Luke 15:8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Parable of the Lost Drachma, oil on wood, c. 1618, Domenico Fetti, c. 1589-1623
During the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century, neither a painting’s subject nor its style reflected the physical surroundings and day to day lives of common people. Domestic scenes or work activities were not of interest to wealthy patrons or Church figures who commissioned art; there would be no reflective glory for them from such works. In the sixteenth century, however, artists expanded their range of subjects and explored new visual effects. One outcome was “naturalism.” An artist such as Caravaggio was known to cast a person he met at a tavern in the role of a biblical figure. They were not “cleaned up” for their role. In Northern Italy a trend toward naturalism also emerged and may be seen in Domenico Fetti’s “Parable of the Lost Drachma.”
After studying painting in Rome, Fetti, at the age of twenty-four moved to northern Italy to work at the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. The Duke was a noted collector of art and while in Mantua, Fetti’s work continued to develop. He was influenced by a variety of sources; among them were the naturalism of Caravaggio, the use of warm colors by nearby masters in Venice, and the works of Rubens. While he worked for the Duke, the subjects of his paintings often were parables that took place in domestic scenes. The “Parable of the Lost Drachma” illustrates the story of a poor woman who possessed only ten drachmae (Greek coins of small value used during the time of Christ). When one was lost she was desperate to find it. She lit a lamp, swept and searched the house thoroughly, and was delighted when the coin was found. In her excitement she called together friends and neighbors to share her good news.
Fetti’s painting depicts a small room furnished sparsely. The only light source is the woman’s small oil lamp and all shadows emanate from it. Indications of her poverty can be seen in the loose stone tiles on the floor and a portion of the upper wall that is in need of repair. The scene depicted by Fetti takes place during the process of the woman’s hunt for the small coin. She has looked under a chair in the corner and left it on its side. In the left foreground, a stool has been toppled, indicating she has looked under it as well. She searched under the loose floor stones and looked in her trunk; pieces of cloth were taken out and then left on the floor as she went elsewhere to look. In paintings of this parable by other artists, the woman often is shown sweeping with a broom but Fetti has chosen instead to show us her meager furnishing and the places she has searched.
After nine years in Mantua, Fetti moved to Venice to continue his career. He was an exceptional painter but he died at the age of thirty-four and we do not know what else he might have accomplished.
Hovak Najarian © 2013