Racinet's Venetian Ball:

A Failure of Attribution

Or..

Why We Can't Trust Victorian Re-Drawings of Artworks

(Updated 22 November, 2004)

 

One day while I was visiting my (then) A&S officer, we were looking at books - what SCA-er doesn't? I had picked up a copy of Auguste Racinet's History of Western Costume and was idly turning the pages when I found this gorgeous re-drawing:

At the time I had very little in the way of late 16th century depictions of Venetian dress, so I snapped up a scan of this drawing. As you can see the original is attributed to Veronese. Going by memory, the only information on the picture in the book is that Racinet saw a painting by Paolo Veronese, which he re-drew. I was quite happy to take the words at face value. It didn't occur to me that he could be wrong, or indeed that perhaps someone else was responsible for that attribution.

Months passed. My site grew and grew, and yet this picture, the only image I had of dubious merit for the study of historical clothing, bugged me. Elements of the outfits depicted bothered me - such as the method of dressing the hair and the jewellery - it seemed too French to me, which I wasn't sure I should put down to the cultural origins of the artist, or to a supposed Venetian following of French fashion. At this stage I was more inclined to put it down to the former. Damn, I wanted to see the original painting! Despite many searches I was still empty handed. One day during another of my research web-surfing binges I hit the jackpot. I found this:

 

This is "The Venetian Ball" by Hendrik Goltzius, circa 1584. I had stared at this wonderful engraving for a full five minutes before I was certain that I wasn't imagining things - this great scene of a Venetian celebration is the source for the Racinet re-drawing above it, or rather, a small part of it is. Just to left of centre you can see two ladies seated to the right of the small table, between three gentlemen. To the left of the small table are three seated ladies. In front is an earthenware basin in which a bottle of wine is being kept cool in water. These are the elements included in Racinet's re-drawing. But...this was no Veronese, it wasn't even by a Venetian. Perhaps Goltzius was one of the many visitors to Venice who had studied art with one of the masters. Finally tearing my eyes away from the picture I turned to the text and read. No, this engraving is itself a reworking of a drawing of the same subject given to Goltzius by another artist, one Dirck Barendsz. Curiouser and curioser! The inscription Goltzius used reads:

"Behold the great nuptial rites of Antenor [the legendary founder of Venice], in the manner of the patricians of the Venetian Senate: the crowded fete at the site of the wedding, the ceremonial torches, the solemn triumphal procession through the city, and moreover, the magnificent vestments of the ladies, imbricated with gold and radiant with precious stones, as never before seen and unknown in other lands. Now it all can be seen and admired throughout the world."

So. Definitely Venice - that at least was reassuring. According to the museum this is housed in, Dirck Barendsz was a Netherlandish artist who studied under Titian whilst in Italy. Titian, not Veronese! Further...

"Although its theme has been the subject of considerable debate among art historians, a plausible interpretation proposes that the scene depicts the wedding of the daughter of the Venetian painter Titian in 1555. It has been noted that the bearded figure in the left foreground resembles Titian (see inset) and that the man behind him may be Barendsz himself."

I was starting to wonder where Veronese came in. Also, there was the fact that some elements are different in Racinet's drawing: the ladies all wear patterned dresses, unlike the Goltzius where some wear patterned and some wear plain dresses, and the detail of dress embellishment was missing. The hair and jewellery look wrong - the ladies wear be-ribboned hairstyles and funny looking little hats or caps. Only one wears something resembling a small crown. The jewellery likewise looks wrong for Venice, the necklaces and earrings all being represented as something textured and metallic looking, like metallic beads.

On the other hand, the Goltzius version has almost all the ladies wearing little crown-like jewelled headdresses, with one or two wearing pearls twisted through their coiled hair, and pearl jewellery - much more Venetian.....

 

But was this drawing, this interpretation by Goltzius of yet another drawing, accurate? Certainly the ladies are all represented as a little more busty than I was used to seeing with Venetian artists, and that is one difference. Would there be more I wondered. What differences would I find in Barendsz's drawing? This has proved to be a marvellous source of detail on garment embellishment especially...would I find that this picture was wrong? Without seeing the original by Barendsz I would never really know - and that I couldn't put up with for long. So a new search began to find the Dirck Barendsz version of the "Venetian Ball".

