Publio de Tommasi’s career is sparsely documented: he trained at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome and later worked as an art teacher and watercolourist, devoting himself to genre scenes with religious figures and Italian peasants in regional costume.
In his watercolour The game of chess a cardinal and a friar are seated according to rank inside a palatial room hung with valuable tapestries and encounter each other over a game of chess.
The subject of this gently humorous image was described as follows in the first edition of the Art Gallery of NSW’s general catalogue of the collection published in 1883: ‘A cardinal and a Franciscan friar are engaged in a game, and the artist has represented them at a moment when the cardinal, having made a subtle and dangerous attack on his antagonist’s queen, is leaning back with a chuckle of sly exultation as he watches the Franciscan, with knit brows and poised hand, puzzling over a counter-move.’
Paintings depicting the private quarters of cardinals and priests in a highly realist style were immensely popular in the late 19th century, and many artists in Catholic countries, especially Italy, France and Belgium, specialised in such scenes. Invariably amusing and light-hearted, they usually show members of the clergy with characterful expressions involved in private pleasures (such as eating oysters) or other trivial dramas that would seem out of step with the protagonists’ sacred calling.
Tommasi’s interest in The game of chess, while perhaps intending some element of benign mockery, seems to be in the careful description of the furnishings – such as the wooden table with ram-head carvings and the fine oriental rug – and the dress of the two figures, contrasting the course simplicity of the friar’s habit with the cardinal’s scarlet cassock and lace rochet.
An earlier version of the composition was exhibited at the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880–81 where it caught the attention of the Gallery’s trustee, Eliezer Levi Montefiore, who was to become the Gallery’s first director. Presumably because the watercolour was unavailable for sale at the close of the exhibition, Montefiore wrote to Tommasi offering him a commission to paint another version. The finished watercolour arrived in Sydney in 1882, and within a couple of months a companion piece was ordered from the artist. That watercolour, Gossip in the ante-chamber, Papal Palace 1883, was sold in 1948, at a time when Victorian watercolours were desperately out of fashion and a number of them were deaccessioned from the collection.
Adapted from Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017