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Article The Pifferari playing before the Virgin, Rome, by an unknown artist after a painting by Sir David Wilkie, painter and etcher, 1785-1841

after a painting by Sir David Wilkie, painter and etcher, 1785-1841

Before a shrine dedicated to the Virgin, three musicians play wind instruments while two women (one of whom holds a baby) and a man kneel before the image of Mary. The instrument played by two of the musicians is probably a piffaro, a double-reed instrument, an Italian folk shawm.[1] The other musician plays a bagpipe. It is a simple setting, in Rome, in which a devotional painting of the Madonna and Child is displayed on the side of a building and is illuminated by a wall-mounted lamp. The musicians and pilgrims stand or kneel on the small terrace and steps leading to the shrine.

The image is based on a painting by Sir David Wilkie of the same subject, painted in 1827, in the collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in Buckingham Palace. Though this lithograph is signed "Rome / D. Wilkie," it does not seem likely that Wilkie created this lithograph himself. As a printmaker, Wilkie worked almost entirely in intaglio, though there may have been at least one instance when he experimented with lithography.[2] It would seem more probable, then, that this lithograph was created by an unknown artist after Wilkie.

The origin of the painting is described in the exhibition catalogue, Sir David Wilkie of Scotland, catalogue by H.A.D. Miles and David Blayney Brown, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, 1987, cat. no. 28, pp. 203-205. In 1825, Wilkie had gone to Rome to recover his health and in late November of that year he described in a letter the preparations for Holy Year celebrations during Christmas under Pope Leo XII. "Multitudes of pilgrims from all parts of Italy are assembled in the streets, in costumes remarkably fine and poetical.... Each party of pilgrims is accompanied by one whose duty is to give music to the rest. This is a piper, or pifferaro, provided with an immense bagpipe, of a rich deep tone...; while another man plays [the melody] on a smaller reed.... In parading the streets they stop before the image of the Virgin, whom they serenade, as shepherds, at this season, previous to Christmas, in imitation of shepherds of old, who announced the birth of the Messiah." It is believed that Wilkie began work on the painting the following year, in December 1826, and completed it in the spring of 1827. When Wilkie was again in London in 1828, the king asked to see his "Italian studies" and he purchased The Pifferari and another painting for the royal collection.

See 424/M, an engraving of this painting by J.C. Armytage created for a publication entitled The Wilkie Gallery: A Selection of the Best Pictures of the Late Sir David Wilkie, R.A. ...: With Notices Biographical and Critical, [by W. H. Bartlett], London: Geo. Virtue, 1848-1850, which is mentioned in the same exhibition catalogue, p. 204. See also 63/L, a lithograph by the painter Victor Jeanneney of a single pifferaro.

About the Artist

Sir David Wilkie, painter and etcher, 1785-1841
Sir David Wilkie was a renowned Scottish artist. He was born in Cults, near Fife, in 1785, and he died at sea near Malta on a return voyage home from the Holy Land in 1841. His father was a Protestant minister, Rev. David Wilkie. He began his art studies in Edinburgh at age 14 at the Trustees Academy. In 1805, he went to London and enrolled in the school of the Royal Academy. He began to exhibit his work at the Royal Academy in 1806, and continued to send his work there through 1842. From his first entry at the Royal Academy, Village Politicians, in 1806, he was a great success and his work was widely praised. Sir George Beaumont, the founder of the National Gallery, was one of his earliest patrons. His early works were genre subjects, much in the manner of 17th-century Dutch painters such as David Teniers (1610-1690). Wilkie's style matured after 1813 and continued to change, especially after his travels to France in 1814 and 1821, the Low Countries in 1816, and Italy, Germany and Austria in the 1820s, where he studied the works of Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens, Raphael, and Correggio. In the late 1820s and mid-1830s, he exhibited his work frequently at the Royal Academy in London. Among his patrons was King George IV, who purchased several of Wilkie's paintings. In 1830, he succeeded Sir Thomas Lawrence as Painter in Ordinary to the King. In 1840, he traveled extensively in the Middle East. In 1841, on the way to Gilbraltar, he died aboard ship and was buried at sea. Wilkie was a prolific painter and draughtsman.[3]


  1. For an illustration of the instrument, the Italian piffaro, see Musical Instruments of the World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1997, p. 44, no. 6. [back to article]
  2. I am grateful to Professor Arthur S. Marks, Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for this information about Sir David Wilkie as a printmaker and whether or not he was a lithographer. Correspondence by e-mail, 24 March 2010. [back to article]
  3. See Bénézit for a list of his major works. For a more in-depth study of Wilkie's life and work and suggestions for further reading, see the following two articles: 1) Hamish Miles, "Sir David Wilkie," in Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online; External Link and, David Rogers, "Sir David Wilkie," in the Oxford Companion to Western Art, also available via Oxford Art Online External Link (both by subscription only). [back to article]

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