This beautiful, quintessentially Venetian Madonna and Child is the earliest known picture by Bartolomeo Veneto, an important painter of devotional works and fashionable portraits in Venice, the Veneto and Lombardy in the first decades of the 16th century. The cartellino at lower left bears the date 1502 and is signed, curiously, 'Bartolamio mezo ven/izian e mezo cremonexe' [Bartolomeo half-Venetian and half-Cremonese], which suggests that he may have been born in Cremona and moved with his family to Venice at a young age, or that he was born of Cremonese parents in Venice. The precise date of his birth is not known, but the presence of the signature and date --as well as the remarkable technical refinement which the painting reveals -- indicates that by this time, Bartolomeo was already an independent master with considerable prior experience (Pagnotta, op. cit., p. 157).
Although many scholars have thought Bartolomeo to have been a pupil of the great Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516), Laura Pagnotta, author of the definitive catalogue raisonné on the artist, has shown that early in his career, he most likely frequented the workshop not only of Giovanni, but also that of his brother, Gentile Bellini (c.1429-1507). She points to the precise, linear manner of drawing and the emphatically graphic silhouetting of the figures against the background as evidence of Gentile's influence. The typologies of the Madonna and Child, the morphology of drapery folds, and the panoramic landscape view which unfolds behind the Madonna's shoulders, on the other hand, depend more closely on Giovanni, as seen, for example, in his so-called Madonna of the Meadow of circa 1500 (London National Gallery; fig. 1) (Pagnotta, op. cit., pp. 22-23).
In the present picture, the Madonna wears a rich red dress and deep blue mantle, edged with delicate gold embroidery and lined with glowing yellow fabric. Covered by a white headdress, symbol of her purity, the Madonna's head towers over the horizon, set high against the limpid blue sky in which clouds float serenely, evoking the heavenly kingdom on earth. She holds the Christ child in her lap, her downcast eyes and solemn expression suggesting foreknowledge of the coming Passion. The lively Christ child seems to wriggle away from his mother, his attention focused off to the right. She in turn holds his small foot as if to gently restrain him, perhaps in an effort to protect him from his fate. Nestled within the verdant landscape behind and to the left of the Madonna is a careful rendering of the Basilica of San Antonio in Padua, with its cupole and campanile described in minute detail. While this has led some scholars to conclude that the present picture was painted in Padua, it is also quite possible it was executed in Venice for a patron with Paduan origins, or for one with a special personal devotion to St. Anthony (Pagnotta, op. cit., p. 24).
Most scholars believe that the compositional scheme, which shows the Madonna in a three-quarter view with the infant Christ in her lap as she holds his right foot in her hand, derives from a now-lost Bellini prototype, which some hold to have been the invention of Gentile, but which Pagnotta suggests was more likely to have been Giovanni's, perhaps in the form of a drawing made for use by his pupils (Pagnotta, op. cit., p. 23). Although deeply indebted to both Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, the present painting also reveals Bartolomeo's awareness of other trends within Venetian art of the early cinquecento. The strongly modeled, plastic forms and accentuated roundness of the figure's heads reflect the influence of Antonello da Messina, while the clear, bright luminosity through which the details of the background can be perfectly perceived calls to mind the contemporary work of Marco Basaiti and Vincenzo Catena (Pagnotta, op. cit., p. 157).
The Madonna and Child also reflects Bartolomeo's fascination with the polish of Flemish painting, which was much admired at this time in Venice. This is seen in the depiction of the landscape background, in which the minute particulars of architecture and foliage are rendered with a miniaturist precision. Motifs such as the rounded tree-tops sprinkled with delicate highlights, and the inclusion of tiny figures engaged in everyday tasks -- such as the oarsman steering a boat filled with oxen at right -- point to the Flemish tradition as well, in particular, the work of Hans Memling and Joachim Patinir, many of whose pictures were then in Venetian collections.
Three other autograph versions of the present composition are known: in the Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon (inv. 20419; Pagnotta, op. cit., p. 154, no. 1), thought by Pagnotta to be the earliest; formerly in the Crespi Collection, Milan (Pagnotta, op. cit., p. 158, no. 3); and another, signed and dated in 1505, in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo (inv. 723; Pagnotta, op. cit., p. 162, cat. no. 5). The composition was extremely popular in early 16th-century Venice, as evidenced by the numerous copies and variants by artists from the Bellini school and circle, such as that attributed to Francesco Bissolo in the Accademia, Venice, or that now in the John G. Johnson Collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (inv. 183), which Pagnotta tentatively ascribes to Pietro Duia (Pagnotta, op. cit., p. 22).
The present Madonna and Child has a most illustrious Venetian provenance. Its first certain owner was Marcantonio Michiel (d. 1834), whose collection in the Palazzo Michiel delle Colonne on the Grand Canal in Venice also included pictures by Giovanni Bellini, Andrea Schiavone, and sculptures by Jacopo Sansovino and Il Riccio. The last of the ancient patrician Michiel family line, Marcantonio had inherited not only his family's important art collection, but also those of the Zane, the Corner of San Cassiano, and the Barbarigo of Santa Maria Zobenigo, noble Venetian families of which he was the sole surviving relative (Lorenzetti, op. cit., pp. V, VII). After Michiel's death in 1834, the palace and its collection passed to his daughter's son, Count Leopardo Martinengo, a man of great culture and learning, among whose beneficiaries were the Museo Correr, Venice; the Biblioteca Civica Queriniana, Brescia; and the town of Brescia, to which he left a portion of his paintings collection, today housed in the Museo Tosio Martinengo, Brescia. Bartolomeo Veneto's Madonna and Child remained in Martinengo's collection, however, and after his death in 1884 was inherited, along with the palazzo, by his nephew, Count Antonio Donà dalle Rose. It remained in the picture gallery in the palazzo on the Grand Canal until the mid-1930s, when the collection was dispersed.
Signature: Signed and dated '1502 9 / ap. bartolamio mezo ven / izian e mezo cremonexe' (lower left, on the cartolino)
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PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
Marcantonio Michiel (d. 1834), Palazzo Michiel delle Colonne, Venice; and by descent to his grandson,
Count Leopardo Martinengo da Barco (1804-1884), Palazzo Michiel delle Colonne, Venice; by descent to his nephew,
Count Antonio Donà dalle Rose, Palazzo Donà dalle Rose, Venice (formerly Palazzo Michiel delle Colonne), 1896.
with Adolfo Loewi, Venice, by 1938.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 9 December, 1959, lot 59.