Continental European after 1800, Dress and Textiles, Military History 39 Where might this painting 'On the Cathedral Steps' be set?

Topic: Subject or sitter

I thought the uniforms of the soldiers (there seem to be two types present) might provide a clue if not the steps themselves. Not being an expert in these things I would value any suggestions.

Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Heather Phillips,

The look like French foreign legionaires to me, The flaps of the coat are folded back, but their uniform coats curve up at the front when hanging properly. They also wear white trousers tucked into puttees and a square/rectangular backpack.

Martin Hopkinson,

The British Museum has a drawing by a F R Roffe who it thinks was a relative of William Callio Roffe [an engraver of sculpture], Alfred T Roffe, and Edwin Roffe. He seem to have made drawings often after sculpture for J.S. Virtue and The Art Journal between 1849 and 1866
W C Roffe is in Rodney Engen's 1979 Dictionary of Victorian Engravers
I cannot read the date as 1889. Could the scene relate to the the struggle for Italian independence, and the troops may be Italian? The star on their caps should identify them
An architectural historian could probably identify the site represented see the lion and pilaster right

Martin Hopkinson,

Felix Robert Roffe [1814-87] of St Pancras,brother of Alfred Thomas [1803-71], and Edwin [1825-91], see wikipedia and National Portrait Gallery which has a watercolour by F R - of Baron Lyndhurst

Charles Griffin,

The uniforms do look French, especially the gaiters/spats but the costumes of the civilians seem more Italian to me. The scene could represent French soldiers in Italy.

Jacinto Regalado,

The scene looks Italian. Note that this is a watercolour on paper, not a painting in the typical sense. This Roffe did not exhibit at the RA.

Martin Hopkinson,

Roffe illustrated Turner in the Sydenham Crystal Palace expositor [sic]
He was coauthor in 1859 of Leeds, our grandfather's native village; illustrated his father's My Diary of sixty three days ..., published posthumously in 1858

Charles Griffin,

On closer inspection there is a figure in the background, directly behind the lady in black, who has white and red plume in his hat this is the uniform of an Italian Carabinieri. They can still be seen wearing the uniform today.

Martin Hopkinson,

my suspicion is that this is a copy of a work by a very much better known accomplished artist, possibly an Italian

Martin Hopkinson,

The Museo del Risorgimento in Turin coukl probably provide the answers

Martin Hopkinson,

Paul Nicholls of Studio Paul Nicholls, Milan should be shown this

Deirdre Hewgill,

Possibly the entrance to the basilica at Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. Not strictly a cathedral? You can just see the lions behind the people at the base of the columns and also the plaques/medaillions on the walls.,_Santa_Maria_Maggiore,_2016-06_CN-03.jpg

Risorgimento period possibly by dress and uniforms? but I'm not an expert.

Deirdre Hewgill is surely right about the church being Santa Maria Maggiore. Bergamo played an important part in the Risorgimento and the event depicted seems to be the aftermath of a battle, victory or other military celebration. Identification of the uniforms and dress will help with dating.

Martin Hopkinson,

Given the setting , the painting copied is likely to be Milanese or Venetian , by someone like Mose Bianchi

Heather Phillips,

This is definitely the porch of the church of Santa Maria Maggione in Bergamo, Italy, showing the entrance under the portico designed by Gionvanni da Campione in 1353. I know because we have a watercolour of the entire portico by Alexander Rimmington in 1904.

Also as to the uniforms, they are Italian army, which are very similar to the French legionaires, as they also have a coat that curves down from the centre front, wear white trousers with puttees or spats and a white cap, as in one of the jpgs of this watercolour. There is an illustration online of Italian 19th C. uniforms here:


The uniforms are definitely Italian infantry, of the early Kingdom of Italy period. And it is a Carabiniere at right background. Also no doubt that the cathedral is Santa Maria Maggiore at Bergamo, as pointe out by Ms Hewgill. Bergamo was one of the leading centres of agitation and recruitment for the 1848 and 1859-60 uprisings, and Garibaldi himself frequently visited during that period, the last time during the war of 1866. It will be a bit more difficult to pin-point the victory which presumably led to a celebratory function within the cathedral. Is the date on the painting 1859 or 1889? Not very clear.

