Edited by Susanna Zanuso

The small bust, which has maintained its original polychromy and is in excellent condition, represents a grotesque figure whose distinctive features (feral ears, wrinkled nose, goat’s coat) are linked to the representation of satyrs, goats and Silenus. These mythical creatures are linked to the myth of Bacchus whose iconographic attributes, at the time when the work was sculpted, were often confused with theirs.

The sculpture is not an autonomous work, but must have been part of a larger whole. The the straight cut of the back, in fact, does not seem to be the result of a subsequent intervention but seems original, suggesting that the figure, which we will identify from now on as a satyr, was attached to a vertical structure from which he projected. We will return later on its possible original location but, first of all, it is appropriate to see how the most appropriate context in which to place the sculpture is that of the Veneto at the turn of the 17th and 18th century and how, in particular, the most fitting stylistic point of reference is the one represented by the work by Giovanni Bonazza.

Initially active in Venice, Bonazza moved to Padua in 1696. Unlike his immense production of marble sculptures (one of the most prolific and original scattered in the territories of the Serenissima and in Padua), many of his wooden works are undocumented. The few traced so far cover the entire span of his artistic career and must have certainly constituted an important part of his production. In fact Giovanni’s son, Antonio (1698- 1763), the most gifted of his collaborators who will have a long and successful career, will also occasionally work on wood, demonstrating rare skills in the spectacular Saint Anne in Carrara San Giorgio (1758), a work whose charm is also due to the fact that, like the Satyr, it has preserved the original polychromy1.

The catalog of Giovanni’s documented wooden sculptures is quite small: the lost statues destined for the organ of the church of the Redentore in Verona made in 1684-1685; the processional Crucifix paid for in 1715 and commissioned by the Confraternity of Sant’Antonio, today preserved in the Oratory of the Scoletta in the Basilica del Santo in Padua; the carvings and statues of Virtues for the four organs of the same Paduan basilica, executed between 1717 and 1719 but only partially survived (they are today on the organ of the Cathedral of San Martino in Piove di Sacco); the small boxwood Crucifix, signed and dated 1718, recently passed on the antiques market; the Madonna and Child in the cathedral of Montagnana (1733); the large Crucifix of the church of Santa Lucia in Padua, also signed and dated 17332.

Giovanni Bonazza, Attila. Padua, Museo Civici.
Fig. 1 Giovanni Bonazza, Attila. Padua, Museo Civici.

It must be said that the destination of all the works by Bonazza known so far does not facilitate the comparison with the grotesque accent of the Satyr discussed here. However, a careful observation of the Prudence in Piove di Sacco and her annoyed look (despite the dragon she carries), suggests that even in scared wood sculptures Bonazza had the icastic and irreverent vein typical of his marble portraits. This is true both for the official ones, such as the good-natured Pope Alexander VIII Ottoboni in the monument of the Treviso cathedral (1690-1695), or the wrinkled Elisabetta Querini in the Monument to Saints John and Paul by Valier (1702-1708), both of his character heads. Various Venetian sculptors had executed typology of works, once all attributed to Orazio Marinali but in fact introduced in Venice by the Flemish sculptor Giusto Le Court3.

Among this production, modern scholars have recognised to Bonazza’s workshop a leading role, conferming the 19th century attribution to his hand of the cycle of eighty-four pieces now preserved in the Civic Museum of Padua: a series of relief portraits of illustrious men, among which stand out for their quality of invention and subtlety of execution the two ovals with the barbarian kings Ezzelino da Romano and Attila (figs. 1-2)4.

Giovanni Bonazza, Ezzelino da Romano. Padua, Museo Civici.
Fig. 2 Giovanni Bonazza, Ezzelino da Romano. Padua, Museo Civici.

Precisely the comparison between the Satyr and Ezzelino’s profile, united by the way in which where the curl of the nose and eyebrows form a single lump of folds, constitutes a first suggestive indication to attribute the sculpture here discussed to Bonazza. The hypothesis is reinforced by the observation of the ears of the wooden sculpture. Generally, in fact, in the representations of satyrs and creatures of the woods the ears are pointed in order to attest their wild nature. Our Satyr, however, stands out for the the unprecedented invention of its very long and sinuous ears, closer to those of a donkey than to those of a horse, and that must therefore be interpreted as stylistic and expressive rather than iconographical choice.

Giovanni Bonazza, Satyr Head. Palazzo Grimani, Venice.
Fig. 3 Giovanni Bonazza, Satyr Head. Palazzo Grimani, Venice.

It is therefore not irrelevant to find the same detail in two marble reliefs by Giovanni Bonazza. The first (fig. 3), which represents a male figure with small horns protruding on the sides of the forehead, is part of a series of six grotesque profiles, already on the antiques market, for which the origin of Palazzo Grimani in Venice has been reported.

The second (fig. 4) the second is a profile of a young man, part of a series of twelve similar profiles of various characters, all walled up in the walls of the staircase of Palazzo Nani Mocenigo in San Trovaso. In both we find the imposing, long ear of donkey5. Furthermore, the profile of Palazzo Nani has a half-open mouth set up for a half smile caught in an expression similar to that of the wooden Satyr. No less surprising is the comparison with another profile of Palazzo Nani which depicts in relief a second figure of a satyr with similar cheekbones.

Giovanni Bonazza, Satyr head. Venezia, Palazzo Nani Mocenigo.
Fig. 4 Giovanni Bonazza, Satyr head. Venezia, Palazzo Nani Mocenigo.

