The Molo: from the Bacino di San Marco is one of Bendigo Art Gallery’s most iconic paintings, yet the artist of this evocative Venetian scene remained a mystery... until now.
Thanks to some great detective work in the form of provenance research and the support of specialists from across the globe, the original artist now has the recognition they deserve.
From the French word provenir, which means ‘to come from’, provenance is the history of ownership of a valued artwork. A full provenance provides a documented history that can help prove ownership, assign the work to a known artist, and establish the work of art's authenticity (Getty Research Institute 2014).
The artwork - donated to the Gallery by Baillieu Myer AC in 2005 - depicts the Molo, a small stretch of the bustling quay in front of the Piazetta in Venice, and features buildings such as the Ducal Palace, Campanile, the basilica of San Marco and the column of St Mark.
The work had been in possession of the Myer family since at least the 1920s, and when the painting was donated the tentative attribution by the donors was:
The Grand Canal
Italy 1711 - 1794
oil on canvas
This attribution was most likely due to the presence of a nameplate attached to the frame that states this specific artist and title information. However, during the valuation process of the artwork, one of the valuers determined that the work could not be by Jacopo Marieschi, and tentatively suggested that it may be from the School of Canaletto, possibly painted by an unknown student.
Some recent, much needed conservation treatment provided the perfect opportunity to undertake further research on the painting and perhaps try to determine who the mysterious artist may be.
Paintings conservator Helen Gill gave the painting an overall dry surface clean to remove any dust and debris. She then undertook solubility testing of the discoloured varnish to determine the best methodology for removal. After the varnish had been removed, more solubility testing was undertaken to determine pigment composition prior to removing heavy-handed over painting from previous restoration work. Considerable retouching was then required to reduce the areas of distracting loss within the image and the painting was then revarnished with MS3 conservation grade synthetic resin.
Frames Conservator Noel Turner gave the frame an overall clean to remove surface dirt, debris and dust. A wet clean of the frame surface was then completed to remove any remaining accretions and dirt. The cracking in the ornamentation was then consolidated, and the heavy patination that had been applied as part of an old restoration was removed. Infilling with microcrystalline wax and pigment was then applied to soften the most visually distracting cracks. The painting was then reunited and rehoused safely to conservation standards with a archivally sound materials and museum glazing.
While the painting was out of its frame, the Gallery made a request to the conservation team at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) for assistance in using their specialist examination equipment and staff expertise.
Generously the NGV obliged their time and services in order for Bendigo Art Gallery to obtain an X-ray, UV photography and infrared photography of the work – all of which provide completely non-destructive access to details of the work, and would ordinarily be difficult (and expensive) to obtain.
An examination under infrared light enables penetration of the paint layer within a painting that is not possible with the naked eye and regular light. Depending on the composition of the pigments this can sometimes reveal a preparatory drawing, a hidden signature or overpainting.
UV photography is used to assist with material identification as certain pigments will fluoresce different colours under UV light. This can help conservators identify insect damage, different surface coatings, various pigments within the image and any previous retouching.
This UV photograph was taken after the painting had undergone retouching, which you can see with all the areas of purple that are fluorescing. This indicates the retouching that has taken place to help to reduce the visible distraction to the work caused by areas of previous intervention or damage.
X-radiography is an incredibly useful examination technique for detecting any composition changes, hidden paintings and over-painted areas. The conservator can obtain valuable information about the composition and condition of the painting canvas and the location, extent and nature of any damages like tears, holes, internal cracks, pest infestation as well as any previous repairs such as infills, patches or linings.
Unfortunately, the examination did not reveal any hidden signatures that may have resolved this inquiry; however, these images will be incredibly useful for any future conservators or researchers who may wish to examine the painting.
