Here is one of my favorite pictures at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: the portrait of sculptor Alessandro Vittoria by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). Vittoria was one of the most celebrated sculptors of the Venetian Renaissance, and he is shown in the painting holding the model for his statue of St. Sebastian, carved in 1561-2 for the church of San Francesco dell Vigna in Venice. Vittoria’s Sebastian was so successful that he later cast it as a bronze statuette, which can be seen at the Metropolitan.
Like many a great artist, Vittoria was not shy – he has multiple portraits of himself painted by the leading artists of the time, and five of them hung near the studio in his home where they could be seen by clients and visitors. This portrait dates to c1580, when the sculptor was 55 years old.
The easy collaboration between sculptor and painter may be inferred not only by the sympathetic depiction, but also by the fact that Vittoria collaborated with Veronese on the decoration of Palladio’s Villa Barbaro at Maser some 20 years earlier.
Veronese ranks, alongside Titian and Tintoretto, as the greatest of Venetian Renaissance painters. He is celebrated for his work as a colorist, and for his ability to create teeming, multi-figure canvases on a heroic scale. His taste for ornamentation and excess got him into a bit of trouble with the Holy Inquisition, which was appalled at the excesses to be found in his representation of The Last Supper. After questioning by the church, Veronese was ordered to fix the picture to something more decorous and within the austere teachings of the church over the next three months. Instead of touching the picture, he simply renamed it The Feast in the House of Levi, sidestepping obsessive – and dangerous – ecclesiasticals. (See below.)
Vitorria was born in Trent, son of a tailor. He was heavily influenced by Michelangelo (who was, in turn, heavily influenced by antiquity and the Belvedere Torso); he was trained in the atelier of architect/sculptor Jacopo Sansovino.
It must be remembered that the Renaissance was not just a reawakening of human potential and artistic and intellectual ideals, but a rediscovery of the ancient world. The broken statue next to the sculptor represents a fragment of our Greco-Roman heritage, and serves as a bridge between the ancient world and the modern.
Why do I love this picture so? On one hand, it is one of Veronese’s more quiet pictures. A sense of serene and studied mastery pervades both the pose and the execution. Vitorria’s delicately depicted hands (especially the strong and tapering fingers) are significant, of course, but not more so than the look of bland sophistication and … sprezzatura on the sculptor’s face. One can well imagine Vitorria murmuring, “Oh this? Yes, it’s a little something I put together. Do you like it?”
Veronese’s love of decoration can be seen in the elaborate tablecloth and is barely hinted at in the faint traces of wall decoration over the sculptor’s right shoulder. The expression on Vittoria’s face is much like the one the sculptor later used when depicting himself in three dimensions.