Tired of London?

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the great lexicographer, journalist, conversationalist, inveterate London pub-goer and general good egg, famously remarked that if a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.

Another quote of his on London is less well known:

“Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.”

Which forms a pretty good introduction to the new, 640 page, Blue Guide London, hot off the press and available in a book shop near you VERY SOON.

Blue Guide London »

Most rare in marble portraits

The above title is a quote from Giorgio Vasari. They are the words he used, in his famous Lives of the Artists, to describe Alessandro Vittoria (1525–1608), a man who became one of the greatest Italian sculptors of his age.

Vittoria was born in Trento, a city in the far north of Italy, on the border of the Italian and German-speaking worlds. In the mid-16th century, when Vittoria was a young man, it played host to the famous eccelsiastical council convoked to discuss the threats posed by the growth of Protestantism and to agree a response. A portrait of Vittoria exists from this time, painted by another north Italian, Giovanni Battista Moroni, from Bergamo. Moroni, like many other artists, had gone to Trento, attracted by the opportunities presented by the prominent Council delegates, many of whom wished to have their likenesses taken. In Moroni’s portrait (now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), Vittoria appears as a confident young man holding a small marble torso. The musculature of this torso is rather peculiar: either Vittoria was very young at the time and not yet very skilled, or else Moroni had never studied anatomy, but nevertheless it serves as an emblem of the kind of sculpture that would make Vittoria famous. He developed a prodigious skill at sculpting portraits in the style of ancient Roman busts, a genre he effectively re-invented and re-popularised, and he became sought-after by numerous patrons. In Vittoria’s native Trento today, there is a square that bears his name with an early 20th-century statue in it showing a middle-aged man holding a sculptor’s chisel, dressed in a frock coat and looking like a dapper Edwardian official from some municipal board of works. He is nothing at all like the confident and self-aware young man that Moroni depicted and which hangs in Vienna. One suspects that the young Vittoria was very confident indeed.

Portrait of Alessandro Vittoria by Giovanni Battista Moroni. Kunsthistorisches Musem, Vienna.

Vittoria was also skilled in plasterwork. When he first went to Venice, he was taken on by the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino, with whom he worked on the steep barrel-vaulted entrance staircase to the Biblioteca Marciana, a space overwhelmingly encrusted with painted stucco. If Vittoria had stuck to this kind of thing, it is unlikely that today we would know his name. The skill is very great, but the overall effect is too much. It is perhaps lucky for posterity that he quarrelled with Sansovino and found a different outlet for his talents. He went on to sculpt bust after bust of well-fed statesman and administrators, and today they provide a fascinating window on an age. In his native Trento, in the magnificent Castello di Buonconsiglio, there are two characteristic portrait busts of Venetian notables. But by far the best place to admire Vittoria’s work is Venice: in Ca’ d’Oro, in the Frari, the Museo Correr, the Doge’s Palace.

Two examples of Vittoria’s portrait busts of dignitaries of his day. In Castello di Buonconsiglio, Trento (top) and in Ca’ D’Oro, Venice (bottom).

Vittoria was a contemporary of Tintoretto and Veronese, and with them he helped Venice in her project of self-glamorisation in an era when her best days were already beginning to be behind her. We know where Vittoria lived in Venice: his house was just off the Riva degli Schiavoni behind the church of the Pietà. A hotel stands on the site of the building today. Here he had a beautiful garden and a fine collection of works of art, including a marvellous self-portrait by Parmagianino, shown reflected in a convex mirror (also now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum). When he died, he was buried in the nearby church of San Zaccaria: his tomb slab is very simple, a black flagstone laid in the floor of the sanctuary. On the wall next to it, however, is an elaborate monument designed by himself with a portrait bust in the antique style and mourning figures of Sculpture, Painting and Architecture.

Monument to Alessandro Vittoria in San Zaccaria, Venice. The Latin description praises him as someone ‘who when alive drew out from marble the faces of the living’. (The sculptures of Architecture and Painting appear to have been miscaptioned.)

Annabel Barber

See here for details of our relevant titles: Blue Guide Venice and Blue Guide Trentino & the South Tyrol.