An extraordinary and alienating exhibition on deformed faces on view in Venice

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An extraordinary and alienating exhibition on deformed faces on view in Venice
Carlo Lasinio (1759-1838), Due teste grottesche di donna e uomo anziani, 1790-1800 circa. Acquaforte a colori, 373 × 262 mm. Ente Raccolta Vinciana, Castello Sforzesco Milano © Studio Fotografico Luca Carrà.

VENICE.- ‘De’ visi mostruosi non parlo, perché senza fatica si tengono a mente’, so one reads between Leonardo da Vinci’s annotations in the Codice Atlantico and in the Treatise on Painting. Visitors will be impressed by these numerous exaggerated and grotesque heads made by the great artists active in northern Italy during the 16th and 18th century and on display in this extraordinary exhibition, promoted by the Giancarlo Ligabue Foundation in Venice.

This new ambitious project, led by the institution guided by Inti Ligabue, will be held at Palazzo Loredan, Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti from 28 January to 27 April 2023. It projects us into an alienating and intriguing world, collateral compared to the beauty, the sublime, or the ideal privileged by art.

The exhibition is curated by Pietro C. Marani, one of the most authoritative Leonardo scholars, with the support of a scientific committee of utter prestige composed of Alessia Alberti, Luca Massimo Barbero, Paola Cordera, Inti Ligabue, Enrico Lucchese, Alice Martin, Alberto Rocca, Calvin Winner. The focus is not really on how and why the singular and fascinating genre of caricature (or rather the deformation and transformation of physiognomic features) developed. The aim is instead to highlight the existence of a ‘northern’ line of continuity in this field. Stemming from Leonardo’s ‘visi mostruosi’ and the ‘pitture ridicole’ of the Lombards while including elements of the Carracci’s naturalism, this strand flourished in Venice in the first half of the eighteenth century.

There are more than 75 works of art on loan from national and international museums and private collections: Musée du Louvre, Paris; Civiche Raccolte d’Arte del Castello Sforzesco, Milan; Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Designmuseum Danmark; Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice; Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, just to name a few. Among them, a nucleus of eighteen Leonardesque autograph drawings from the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Pinacoteca di Brera and, for the first time in Italy, the Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth, in addition to the Head of an old woman in the Ligabue Collection.

These loans give life to an exceptional high-quality exhibition path: a combination of comparisons and cross-references that starts with Leonardo da Vinci and arrives to Anton Maria Zanetti and the Tiepolos while including Francesco Melzi, Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, Aurelio Luini, Donato Creti, Giuseppe Arcimboldi, but also the Carraccis and Parmigianino.

It is a riveting theme, rich in implications, relating to the alteration or deformation of physiognomic that assumes new meanings in the twentieth century, as clearly expressed in Francis Bacon’s masterpiece at the end of the exhibition, Three Studies of Portrait Isabel Rawsthorne.

‘Certainly, it may appear different from what has been done in recent years,’ explains Inti Ligabue, President of the Giancarlo Ligabue Foundation. ‘Yet, this exhibition prompts us to reflect on our humanity. So did the archaeological, anthropological and ethnographic exhibitions devoted to distant cultures and civilisations and pointed towards the knowledge and understanding of the society, its values, and its cultural expressions. It is the man at the centre of our interests. Venice is the starting and returning point of our explorations and research, and the desire to discover and share is the driving force of our Foundation’.

In the beginning it was Leonardo. To arrive at caricature, which exploded in the eighteenth century in the Venetian lagoon, intertwining in a very peculiar way with the great Venetian musical and theatrical tradition, the exhibition at Palazzo Loredan could only start with the great master from Vinci.

Certainly, Leonardo’s studies are not really ‘caricatures’ in the usual sense, meaning images that elicit a smile or mockery. Leonardo’s are, rather, exaggerated heads in which the features are accentuated to bring out the personalities, peculiarities, vices or virtues of each character. The exasperation of somatic features, the physiognomic studies of human characters and "mental motions", the strenuous analysis of deformation to emphasise a desire for realism, as well as moral qualities or particular virtues beyond physical defects or the signs of the times cannot but have influenced and inspired eighteenth-century caricatures.

It bears witness in the immediate fortune of his studies, in the many imitators and followers active in the lagoon - Giovanni Agostino da Lodi or Giovan Paolo Lomazzo - and later reproductions. Among all, the seventeenth-century prints by the Bohemian engraver Wenceslaus Hollar. They feature the same size as the drawings, which belonged to the collection of the 21st Earl of Arundel. And eventually, the Leonardesque revival was witnessed in Venice in the first decades of the eighteenth century by great artists and collectors, such as Anton Maria Zanetti - the 'progenitor' of Venetian caricature - and the nobleman Zaccaria Sagredo.

The note on Zanetti that appears in the manuscript pages preceding the Cini Album – some of these paramount sheets are on display – marks for curator Pietro Marani the track to follow in order to innovatively propose a Tuscan-Lombard strand, properly Leonardesque in the artist's inspiration, to complement the well-known Emilian tradition also recalled in the exhibition through the drawings and grottesche of Creti, Carracci (the drawing by Annibale Carracci, on display from the Duke of Devonshire’s Collections, is the only one coming from the 3rd Earl of Burlington) and the circle of Parmigianino.

