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Rencontres à Venise was visually sumptuous and intellectually stimulating while manageable in size, graced by the superb quality of the loans and accompanied by an excellent catalogue, coedited by the curators Stefania Mason and Linda Borean, two distinguished Italian scholars of Venetian art. Whereas Mason’s catalogue essay provides a fresh analysis of the renewal of Venetian painting in the seventeenth century, weaving together its many threads, Borean’s contribution traces the changes in artistic practices and patterns of patronage and collecting that nourished that renewal. Andrea Bacchi, who directed the sculpture section, presents a useful overview of the medium in the period. A further essay by Nathalie Volle, former director of the invaluable database, Le Répertoire des tableaux italiens en France, XIIIe-XIXe siècle (RETIF), offers a comprehensive account of Venetian seicento paintings in French collections. Bucking the unhappy trend of recent exhibition catalogues, this one includes informative entries on individual works, the bulk written by Christophe Brouard and Laura de Fuccia.
The very theme of the exhibition is bold, challenging tenacious claims that seventeenth-century Venetian art marks a sterile stretch after a glorious past and is best skipped over quickly to arrive at its splendid successor. Attempts to prove otherwise have been sporadic. Over a generation has passed since Homan Potterton mounted Venetian Seventeenth Century Painting at the National Gallery in London in 1979. Smaller than in Ajaccio and limited to painting, the London show drew exclusively from UK and Irish collections. In the preceding decade, the New York public had viewed a small exhibition in 1964, one of a series of old master shows curated by Robert Manning at the former Finch College. Dwarfing both was the landmark La Pittura del Seicento a Venezia (1959), the sole exhibition held in Venice and an exceedingly expansive survey of over two hundred paintings and one hundred drawings.
Unlike its predecessors, the Ajaccio show includes sculpture and a small number of drawings among the sixty-six catalogued works. Paintings form the largest component, even if five canvases did not make it, and the sculptures are cleverly juxtaposed to spark lively dialogues between media. The remarkable selection of objects comprises numerous little-known or even, in two instances, unpublished works (cat. 1, 4). As many as one-quarter of the loans come from private French and Italian collections and another quarter from French provincial museums, rich in Venetian seventeenth-century art as were the UK collections featured in London in 1979. The balance of works comprises loans from the Louvre, Venice, and the Veneto. While these are overwhelmingly easel pictures for private settings, two notable exceptions are the ecclesiastical paintings borrowed from San Nicola da Tolentino, a major repository of Venetian seicento painting. In a gracious celebration of its French host and the historic ties between Venice and France, the show is bookended by the recently discovered The Embarkation of the French Ambassador, Doge, and Patriarch for the Marriage of the Sea by Joseph Heintz (cat. 1) and Sebastiano Ricci’s Allegory of France (cat. 63), his reception piece for the French Academy in Paris.
The curators in Ajaccio eschew the prevailing chronological approach to the material in favor of a loose thematic organization that highlights iconographic and stylistic innovations. They further omit altogether Palma il Giovane, the last major sixteenth-century master who dominated the first quarter of the new century, and practitioners of the “sette maniere” (seven modes), as the Venetian theorist Marco Boschini characterized Titian’s and Tintoretto’s epigones. Instead, the focus rightly centers on foreign painters, who beginning in the 1620s spearheaded the artistic resurgence. Just as the Carracci when visiting Venice in the 1580s had been inspired in their reform of art by Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, and the recently deceased Titian, a younger generation of painters flocking to Venice from the 1620s on—some passing through, some settling down—also found in those same masters a point of departure for new experiments with light and color. But the younger painters generally experienced the Venetian tradition through the filter of the Carracci’s own naturalistic reforms and, moreover, Caravaggio’s innovations. While Baroque Rome’s particular identity was as the papal capital, and the towering personalities of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Pietro da Cortona ensured its artistic dominance through most of the century, Venice beguiled visitors from diplomats to merchants and, despite its political, economic, and even natural crises, attracted a critical mass of painters fostering dynamic artistic exchange and serving as a crucible of change in the city. The works on view in Ajaccio communicate tremendous artistic vitality, expressed in a riot of color, light, and movement.
