LONDON - The word Venice is, to many, evocative of grand canals and sleepy backwaters, lined with the facades of beautiful palazzi. What lies behind those facades, however, often remains a mystery. Sotheby’s sale, the Splendour of Venice, to be held in London on Tuesday July 6, 2010, allows a glimpse into the dazzlingly beautiful world that existed inside some of Venice’s most splendid palazzi during some of the most prosperous and charmed years of the Venetian Republic.
The sale will consist of some 64 fine examples of Venetian painting and craftsmanship from the 17th and 18th centuries, put together over some 30 years by a private European family in order to adorn their palazzo in the Veneto region. Chosen for their quality and enduring beauty, the pieces in the sale summarise the qualities that characterise “Venetian style”. In the introduction to Sotheby’s catalogue for the sale, historian Roberto Valeriani writes: “Venetian style owes its distinctiveness to the gifted artisans of the city, but also to an innate sense of the luminous that brings precious materials to life. Anyone who has gazed on the frescoes, the furnishings and the plasterwork in the palaces along the Grand Canal knows that they are illuminated at certain times of day as light is reflected off the water into their interiors to create changeable, rippling effects.”
The luminous and sensual qualities that characterise the finest Venetian paintings of the Baroque era are amply demonstrated in two beautiful paintings by Antonio Balestra (1666-1740): Flora (lot 109) and An Allegory of Wealth or Fortune (lot 110), both estimated at £150,000-200,000. These paintings once adorned the ceilings of adjacent rooms in one of the most celebrated Baroque palaces in Venice – the Palazzo Zenobio. Purchased by the Zenobio family in 1664, the previously Gothic building was completely renovated in the Baroque style by the leading Venetian architects, designers and painters of the day. “Suffused with a rich, almost sensual luminosity that enhances the majestic, eternal aura of their mythological subjects” (Valeriani), Balestra’s paintings would have been the perfect adornments for one of the most glorious Baroque showpieces in the city.
Balestra’s works are complemented in the sale by another magnificent painting from a similar date. Painted circa 1666, Antonio Zanchi’s magnificent The Family of Darius before Alexander once hung in the first floor gallery of the Palazzo Fini – until recently the Grand Hotel – in Venice. A. Riccoboni, a leading authority on Zanchi and Venetian art of the 17th century, described the painting as one of “the most beautiful and sumptuous” of Zanchi’s works. Lot 125 in the sale, the painting is estimated at £150,000-200,000.
With the advent of the Grand Tour, Venetian artists adeptly turned to view-painting in order to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for paintings by which their beautiful city could be remembered. One such painting, (lot 107, A view of the Grand Canal Looking North-East with the Churches of Santa Lucia and the Scalzi) by Apollinion Domenichini, provides an alternative view of the Grand Canal - looking across, not from the usual standpoint, but instead towards the now no longer extant Church of Santa Lucia. Estimated at £80,000-£100,000, this evocative work beautifully records a lost time and place.
Just as its painters drew heavily on the lapis lazuli and exotic pigments made available to them by their city’s tradings with the East, so too Venetian craftsmen and furniture makers drew on the materials and techniques they encountered thanks to their contact with the East. Though many of their names are unrecorded, Venetian craftsmen of the 17th and 18th centuries were nonetheless masters of their art – be it in the production of furniture, glass, velvets and silks, lacquered goods inlaid with mother of pearl and pietre dure, or maiolica inspired by Turkish wares and porcelain. Much of the furniture in the sale reflects the diversity of media which characterises Venetian craftsmanship. At the same time, the majority of the pieces in the collection date from the Rococo period, the style of which, with its lightness, airiness and sinuosity, is in many ways perfectly matched to place from which the pieces emanate.
Showing the Venetian rococo at its very best, a magnificent carved giltwood console table from c. 1740 represents the apogee of Venetian carving at the time. Across the stretcher is beautiful scene showing Narcissus gazing at his reflection in a pool – an opposite aquatic motif for a Venetian setting. There are no other recorded examples of tables of the period featuring such a scene, and the superlative quality of the carving and gilding suggest that this piece was an important commission for grand and sumptuous Venetian palazzo. (lot108, est: £120,000-200,000).
Also superbly executed is a carved walnut bureau cabinet from the third quarter of the 18th century (lot 116). Estimated at £150,000-250,000, this beautiful piece ranks as one of the best surviving examples of its kind. Bureau cabinets were often the most important pieces of furniture in the homes of the wealthy Venetians. While those commissioned for the suburban villas were often lacquered or decorated to simulate lacquer, the finest examples, which are found in the most important palaces on the lagoon, were veneered in burr walnut, highlighted with parcel-gilt carved elements and engraved mirrors, like this.
Within the palaces that line the canals, mirrors were essential to drawing in the ever-changing reflections of light that played across the water outside. Inspired by their contact with the East, Venetian craftsmen were particularly bold and imaginative in the range and style of pieces they produced. Often executed in red or black lacquer, in real or simulated tortoiseshell, or in faux marble, mirror surrounds provide an excellent compendium of the many skills in which Venetian craftsmen excelled. Estimated at £150,000-200,000, a beautifully carved and painted giltwood and faux marble mirror from the mid 18th-century displays Venetian versatility at its best (lot 120). This is complemented by another beautifully carved example (lot 5) from c. 1730. Embellished with blackamoors, eagles, scallop shells, gadroons, scrolls, flowers and leaves, this sumptuous piece, at once restrained and flamboyant, is estimated at £60,000-100,000.
The sale is also rich in a variety of armchairs and sofas of the period. Highlights include a set of six red and yellow lacquered armchairs from the mid 18th century (lot 117), estimated at £100,000-120,000. With their sinuous lines, embellished with scroll motifs, rocaille and cartouches, these splendid chairs typify the Venetian rococo style. They are accompanied by a matching sofa (lot 18), with which they share the same ‘a merletto’ decoration – a type of decoration that is extremely rare and which has not been recorded on any seat furniture other than these pieces.
From the same period is a pair of rococo blue lacquered and parcel-gilt armchairs (lot 101, est: £35,000-50,000) and a blue lacquered and parcel-gilt sofa (lot 102, est: £45,000-70,000). Finally, the sale includes a sumptuously decorated pair of ivory painted carved armchairs (lot 129, est: £50,000-80,000), which, though made c.1730 during the Rococo period, still, in both their form and the manner of their carving, echo the style of 17th-century.