican church dated 1789. Russo also later collaborated with the local painter Lucio Garuffi, Scipione Manni's son-in-law, and it cannot be excluded that the painter also worked as an assistant within his renowned workshop. This could explain his consistent participation in the decoration of the main churches in the town and surrounding areas. Lastly, it is worth mentioning his certain paintings found in the churches of Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, Russo's place of origin: a Nativity of Jesus, a St. Louis and a St. Anthony of Padua, and a Madonna of Carmine with Purgatory Souls; thanks to stylistic comparisons, a considerable number of paintings can only be attributed to him.
Buda V., Lanuzza S. (eds.), Tesori di Milazzo. Arte sacra tra Seicento e Settecento, Milazzo 2015.
Buda V., Lanuzza S. (a cura di), Tesori di Milazzo. Arte sacra tra Seicento e Settecento., Milazzo 2015