How castrato Domenico Annibali virtually gave the chance of a tremendous career to gifted and secluded boy‐painter Anton Raphael Mengs…


(Self‐portrait of Mengs at the time he met Annibali)

From Opere del consigliere Gian Lodovico Bianconi, Bolognese, Ministro della Corte di Sassonia presso la Santa Sede, Vol. II: Lettere al Marchese Filippo Hercolani […] sopra alcune particolarità della Baviera ed altri paesi della Germania, Milano 1802, pag. 147–1. Translated into English by Flavio Ferri‐Benedetti.


…the three children were hermetically locked up home. Even the king, as well as everybody in Dresden, ignored that Ismael Mengs had any family at all. The situation changed quickly because of the love for painting and music. Mengs went accidentally to Monsieur De Silvestre, a Parisian […], where all the important people of the Court went, as well as all foreign ambassadors. […] Also Signor Domenico Annibali, from Macerata, virtuoso da camera of His Majesty, went there. He was a fabulous singer, still young, of excellent ways and very well mannered. For his good qualities everybody appreciated him and he reigned together with Hasse on the Italian stage of Dresden. Annibali’s singing reached like none other’s the impenetrable heart of Ismael, who had already heard him in theatre. Annibali had received news from Rome that Mengs had three children who were very gifted in painting […] One evening, at Silvestre’s, in the presence of Mengs, Annibali sang a pathetic aria which everybody liked. All sensitive souls have an aria that is unison to their fibres, to which they cannot resist, and one only has to know how to find it. It powerfully shook Ismael’s heart, who spoke for the first time and asked Annibali to repeat the aria. Clever Annibali said “with pleasure, but you, in exchange, shall allow me to come see you at your place, and you will show me your unknown, gifted family”. Everybody laughed, Ismael was nervous and replied: “Sing well tonight, and tomorrow I’ll receive you, but come alone, for I do not want any of these highly decorated lowlifes there.” This is a little example of the way Mengs used to talk. Annibali sung, Mengs cried and after the aria was finished he left half astonished, without saying goodbye.

O great power of Music! From that moment on, the wild Mengs could not resist anymore to Annibali who, like Orpheus, started changing this harsh Dane with his talents. In the morning he went to Mengs’ place and after long, silent reverences from both parties, he saw […] two simply dressed girls illuminating at one table, and at the other table a young boy, more or less sixteen years old, with long hair spread on his shoulders. The boy was painting something. None of these silent scholars dared to look up to see who had entered their room, thus breaking its usual, eternal silence. The intruder greeted them, but they did not reply until their father gave them permission to do so. Annibali saw on the wall several beautiful pastel drawings and, among others, two lively portraits which represented Ismael and the boy himself. Mengs explained that these had been painted by the boy; Annibali, full of surprise, asked, almost as a joke, if he would have cared to paint his portrait in the same way. The boy looked straight at his face and answered that he would have painted it if the father had ordered him to do it. “Of course I want it,” said Ismael, “because since last night I cannot deny anything to Signor Annibali”. “And when can you do it?” “It depends on my father”, replied the boy. “Do you want it now?” asked Ismael. “Why not?” replied Annibali, to which the father brought one single sheet of turquoise‐coloured paper and gave it to Anton Rafael. Then he left, closing the door behind him. […] The father never wanted to see his son painting and only considered the finished works. […] Annibali was sweetly surprised by the speed, beauty and similarity of the portrait. Ismael, with a German Bible in his hands, asked Annibali to swear that he would never say who had painted it, but he […] avoided as well as he could to swear and silenced him, who, mortified, brought the Bible back to where it was. The day after the portrait was ready and adorned with frame and glass. […]

 Pastel Annibali Mengs 1744

(Mengs pastel portrait of Annibali, 1744)

When the king heard that Annibali had discovered a family at Ismael’s place and that the son, despite his young age, was as good a painter as his father […] he sent a royal guard to Mengs’ place with the order of taking the portrait in the name of Annibali. Mengs refused and called the guard a liar […] the guard took the painting away with him. […] Shortly after Annibali arrived and you can imagine the dialogue that happened right after. The children, who had become affectionate to Annibali, cried and trembled for all that noise […]

Meanwhile the portrait arrived at the Court. It was like Annibali had arrived in person, so lively was the painting. […] The king put it in his office and there it stayed forever. […] His Majesty ordered Annibali to introduce him to this new artist […] and Ismael’s whole family. They had to be dressed in a hurry, for they only had house clothing. For the first time the girls had their hair styled à la mode and covered in perfumed powder […] this was because the courtiers they had to walk through judge people depending on their looks and hairstyle.

The king received them […] more as an artist than as a monarch. He spoke with them about art and he found out that the girls were very good at illuminating. He ordered Anton Rafael to come back the day after to show him his pastels. […] The day after […] His Majesty wanted on the spot his pastel portrait. The turquoise paper and the easel were already prepared. […] August III was undoubtedly one of Europe’s most beautiful men. […] The Queen, the Prince and the Princess […] entered and made an exclamation of wonder. […] The boy was given […] a yearly pension […] as well as each of the two sisters.


(August III by Mengs, Pastel, 1744)

The jealous courtiers came to say […] that Anton Rafael should have continued doing only portraits, for that was his specialty […]. He understood that it was an evil comment and asked Annibali, who had become practically his godfather, in order to receive permission to travel to Rome to learn further […] Anton Rafael married Margherita Guazzi in Rome […] and destiny wanted that Annibali would arrive to Rome for the celebration. […] For the first time, people were heard laughing in that home.

[…] Before leaving for Rome, the only portrait [oil on canvas] he wanted to really finish was that of his friend Annibali. The sweet inscription in the corner said: “Antonio Raffaele Mengs painted his friend Domenico Annibali in the year 1752”.

Mengs Annibali 1752

Annibali’s definitive portrait by Mengs (1752?)