by Roderick Conway Morris

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Istrian Cache of Venetian Paintings from Paolo Veneziano to Tiepolo

By Roderick Conway Morris
TRIESTE, Italy 10 August 2005
Redentore Church, Venice
Madonna and Child with Angel Musicians by Alvise Vivarini, 1489



In 2002, 11 large packing cases, whose existence was known only to a handful of art specialists and bureaucrats, were unsealed at the Palazzo Venezia Museum in Rome. They contained a cache of paintings on panel and canvas and sculptures in bronze and wood dating from the 14th to the 18th century. Nobody had set eyes on these artworks for more than 60 years.

They came from the old Venetian colonial towns of Capodistria and Pirano in Istria, the peninsula south of Trieste; the towns are now in Slovenia and known as Koper and Piran. After the fall of the Most Serene Republic of Venice in 1797, the area became part of the Habsburg Empire. The Italian state gained control between the first and second world wars, but it lost the territory in 1945 when it was overrun by Tito's partisans amid a campaign of reprisals for the maltreatment of the Slavic population during the Fascist era.

Within days of Mussolini's declaration of war in June 1940, plans were under way to rescue moveable artworks from collections in the strategic peninsula and transport them to Villa Manin, on the plain between Trieste and Venice. By 1943, that site was unsafe because of the nearby airfields. The bulk of the private works were returned to their owners, but a number of cases containing pieces from museums and state-owned buildings were shifted to secret locations for safekeeping. These eventually found their way to Rome in 1948.

In 1949, eight works (among them paintings by Paolo Veneziano, Carpaccio, Titian and Tintoretto) were returned by agreement to Yugoslavia. But 11 cases remained in Rome, where they were all but forgotten.

After six decades of sequestration, all the items required cleaning and conservation, and attempts were made to rectify incompetent restoration. After three years of painstaking labor, an exhibition, the title of which nostalgically echoes the antique spelling of the peninsula's name, has put the pieces on public display again: 'Histria: Restored Art Works from Paolo Veneziano to Tiepolo.' The show continues at the Revoltella Museum until Jan. 6.

Their destination - presuming that they are not, meanwhile, returned to Slovenia - is intended to be the new home of Trieste's National Museum of Antique Art, projected to occupy the stables of the Miramare Castle on the seashore north of the city.

Although numbering only 21 pieces, the rediscovered works provide a revealing narrative of the kind of Venetian art to be found in the maritime provinces of the Serenissima over four centuries. And in some cases, they are significant additions to the catalogues of their creators.

Paolo Veneziano may be counted the first great Venetian master, painting essentially in the Byzantine style but with a strong and distinct personal manner. He has a splendid altarpiece here, 'Madonna and Child, Angels and Saints,' dated 1355, and also a Crucifixion; both are from Pirano. This was the period during which Venice consolidated its dominance of the peninsula, and that is reflected in the high quality of the art.

The Vivarini family of painters active in the 15th century was based on the lagoon island of Murano, but the painters also executed commissions along the Adriatic coast. Their conservative style apparently went down well in the provinces. However, Alvise Vivarini, who lived into the early 16th century, was positively influenced by Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini and was able to absorb vital lessons from them. His 1489 'Madonna and Child with Angel Musicians' contains one of the most delightful of all depictions of the innocent sleeping Christ child. Vivarini produced another version of this image, now at the Redentore church on Giudecca, and the standard of his work for a provincial setting is comparable to that of the one destined for the more discriminating metropolis.

In sharp contrast is the case of Vittore Carpaccio and his studio. He was one of the leading painters of the late 15th and early 16th century, principally employed for narrative cycles of titular saints for Venetian 'scuole,' or charitable confraternity meeting houses. Toward the end of his career, however, he moved to Capodistria, perhaps because his style was becoming dated in the face of the revolution brought by Giovanni Bellini and his pupils Giorgione and Titian, or because he felt his own powers were fading and hoped to establish a studio for his less naturally talented son Benedetto in a less competitive environment.

Carpaccio's 'Entrance of the Podesta - Captain Sebastiano Contarini into the Duomo of Capodistria' (1517) has been so often and so badly damaged by ham-fisted restoration over the centuries that it is difficult to judge what the image was once like. Yet the standard of brushwork, composition and even architectural perspective seems well below that of the master's heyday.

Vittore Carpaccio's son Benedetto, documented between 1530 and 1560, can securely be described as a provincial painter working in a manner that was already becoming archaic, though not entirely lacking in engaging qualities. He is represented by three canvases of Madonnas and saints. In many ways, they are fascinating examples of the nuts and bolts of studio practices and how derivative painters combined elements from true masters and remixed them to produce 'new' compositions. His 'Madonna and Child, with SS Bartholomew and Thomas' includes components derived from works by his father and by Mantegna, Bellini and Dürer.

An odd later hybrid is Constantinos Sgouros's 17th-century 'Madonna and Child between Bernardo Marcello and Churchmen.' This Greek artist's panel in tempera is executed according to late Byzantine conventions, except for the figure of its commissioner, the nobleman Marcello, who appears smaller in stature even than the Christ child on Mary's lap, as though cut out of a contemporary Venetian painting and inserted into an eastern orthodox icon. Marcello was the governor of Crete between 1641 and 1644. All the inscriptions on the painting are in Greek, so presumably the work was specifically directed at Greek speakers in Crete itself or in the diaspora within the Venetian empire.

Another unusual composition is Giambattista Tiepolo's 'Madonna of the Girdle and Saints,' showing the Virgin on an angel-borne cloud handing down this emblematic accessory as she hovers above an impressive flight of gray stone steps and plinth accommodating the saints Monica, Augustine and Nicholas of Tolentino. There are a number of puzzles regarding the picture, its possible date and how it came to be in Istria. It has been suggested that the face of St. Nicholas is a self-portrait. It certainly makes for an intriguing addition to Tiepolo's oeuvre.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023