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This painting is an outstanding example of Turner's mastery in painting light. The colour is intense and the surface shimmers under the searing strength of the sun, with forms representing the landscape and buildings consumed by its glare. It depicts an idyllic landscape in Italy, with a river flowing between hills and under a bridge out towards a level plain and distant sea. On the right bank of the river a religious procession approaches a sacred place on the roadside and to the left two figures kneel in front of a monk. Beyond them we can see a tiny group of 'pifferari', or strolling musicians – the key element of this painting. Armed with bagpipes and pifferi (instruments similar to oboes), they came to Rome each Christmas from southern Italy to play at wayside shrines to the Madonna. Contemporary travel writers remarked upon this unusual custom, which had its roots in a pagan tradition connected with Ovid, who encouraged the worship of the gods with music.
Modern Italy: The Pifferari
oil on canvas
H 92.6 x W 123.2 cm
presented by the sons of James Reid of Auchterarder, 1896