Housed in the neo-classical area on the first floor of the Museo Correr, the exhibition comprises fifty paintings from Venice and the surrounding area. Dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, these normally hang in the family’s various residences, but are here gathered together to provide a stimulating insight into the development of art within the Venetian Republic. Amongst the works on loan one that stands out is the Giovanni Bellini Madonna and Child (formerly the Contini Bonacossi Madonna). However, it is the very completeness and variety of the works that is surprising. The artists represented include Padovanino, Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Gianantonio Pellgrini, Jacopo Amigoni, Canaletto, Francesco Guardi, Pietro Longhi and Giandomenico Tiepolo; and the works – sacred images, mytholgical scenes, landscapes, vedute and portraits – effectively summarise the ideas, values and variety of artistic languages within Venetian culture as a whole.
Christ and the Samarian Woman at the Well
In October 1750 Giambattista Tiepolo left Venice for the Bishopric of Wűrzburg in Franconia, called to decorate the dining hall in the Residence of the reigning bishop, Carl Philipp von Greiffenklau; later he would also be commissioned to do frescoes for the enormous ceremonial staircase in the building. With him he took his two sons, Giandomenico and Lorenzo; the former had already been his accomplished assistant for some years, the latter, though still young – he was born in 1726 – was also intended for a career as an artist. During the three years spent in Wűrzburg, Giandomenico not only assisted his father in work on the Residence frescoes but was also commissioned to do paintings for local notables. This is one of those works and shows the moment when Christ, halting on his journey from Judea to Galilee, reveals his divine mission to a Samarian woman who has given him to drink of the water of Jacob’s Well in the village of Sychar. Whilst still clearly influenced by his father’s art, the young Giandomenico also reveals himself capable of a more intimate, delicate artistic language. Perhaps this is to be seen in relation to the taste of his clients, in a Germany where Protestant pietism eschewed the triumphalism of the Catholic Church and saw religion much more as a question of individual sentiment.
The Angel of Fame
This is one of the two surviving fragments from a large-format work painted for the ceiling of the main hall in Palazzo Grimani ai Servi in Venice, which was destroyed by fire in the early years of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was when Tiepolo’s work was lost, leaving only the two fragments; the other became part of the Uffizi collections in the year 1900. Sources do not record the subject-matter of Tiepolo’s ceiling; but there can be no doubt that it served to celebrate the glory and power of a patrician family that in 1740 was recorded as being the second richest in Venice. This is confirmed by the presence of this Angel of Fame, whose trumpet sounds the glories of the family throughout the whole world; in the Florentine fragment there is a putto holding a laurel crown, which was clearly intended for the head of a Grimani who would serve as a symbol for the entire family.
The Immaculate Conception
Given its small scale, this painting of the Virgin crowned by a large winged angel was intended for a private chapel within some aristocratic palazzo. Though the iconography is fairly standard, Amigoni here manages to breathe new life into it by playing upon the evanescent shimmer of colours, highlighted by the contrast between the silvery-grey of the Virgin’s robe, the dark blue of her mantle and the vivid pink of the angel’s tunic. The composition also includes numerous putti shown in the most varied poses, their treatment having all the lightness of touch of a work in pastels. In short, Amigoni’s light and delicate brushwork makes this an extremely festive scene – a perfect embodiment of that international rococo taste of which the Venetian artist was undoubtedly one of the most significant interpreters.
The Death of the Virgin
This precious oil sketch is a preparatory study for – and only extant record of – a now-lost work which the Venetian painter produced for the Vicenza church of the Oratorians. The canopied bed on which lies the body of the Virgin is aligned diagonally on a wooden dais in a magnificent room; all around are the apostles who were present at her death. The forms are rendered in quick, vibrant brushstrokes of rather thick paint, with the artist making important use of chiaroscuro effects to focus attention upon the central figure of the Virgin. Her garments are in luminous pink and blue, whilst the penumbra encloses the imposing figures of the apostles – some shown kneeling, others weeping, others intent upon a study of the Holy Scriptures.
This signed work is of remarkable dramatic impact; it is modelled on the composition of the German Vesperbild, showing the Virgin supporting the body of the dead Chirst whilst, at her back, stands St. John the Evangelist. There are two extant preparatory drawings for this work, one now in the Museo Civico in Bassano del Grappa, the other in the Venice Museo Correr. This latter is on display here and shows the great attention Francesco paid to the rendition of the faces, highlighting the modelling of the figures and just sketching in the landscape that appears in the background. As mentioned, this small altarpiece drew upon the iconographic model of the German Vesperbild, and may have been produced in response to such a work – perhaps a piece of sculpture – created by an earlier artist. It may therefore be significant that the painting came to light in a German collection. The handling of the light-flooded landscape behind the figures is remarkable. Note also the careful depiction of Christ’s crown of thorns and the nails which held him to the Cross, all of which lie abandoned in the foreground.
Alexander Received by the Priest Jaddon
One of the most challenging projects undertaken by Francesco Fontebasso was the decoration of the villa and barchessa [outhouse] at Santa Bona near Treviso; the work was commissioned by Sebastiano Uccelli, a rich fiscal advocate of the Procuratia de Citra who had bought the property in 1744 from the Zenobio, a patrician Venetian family. For the barchessa, Fontebasso produced a number of frescoes and some works on canvas, which were removed after the Italian defeat at Caporetto in 1917 and subsequently sold off to different owners. Two of these are now part of the Sorlini Collection and, as this one shows, are a find example of the mature style of the Venetian artist, maintaining all the characteristic features of his artistic language. More than any other artist of the day, Fontebasso tried to combine the lessons to be learnt from Sebastiano Ricci with those learnt from Tiepolo. Note, for example, how the scenography of the setting – ultimately derived from Veronese via Ricci – is combined with the sort of attention to chiaroscuro one finds in the works of Tiepolo, which would have been well-known to Fontebasso (it is almost certain that he frequented that artist’s studio).
