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Portrait of Giulio Contarini

Alessandro Vittoria
Portrait of Giulio Contarini,  c.1570-76
68.5 x 63 cm
Purchased 2002

The Venetian sculptor Alessandro Vittoria was born in Trento in northern Italy in around 1525 and arrived in Venice to stay in 1543. He was therefore of the same generation as such Venetian painters as Tintoretto and Veronese. The innovations brought to the history of painted portraiture in Venice by those artists, and of course Titian, were equalled for sculpture by Vittoria, almost singlehandedly. His terracotta bust of Giulio Contarini - a major recent discovery in Italian Renaissance sculpture - is, arguably, his finest achievement in the portrait genre.

As a consummate professional and the dominant sculptor of his day, Vittoria was capable of handling marble, bronze, and stucco, but he was at his most creative in terracotta (Italian for "baked earth"). In this example, the expressiveness, vivacity, and fine detail possible with clay modelling are evident in many passages, especially in the long beard and the active folds of drapery. The work is effectively a drawing in clay.

This terracotta sculpture sensitively portrays a member of one of the most esteemed of all Venetian dynasties, Giulio Contarini, at an advanced age. Contarini's expression, combining melancholy wisdom with patriarchal power, reminds one of the Moses of Michelangelo - whom Vittoria is known to have greatly admired. As a Venetian artist, Vittoria was also aware of models in the paintings of Bellini, Lotto, and Titian, and there is a pictorial dimension in this work that encapsulates the essence of Renaissance portraiture on the eve of the Baroque period, and that would be a major influence on the art of Bernini.

Vittoria found numerous important clients in the level of society to which Giulio Contarini belonged. The artist was the first to introduce the portrait bust into Venice, even though the Venetian government opposed glorification of the self in its official imagery. The rise of this genre is linked to the desire of the Venetian ruling class to promote itself as a new Rome, to honour its long-standing status as a republic. That such portrait busts were meant to evoke ancient models is apparent from the rounded termination at the bottom and the hollowed-out back, as well as the stern treatment of the features. Contarini's costume is also anachronistic: he wears a form of toga.

With its classicizing references and sympathetic portrayal of the human condition, Vittoria's sculpture is a major addition to the collection of the National Gallery of Canada in a previously under-represented area of the Italian Renaissance.