As with many of my findings it came about through a stroke of luck. I decided that I had been spending too much time at home and I needed to get out. I was working on my purple brocade dress for a Royal Feast and thought that perhaps I should take a trip into town to my favourite bead store to look for suitable glass beads for a new girdle for my dress. The glass beads I wanted proved more expensive than I had money for right then, so I consoled myself by looking in book stores - of course!

I had been wanting the Veronese volume of the "Masters of Italian Art" series by Konemann. I had looked in several book stores, but if they had any of the series it wasn't Veronese. The last book store I looked I hit the jackpot - big time! Not one or two, but many, many books from that series, as well as "Masters of Netherlandish Art" were right in the doorway - on HUGE sale. $10 each book, down from $25. Well, I bought my eagerly awaited Veronese on the spot, and my sweetheart put five others aside for me as a Mothers Day present - including a volume on Tintoretto and one on Titian. I got my books two days before Mother's Day (I couldn't wait) and it was in the Titian book that I found this original drawing by Dirck Barendsz....

 

....along with much information on the drawing and on Titian and his house. To say I was very happy would be an understatement!

The drawing is dated circa 1583-84. It is assumed to have been taken by Barendzs from a view seen from Titian's house in Biri Grande, parish of San Canciano, which he moved into in 1531. According to the book the view across the canal takes in *Murano and the mainland, and on particularly clear days even the Alps were visible from his house, which at the time was set amid gardens and had an unspoilt view. As befits Titian's unquestioned place as the very best of Venetian artists, his fame lead to his house becoming an attraction in its own right - distinguished visitors from all over visited him there - even Henri de Valois, the future King Henri III of France, visited him there in 1574. It was known as Ca' Grande, the Grand House.

The two pictures - Goltzius' engraving and Barendzs' drawing are almost identical in all respects, but there are minute differences. Here is the same detail from the two artists' images:

 

As you see, they both drew very busty ladies, which I'm not used to seeing in Venetian portraiture. I guess that it could be that Venetian ladies wore their more modest gowns for portraits, and wore their flashier ones for celebrations - with the likely result that a man who was not used to seeing so much female chest in one place either consciously or sub-consciously over-emphasised this aspect of Venetian womanhood.

Since I first wrote about this, a lovely gentleman from the Netherlands contacted me regarding the Goltzius engraving. He was lucky enough to have seen the engraving at a Goltzius exhibition in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and very generously offered to share with me his translation of the accompanying info in the exhibiton catalogue. I could not refuse such a wonderful offer, so, despite the fact that it is months overdue, I present it here for your enjoyment.

 

“Hendrick Goltzius, Dutch Master (1558 – 1617) Drawings, Prints and Paintings”

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum March 7 – May 25 2003
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 23 – September 7 2003
Toledo (Ohio), Toledo Museum of Art, October 18 2003 – January 4 2004

Item 12
Hendrick Goltzius
after Dirck Barendsz
The Venetian Wedding, ca. 1584
drawing and engraving



As his name appears on the drawing and the print, the study on which Goltzius based his engraving “The Venetian Wedding” was long time regarded as a work of the Amsterdam artist Dirck Barendsz (1534 – 1592).

Barendsz travelled (aged 21) to Rome in 1555 and also stayed, until 1562, in Venice for some years. According to Van Mander(*1) the artist (practically a child) was taken into the household of the great Titian and moved, well educated in literature and Latin as he was, in circles of scholars and high placed people. The Venetian aristocracy is the subject of a work, made by Barendsz probably long after he returned to Amsterdam. According to the caption in the engraving a Venetian wedding is depicted, although it is not at all clear which part. A Venetian bride was taught to dance after her betrothal. A few days before the wedding she showed, with her dancing master and other young women, her skills before her kin and guests in the so called parentado, a mixture of dance performance and fashion show, during which the ladies more than once changed costumes.

In the drawing the bride is pictured left from the middle, with the traditional loose hanging hair. If the parentado is reproduced here, the man on her side is not likely to be her groom, but rather a dancing master, a ballerino.
The bride’s white dress was usually made of a damask fabric and furthermore the ladies wore gold, pearls and other precious jewels. According to another explanation, this work depicts the reception in the gallery or portego of the palazzo of the bride’s father, a part of the Venetian wedding taking place after signing the contract and before the church service and the banquet. Maybe however this image is not an illustration of any specific event, but only tries -as does the caption- to give an impression of a grand Venetian wedding. The impressive figure in the right foreground is a senator, dressed in a toga with a gold brocade stole over his left shoulder and a capuccio on his head. Scattered through the image are more senators but the company mostly consists of very elegant men and ladies. In the lodge on the right three pipers are playing, one sackbut and two different shawms. On the left two well-known commedia dell´arte characters (ciarlatani) make an entrance: Magnifico and his assistant Zanni. The women in the window diagonally above them, seem on the verge of throwing an egg to the comedians.

