There with a solemn and majestic poise
stood many people gathered in the light,
speaking infrequently and with muted voice.
Democritus who ascribes the world to chance, Diogenes, and with him there Thales, Anaxagoras, Zeno, Heraclitus, Empedocles.
(Dante, Inferno, IV)
This representation of an elderly man, of hirsute face and with the head covered by a mantle, sculpted as a half-bust in marble, is recognisable as the type of philosopher who, depicted in both painting and sculpture, populated the art collections of Venice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their appearance is usually of severe and pensive pose and posture, and they are almost always bearded and of advanced age with an intense but aloof gaze, in the traditional image of all philosophers, beginning with Socrates, the definitive “thinker”. Often, as in this case, there is no evidence of specific iconographic clues (much less so in sculpture than in painting, for obvious reasons) which would help us to uncover his precise identity within the ranks of the ancient thinkers.
Representing introspective thought focussed on humane understanding of that which counts in life (love, friendship, awareness), these images of the philosophers invite, in their sense of presence and possession, a recognition of the vain and frivolous aspects of mundane existence, and a remembrance of the fragility of life and the transience of earthly things. Thus, the Philosopher as an antidote to the Vanitas (or emptiness).
Our marble’s place of origin takes us directly to Venice of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an important centre for the propogation of this “cult” for the exponents of ancient thought, resulting from high demand on the part of patrons and collectors for works of a “philosophical” nature.
And so, as we have mentioned, the images of the philosophers became an almost constant presence within collections, to the same degree as other subjects equally referable to the theme of the Vanitas, such as Saint Jerome in the desert, associated with the motto “vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas” ("Vanity of vanities, all is vanity") - the Maddalena meditating, and the Putto with skull or cherub intent on blowing soap bubbles.
On the other hand, in some cases, the possession and exhibition of a portrait of an ancient philosopher brings up the issue of the exaltation of the libertas philosophandi, in contrast to the dogmatic doctrine and undue use of auctoritas or “power of command” extolled by the Catholic Church, thus reflecting a sincere and dispassionate love for free philosophical thought.
The half bust in question may be included within the genre of philosophers sculpted in the final decades of the seventeenth century in Venice. A kind of prototype for our bust is evident, of a still wholly Baroque stamp, in the bust Philosopher, realised in much the same way towards the end of the 1670s by Michel Fabris Ongaro (fig. 1), in particular when making comparison with the iconography and cutting techniques employed.
A still closer relationship can be found between our “thinker” and the head of the Philosopher conserved at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (45,72 x 39,37 cm) (fig. 2): both representations possess characteristics coming from the same stylistic language, and from which we can easily recognise certain formal similarities. These were evidently sculpted by the same hand, guided by the same sensitivity of taste in the personal interpretation of the subject. Similarly, on an expressive level, we can see both the attitude and the absorbed looks on both “thinkers” faces. Typologically and formally the faces, - despite that of the Boston thinker being more suffering and wizened - have very similar physical features, visible in the aquiline noses, in the design of the arched eyebrows and in the eye-sockets marked in correspondence to the lower eyelid, the shape of the cheekbone, the mouth and the forehead. In addition also strikingly similar is the flame-like form in the yield to chisel tip of the strands of hair and beard, as well as the working of the mantle covering both figures, arranged in thick and irregular folds to form deep recesses, and, on the surface, thanks to the use of a toothed chisel, where the lined material is convincingly emulated.
Both of the sculptures bear the common and traditional hallmarks pointing towards Orazio Marinali (1643 - 1720) (who was, for a considerable time in the past, a common reference point for this type of subject), to whom it was attributed on the occasion of its reappearance on the London antique market around twenty years ago (cfr. London, Sotheby's, 9 July 2009, Old Master Sculpture and Works of Art, lot. 119). However, the two works discussed above (ours and the Boston example), indicate formal and stylistic characteristics which lead us away from the Bassano sculptor, and point us towards another great, though younger protagonist of Venetian sculpture in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Giuseppe Torretti.
In the first place we should focus on the formal, typological and expressive characteristics which, as can be seen, distinguish both the sculpted representations of the two philosophers, and which allow us to establish with certainty that our bust, and therefore the head in Boston, too, belong to the body of work of Torretti. Furthermore, there are obviously comparisons possible with works autographed by the sculptor in order to support this thesis. If the Philosopher of the Museum of Fine Arts can be easily likened to the apostles sculpted by Torretti for the niches of the internal church crossing in the the Venetian basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, and, in particular to the figure of Saint Andrew (fig.3) a work documented to 1708, so too can our Philosopher here in question, which in turn can be likened significantly to the figure of Saint Bartholemew (fig.4) belonging to the same cycle of activity.
