Astronomer with Compass


Accession year 2000

Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 38 cm

Collection Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti per l’Arte

Long-term loan Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin

Inv. no. CC.3.P.PIT.1740.A44

Provenance: Christie’s, London, Important Old Master Pictures, 13 December 2000 (lot 100, pp. 252-253).

Bibliography: Mangili 2002, pp. 142, 143; R. Mangili, in Venice 2006, p. 102, cat. 20; Christov-Bakargiev 2021, vol. I, p. 492.

Fig. 1 The back of the painting

Drawing inspiration from a style of painting that still owed a large debt to the traditions of the previous century, particularly the lessons handed down to him by his uncle Francesco, Giambattista Pittoni succeeded in skilfully combining the art of the great masters of the first half of the 18th century, such as Sebastiano Ricci and Giambattista Piazzetta, with his own original painting style, able to merge Rococo grace with an interest in the constructions of drawing and beautiful crystalline colours.

The Astronomer with Compass found its way onto the London antiques market with the correct attribution and a report by Franca Zava Boccazzi, author of the leading monograph on the artist, which suggested a date of 1745, in relation to possible contact with the most famous depictions of Oriental figures by Giambattista Tiepolo. Renzo Mangili (2002) was the first to propose a link with the Visconti di Modrone Collection of “character heads”, which he had recently reconstructed. This was one of the most interesting series to develop around a particularly genre. It was highly successful in Venice and among European collections, characterised by just under fifty works of a similar size, with similar inscriptions and authorship claims on the back of the paintings. It began in the late 17th century and came to an end at the start of the 19th century. As well as by the size of the canvas, this theory is also supported by the presence of the writing on the back of the painting (“20/ Gio Batta Pittoni”), comparable in every way with the others in the series (fig. 1).

The group comprised “character heads” by very different artists, some of whom rarely produced works of this kind. They included Giambattista Tiepolo, who painted the Portrait of a Young Man with a Book (now in New Orleans) and a Venetian Dignitary (private collection), Sebastiano Ricci, Mattia Bortoloni, Nicola Grassi, Francesco Fontebasso and Gaspare Diziani: in short, all the main protagonists of Venetian painting from the late 17th century to the 18th century. Furthermore, upon observing the presence of another work by Pittoni in the collection, depicting a Girl as Venus and datable to around the 1720s, Mangili also suggested a similar date for the painting in question. Nevertheless, the level of stylistic maturity and the rich paintwork, which is still perfectly legible today thanks to the work’s good state of preservation, lead us to postpone the proposed date and consider placing it in the 1740s, as suggested by Zava Boccazzi in her time. In fact, there is nothing to prevent us from thinking that the artist may have contributed to the cycle in several stages over the course of his career, like other artists represented in the series.

The painting is certainly one of the most beautiful works in the series, as well as one of the masterpieces of small dimensions in Pittoni’s catalogue as a whole. The face that emerges from the semi-darkness of the background, illuminated from behind by a soft light, features an expression of suspended reflection. Framed by the finest enamel colours – blue, purple and carmine – as in the artist’s finest works, and interspersed with golden reflections, it is one of the most effective examples of the independent path followed by Pittoni, more comparable to international Rococo than the style of Ricci and Tiepolo that characterised the first half of the Italian Settecento.

[Denis Ton]