Expertise from across the seas
By a strange coincidence, a letter was received by the Gallery around the time of undertaking these examinations from a research scholar, Dr John Thompson, who is currently writing a biography of Neilma Gantner, the eldest daughter of Sidney Meyer and Dame Merlyn Myer. Dr Thompson notes that in his conversations with Ms Gantner she had mentioned this painting as being attributed to Michele Marieschi, although was unable to provide any authority on the scholarship of this claim. To ensure no stone was left unturned in the search for the artist, this new artist was added to the provenance search list.
The research then continued overseas by contacting two Venetian painting experts, Charles Beddington and Bozena Anna Kowalczyk. Charles Beddington is well respected for his role as the pre-eminent scholar of Venetian view painting, and Canaletto in particular. Beddington has curated and written the catalogue for two major exhibitions – Canaletto in England: A Venetian Artist abroad 1746-1755, Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven 19 October – 31 December 2006, and Dulwich Picture Gallery, 24 January – 15 April 2007, and, Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals, National Gallery of Art, London 13 October 2010 – 16 January 2011, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 20 February – 30 May 2011.
Bozena Anna Kowalczyk is an independent art historian specialising in Venetian painters – particularly Canaletto and his contemporaries – and has published many books on this subject and the artists of this era. By seeking the assistance and guidance of these two educated and experienced scholars, the surety of the evidence they provide can be much more reliable than conducting research independently.
A mystery is solved
Astonishingly, both Mr Beddington and Ms Kowalczyk replied immediately confirming the artist was not Jacopo or Michele Marieschi nor Canaletto but in fact, Giovanni Battista Cimaroli.
Mr Beddington also provided a reference image of the work mentioned in the catalogue raisonné of Cimaroli’s body of work by another Venetian painting scholar, Federica Spadotto (Giovan Battista Cimaroli, 2011.) This image clearly shows the painting in the BAG collection and Spadotti, after sighting a high-resolution image of the work shared with her via email, has also confirmed this.
Interestingly, the name of the work is noted as, ll palazzo ducale visto dal mare which can be loosely translated to The Ducal palace seen from the sea. Our painting now has a new name as well an artist!
Ms Spadotti very generously provided a catalogue entry for our newly discovered Cimaroli painting, and the entry was very kindly translated by Carl Villis, Senior Paintings Conservator at the National Gallery of Victoria:
‘This evocative view painting draws directly on a compositional prototype developed by Canaletto (Antonio Canal known as il Canaletto; Venice, 1697-1768), which gained widespread fame via the engraving (No. XIV) made by Antonio Visentini (Venice, 1688-1782), forming part of Canaletto’s suite of engraved views of Venice called the 'Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum’, published in 1735.
‘Numerous eighteenth-century landscape painters adopted Canaletto’s layout but varied the nature, number and arrangement of boats and motifs according to their personal interpretation of the theme, as happens in this instance with Giovan Battista Cimaroli (Salò, 1687-Venice, 1771), a Lombard painter who emigrated to Venice and painted views and landscapes of the city and its surrounds, notably along the nearby Brenta river.
‘The scant biographical information that exists for the artist describes him as a painter of moderate fame, who established himself among collectors thanks to his skill in imitating Canaletto, to the point that most of his views were for a long time attributed to the great master.
‘The quality of this painting, which was published for the first time by Federica Spadotto in her monograph on the artist (2011), enables us to understand how Cimaroli's technique may have been confused for the greatness of Canaletto, who is invoked here in the use of light and in the softness of touch that distinguishes the figures and architecture, bathed in the familiar light of Venice in the early afternoon.
‘However, unlike Canaletto, the painter from Salò reveals his imprint in the unmistakable physiognomy of the faces, which are accompanied by solid and well-rounded bodies; we also note greater descriptive care and the typically Lombard attention to detail which has given the master the moniker of ‘artisan of the view’’.
This new finding demonstrates the value and importance of not only provenance research, but the generosity of specialists who share their knowledge, experience and time. This discovery could not have been made possible without the assistance of Charles Beddington, Bozena Anna Kowalczyk, Federica Spadotti as well as the conservation team at the National Gallery of Victoria. With their assistance we have now been able to reunite an artist to not only their work, but their place in history and our Collection.