We can thus observe, further to the representation of the same type of physiognomy, the similarity in the design of the eye (and the loose skin of the lower eyelid) as well as the definition of' the ocular orbit, deeply recessed on which shadow falls to create a more dramatic gaze. This comparison highlights once more, the substantial similarity in the crafting of the hair and the beard, even the same naturalistic “flavour” in the accentuation of the tendons and the vein across the muscular neck.
Nevertheless, unlike the head in Boston which, for all its plasticism, its grandiloquence of setting, and the most emphatic chiaroscuro, is suggestive of the late-Baroque statue at San Giorgio, seeming to be work of the same period conceived at the beginning of the new century, our bust appears to be a work of slightly later date in which we can detect the influence of the beginnings of classicism in Venetian sculpture in the second and third decades of the eighteenth century.
The statues portraying Saint Andrew, Saint Bartholemew, Saint Thomas and Saint Jerome, dating back to 1708, as mentioned earlier, constitute Torretti’s earliest important and noted works in marble, taking into account that during the years prior to this date, he was mainly involved in artisan activity as a wood carver and engraver. In any case, already affirming and attesting to his prestige as an artist in the sculptural field in the the early years of the eighteenth century we can point to the fact that he was entrusted with the commission for the sculptural decoration of the upper cornices of the Ducal Palace in Colorno, the first of a series of commissions for which, on several occasions, Torretti was active in the Parma area.
Other commissions that the artist received in Venice, once again in the first decade of the century, were also of a highly prestigious nature. Sculptures for the facade of the church of San Stae, for which he also later furnished various statues for the interior of the church (among which were the Crucifix and the statue of Pope Saint Gregory) date from 1709; in 1710 he began work on the altar sculptures for the church of Santi Biagio and Cataldo on the Venetian island of Giudecca, which are now at Fratta Polesine. To the same time can be probably dated the two statues representing Saint Simon and Saint Judas Thaddaeus on the central altar of San Simeon Piccolo, at which, at a later date, statues of apostles were received which were situated in the niches of the presbytery.
Still in 1710, as Tommaso Temanza remembered, Torretti, together with the sculptor Pietro Baratta and the architects Domenico Rossi and Giovanni Scalfarotto travelled on a journey “...to Rome to see that city and to pass through Florence, Pisa etc.”. Probably his experiences of Rome contributed to his consolidating the position as one of the greatest exponents, together with Antonio Tarsia and Antonio Corradini, of the classicist trend then influencing the artistic life of Venice, marking the passage from the Baroque to a greater modernity in artistic sensibility.
The following year he produced the statues representing Saint Peter (fig.5) and Saint Paul for the central altar of the Santi Apostoli church, among the more accomplished works of the mature style of the sculptor, representations replicated in other, later versions of the same subjects. Thereafter came the statues and the relief with Christ Entombed (presently to be seen in the sacristy of the Venetian basilica Santa Maria della Salute) produced by the artist for the church on the island of Poveglia.
In 1716, for Tsar Peter the First of Russia, he made statues of Narcissus and Venus, now both sadly lost, and signed statues of Diana and Adonis (figs. 6-7) , now at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. From the same year onwards a substantial part of Torretti’s output, developed for the most part together with the architect Domenico Rossi, was associated with commissions from the Manin family, recently esconced as part of the Venetian nobility (and, according to registered inventories, in whose collection, there was was also a statue present representing an outstretched Narcissus, by the sculptor in question). To the same year can also be dated the statue with the Archangel Michael for the chapel of the Beata Vergine in Carmelo in the Venetian church of the Scalzis and probably shortly after came the three Sybellas pertaining to the sculptor, installed in the walls of the presbytery of the same church.
From that moment on, Torretti was also busy on a number of occasions in Friuli - where he was active in numerous workshops - in important decorative activities requested by the Manin family: to mention just a few, the transformation of the inside of Udine cathedral, sculptoral ornamentation both for the chapel of Saint Andrew The Apostle in the villa at Passariano as well as that for the Nativity Of The Virgin town chapel.