The view over the lagoon in the background, with the characteristic facade of San Cristoforo as eye-catcher and behind it the islands of San Michele and Murano and the spur of the Venetian Alps, is confirmed to be the view from Titian’s house in the Birri part of town. A panorama likely to be well known by Barendsz. The Doric architecture of the gallery, however Venetian, does not correspond to that of Titian’s house.


Van Mander described Dirck Barendsz as being the first to introduce the Italian way of painting "puer en onvermengt" (*2) in the Netherlands and his works as being of "een treflijcke Titiaensche en Italiaensche handelinghe" (*3). Long time the image is considered to be an example of Barendsz´s preoccupation with Venetian subjects and style. Nowadays the attribution of the drawing to him is doubted. His print designs, as well in drawing as in oil-sketch, show looseness and a ready touch and do not correspond with the much detailed way the figures in the Venetian Wedding are depicted. The drawing has all the characteristics to be designed especially for printing: the somewhat mechanic, accurate contours, the “screen pattern” on the left, the reproduction of light and shadow in the costumes with a brush. Comparison with Goltzius´ drawings and especially made print designs, such as the Banquet of Sextus Tarquinus, makes it (more) likely that the pre-drawing of the Venetian Wedding is by his hand. The way of drawing the woman in profile, under the Doric column on the right – eyes, nose, neck and chin – is very comparable to the face of Doctrina, which is from 1583.

Remains the question however after which example Goltzius worked, for that he disposed over a work by Barendsz, not only appears from the writing “Theodorus Bernardus Amsterodamus. Inventor” in the engraving, but also from the architectural picture in the background that shows details which the engraver - then unfamiliar with Venice – impossibly could have depicted based upon a sketched panorama. Instead of a drawing – an oil sketch seems out of the question due to the subject and details – the example could, for instance, have been a, probably much larger, oil painting. This would explain why Goltzius could not have worked immediately from a Barendsz original, but had to make the extra step of a drawing in which the costumes are worked out in great detail with a brush, in blue.

It has been suggested that the pompous image represents human vanity. In Cornelius Schonaes´ text under the engraving – in which is talked about many more festivities then are depicted – the splendour and richness of Venetian feasts are emphasised as is the magnificent appearance of the matrons, yet there is no sign of an undertone pointing a moral in it. Text and picture relate to the admiration for the Serenissima and the greatness of its inhabitants, which in the Dutch Republic in general and especially in Amsterdam created a feeling of affinity and identification.

It is striking that this early image of a Venetian feast by a Dutch artist, would inspire the great Tiepolo 150 years later for his “Arrival of Henry III at the Villa Contarini” (ca.1745).






Translated from Dutch, from the exhibition catalogue by Arie KOELEMIJ, Utrecht, the Netherlands,
October 2003

*1 Carel van Mander wrote a book on the lives of Dutch, Italian and German painters from antiquity until his days: “Het schilder-boeck” , published in Haarlem, 1604
*2 pure and not at all mixed
*3 a striking Titian-like and Italianesque action


So there you have it. The question still remains in my mind whether these "Venetian Ball" pictures were drawn from life, or from yet another work - perhaps one drawn by the master himself, Titian. In any case, Racinet's drawing does not live up to these two 'period' sources. Which is, of course, the 'moral' of the tale - always try for "the" source, not just "a" source!

 

*Since writing this I have been informed that both the drawing and engraving were in an exhibition at Palazzo Grassi in Venice. The catalog of the show entitled "Il Rinascimento a Venezia e la Pittura del Nord ai Tempi di Bellini, Durer, Tiziano" (Bompiani Editions), indicates that

"...the the island in the lagoon behind the wedding scene is San Cristoforo (which, in fact, was visible from Titian's house) and not Murano... The moment is the presentation of the bride to her husband-to-be just before signing the documents necessary (notary acts, etc.which, at that time, constitued the marriage)" My thanks to Martin Donach for this information.

 

 


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