by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Irreverence of a Forgotten Master

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROVIGO, Italy 29 May 2010
Villa Casnedi Raimondi, Birago da Lentate
The Story of the Emperor Aurelian and Zenobia:
Aurelian Receives the Crown and Keys of Palmyra
by Mattia Bortoloni, 1746-47



In 1716 Mattia Bortoloni, while still only in his twentieth year, won a remarkable commission. The Venetian nobleman Andrea Cornaro contracted the young painter to execute 104 frescoes, in eight rooms over two floors of his villa, one of Palladio's grandest, in the town of Piombino Dese. The subject matter was unorthodox for the times, being for the most part scenes from the Old Testament, with more or less explicit references to the world of Freemasonry.

But after the fall of the Venetian Republic, the villa was sold and fell into disrepair, the frescoes and even the name of the painter who had done them were forgotten. The resurfacing of documents recording the precocious Mattia Bortoloni's role in Villa Cornaro's decoration began to stir interest in the frescoes and their author in the second half of the 20th century. But by that time, a sizable part of the rest of the artist's oeuvre was no longer identifiable with that of any known artist or had been attributed to others, primarily to a trio of Venetian Giambattistas: Tiepolo, Pittoni and Crosato.

The work of several scholars has now made it possible to reconstruct Bortoloni's life and to stage 'Bortoloni Piazzetta Tiepolo: The Veneto in the 1700s,' an exhibition of 80 canvases, nearly 20 of them by Bortoloni, curated by Alessia Vedova. The show puts Bortoloni in the context of his times and highlights the bizarre, irreverent and satirical qualities that characterize a number of his images.

Bortoloni was born in Canda, or the nearby village of San Bellino, in March 1696 (in the same month and year as Giambattista Tiepolo), in the ancient marshlands to the west of Rovigo that stretch down to the banks of the Po. Bortoloni seems to have begun his artistic apprenticeship young, with the Veronese Antonio Balestra, who had set up a studio in Venice.

The opening sections of the exhibition offer a tour d'horizon of works of the type that Bortoloni would have encountered in his formative years, including pieces by Balestra, Tiepolo's master Gregorio Lazzarini, Sebastiano Ricci and Louis Dorigny, a French artist who had settled in Verona and whose Juno-esque nudes had a manifest influence on Bortoloni.

Giambattista Piazzetta, who was 14 years older than Bortoloni but had difficulty establishing himself in the face of Ricci's dominance, was then making his way as the founder of an alternative 'tenebrist' school. Piazzetta's sometimes almost monochrome palette of browns, deep reds, grays, creams and brooding chiaroscuro were the antithesis of the rainbow colors that were about to burst upon the Venetian painting scene. Nonetheless, even Tiepolo imitated Piazzetta in his early pictures, before adopting, as did Bortoloni, a radically different, rococo road.

Like Tiepolo, Bortoloni was to be above all a painter of frescoes. It is possible that his teacher Balestra, who deplored the flamboyant direction that art was then taking, passed the commission for the Villa Cornaro frescoes on to his talented student, not least because Balestra much preferred painting in oils.

The Masonic inspiration of the frescoes - which include multi-part sequences of the building of Noah's Ark, the Tower of Babel and the Temple in Jerusalem - was rediscovered by the American scholar Douglas Lewis. Carl Gable, who with his wife Sally has owned Villa Cornaro since 1989, narrowed the original source of the imagery down to a two-volume Dutch bible, published by Pieter Mortier in Amsterdam in 1700 (there was also a French edition).

The Mortier Bible, a copy of which is displayed at the show, contains over 460 illustrations, done by a team of five Dutch engravers.

The most likely bearer of the bible to Venice was Francesco Cornaro, cousin of Andrea, the villa's owner. Francesco served as the Serenissima's ambassador in London until 1709 and came in contact with Masonic circles there. He may have acquired a copy of the volumes there, or when passing through Amsterdam itself. Although Bortoloni followed the overall composition of the engravings for the main narrative scenes fairly closely, he gave himself considerable license in their graphic interpretation, his pastel palette and assured brushwork creating an admirably fluid and harmonious decorative effect.

Having completed this challenging project in 1717, Bortoloni married and returned to Venice. At this point, he was several steps ahead of Tiepolo, who did not complete a substantial fresco commission until nearly a decade later. In 1723, Bortoloni, Piazzetta and Tiepolo found themselves competing for a prestigious commission to do a ceiling painting of the 'Glory of St. Dominic' for the Venetian church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Tiepolo's oil sketch being on show here). The eldest man won the competition. But curiously, Piazzetta's colorful, light-filled fresco-like painting was the most Tiepolesque picture he ever executed.

Soon afterward, in around 1725, Bortoloni, too, demonstrated he could brilliantly mimic frescoes in oils in his 'Juno Calls on Aeolus to Free the Winds,' a bright, exhilarating airborne drama of mythical figures and tumbling putti, suffused with a kind of gleeful, dotty drollery. On loan from the ceiling of the mayor's office at Ca' Farsetti (now Venice's city hall), this entertaining canvas was only recently recognized as a Bortoloni. Such a bravura performance was no doubt instrumental in securing for Bortoloni further private commissions at palazzos around the city and a major public one for a fresco of the 'Glory of Gaetano da Thiene' for the vault of the San Nicolï da Tolentino church - a leading contemporary art critic hailing the result as a work by 'an artist of uncommon ability.'

Yet this was the moment when the inexorable rise of Tiepolo forced Bortoloni to seek his fortunes elsewhere. The remaining two decades of his career were spent for the most part in Lombardy and Piemonte. At Palazzo Clerici in Milan, both Tiepolo and Bortoloni contributed to the decorative scheme.

Meanwhile, Bortoloni's historical and mythological frescoes developed a positively comic-opera flavor, as though he (and presumably his patrons) found it impossible to take any scene wholly seriously, whether the theme was 'The Wounded Hero' at the Visconti palazzo at Brignano Gera d'Adda or the 'Embarkation of Paris and Helen for Troy' or 'Aurelian Receives the Crown of Zenobia and Keys of the City of Palmyra' at the Casnedi villa at Birago di Lentate.

Ottavio Casnedi, an ardent admirer of the Venetian arts and the painter's patron at Birago, was a member of the first Masonic lodge in Milan, discovered and suppressed in 1756. Whether the irreverent, debunking style of Bortoloni's later images was related to Enlightenment skepticism among intellectuals and artists, many of whom were also drawn to Freemasonry (Mozart was later to be one of them), has yet to be investigated.

One of Bortoloni's last commissions (he died in 1750) was to fresco the enormous dome of the Savoyard Valhalla, the Vicoforte near Mondovi in Piemonte, burial place of Carlo Emmanuel I. As much a physical feat as an artistic one, the frescoes painted there by Bortoloni and his collaborators cover a continuous area of over 6,000 square meters, or nearly 65,000 square feet.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023