Masters of Venice: Vittoria to Tiepolo

Alessandro Vittoria, Giulio Contarini, c. 1570–1576, painted terracotta, 74.3 x 61 x 30.7 cm. (with integral base). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC


Alessandro Vittoria (1525–1608) was one of Renaissance Venice’s leading sculptors, a contemporary to well-known Venetians such as Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto. Born in Trento in northern Italy, he moved to Venice in 1543, where he was a student of Jacopo Sansovino, a prominent sculptor and architect during the Venetian High Renaissance. Early on in his career, Vittoria helped Sansovino with some of the architectural decorations seen in the famous San Marco basilica. He is best known, however, for his specialization in three-dimensional portraits of Venice’s wealthy and influential elite.

The National Gallery of Canada’s Masters of Venetian Portraiture: Veronese, Tiepolo, Vittoria explores Alessandro Vittoria’s skill as a portraitist and sculptor and considers the influence of his work on contemporary Venetian masters such as Veronese and Palma il Giovane, as well as on artists of the succeeding generation such as Giuseppe Scolari and, extending beyond the borders of Italy the Flemish artist Lucas Vosterman. It also examines the direct impact of Vittoria’s sculpture two centuries later on the work of the Tiepolo family of artists, in particular the drawings of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his son Giovanni Domenico. Together, all of these works speak to the admiration between artists across time, and equally to the respect between artists and their patrons.

Alessandro Vittoria, Giulio Contarini (detail), c. 1570–1576


The central point of the exhibition is the terracotta bust of Giulio Contarini, who was a member of one of the most powerful families in Venice, long-time procurator of San Marco and a close friend of the artist. A highly skilled sculptor, Vittoria created objects in marble, bronze and stucco; some of his best works, however, are in terracotta (Italian for “baked earth”). This medium allowed him to model the realistic aspects of his patrons’ features, and his portrait of Contarini is one of the most naturalistic in his oeuvre overall. The bust was the model for the marble effigy of Contarini on his funerary monument in the church of Santa Maria del Giglio in Venice. Portrait busts were important pieces of art, and as symbols of status signified the power and influence of the sitter. Contarini’s choice to commission his own likeness from an eminent sculptor shows his own perceived power. Given the skill and dedication so evident in this homage to his friend, the bust of Giulio Contarini is an extraordinary example of three-dimensional portraiture.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Head of Giulio Contarini, after a Bust by Alessandro Vittoria, c. 1743, red chalk heightened with white chalk on blue laid paper, 20.7 x 16.9 cm . Gift of an anonymous donor, 2004. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC; Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Head of Giulio Contarini, after a Bust by Alessandro Vittoria, c. 1743, red chalk heightened with white chalk on blue laid paper, 27.2 x 19.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Fast-forward nearly two hundred years, and Vittoria’s terracotta portrait of Contarini can be found in the bustling studio of the renowned Tiepolo family of Rococo artists. Here it forms part of the reference and teaching props used by the artists and their assistants to refine their portrait skills. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), the head of the family, undoubtedly felt inspired by the liveliness of the bust as he translated the medium into a series of chalk drawings, three of which are now in the Gallery’s collection. The realistic treatment of Contarini’s hair and beard in the terracotta effigy and the close attention to detail had enabled Vittoria to create a highly naturalistic portrait of his aging friend. In his drawings, Tiepolo has succeeded in replicating these elements, so much so that they appear as though they had been sketched from a living model.

Giuseppe Scolari (after Alessandro Vittoria), Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1590, woodcut, second state, 53.7 x 37.3 cm. (trimmed to the borderline). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of W. G. Russell Allen


This practice of “artistic borrowing” among artists is one of the guiding themes of the exhibition. Alessandro Vittoria used the likeness of his friend Contarini in his large marble sculpture of Saint Jerome (c. 1565), commissioned for the Zane family altar in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. The Venetian printmaker Giuseppe Scolari, in turn, adopted the face of Vittoria’s Jerome in his woodcut Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (c. 1590; on loan from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) and thus, by extension, that of Contarini. It is easy to observe Scolari’s acknowledgement of Vittoria’s attention to the physiognomy of his friend. While Vittoria achieved a greater level of realism in the terracotta bust, Scolari evidently admired the spirited face of the Saint Jerome, which he strove to evoke in his woodcut.

Paolo Caliari (called Veronese), Alessandro Vittoria, c. 1580, oil on canvas, 110.5 x 81.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gwynne Andrews Fund, 1946 (46.31)


Commissioned portraiture was not only used by artists to celebrate their wealthy patrons. Vittoria himself, like other great Venetians, had his own portrait painted by renowned artists throughout his life, including one by the great Paolo Veronese in around 1580, at the time he was working on his Contarini portrait. In the Veronese portrait, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Vittoria poses with a sample of his talent – a statuette of Saint Sebastian (c.1655). This sculpture is a smaller version of a large marble he had completed in 1562 for the church of San Francesco della Vigna in Venice. Veronese’s painting offers an understanding of how Vittoria wanted to be presented to potential patrons and seen by his contemporaries. His choice to commission Veronese, one of the greatest painters of the period, is evidence to his own perceived mastery and success.

Masters of Venetian Portraiture: Veronese, Tiepolo, Vittoria creates an image of Alessandro Vittoria as an observant, influential and skilled artist. By presenting the work of this great Mannerist sculptor among works he inspired, visitors to the exhibition can fully appreciate the insightfulness of this Venetian master, whose art was greatly admired by, and influenced, generations of artists.

Masters of Venetian Portraiture: Veronese, Tiepolo, Vittoria is on view in Room C218 to September 16, 2018. Consult the website for related events. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.

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