Edited by Susanna Zanuso

This unpublished sculpture adds an important chapter to the knowledge of wood carving in Venice in the last decades of the 17th century and, in particular, to the catalog of Giacomo Piazzetta, who was one of the most skilled interpreters of this art.

The subject is not easy to identify. The naked figure, covered by a large headdress, shows as its only significant attribute the left arm stretched upwards from which, at the height of the inside of the elbow, are some visible drops of blood. The identification with a Prophet would therefore seem excluded, but other hypotheses are also uncertain.

The figure may be San Pantaleone of Nicomedia, doctor and martyr whose relics are still known today for the miraculous effusions of blood: a suggestive hypothesis strengthened by the fact that the saint was and is very venerated in Venice. The city, in fact, preserves two different relics of the saint’s arm (in the church of San Pantalon and in the treasury of the basilica of San Marco), much venerated in the past. However, no other depictions of San Pantaleone with his bloody arm are known; he is generally portrayed with the attributes of the doctor which are completely lacking here. Also, the clothing all’antica contrasts with this hypothesis, suggesting instead that the sculpture represents a Philosopher.

In this case, the subject could be Seneca with blood dripping from his arm, a representation attested, e.g., in Ruben’s famous Death of Seneca (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), and evocative of his suicide. It must be observed, however, that the beardless face of the sculpture here discussed does not fit the canonical representation of the elderly Seneca. The identification with a Philosopher adopted here is therefore to be considered provisional.

Giacomo Piazzetta, the son of a wood carver and father of the most famous painter Giovan Battista, was born in Pederobba, near Treviso, around 1640. Nothing is known about his first training. He is documented in Venice since 1666 in the workshop of Sante Pianta, an artist from the same family of carvers to which the well-known Francesco Pianta belonged. No other information is known; Giacomo spent the rest of his life in the Lagoon, where he will accomplish most of his commissions.

The oldest one, among the very few documented, is the wooden decoration of the library of the convent of the Dominican fathers in SS. Giovanni e Paolo, commissioned in 1676 and inaugurated in 1683, and a series of furnishings for the Scuola di Santa Maria della Carità for which he had signed a first contract in 1687 but which were probably made in two stages by the end of the century. In these commissions Piazzetta, also active as a marble sculptor during the 1609s, qualify himself as the most skilled wood carver of his times, as well as artist most capable of translating the emotions of Venetian Baroque into wood sculpture1.

In 1807 the carvings that ran along the walls of the library of the long Dominican convent were dismantled and sold; none of them have, so far, been traced. Those of the Scuola della Carità, also suppressed in 1807, had been partially relocated in 1821 in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Adria, that still preserves three cabinets and an entire dossal. Four other dossals interspersed with telamons had been transported to the church of SS. Giovanni and Paolo, but two of them were destroyed in the fire of the Rosary Chapel in 1867; the two left are today in the sacristy.

Of the Dominican library, now home to the Venice Hospital, only the carvings on the ceiling and the underlying frieze, both executed by Piazzetta and his workshop, survive on site. The original appearance of the wooden furnishings of the walls is evoked by two engravings: one made by the Franciscan Elisabetta Piccini (1644-1734) for the title page of the volume by Giacomo Maria Gianvizio published in 1683 on the occasion of the inauguration of the building, the other by the engraver Vincenzo Maria Coronelli (1650-1718)2.

The decoration consisted of 28 telamons carved in pine wood depicting figures of Heretics conquered by Dominican doctrine. Their appearance can be imagined by observing the engravings, but also thanks to the twenty-four surviving preparatory sketches in terracotta: ten of them are kept at the Galleria Franchetti in the Ca’ d’Oro, six are in the Bode Museum in Berlin and four are at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Other four, whose current location is unknown, were illustrated by Negri Arnoldi in 1999; in 1975 they still were on the Roman art market together with those purchased subsequently by the museums of Berlin and Ottawa3. What remains of these two magnificent complexes indicates that the main reference for the development of the Piazzetta style around 1675 were the marble works of the Flemish sculptor Giusto Le Court (Ypres 1627 - Venice 1679), an essential model for many others Baroque sculptors in Venice4.

Despite no documents attesting to a direct relationship between the two are known, their common intimacy with the architect Baldassarre Longhena, who worked with Le Court on many occasione and was also the designer of the library of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, must necessarily have put them in contact5. Be that as it may, Piazzetta’s sculptures for the Dominican convent and for the Scuola della Carità qualify him as the most brilliant local interpreter of the dramatic and emotional style developed by Le Court during his mature activity, starting with the grandiose complex of Santa Maria della Salute (1670-1674). In his later works, such as the wooden Immacolata in Pergola (1692), Piazzetta moved away from the agitated expressiveness of Lecourt adopting a more sober and balanced style.

