These are not just ordinary paintings. Pietro Longhi’s portraits captivate all five senses. It almost seems to perceive the smell of tobacco and coffee permeating the rooms. Blinds are down, chambers are wrapped in the shadows, lit up only by the gleam of the ladies’ fabrics and jewels. All the characters are dutifully posing, so refined in their elegant clothing, nevertheless it is not hard to imagine a light chatter in the background, the exchange of a frivolous “ciacola” (from Venetian dialect: gossip, rumor), the outburst of a laughter coming from the room next-door. Outside the windows, Venice mid-seventeenth century life echoes in the streets.
The soft light, the elegant yet scanty interior decor, the asymmetric cut of the scenes, these are all characteristics that distinguish our Venetian painter’s work and which our talented – unfortunately anonymous – miniaturist was able to reproduce on wafer-thin ivory plates.
The subjects for the miniatures were taken from two paintings that are still present on Venetian territory: the first one, “Il sarto” (“The Tailor”), an oil on canvas, was created between 1742 and 1743, is today conserved at the Gallerie dell’Accademia (much sadly, it is not in display). The second one “La toeletta”(“The Vanity Table”), which is also an oil on canvas, was realized almost fifteen years later, between 1755 and 1760, and is now exhibited in the wonderful Sala Longhi, on the second floor of Ca’ Rezzonico.
If we carefully observe Longhi’s paintings, we can easily find some constant references to the theatrical world and we could even trace a parallel development between the work of the painter and the production of the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni. As the latter created a new type of theater inspired by real life, in the very same way Longhi, who was primarily painter of the Venetian commercial bourgeoisie, included in his works an accurate description of the social custom of a whole era.
We have been wondering why our miniaturist chose, amid Pietro Longhi’s whole production, precisely these two paintings as subjects. And then, we eventually noticed that if put one next to the other, the miniatures have a specular composition, with similar and recurring elements.
In both miniatures the scene is centered by a group of three people posing in the same order, namely on one side we find the mistress who, in the first miniature painting, is intent in admiring the dress handed out by the tailor while in the second miniature she is wearing make-up. In the center, we see a maidservant passing her a tray with scented ointments in “The Vanity Table” and with a refreshing lotion in “The Tailor”. The group of three people is completed by the character holding the dress, the tailor on one side and a lady-in-waiting on the other.
We are sure your eye too did not miss the tiny dog depicted in both miniatures. In “The Tailor” it is curiously intent on observing the cookie handed over by the little girl. Who knows what secrets and gossips this cute little dog silently witnessed…?
The rooms furniture further contributes to make the miniatures resemble each other: the high wall covered with warm enveloping tapestry is the perfect background for the portrait of an illustrious ancestor on one side – maybe a high official? Or, who knows, even a Doge? – and for a finely engraved mirror on the other.
On the sideline we can catch a glimpse of additional specular details: in “The Vanity Table” we can see a large door hidden by a heavy green curtain, in “The Tailor” we likewise find a majestic fireplace.
The frames in softly carved ivory, decorated with flowers and leaflets motifs, make this pair of wonderful miniature paintings even more unique.
Ps: As soon as Ca’ Rezzonico – Museum of 18th-century Venice reopens (for the time being it is still closed due to the Covid-19 emergency) we will bring you with us to admire the original painting “The Vanity Table”, that is a promise!
Size – The Tailor:
with frame: 10 x 11,5 cm
Without frame: 6,3 x 8,3 cm
Size – The Vanity Table:
With frame: 10 x 12 cm
Without frame: 6,5 x 8,5 cm
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