Pertaining to Torretti in the cathedral of Udine, we could mention in particular the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Annunciata to the sides of the central altar, the cenotaph to Beato Bertrando (from 1717-1718), not to mention one of the allegorical groups in the monument to Manino Manin.
Amongst an array of sculptures for the chapel of the villa Passariano, Torretti, working on a well-defined cycle of themes and figures, produced the reliefs of the smaller altars (The Miracle Of Saint Anthony, The Death Of Saint Joseph); the Crucifix, the Immaculate Conception, the Addolorata and the Souls in Purgatory in the sacresty, works for which payments are documented between 1722 and 1725. Dated to the later years of the 1720s and the decade following was an important commission for the sculptured parts of the Manin village chapel in Udine. On the walls of the chapel, the sculptor created a finely-detailed narrative scene which revealed a sensitivity towards the recovery of a Renaissance classicism, and of a completely new intellectual rigour : the altar with images of the Madonna and Child and in a wall relief, the Stories of the Virgin (Birth, Visitation, Presentation at the temple, Purification).
Despite Torretti’s heavy workload in Friuli, he was still able to continue with his commitments in Venice almost without interruption. In 1720 came one of the two monuments created by the sculptor with the busts of the Cornaro family (fig.8) in the church of the Tolentini. Beginning from the early 1720s payments came for works in the Jesuit church, once again commissioned by the Manins, among which were the group with the Trinity for the central altar, and four Archangels for the church’s internal crossing, while from 1723 came the statue Innocence for the church of the Carmini, positioned opposite the Virginity sculpted by Antonio Corradini.
Towards the middle of the 1730s Torretti was asked to participate on the decoration of the presbytery of the Chapel of the Rosary in the church of Saints John and Paul - an undertaking which unified the most important exponents of Venetian sculpture of the time - producing the two reliefs representing the Presentation of Mary at the Temple (fig.9) and the Marriage of the Virgin, for which Torretti once again distinguished himself with his classic scene-setting.
Memorable later works included the series of statues of mythical subject matter in Istria stone, two of which, Daphne and Syrinx, were commissioned in 1741 by the Marquis Pallavicino for the villa at Bussetto, and which can now be found at the Fortress Soragna.
As mentioned earlier, our Philosopher can realistically be dated to the latter period of Torretti’s career, and not simply as a result of random guesswork. A number of relevant points of comparison confirming the attribution of Torretti to the work in question are evident upon scrutiny of the sculptors work, documented and dateable to between the end of the 1730s and the middle of the 1740s. Take, for example, the previously cited high-reliefs in the Manin chapel in Udine from which we can identify some figures which lend themselves to close comparison to our bust in question: in particular, in the scene with the Presentation of Jesus, a man with a headpiece and his companion with a turban-like headdress (figs. 10-11) and, in the Presentation of Mary, a man whose forehead is covered by a band of cloth (fig. 12). The faces and the heads of these subjects, sculpted to full relief, present forms and physical features that constantly recur in our ideal ‘portrait’: focus, for example, on the design of the forehead and the arched eyebrow, on the cheekbones and the nostrils, as well as the mouth and the chin. At the same time - and in an even more analogous manner in respect to what we have already seen in relation to the figures of the apostles in San Giorgio Maggiore, recalled at the beginning of this study, not to mention the Philosopher in Boston - the similarities are clear in the definition and restraint of the overall workmanship, in particular in the beard and the strands of hair, with their delicately-crafted incisions on the surface. The chiaroscuro effects, too, have much in common.
Similar treatment of the hirsute face that distinguishes our Philosopher can also be seen - together with similar expressive and facial typology - in the figure of Saint Peter (fig. 13) sculpted by Torretti for the church of San Simeon Piccolo, as well as in the classicism of San Modesto (fig. 14) now in the parish church of Lusia, relationships and comparisons which suggest a dating of the bust to around the end of the 1720s.
This is a worthy and rare example of Torretti’s production, closely linked to the demand from collectors at the time, the half-bust discussed herein, in short, also demonstrates a manifest kinship, in terms of iconography and stylistic outcomes, with a similar marble also representing a Philosopher, conserved at the Szépművészeti Múzeum in Budapest (fig. 15), the creator of which remains a mystery to this day: our ancient thinker evidently seems to have been a member of the same philosophical gathering.
translated from Simone Guerriero essay