A female figure steps forward in the darkness wrapped in a robe that leaves little to the imagination, tight to the body and falling to one side, so much so as to leave the breast uncovered. This pale apparition that lights up the night with her own presence – rather than with the candle she carries in her right hand – is the protagonist of a painting that is filled with romantic suggestions, all rendered in a natural setting dominated by the ruins on the right and illuminated by the moonlight. It seems as if one could hear, in the silence of the night, the rushing of the small waterfall on the left that moves the mill on the surface of the water. The young woman, barefoot and half-dressed, is depicted walking on a wooden plank laid out like a small bridge to cross the watercourse, walking smilingly and blankly towards the spectator.
It is not difficult to recognise in the subject of this painting the sleepwalker Amina, famous protagonist of the opera set in an undefined village in Switzerland that Bellini composed to a libretto by Felice Romani, and which debuted on the evening of 6 March 1831 at the Teatro Carcano in Milan (with the famous Giuditta Pasta in the role of the main character). In the rather large iconographic success of this subject, in comparison with other representations such as William Hall & Son’s fairy-tale lithographs of the mid 19th century, the painting by the Czech symbolist Maximilián Pirner (1878), and that of the French academic Édouard Rosset-Granger (1897), this opera also brings to mind the sleepwalker Lady Macbeth, immortalised on canvas by the genius of Füssli (1784). However, in comparison to that hallucinated and dreamlike vision that became a point of reference for later artists, this is a rather accommodating translation, albeit tinged with the sensual and erotic hue of the single episode from Bellini’s opera.
Copies of this painting have appeared on the antiquarian market under the title A Moonlit Rendezvous, part of the 19th-century European Romantic production that was dominated by evocative and dreamy visions derived from the theatre. Puzzling is the attribution of these works to Andrei Franzowitsch Belloli (born Andrea Belloli) a painter from Ronciglione, in the province of Viterbo, who trained at the Academy of St. Luke between 1842 and 1843 with Tommaso Minardi and then moved to St. Petersburg in 1859, where he specialised in portraits and paintings featuring beautiful young girls, often naked and bathing. If we compare some of these female figures with the Sleepwalker in question, the differences become clear, especially in the way the skin is depicted and the way the oval shapes are executed. In our case, we are dealing with an academic artist, as shown by the insistent folding of the dress and the definition of the hands and feet. We are perhaps dealing with a painter from the South such as Vincenzo Catalano (who was active at the Bourbon court in the mid-19th century), author of the famous and interesting painting Petrarch at the Court of Robert of Anjou, a typical work from the period that imaginatively and sympathetically reconstructed a historical and cultural episode from the past – precisely the presence of the poet from Arezzo in the French sovereign’s Naples. It is especially the manner in which the eyes are rendered that reinforces this attribution, as well as the fact that in the Catalogue of Fine Arts exhibited in the Royal Bourbon Museum on 15 August 1848 a work by this painter, listed as an honorary professor at the Royal Institute of Fine Arts, is described as follows: “No. 208. Sleepwalker. Carefree, indecisive, she slowly crosses a bridge, illuminated on one side by the light of her lantern, and on the other by the uncertain glow of the moon. Painting”.