Mucius Scaevola Before Lars Porsena
This is not the only work by Antonio that depicts the dramatic story of Mucius Scaevola, who surreptitiously entered the Etruscan camp with the intention of killing the enemy king, Lars Porsena, who had led his troops to the very walls of Rome. By mistake, Mucius kills the king’s scribe and, when brought before the king, thrusts into the fire his own right hand, responsible for making the mistake. This painting was inspired by a work that Giambattista Tiepolo painted in the years 1726-1729 for the ballroom of Palazzo Dolfin in Venice (now in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg). However, Ricci has changed both structure and details, so that the resultant picture fully reflects his own sensibility as an artist, both in terms of composition and of technique; the effervescent brushstrokes achieve typically rococo effects.
Saint Augustine Defeating Heresy
A preparatory sketch for the ceiling decoration of the Library of the Monastery of San Salvador in Venice – a work now in the Accademia Gallery – this fine-quality painting depicts St. Augustine (354-430), who rather later in his life would be baptised into the Church by St. Ambrose in Milan and ultimately become bishop of Hippo on the Mediterranean coast of Africa, where he would be a staunch opponent of heresy and introduce important liturgical and pastoral reforms. The saint is shown sitting amidst clouds and holding a book; in his ascension into heaven he is accompanied by an angel and numerous cherubs, two of which hold his crosier and his mitre, whilst a third uses a lit torch to chase away the heresy that Augustine fought so determinedly. As one can see from the protrusions, the artist envisaged this work in an octagonal form – probably due to the space available on the ceiling that was to house the full-scale painting. Only later – perhaps in response to a request from the client, resulting from a change in location for the finished work – did the artist expand the picture into a full rectangle. The freshness of brushstroke and the brilliant palette, inspired by the art of Ricci, are typical of Diziani’s painting.
Apollo and the Muses on Mount Parnassus
Like all the great eighteenth-century painters of mural decoration, Gianntonio Pellegrini produced numerous oil sketches that might be used in either making an application for a public commission or else in presenting a private patron with a ‘first draft’ of what the painter intended to produce on the interior wall of house or church. Given their very nature, these sketches did not always result in the production of the full-scale work, and this is the case here. Obviously, this image of a brightly-lit Apollo in flight towards Mount Parnassus – where one sees not only the Muses but also the winged figure of Chronos – was intended for development as a fully-fledged ceiling fresco; but no such work is known to have been painted.
Rachel hiding the Images
This work is the pendant to one depicting Rebecca and Abraham’s Servant at the Well; separated in the years immediately before the Second World War, they were reunited as part of the Sorlini collection in 1968. The scene depicted here is taken from the life of the biblical patriarch Jacob, who – after obtaining his brother Esau’s birthright for a ‘mess of pottage’ – sets out with the blessing of his father, Isaac, to search for a wife in the land of Carran. Here he encounters Laban, his mother’s brother, who gives him his eldest daughter Leah in marriage; and then, seven years later, also gives him the hand of his other daughter, Rachel. When Jacob decides to return home, Rachel – unbeknownst to him – steals the images of the household gods which should by law have been the birthright of the eldest son of the family. As soon as Laban discovers this he sets out after Jacob and accuses him of theft. His son-in-law allows him to search throughout the camp for the images, which Rachel has meanwhile hidden under the packsaddle on which she is sitting, refusing to get up because she says she is ill. Hence Laban never finds the images, the possession of which confirms right of inheritance to the entire property of the family.
The Golden Calf
After leading the Israelites across the desert to the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses ascends the mountain to receive the tablets of the Ten Commandments that had been promised him. He spends forty days and forty nights in communion with God, whilst the Israelites, despairing of his return, decide to form their own sacred image for worship; collecting all their gold, they give it to Moses’ brother, Aaron, who fashions a golden calf before which the Israelites dance and make offerings. Enraged at this idolatry, when Moses descends from Mount Sinai, he hurls the tablets of the Commandments on the ground and orders the destruction of the calf. Immediately afterwards he is ordered by God to ascend Mount Sinai once more, from whence he will return forty days later with new Tablets of the Law. The painting in the Sorlini collection focuses on the first part of this story. In the foreground is the Israelite camp in the clearing at the foot of Mount Sinai; the people are shown dancing around their idol whilst, on the peak of the mountain in the background, God appears wrapped in rosy clouds to hand the Commandments to Moses.
Giuseppe Bernardino Bison
Scene from Roman History (The Tent of Darius)
It is not easy to establish the subject-matter of this painting, which has been identified as showing a scene from Roman history or perhaps as depicting the encampment of king Darius. Whatever the truth, the picture stands in clear relation to the numerous works Bison produced for the theatre; he worked as a set-painter for the main theatres of both the Veneto and Friuli. The entire composition is decidedly theatrical, with the drapery being used to form a proscenium within which the dramatically-gesturing characters are arranged against a telescope view of a city, complete with ‘extras’.