By Costanza Beltrami

Venetian painter and draughtsman Giovanni Battista Piazzetta died on 29 April 1754. Son of sculptor Giacomo Piazzetta, Giovanni trained with the undistinguished painter Silvestro Manaigo before joining the studio of Antonio Molinari, who introduced him to tenebrism. Sombre compositions with intense chiaroscuro and an almost monochromatic palette would become the mainstay of Piazzetta’s oeuvre.

Piazzetta was registered as a member of the confraternity of Venetian painters in 1711. His earliest surviving work date to this period, although his first major public commission — the altarpiece Virgin and Child with Guardian Angel for the Scuola dell’Angelo Custode in Venice — is lost.

After a difficult start, Piazzetta found the approval and protection of the Venetian senator Zaccaria Sagredo, a great collector and connoisseur. In the following years, he realised many tenebrist and genre paintings, for example the portrait of Piazetta’s childhood friend, the painter Giulia Lama and the Young Peasant at Market. He also realized religious paintings, for example Judith and Holofernesand Susanna and the Elders, which ark back to a 17th-century tradition of cabinet paintings with biblical subjects as half-length figures, and reveal the influence of Guercino.

Together with other leading Venetian painters, in 1722 Piazzetta was commissioned a scene from the life of the apostles for a cycle in the church of San Stae. His St James the Greater Led to Martyrdom demonstrates his interest in dramatic lighting and aggressive realism. Shortly after completing this commission, Piazzetta married, had five children, and became one of the most successful history painters in the city. His fortune was connected to the grandiose ceiling paintings for the chapel of St Dominic in the Church of San Giovanni e Paolo, showing the Apotheosis of St Dominic, Fortitude, Justice, Religion, and Meekness. He also realized the altarpiece of the Virgin and Child Appearing to St Filippo Nerifor Santa Maria della Fava, achieving an intensity unparalleled in Venetian painting of the period. Later on, he collaborated with Canaletto and Giambattista Cimaroli on the Allegorical Tomb of Lord Somers, part of a series of painted tombs honoring famous English figures of the recent past commissioned by the Irish theatrical impresario Owen McSwiny.

An even more illustrious foreign patron was Clemens August Wittelsbach, Elector-Archbishop of Cologne, who commissioned an Assumption of the Virgin for the church of the Teutonic Order at Sachsenshausen, near Frankfurt am Main. This work is lighter and airier than previous works, marking an important change in the artist’s style. The change was possibly due to the influence of Isaac Newton’s theories of light and color on Venetian intellectual circles. In fact, Piazzetta designed the frontispiece for Francesco Algarotti’s popular tract, Il Newtonianismo per le dame (1737). Canaletto’s sunlight views may also have played a role in the change: Piazzetta drew Canaletto’s portrait for the frontispiece of a collection of engravings drawn from the latter artist’s paintings, Antonio Visentini’s Prospectus magni canali Venetarium (Venice, 1735).

While the artist’s increasingly large workshop continued to produce religious works in subdued colors, Piazzetta mainly focused on genre composition in his later years, for example the nearly life-size paintings Fortune-teller, Pastoral Scene, and Country Idyll, dated to the 1740s. The subject of these paintings is difficult to establish with precision, yet they are clearly intended as the 18th-century equivalent of pastoral scenes by Giorgione, Titian and Jacopo Bassano. In this period the artist was also working as art expert and buyer for the German collector Johann Matthias Schulenburg, ensuring a stream of foreign commissions.

By this point, the artist had achieved an enormous success and status, as demonstrated by the vast history painting Death of Darius, realized between 1745 and 1747. Commissioned by Chiara Pisani, member of an ancient aristocratic family, the work was intended as the companion piece to Paolo Veronese’ Family of Darius before Alexander, the most highly valued work in the Pisani’s collection. The style of this and contemporary paintings also reveals the influence of Rembrandt, popular among local connoisseurs.

In 1750 Piazzetta was appointed director of the Scuola di Nudo, a nude figure drawing school established by the Venetian senate, and focused on teaching for the rest of his life.

Reference: Sergio Claut and Adriano Mariuz, “Piazzetta,” Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press,

Portrait of Giulia Lama, c. 1720, Madrid: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.

Beggar Boy, 1725-30, Chicago: Art Institute.

The Apotheosis of St Dominic, 1727, Venice: St Domic’s Chapel, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

The Virgin Appearing to St Philip Neri, 1725, Venice: Santa Maria della Fava,

The Assumption of the Virgin, 1735, Paris: Louvre.

The Soothsayer, c. 1740, Venice: Gallerie dell’Accademia.

The Death of Darius, c. 1746, Venice: Museo del Settecento Veneziano, Ca’ Rezzonico.

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