Giacomo Piazzetta, Six caryatids for San Zanipolo, 1678-1681. Berlin, Bode Museum.
Fig. 1 Giacomo Piazzetta, Six caryatids for San Zanipolo, 1678-1681. Berlin, Bode Museum.

The Philosopher discussed here must belong to the earlier phase of Piazzetta’s career. The pattern of the drapery, agitated by the deep chiaroscuro, is in fact very similar to that of the wooden Telamons of the dossals of the Carità today in San Giovanni e Paolo. Furthermore, the comparison with the preparatory terracotta models for the same Telamons in the library of the Dominican convent reveals other striking similarities, suggesting to date the Philosopher within the Eighties. See for example, the way in which in some of them the fabric is held by the hand, the characteristic shape of the hand with the broad and flat back, the morphology of the naked bodies and their pose with a leg that advances to the extreme limit of the base and, last but not least, the shape of the base itself which, in the terracotta as well as in the sculpture discussed here, is an identical hexagonal parallelepiped (fig. 1).

In the Philosopher, free from the spatial constraint imposed by the telamon typology, Piazzetta increases and swells a drapery from which straight lines and edges are banished and which seems to act autonomously, now set free from the connection with the forms of the nude beneath. The rendering of the Philosopher’s cloak, which rewinds on itself in a redundant game of reliefs and hollows, evokes directly the last works by Le Court.

See for example, the comparison with the Madonna of Treviso commissioned commissioned from Giusto in 1675 but still in his workshop on his death, and above all the sculptures of the main altar of the Salute (1670-1674), a Flemish masterpiece and reference point for all Venetian Baroque sculptors. In this monumental group, the dramatic gesture of the Allegory of the Plague which extends the right arm into the void could have played a relevant part for the choice of the gesture of the Philosopher (fig. 2).

Giusto Le Court, Plague, 1670-1674. Venezia, Chiesa della Salute.
Fig. 2. Giusto Le Court, Plague, 1670-1674. Venezia, Chiesa della Salute.

Among the works attributed to Piazzetta, a first comparison can be made with the Slave with a turban whose face, although played on a more dramatic expression, clearly shows the same structure as that of the Philosopher. Compare the arch of the eyebrows, and the identical shape of the nose, the same tormented cheeks6.

The same cheeks furrowed by deep depressions are also found in the face of the little Jupiter signed by the artist, born as a pendant with his partner Juno7. Another figure recently passed to the antiques market with the attribution to the Piazzetta, devoid of specific iconographic attributes other than the cloak that covers the head of the bearded character, has been identified as a Prophet (fig. 3)8.

Giacomo Piazzetta, Prophet. Milan, Cortona Fine Art.
Fig. 3 Giacomo Piazzetta, Prophet. Milan, Cortona Fine Art.

Also carved in pine wood, the latter is darker in color, due to a finish varnish that has partially degraded over time; without the hexagonal base, the sculpture is 65cm tall, making it similar in size to the figure here discussed (82 cm including the 8.5 cm high base). The Prophet also shares with the Philosopher the quality of the tormented and overabundant drapery (see for example the very similar way in which the movement of the cloak on the left side is resolved). The fact that the two works belong to the hand of the same artist, as well as to the same stylistic point of his path, is reinforced by the way in which, in both, the volumes are roughened on the back.

The provenance of the Philosopher and of the Prophet is unknown, nor does the little information found so far on Piazzetta’s activity allow to link them to documented commissions. Furthermore, the uncertainty regarding the identification of the subjects makes it difficult to speculate about their destination.

Vincenzo Coronelli, Library of San Giovanni e Paolo (from the Singolarità di Venezia), 1700-1709.
Fig. 4 Vincenzo Coronelli, Library of San Giovanni e Paolo (from the Singolarità di Venezia), 1700-1709.

The cabinets and the frontal of the Scuola della Carità, today in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Adria, present a series of female allegories on the top of the cornice. The latter are all seated, but there are numerous Venetian examples of late 17th century bookcases and cabinets on which self-supporting wooden statues rest: figures of this type can also be seen in the engraving of the library of the Dominican convent of the San Giovanni e Paolo by Vincenzo Maria Coronelli (fig. 4), summarily drawn on the peduncles of the arches in the band above the telamons. If they were actually sculpted by the Piazzetta, all traces of them have been lost.

An Old Man with a turban must have belonged to this type recently appeared on the antiques market with the attribution to Piazzetta suggested by Andrea Bacchi. He has two books carved under his right foot, which makes it very likely that it was part of the wooden decoration of a lost library. Our Philosopher may also have been part of a series of figures intended to decorate similar wooden furniture9.