‘He would take his pencil about with him, and like Leonardo da Vinci, or other painters, at the theatre or elsewhere, he would draw whatever object struck his fervent imagination, and then in the same places he would amuse himself with caricatures. In his work we observe an uncommon freedom of drawing and a fervent, capricious imagination, surprisingly high-spirited’.

As Marani recalls, Leonardo’s presence in Venice in 1500, short but significant, seems to have left trace in Giorgione’s and Durer’s works. In 1726, original drawings by Leonardo were added

to Zaccaria Sagredo’s collection in Venice, coming from the Casnedi family in Milan. An exciting news that Zanetti recounts in his correspondence. It is also known that Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, heir of Leonardo’s manuscripts and goliardic guide of the artists gathered in the Accademia of the Val di Blenio, went to Venice several times.

But above all, it is the friendships, the Parisian and Milanese acquaintances, the rich library of the Venetian artist to boost his knowledge of Leonardo's drawings - direct and indirect -, along with the influence of the Leonardo on Anton Maria Zanetti and the artists of the Serenissima.

A part from Zanetti’s relations with the Trivulzio family and the relations of the ‘Zanetti-Carriera clan’ with the Milanese environment and the political sponsors of the Clerici (the patrons of Gian Battista Tiepolo), it must have been determining Pierre Crozat’s presence in Venice in 1716 and that of Pierre Mariette in 1718-1719, with whom Zanetti got acquainted.

They induced Zanetti to make a trip to Paris in 1720, together with Rosalba Carriera and Antonio Pellegrini, who then continued in London and Flanders. For a few decades, Crozat possessed Leonardo's famous brush drawings on linen canvas, previously indicated as works by Dürer, but that Mariette himself recognized as autographs of the Master. And it was Pierre Mariette who bought a famous Album with copies of Leonardo's caricatures, which at the time were considered original. Many of these were taken from da Vinci's autographed drawings, now held in the Collections of the Duke of Devonshire, Chatsworth - twelve specimens here on display.

Is it possible that the two Frenchmen and Zanetti did not discuss all this? The question hovers in the exhibition and the catalogue published by Marsilio: is it possible that he has not seen and "annotated" of these works?

As the curator points out, the inventory of Zanetti's library reveals a copy of the Album Mariette, engraved in 1730 by the Count of Caylus, the editio princeps of Leonardo's Treatise on Painting (i.e. the one printed in Paris by Raphael du Fresne in 1651), but also Lomazzo's Idea of ​​the Temple of Painting, published in 1590 in Milan, in which he recalls the "monstrous faces" of da Vinci, as well as his Treatise on the Art of Painting. All these volumes and editions are exhibited on this occasion. Then, clues can become evidence.

Visitors will enjoy recognising how the synthetic and immediate gesture of certain caricatures by Giambattista Tiepolo, like those by A.M. Zanetti, recall what can be considered the only authentic extant caricature by Leonardo – here exceptionally on display, thanks to the generosity of the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana. It represents a ‘Cleric’, masterfully combining cunning, wit, and mockery in a few strokes. Exaggerated noses, protruding chins, protruding breasts, heads with wigs derive from Leonardo's matrix or, in any case, reveal prototypes later taken up and varied by Leonardo's followers, such as Melzi, Battista Franco, Lomazzo, Figino. Among all, the "caricature of a man with a conical hat" that we find in the ‘Homo ridiculo’ by Lomazzo, on loan from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, which finds an echo in the works of Brambilla, Figino, and Arcimboldo here exhibited.

It is worth mentioning, among rarities and important groups, the intriguing oil on canvas with Grotesque Head of a Woman (1560), already attributed to Giovan Paolo Lomazzo by Roberto Longhi, and the extraordinary gallery of about twenty Tiepolo-style caricatures: hunchbacks, prelates and caricatures of nobles, lords of various dates. Some already in the Valmarana Collection and then Wallraf, others from the Tomo terzo de caricature. The latter - according to Enrico Lucchese in the catalogue - feature "flesh and blood masks", universal types and characters of the human fauna, works of art before being humorous works for the quality of their execution, expression of the power of painting that can exalt like demolishing, evoking 'angels and dwarfs', stirring feeling or laughter.

Instead, Lomazzo's painting, 'animalistic and obtuse', derives from a very successful drawing by Leonardo, copied and reproduced several times. It shows the continuation, also in the painting, of the path taken by the Master. The effects of physiognomic deformation here are more evident and seem to validate the interpretation of Leonardo's grotesque heads given by Gombrich (1954), in which the theme of the unconscious and autobiographical representation would emerge.

These premises hint at the psychoanalytic and visionary themes of Francis Bacon's paintings in his portraits. The exhibition closes with a shot forward, presenting a superlative triptych by the artist Francis Bacon dated 1965: Three Studies for Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne. An invitation to reflect on how, in the twentieth century, this path of art, of ancient roots, continues to take on new meanings, leading to the study of human nature, deconstruction, deformation and manipulation of the form to manifest the interiority and the unconscious.

But that is another story.

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