In addition to the individual details, it is the expressive mood of the Satyr, intense and ironic at the same time, which strengthens its attribution to Bonazza. Disinterested in the dramatic and sentimental tones of his masters, Giusto Le Court and Michele Fabris known as l’Ongaro, Bonazza conceives his characters with a biting and irreverent gaze which never an intimate and self-amused tone6. See, for example, how the Satyr’s beard, sculpted in isolated and asymmetrical tufts, derives from similar solutions by l’Ongaro and how, at the same time, the dramatic tone of the characters sculpted by the latter, such as the busts of the so-called Bravi in the Querini Stampalia Museum, is completely unrelated to the psychological condition investigated in the head under discussion here.

A Bacchus in a private collection (fig. 5), evokes the fascination exerted on Bonazza by the Genoese Filippo Parodi, active in Veneto in the last fifteen years of the 18th century. Bonazza’s interests are clear: realistic observation bordering on caricature, but mixed with a self-amused accent7.

Giovanni Bonazza, Bacchus. Private collection.
Fig. 5 Giovanni Bonazza, Bacchus. Private collection.

In this context, the Bacchus is also interesting for the shape of the bust, a close relative of that of the Satyr: without shoulders, compact and cut at the chest. Another similarity (despite the difference of material) is represented by the cloak with long tufts of goat hair, an attribute shared by the Bacchus and by the Satyr as they are both part of the Dionysian entourage.

The large goat’s hoof resting on the Satyr’s shoulder completes his attributes. Also in this case, the feature seems to intercept an aspect consistent with Bonazza’s poetics: the artist is in fact interested in the careful rendering of secondary details and to the ‘accessories’, transformed into an essential element of the richness and vitality of the narration. One must remind, e.g., the reliefs for the chapel of the Rosary in San Giovanni e Paolo, characterised by the extraordinary inventive richness of the attributes of the characters and inanimate objects that populate the scene.

In conclusion, if the observations made so far allow to attribute Satyr to Giovanni Bonazza, the fragmentary nature of the object makes it difficult to imagine its
original destination. The wooden material could adapt to different contexts; it
must also be considered the multiple and different philosophical implications of the representation of satyrs, a symbol of vice and ignorance but also of their opposite.

In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades compared Socrates to the statuettes of Silenus, which externally depicted comic and grotesque silhouettes, but which contai- ned within them images of divine beauty. The comparison between Socrates and Silenus would then serve to evoke under a ridiculous and grotesque aspect all that hides a profound truth, not immediately accessible to everyone. Indeed, the supreme wisdom of Socrates hides behind the ridiculous and deformed features of man and, at the same time, behind his plebeian language and the constant ostentation of his own ignorance.

The Satyr may have found a place in the decoration of libraries, furniture or other environments embellished with allegorical carvings. In the library of Palazzo Borromeo on the Isola Bella, e.g., the sculptor from Pavia Siro Zanelli executed around 1682-1684 a series of grotesque heads with long donkey ears, placed on the pillars that mark the walls.

In the old inventories, these figures are indicated explicitly as “satyrs”. They represented allegories of ignorance, that is men in a state of nature, and were intended to create a comparison with the carved busts of ancient philosophers preserved in the next room8.

1 After the fundamental monograph by Camillo Semenzato (1957), the more recent studies on Antonio are represented by the the various essays included in Cavalli, Nante 2015.

2 The evidences of Giovanni Bonazza’s activity as a wood carver, the result of research by various scholars, is now collected in Guerriero 2013, pp. 203-217. Other wooden sculptures have been attributed to Giovanni Bonazza by Tulić 2015, pp. 141-162.

3 Andrea Bacchi, ‘Le cose più belle e principali nelle chiese di Venezia sono opere sue’: Giusto Le Court a Santa Maria della Salute (e altrove), “Nuovi studi”, 12 (2006), pp. 147-148

4 Dal Medioevo a Canova. Sculture dei Musei Civici di Padova dal Trecento all’Ottocento, exh. cat., ed. by Davide Banzato, Franca Pellegrini, Monica de Vincenti, Venezia 2000, pp. 160-166,169-192 (entries by Monica de Vincenti); Guerriero 2002a, pp. 95-97; Guerriero 2002b, pp. 83-86.

5 For the image of the Agnew series, then attributed to Orazio Marinali, see Zanuso 2000, p.756, fig. 481. For the profiles of Palazzo Nani Mocenigo see Guerriero 2002a, p.140, pl. 70.

6 Guerriero 2010, pp. 72-101.

7Arte e Vino, exh. cat. (Verona, Palazzo della Gran Guardia, 11.04-16.08.2015), a cura Annalisa Scarpa e Nicola Spinosa, Milano 2015, pp. 287-288, n. 67 (entry by Simone Guerriero).

8 Susanna Zanuso, La ricchezza degli interni 2. Sculture e arredi, in Isola Bella 2020, pp. 64-79.

Simone Guerriero, Le alterne fortune dei marmi: busti, teste di carattere e altre “scolture moderne” nelle collezioni veneziane tra Sei e Settecento, in Pavanello 2002, pp. 73-149

Simone Guerriero, Giovanni Bonazza. Quattro profili, in Vicenza 2002, pp. 83-86
Simone Guerriero, La prima attività di Giovanni Bonazza, “Arte Veneta, 67 (2010), pp. 72-101

Simone Guerriero, Il Crocifisso di Giovanni Bonazza nella chiesa di Santa Lucia, in Padova 2013, pp. 203-217

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