1 For the works cited and for the artistic figure of Piazzetta, the reference bibliography includes: E. Lacchin 1928; Lacchin, 1928-1929, pp. 490-514; Moschini 1943, pp. 260-261; Semenzato 1966, pp. 46-47, 113; Noè 1987, pp. 225-255; Rossi 1995, pp. 119-160; Merkel 1997, pp. 107-195; Zanuso 2000b, pp. 775-776; De Grassi 2009, pp. 190-195; Warrior 2010, pp. 105-122; De Grassi 2011, pp. 47-58; De Grassi 2015, ad vocem; Bacchi 2017, pp. 453-473.

2 Gianvizio 1683.

3 Moschini 1943; Schlegel 1978, pp. 177-182; Negri Arnoldi 1999, pp. 131-136.

4 Bacchi 2000, pp. 741-744.

5 Moretti 2011, pp. 51-75.

6 Published by Merkel 1997, who proposed its attribution to the wood carver Paolo Morando (on whom see Zanuso 2000a, p. 765), the Slave was rightly reconsidered as a work by Giacomo Piazzetta in Bacchi 2017.

7 Semenzato 1966, pp. 47, 113, fig. 124. Bacchi 2017, p. 461 reports that in 2015 the two sculptures were exhibited in Maastricht by the Bacarelli and Botticelli antique dealers.

8 Galleria Cortona, Giacomo Piazzetta, Prophet

9 Sotheby’s, London, 10 July 2014, lot 123 (h. 112 cm); see Bacchi 2017, p. 460.

Enrico Lacchin, La Biblioteca dell’Ospitale Civile di Venezia scolpita in legno da Giacomo Piazzetta nel 1683, Venice 1928.

Enrico Lacchin, Giacomo Piazzetta scultore, “Dedalo”, 9, 1928-1929, pp. 490-514.

Vittorio Moschini, Modelli di Giacomo Piazzetta per la biblioteca di S. Zanipolo, “Le Arti”, 5, 1943, pp. 260-261.

Camillo Semenzato, La scultura veneta del Seicento e del Settecento, Venice 1966

Enrico Noè, Giacomo Piazzetta. La sacrestia di Adria riconsiderata, “Rivista dell’Istituto Nazionale di Archeologia e Storia dell’Arte”, 10, 1987, pp. 225-255

Paola Rossi, Il Seicento. La scultura, in Storia di Venezia. Temi, L’arte, II, Rome 1995, pp. 119-160

Ettore Merkel, La scultura lignea barocca a Venezia, in Scultura lignea barocca in Veneto, ed. by A.M. Spiazzi, Cinisello Balsamo 1997, pp. 107-195

Susanna Zanuso, Giacomo Piazzetta, in Bacchi, Zanuso 2000, pp. 775-776

Michele De Grassi, Nuove proposte per Giacomo Piazzetta e Melchior Barthel, “Arte in Friuli Arte a Trieste”, 30 (2011), pp. 47-58

Michele De Grassi, Piazzetta, Giacomo, “Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani”, 83 (2015), ad vocem

Andrea Bacchi, Giacomo Piazzetta e l’intaglio veneziano di influenza lecourtiana, in Scultura in legno policromo d’età barocca. La produzione di carattere religioso a Genova e nel circuito dei centri italiani, conf. proc., ed. by Lauro Magnani, Daniele Sanguineti, Genoa 2017, pp. 453-473

J.M. Gianvizio, Bibliotheca Almi Conventus S.S.Ioannis, et Pauli Venetiarum Ordinis Praedicatorum Nupèr aperta, Venice 1683

Vittorio Moschini, Modelli di Giacomo Piazzetta per la biblioteca di S. Zanipolo, “Le Arti”, 5, 1943, pp. 260-261

Ursula Schlegel, Die italienischen Bildwerke des 17. Und 18. Jahrhunderts in Stein, Holz, Ton, Wachs und Bronze mit Ausnahme der Plaketten und Medaillen, Berlin 1978

Francesco Negri Arnoldi, I modelli dei telamoni di Giacomo Piazzetta per la Biblioteca domenicana di San Zanipolo, in Scultura e arredo in legno fra Marche e Umbria, conf. proc. (Pergola, 24-25.101997), ed.by G.B. Fidanza, Pergola 1999, pp. 131-136

La scultura a Venezia da Sansovino a Canova, ed. by Andrea Bacchi, Susanna Zanuso, Milan 2000

Silvio Moretti, I disegni di Longhena per la biblioteca dei domenicani dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo a Venezia (1670- 1682), in Da Longhena a Selva. Un’idea di Venezia a dieci anni dalla scomparsa di Elena Bassi, conf. proc. (Venice, 9-11.12.2009), ed. by di M. Frank, Bologna 2011, pp. 51-75

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