Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 24, 2000
Thomas Martin Alessandro Vittoria and the Portrait Bust in Renaissance Venice: Remodelling Antiquity Oxford University Press in association with Clarendon Press, 1998. 274 pp.; 164 b/w ills. Cloth $145.00 (0198174179)

The study of 16th-century Venetian sculpture was, and still is, badly neglected. Even so eminent an artist as Alessandro Vittoria (Trent, 1525 Venice, 1608) has not yet been accorded the attention his achievements deserve. It is, therefore, with great expectations that one picks up the promisingly important-looking book by Thomas Martin.

The book is based on Martin’s doctoral dissertation (Columbia University, 1988) and is divided in two parts: the study itself, in which Martin tries to approach the complex problem of the classicizing portrait bust in Venice and to examine Vittoria’s role in developing the genre, and a catalogue raisonné. Although the author has much of value to say, the seven chapters of the study are not equally successful and will, therefore, be discussed separately.

The first chapter deals with the problems of the origin of the portrait bust in Venice. Although Martin advances some good thoughts, he seems mainly interested in criticizing the theory of the seminal role that Michelangelo’s Brutus supposedly played in the revival of the all’ antica portrait bust. (Martin maintains that this view has been put forward often, but quotes only Keutner and Lavin who, however, do not dwell on this subject in a way that would justify such criticism.) Martin’s correct—if hardly remarkable—point is, that “The popularity of an all’ antica format springs from more complex reasons than the slavish imitation of Michelangelo” (6). Since Martin explores neither the relationship between Florence and Venice, nor the question if such a relationship existed at all, one is left to believe that Michelangelo’s Brutus had no significance for the popularity of classical busts in the Veneto (a thought that one would hardly contemplate anyway) and one wonders a bit why so much attention is devoted to that subject. One is even more puzzled when Martin states abruptly: “In seeking the origins of the classicizing bust in Venice, for example, the most determining factor seems to be the particular fervor manifested in Northern Italy towards the cult of the antique,” a notion which will form the leitmotif throughout the following chapters (6).

Martin goes on to describe the interest Venetians had in collecting antiquities, discussing in particular the famous Grimani collection. Given the fact that some of the antique busts in that collection were Renaissance fakes or copies, Martin concludes that the making of pseudo-antique busts was a prevalent practice in Venice, without, however, giving any proof that these busts were indeed made in that city (they could as easily have been produced in Rome, where Grimani purchased most of his antiques). However, Martin makes an entirely convincing point in seeing a connection between the collecting of antiquities and the production of classicizing busts. While it thus becomes clear that the aesthetic preconditions for an appreciation of the classicizing portrait bust did—not surprisingly—exist in Venice by the first half of the 16th century, there is no analysis of the political and social reasons that delayed the popularity of the genre until then. (For an illuminating treatment of this subject, see Alison Luchs, Tullio Lombardo and Ideal Portrait Sculpture in Renaissance Venice, 1490-1530, Cambridge University Press, 1995). To interpret Vittoria’s success mainly as a cultural phenomenon seems not very satisfying and one must wait for more insights into the problem until the last chapter.

After this slightly disappointing start, Martin is obviously more at ease with the subject of the second chapter, “The Revival of the Classicizing Portrait Bust in Padua,” that provides a comprehensive portrayal of the city as a center of an ambitious and sophisticated antiquarian culture. Martin’s erudition in this field is impressive, and he demonstrates in detail the various connections between the Paduan humanists as well as their involvement in projects devoted to the emulation of antiquity. It is a lengthy account and one wonders whether it might not have been better simply to describe the circumstances that led to the erection of the classicizing Monument to Livy. Nevertheless, Martin’s re-evaluation in this context of the role of Agostino Zoppo and Danese Cattaneo is meritorious and he is certainly correct to stress the significance of the latter’s bust of Pietro Bembo for Vittoria’s portraits of contemporary personalities in the all’ antica format. The importance of these activities and the antiquarian climate in Padua for Vittoria can hardly be overrated, and Martin makes this abundantly clear.

After a short chapter on “Vittoria’s Early Career,” which deals mainly with biographical facts and the stuccoes in the Palazzo Thiene in Vicenza, the extensive Chapter 4 is devoted to “The Classicizing Bust and the Cult of the Antique in Venice.” After discussing exhaustively the Marciana Library, Vittoria’s Feminoni, and stuccoes as well as the decoration of the Scala d’Oro as outstanding examples of the all’ antica efforts in the city, Martin gives a fine interpretation of Cattaneo’s bust of Alessandro Contarini on his tomb in the Santo in Padua. Considering that Cattaneo executed four of the seven memorials featuring personal imagery mentioned by Martin, it is regrettable that the author did not explore the relationship between this enigmatic artist and Vittoria to a greater extent. One should be satisfied, however, that Martin fully acknowledges the importance of the Paduan models for the revival of the public, classicizing portrait bust, and thus for Vittoria.

