BAWDY VENETIAN MASKED BALL – EARLY ILLUSTRATION OF THE RIDOTTO GAMBLING HOUSE
Masked ball at the Ridotto.probably Venice, [late 17th century]
15 x 19.8cm. Painting, tempera on vellum, of a Venetian masked ball at the Ridotto, with Commedia dell’Arte masks (foreground), mock-fights and spectators (background), musicians with viol and an Italian table top harpsichord (right), and a brawl (left), some details heightened in gold. Left-hand edge probably slightly trimmed, with very minor smudging at head and foot, minimal cracking of tempera in a couple of places on lower right-hand corner. A very good, fresh copy. Framed and glazed.
An intriguing painting on vellum, fresh and in very good condition—the souvenir of a northern amateur artist’s visit to Venice and its notorious nightlife.
The scene is set at the famous Ridotto, a wing of Palazzo Dandolo which, from 1638 to 1774, was a gambling (and flirting) hall frequented by all ranks of Venetians, from prostitutes to aristocrats. (In the mid-C18 it would become one of Casanova’s favourite hunting grounds.) The wooden ceiling, chandeliers, tall windows, alternating paintings and candelabra on the walls recall the Ridotto portrayed by Francesco Guardi c.1765. Given that the most famous illustrations of the Ridotto date from the C18, this is possibly the earliest obtainable. ‘In the last days of Carnival, after midnight, an orchestra in the main room played the most common dances; though everyone was allowed to dance, it was usually only those wearing masks who did’ (Lundy, I, 201).
The masks in the painting include the classic Commedia dell’Arte or folkloric figures (Harlequin, Pulcinella, Pantalone), as well as fashionable Oriental costumes. There are typically Venetian accessories, which waned in popularity c.1700, immortalised in the Venetian section of Vecellio’s ‘Habiti’ (1590). The weathercock/flag fan had been widespread in Venice since the late C15. The ‘sopèi’, tall wooden shoes originally associated with Venetian prostitutes, also became popular among women of the patriciate in the C17. The numerous women with the ‘moretta’ (black mask), veil and muff are very similar to those in an early C18 engraving of Venetian costumes by J. van Grevenboek. Three women in the background, their head covered and lower neck dangerously exposed, recall the habit of Venetian courtesans described by Vecellio, ‘who make themselves known when they uncover their neck’. Brawls, as that occurring on the upper left, were a common occurrence at masquerades. The miniature painting is pervaded by sexual innuendo, including cross-dressing (foreground) and a lady with her bottom exposed (background). Masked women wearing ‘sopèi’ could, as fashion went by then, pass off as much as prostitutes as wealthy ladies. ‘More than in the printed costume books, […] brightly coloured miniatures depict courtesans in action, […] as they display their individual tastes in colour and fabric. […] Indeed, scenes of flirtation abound in travellers’ illustrated albums’ (Rosenthal, 66-7).
The present was most probably part of a northern traveller’s album—a student, a young amateur artist, or nobleman. Indeed, it reprises genre scenes popular in the ‘alba amicorum’ (Stammbücher) of northern students or tourists in Italy, in the oblong octavo format which became popular in the C17. ‘Paper or vellum notebooks with miniatures, landscapes, genre scenes or costumes (often purchased in Italy), were used as a basis for Stammbücher or were added by their owners for prestige’ (Spadafora, 18-19). The Veneto was indeed an obligatory stop for the ‘peregrinatio academia’ (mostly at Padua) or the Kavaliertour, undertaken in order to improve knowledge and culture; Venice was however the capital of entertainment. Besides verse, autographs or dedications from new acquaintances made along the way, ‘alba amicorum’ included miniature paintings illustrating local buildings, costumes and social scenes. Commedia dell’Arte, carnival (in the streets) and mountebanks, depicted with irony and realism, were popular subjects. The present appears to be based on personal experience, given the faithful though vague remembrance of the room, but also the bawdy details.
Though the artist remains unknown, the style appears northern European—possibly Netherlandish or German. It was probably the work of someone wishing to reproduce the memory of a glorious night out. (Scenes of student goliardic life are frequent as a personal ‘memento’.) Or the northern artist may have been one of the ‘circle of Netherlandish drawers, engravers and miniaturists who had close exchanges with the Venetian region’ (Zorzi, 172). Given the theme, it is most likely the work of a young man.
[!] The list price is £17,500 including VATE. Lundy, Soggiorno in Venezia (1835), vol.1; M.F. Rosenthal, ‘Cutting a Good Figure. The Fashions of Venetian Courtesans in the Illustrated Albums of Early Modern Travelers’, in M. Feldman (ed.), The Courtesan’s Arts (Oxford 2006), 52-74; L. Zorzi, ‘Nota alle illustrazioni. Costumi e scene italiani: il codice Bottacin di Padova’, in Storia d’Italia II (1974), 172-82; M. Spadafora, Habent sua fata libelli (2009).