Unlike their usual placement high on the walls in San Nicola da Tolentino, Johann Liss’s St. Jerome and the Angel (cat. 3) and Bernardo Strozzi’s Almsgiving of St. Lawrence (cat. 20) are visible here at close range. In this position they attest to the momentous rencontres or encounters of the German and Genoese painters, respectively, with Venetian art. Before the plague of 1630 truncated Liss’s brief but resplendent Venetian career, he imagined another sort of encounter, intimate and affective, in which St. Jerome and the angel merge into a swirling vortex of frothy clouds, evoked with vigorous, loaded brushstrokes. Liss’s free handling also informs the exquisite Finding of Moses (cat. 19) in which he updates and refashions Veronese’s several versions of the theme, describing the tender emotions and fluttering, diaphanous scarves of the women huddling around the baby and set against a crepuscular light. Strozzi’s Almsgiving instead displays his Caravaggesque credentials in specific gestures, types, and contrasted lighting but activated with the Rubensian brio of the composition, saturated colors, and a bright background. Both the German Liss and the Genoese Strozzi also felt the influence of the Roman painter Domenico Fetti, an early agent of the Venetian renewal spurred by foreigners and also present in the first half of the show. While admired by collectors for his small-scale series of parables, Fetti’s equal talent with full-length, life-sized figures is on view in two large canvases, David with the Head of Goliath (cat. 18) and Melancholia (cat. 2), both original variations on famous prototypes by Caravaggio and Dürer respectively, masterful in composition, color, and fluid handling.
Caravaggio’s impact in Venice was always indirect, and naturalism, genre subjects, and nocturnal lighting all had deep roots within the native tradition, itself a source for Caravaggio. Thus, the current of tenebrism that emerged in Venice at midcentury reflects local as much as external influences. Luca Giordano’s works for Venice, including cat. 8, transmitted Ribera’s manner to strengthen the trend, exemplified above all in the darkly dramatic works of its three major exponents: to wit the gory Suicide of Cato (cat. 10) by the Genoese Giovanni Battista Langetti, the operatic and moving Death of Lucretia (cat. 14) by Antonio Zanchi from Este, and three paintings by the German Johann Carl Loth (cat. 49–51). Another artist that might have been added to the mix is the Dutch painter Willem Drost, a pupil of Rembrandt, who briefly sojourned in Venice from around 1655 to his death in 1659, and if not Loth’s master, a close associate, as established by Jonathan Bikker (Willem Drost, 1633–1659, 2005).
Also active in Venice around midcentury, the Florentine painter and poet Sebastiano Mazzoni stands apart for the singularity, even eccentricity, of his vision and his free technique, the culmination of the earlier stylistic experiments of Fetti, Liss, Strozzi, and Francesco Maffei. Four pictures, each one unique in conception, convey Mazzoni’s inventive imagery in small-scale works like the Death of Cleopatra (cat. 11), with its vertiginous viewpoint drawing the viewer onto the foot of the heroine’s deathbed. His haunting Artemisia Drinking Her Husband’s Ashes (cat. 6) presents the nude back of a sensuous woman looking out over her shoulder, which in its monochromatic palette, loose handling, and veiling shadows reveal his emulation of Titian’s late Nymph and Shepherd (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Mazzoni’s painterly exuberance explodes in the splashes (“macchie”) of white, red, green, and gold in his bozzetto (cat. 46) for one of two lateral paintings (1649) in the presbytery of San Benedetto, Venice.
The sculptures in the exhibition complement the paintings but only rise to the same level in a few instances, above all in Bernini’s Portrait of Pietro Valier (cat. 44), Filippo Parodi’s terra-cotta sketch for a candleholder (cat. 61), Giacomo Piazzetta’s figurative wood table support (cat. 65), and the over-life-size Sybil with a preposterous bow atop her head (cat. 27) by Justus Le Court, the presiding sculptor of the period.
The only serious shortcoming of the exhibition is the single venue in Ajaccio, inevitably limiting the number of visitors. The Musée Fesch and its director Philippe Costamagna, however, deserve thanks for their courage in hosting the show. Happily, the handsome catalogue will serve to disseminate its substantive scholarly contribution and restore the seventeenth century to its rightful place in the history of the Venetian artistic tradition.
Professor of Art History, Rutgers University