This point is further developed in Chapter 5, devoted to “Vittoria’s Early Patrons and their Portrait Busts,” that may be considered the most interesting and original of the book. Martin describes not only the personal profiles of Vittoria’s patrons, but also the multi-faceted relationships and shared cultural interests that bound them together, thus evoking a vivid picture of patronage in late Renaissance Venice. The author discusses Vittoria’s achievement as popularizer of the all’ antica bust in Venice and his importance for establishing a new typology for tombs featuring portrait busts of the deceased (46). The remarks on Vittoria’s contrapposto and the animated expressiveness of his compositions are particularly insightful.

Martin devotes much attention to the changing silhouettes of the busts, and the shape and termination of the torso becomes, in fact, the central issue of Chapter 6, which treats the codification of Vittoria’s style in the 1570s. In this chapter, the author outlines a development from an enlarged torso to an expansive baseline that becomes less and less rounded. While one may perfectly agree with Martin’s observation that Vittoria created his own formal solution by combining features from the classicizing bust with those of the reliquary bust, the conclusion and the central thesis of the whole book is rather less convincing: namely, that in Vittoria’s oeuvre we find a linear evolution in the shape given to the torso, whereby a classically rounded baseline develops into a horizontal truncation. While the shape of the torso provides Martin with an apparently infallible key for dating the busts, it almost certainly oversimplifies the situation, bearing in mind Vittoria’s abilities and versatility. Such a theory does not take into account the effect of classicizing or contemporary dress and its influence on the shape of the torso, nor the harmonization of the composition of the bust with the intended setting. Martin also fails to consider that artists of lesser abilities than Vittoria’s freely altered the baselines of their busts before he even started to work in this genre (Vittoria’s first bust, that of Giovanni Battista Ferretti, was made in 1556-57). One only has to think of Danese Cattaneo, whose bust of Pietro Bembo (1548) features an expansive torso with an almost straight baseline, while his bust of Lazzaro Bonamico (1552-53) resembles a trapezoid, and that of Alessandro Contarini (ca.1555) is rounded at the bottom. Considering the variety of formal solutions already available, it seems odd to assume that Vittoria would not make use of these possibilities in a much more flexible way, apart from the fact that oversimplified theories of linear stylistic evolution seldom work in art history.

Besides this problematic concept, another question arises that Martin does not touch: considering the definition of an all’ antica bust (mounted on a socle, rounded termination, hollowed out in the back) one might wonder how classicizing Vittoria’s busts actually are when the termination of their torsos is not rounded anymore. They still fulfill the criterion of being hollowed out in the back (a fact, however, which no longer influences the frontal appearance) and they are mounted on socles, but the form of the socle, as well as the overall appearance of the sitter is so utterly “cinquecentesque” that one is only very vaguely reminded of the origin of the genre in antique busts. Perhaps here lies Vittoria’s achievement: to transform the classicizing bust into a perfect expression of his own time, thus giving new life and meaning to an antique art form. A similar thought of Martin’s probably stands behind the subtitle of the book—"Remodelling Antiquity"—but he does not elaborate on it. Instead, Martin closes the chapter with a discussion of Vittoria’s masterpiece in the genre, the bust of Doge Niccolò da Ponte, and it is regrettable that the well-done comparison with Titian’s portrait of Doge Andrea Gritti is the only time he refers to contemporary painting.

The final chapter brings together many good thoughts on various subjects that have not been addressed so far, such as Vittoria’s workshop, the use of terracotta, and the relationship between model and final version. Martin makes some very sensible remarks on the problem of separating Vittoria’s busts from the rest of his oeuvre and of labeling them as naturalistic in contrast to his other more mannerist works. Finally, Martin gives some eagerly awaited comments on the social circumstances that promoted and stimulated Vittoria’s success in the genre.

The much-needed catalogue raisonné is divided into five sections (autograph, workshop, etc.) and is replete with information. The busts are listed in alphabetical order under sitter, and since neither the captions nor the technical indications preceding each entry include any dates, the practical usefulness of the catalogue is, unfortunately, slightly impaired—perhaps a chronological sequence might have been preferable. The illustrations are abundant, although not always of the best quality. But they are certainly welcome, given that many of Vittoria’s busts are not well known and are widely scattered.

One certainly learns a lot from Martin’s study. The material accumulated is very impressive, if uneven in its presentation, and the book undoubtedly advances the knowledge of Venetian Renaissance art, a hope expressed in its preface. Martin has thus achieved his goal—likewise defined in the preface—"to inaugurate serious study" of Alessandro Vittoria’s busts (vii).

Claudia Kryza-Gersch
Andrew W, Mellon Fellow, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.