Kieran Owens,

From Giorgio Cantelli's 'Le Uniformi Del Regio Esercito Italiano Nel Periodo Umbertino (Vol. I, Parte 1), published in 2020, the attached composites show that this painting must date from after 1871 and that the army personnel depicted are definitely Italian and of definable standing.

The soldiers in the middle of this painting (the one sitting on the ground embracing his son and viewing his new-born baby, and the one who is being embraced so tightly and who stands with his plumed hat of black capercaillie feathers down by his left side) are members the Italian army's Bersaglieri corps of snipers or sharpshooters, who were founded in 1836. Judging by one of the attachments they are probably corporals. This style of plumed hat is unique to this group of soldiers and is still in use by them in the Italian army to this day.

The attached composites show similar uniform design details as seen here compared with those in Cantelli’s authoritative book.

The Stella d'Italia (Star of Italy), also known as the Stellone d'Italia (Great Star of Italy), symbolized Italy for many centuries. With the introduction of the Royal Decree no. 571 of 13th December 1871, the Stella d'Italia became one of the distinctive signs of the Italian Armed Forces' uniform and was a required feature to be worn from this date onwards.'Italia

The white stars can be seen on the collars and cap badges of several of the soldiers in the painting. If they had been painted in more details, their regimental mungers would be identifiable.

A comprehensive history of the use of the star by the Italian military included the following:

“The stars as we know them were prescribed for the first time for Infantry Officers in 1871 with the "Instruction on the Uniform of Infantry Officers" approved by RD (Royal Decree) of 2 April of that year. This "instruction" was followed by others and only with the Decree of 13 December 1871, n. 571, registered at the Court of Auditors on 28-12-1871, standardizing the various previous circulars in a single law, the pro-tempore Minister of War, Piedmontese General Cesare Ricotti Magnani.....adopted the five-pointed Masonic star on military uniforms, replacing the Savoy cross. The Decree verbatim prescribed that: "all persons subject to Military Criminal Jurisdiction, in accordance with art. 323 of the Military Penal Code for the Army and art. 362 of that for the Royal Navy, will carry, as a characteristic sign of the military uniform, common to the Army and....the Royal Navy, the five-pointed star on the collar of the dress of the respective uniform"."

The full text (in Italian) is here:

The link below, to an image of the 1866 battle of Custoza, from the Third Italian War of Independence, shows soldiers in similar garb to the infantrymen in pale blue and white in this Discussion's painting. However, the official changes in 1871 and 1872 to the army’s uniforms, especially with the inclusion of the white five-pointed stars on the collar tips and infantrymen’s caps, show that the painting dates from a time later than that battle and war, which ended on the 12th August 1866:

If the painting is by Felix Robert Roffe who died in 1887 then he cannot be the same artist as the Roffe who was active in 1889. There is, however, the possibility that the date on the canvas is actually 1879.

The painting possibly depicts a scene of reunion after a victory in some military campaign. A father embraces his son while being shown his newborn baby; a husband and wife embrace deeply after some difficult period of absence, and a young woman holds the hands of a lover in thanks for his safe return. The central figure of the lady in what are possibly her widow’s weeds, could represent those who are never coming home. A white dove, possibly symbolising peace, occupies a prominent central position.

If painted between 1871 and 1879, and possibly closer to the latter date, the question that military historians could answer is what significant military victory towards the end of the 1870s might have inspired the work.

Alternatively, if the painting does date from 1879, rather than being a scene depicting a post-war homecoming, it might have some connection to the death, in Rome on 9th January 1878, in the 29th year of his reign, of Victor Emmanuel II, the last King of Sardinia and first King of Italy.

