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Master of the Week:Piazzetta, Venetian Poet of Light

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta - The Soothsayer - WGA17432
The Soothsayer, 1740

Born on February 13, 1682 in Venice, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta was a Rococo painter. He studied with Crespi while in Bologna and quickly evolved into his own style of Venetian Neo-Baroque Rococo with dark colors and graceful figures. Although a contemporary of Ricci and Tiepolo, Piazzetta remains a unique artist for his use of light and figures that seems to defy the lighter Rococo era of his time. A teacher and co-founder of the Venetian Academy of Fine Arts Scuola di Nudo (I would love to attend a school like that!) Piazzetta would prove to leave a lasting legacy of Rococo genius, even if under-appreciated today. His drawings reveal an understanding of character and charm in the human face, especially in his studies of children, that is unmistakably Piazzetta.

In The Soothsayer above, Piazzetta melds warm and cool together with distinctive warm light and deep shadows. Note how he achieves the darks in the background with deep browns that transition into yellow-greens and blues. The figures are quite nonchalant despite this gloomy atmosphere, and yet their skin has a glow that Piazzetta's contemporaries would refer to as "lume solivo", a dialect of Venetian presumably for glowing light. Piazzetta realized early on that when warm light falls on an object of light color or white, it glows profusely, and also causes the drapery surrounding the object to become translucent and reflect warm light onto the skin. This particular insight into how light affects human skin and drapery is what distinguishes Piazzetta from his contemporaries who may have focused exclusively on color and form itself. Piazzetta also uses this distinctive light as a way to identify the key figures in his paintings, rather than color alone.

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta - Three Dominican Saints - WGA17421
Three Dominican Saints, 1738

An interesting interplay of three main colors or values, black, white and grey, Piazzetta creates a dynamic composition with the black and grey figures facing opposite directions. The figure in white is leaning back with arms wide, as if in reference to the crucifixion, and yet it is the way these three figures intersect, surrounded by heavenly clouds, to create a sense of depth and space. The angel above them is positioned in a twisting pose that reveals Piazzetta's mind at work, thinking of realism in all figures depicted. His palette for the clouds is a neutral warm against a smoky blue sky. Piazzetta establishes personality and character in all his figures, by way of not only facial expression but by the body language of the hands and feet, an ingredient he uses consistently in all of his paintings.

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta - The Ecstasy of St Francis - WGA17423
The Ecstasy of St Francis, 1729

Expressive figure arrangement and warm chiaroscuro against a mottled background of dark and light serve to create a powerful composition. Although St. Francis admittedly appears posed against the clouds as he receives the stigmata, Piazzetta's interpretation here has a real sense of divinity. He takes a theme painted over the centuries by countless artists such as Giotto, Bellini, Caravaggio, Baglione and others and makes it truly Baroque. By focusing on the angel instead of St. Francis— Piazzetta's bright light accentuating the arching body and fluttering wings— St. Francis seems to nearly fade into the background, reinforcing the ecstasy as being divine and an act of God. As the cherubs look down from above, the murky sky behind them and the powerful light radiating from the angel and the clouds beneath him conjures a sort of physical energy, a mystical force that cannot be explained, yet is captivating. This is considered one of his greatest masterpieces.

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta - The Guardian Angel with Sts Anthony of Padua and Gaetano Thiene - WGA17425
The Guardian Angel with Sts Anthony of Padua and Gaetano Thiene, ca.1729

Piazzetta's use of space and immersing the viewer into the painting is the defining characteristic of this painting. Once again, the emphasis is clearly on the angel, who stands tall and confidently here with highly realistic wings. A predominantly warm palette also prevails, with the clouds below them glowing an orange-red. Each figure also occupies their own space, while also standing or sitting in their own vertical direction for visual interest. Viewed from below this painting must have a very strong physical presence.

Below are a couple of samples from Piazzetta's draftsmanship and his ease with chalk plus white. They are works of art in their own right...

Feeding the Dog, black chalk with white

Click here for zoomable version

A Boy and a Girl, black chalk with white

Piazzetta, Giovanni - Rebecca at the Well - c. 1740
Rebecca at the Well, ca.1740

Here for the first time the influence of the Rococo is visible in this painting. Rebecca is portrayed as a sensual Venetian with a revealing low-cut dress yet modest and humble in character, who turns in surprise to Eliezer, the servant of Abraham who offers her jewelry as a gift in advance for accepting to be the wife of Isaac, Abraham's son. Piazzetta's figures again overlap and occupy their own space, and the palette also includes cool, bright colors—a slight influence from Tiepolo. What is also amusing here is the sexual innuendo in that her right hand, instead of accepting the jewelry, is positioned in such a way as if to be wanting to grasp something else. Only Piazzetta knows for sure the hidden joke here, if there is one, and it is wonderful to see that artists had a sense of humour while being great at the same time. And Piazzetta is definitely one of the greats.


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