National Gallery of Canada: Selfies had nothing on artists of Renaissance

National Gallery curator Sonia Del Re looks at the terracotta bust of Giulio Contarini,a prominent 16th century Venetian patron of the arts. The bust is the centrepiece of a new exhibtion at the Gallery. Photo: Peter Robb

With his long beard and piercing eyes, the bust of the important 16th century Venetian politician and patron of the arts Giulio Contarini is an imposing and striking portrait in terracotta. No wonder this image was reproduced in engravings and drawings by artists who witnessed it.

Busts like this, along with self-portraits, were the a key part of the business of art half a millennia ago in places such as Venice where the sculptor Alessandro Vittoria plied his trade. 

For Sonia Del Re, the National Gallery’s senior curator of prints and drawings, the bust is the perfect vehicle to explore the role this kind of portrait played long before selfies and instagram became a part of our world.  

“The reason I picked this bust (for the Masterpiece in Focus series) is that we have three works on paper that are inspired it. I wanted to explain the entire context around the bust.

“Also it is a truly wonderful terracotta” work. “It’s fascinating to think of the process this piece has gone through, first of all modelling  it and then cutting it with a wire so it cold be hollowed and then to fire it in two different pieces and putting it back together and then surviving 450 years.”

When the National Gallery acquired the piece in 2002, it was restored. The exhibition has a before and after look at the restoration work that was done. The bust was the first Vittoria work acquired for a Canadian public collection and it is “one of possibly only two autograph busts by the famed sculptor currently residing in the Western Hemisphere,” the gallery said is a media release.

“The idea of identity through our self-image was important then as it is today.”

Other artists were equally impressed including Giovanni Battista Tiepolo who was making copies of it in his studio more than a century later. There is even an engraving by a 19th century artist that picked up on the theme.

“This tradition of looking at portraits of artists or self-portraits was very important in a place such as Venice,” she said. The canal city on the Adriatic Sea was a major power in Europe at the time.

Capturing pieces of art on paper is still important today as anyone who witnesses an art student drawing an image of a sculpture or a painting hanging in a major gallery, anywhere in the world.

The bust is also emblematic of the close relationships between artists of the day, Del Re said. Included in this exhibition, for example, is a portrait by Paolo Veronese of Vittoria in his studio with one of his sculptures. The two artists were good friends.

“They worked together. It’s not a surprise that Veronese left this portrait of Vittoria, which (the sculptor) would have ordered.” In a rare display, the bronze statue portrayed in the painting is also on view in the show.

There are also a series of sketches by Tiepolo of another friend of Vittoria’s, a man who decorated the inside of the sculptor’s home. It was a tight network of colleagues, all trying to make a living and helping a brother artist out.

“Vittoria is remembered today as not only an artist but as someone who represented himself as a person of affluence.”

One of the quirky things about the Vittoria bust of Contarini, which served as a model for his tomb, is that one of the former owners of the piece thought the bust was of the Italian master painter Titian and had his name mistakenly added to the base. This wasn’t the only thing added to the bust over its history, she said. At one point it was painted to look like a marble statue. Some terracotta pieces were actually painted to like bronze statues.

Masters of Venetian Portraiture: Veronese, Tiepolo, Vittoria will be on view until Sept. 16. It features 17 works – including three sculptures, 12 works on paper, one book and one painting. Some of the pieces are from the Gallery’s own collection and others are from prominent institutions such as  The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.