One final mystery is to work out why, if it is by him, did Felix Robert Roffe paint such an Italian scene.

Kieran Owens,

P.S. Why the jacket in the final attachment above is double-breasted is beyond my current understanding.

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

I had hesitated to make the following suggestion, since my proposed date was later than the dates under discussion. However, picking up on Kieran's suggestion of 18789, I would like to point out the widow in the centre (see attachment) standing on the steps with a small child- ( see my detailed image.) Her widow's weeds could easily date from could the little girl's short, yolked white dress. I think there is a second widow standing on the very far right of the painting.

1 attachment
Mark Wilson,

If the painting can be dated to 1889, then the obvious military engagement would be the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1887-89. That might also explained the sun-darkened faces of the soldiers.

Obviously that then leaves the problem of who painted it, but it seems very unlike most of what Felix Roffe painted.

Martin Hopkinson,

This a watercolour not an oil, and evidently a copy . Roffe painted watecolour copies

Martin Hopkinson,

Has the collection taken this out of its frame to inspect the back of the paper?

Kieran Owens,

If it is a copy it is surprising that the original is not so easy to find or better known. Could you give a direction as to where is the evidence that it is a copy?

Martin Hopkinson,

I am awaiting information from Italy as the artist was a copyist and the original and subject certainly are both Italian . Trapped at home I have no access to major books devoted to Italian 19th century.The composition is of high quality and will surely be easily identifiable by specialists

Mark Wilson,

Martin - I appreciate that both the form (watercolour on paper) and the comparatively small size suggest that this is a reduced copy from a larger oil painting, designed to then be reproduced. My problem is that all the copies I can find attributed to F Roffe (apart from this picture) consists of engravings from his drawings, usually from three-dimensional objects (statues, medallions, reliefs). There's no other full colour paintings as elaborate and accomplished like this.

So this seems unlikely to be the Felix Robert Roffe who dies on 27 June 1887. And if it was either that death date or the date of the painting must be wrong. And starting in a new medium at the age of 75 with such skill also seems unlikely.

The problem with any earlier date than 1889 is that Italy didn't really go to war with anyone between 1870 and 1887 ( and the uniform details suggest this can't be pre-1871. So the 1887-89 campaign in the Horn of Africa (confusingly the First Italo-Ethiopian War is actually a later conflict) would tie in with the date. And the uniformly sun-darkened troops would suggest fighting much further south rather than during Unification.

Martin Hopkinson,

I should add that 1869 would fit the style of the original far better than 1889

Kieran Owens,

Attached is an example, as it appeared in The Art Journal of 1849, of an engraving of 'Lavinia' after a drawing by Felix Roffe. As mentioned by Martin at the outset of this Discussion, although there are some references where Felix Roffe is credited as an engraver, most describe him as having executed the drawings after which other engravers, including his family members, made their works. The quality of his drawings suggests that Felix was a talented artist with a pencil and therefore could have been quite capable of producing watercolours of equal quality. As the census returns from 1851 through to 1881 show, he considered himself to be an "artist painter in watercolours" and not an engraver.

Kieran Owens,

Irrespective of whether the painting is by Felix Robert Roffe or some other artist, the date of 1869 is not possible, given the detailed explanation above of the adoption of the 1871 and 1872 changes to the Italian army's uniform. If it is by Felix, the painting has to have been executed between 1871 and his death in 1887.

Jacob Simon,

The answer to this discussion, "Where might this painting 'On the Cathedral Steps' be set?" would seem to be Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo (post by Deirdre Hewgill, 30/04/2021, and succeeding posts). Unless we think we can progress an attribution, is it time to close this discussion on the basis that we have reached a satisfactory answer?

Please support your comments with evidence or arguments.

jpg, png, pdf, doc, xls (max 6MB)
Drop your files here
Attach a file Start uploading

Sign in

By signing in you agree to the Terms & Conditions, which includes our use of cookies.