Rembrandt and Raphael

This post is dedicated to the memory of Hasan Niyazi, Italian Renaissance and especially Raphael scholar, art blogger and passionate advocate of making art available online for everyone. Hasan passed away unexpectedly at the far too early age of 38, almost the same age as Raphael who died at the age of 37, the artist whose art he loved and researched tirelessly. Hasan’s legacy will live on and his generosity and kindness as well as his special gift of communication will be remembered fondly by many.

Van Uffelen's house where the auction took place

Van Uffelen’s house on Keizersgracht where the auction took place (now destroyed)

9 April 1639. The atmosphere in the Keizersgracht house must have been electrifying as Lucas van Uffelen’s collection was auctioned. In today’s terms we would call it the “sale of the century”. Van Uffelen, a rich merchant who had lived in Venice from 1615 until the 1630s, had returned to Amsterdam where he had died some time before 10 May 1638 and now his art collection was to be sold from his house at the corner of Westermarkt (Keizersgracht 198, now demolished). We do not know the exact nature of the paintings offered on that day save a few names that have come down to us. Unfortunately the Orphan Chamber’s notebooks, one of the greatest resources for art at auction in the 17th century, have not been preserved after 1638. Had there been just one more such notebook it would have comprised Van Uffelen’s sale, the most important one in the first forty years of the 17th century. The total proceeds of 59,496 guilders comprises an incredible 60% of the total value of the works of art extracted from the Orphan Chamber notebooks during the entire period 1597 to 1638.

Raphael, Baldassare Castiglione, 1515, Louvre

Raphael, Baldassare Castiglione, 1515, Louvre

We know about the proceeds from none other than Rembrandt who was present at the sale, but whether he bought anything is unclear. The most significant item offered that day was Raphael’s 1515 portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, the author of the Book of the Courtier (l Libro del Cortegiano). We do not know whether Rembrandt sketched the portrait in situ or, perhaps more likely, whether he sketched it immediately after he got home, from memory. Given how many drawings must have been lost (thrown out by the painter himself or later destroyed), the little sketch must have been of significance to him. It is inscribed: “de Conten batasar de kastijlijone van raefael – verkoft voor 3500 gulden – het geheel caergesoen tot Luke van Nuffelen heeft gegolden f59456:- Ao 1639 (Count Balthasar de Castiglione by Raphael, sold for 3500 guilders. The entire shipment fetched 59,456 guilders at Luke van Nuffelen. Anno 1639). It looks as if he added “Anno 1639” somewhat later, as if to mark the occasion on which he saw the portrait.

Rembrandt, Sketch of Raphael's Baldassare Castiglione, 1639

Rembrandt, Sketch of Raphael’s Baldassare Castiglione, 1639, Vienna, Albertina

The term caergesoen, shipment, seems to indicate that the paintings had been recently transported by ship from Venice to Amsterdam, although it can also mean a collection or possessions in a more general sense. If had been a shipment, the auctioneer would have been the widow De Vos who had acquired the sole concession to auctioneer shipping cargoes. At the Van Uffelen auction, however, the auctioneer was Pieter Haringh, a member of the Haringh family who were important figures in the Amsterdam auction world.

Rembrandt, Balaam and the Ass, 1626, Musée Cognacq-Jay

Rembrandt, Balaam and the Ass, 1626, Musée Cognacq-Jay

The sum of 3500 guilders for the Raphael was equal to almost five times the value of the most expensive work of art sold in the previous 41 years (an album of prints or drawings by Lucas van Leyden). There were two persistent bidders that we know of: the German painter Joachim von Sandrart, who later mentioned it in his book Academie der Bau-, Bild- und Mahlerey-Künst and Alphonso Lopez, an art dealer and jeweler who was acting upon instructions of Cardinal Richelieu for the French crown. Both were living in Amsterdam at the time. Lopez, ostensibly in Amsterdam to buy war materials, resided in a large house called De Vergulde Zon (the gilt sun) on the Singel (now number 118, still called De Zon (The Sun) today). He had an extensive art collection which included Titian’s so-called portrait of the poet Ariosto and his Flora but also Rembrandt’s own early painting Balaam and the Ass (1626). Von Sandrart tells us that he himself did not want to spend more than 3400 guilders for the Raphael so that after what may have been a hectic bidding session, Lopez secured the Raphael and took the painting with him to France when he left Amsterdam in 1640. It is still in the Louvre today.

Years before, Constantijn Huygens, visiting the young Rembrandt and Jan Lievens in Leiden had exclaimed:

Oh, if only they could be acquainted with Raphael and Michelangelo, how eagerly their eyes would devour the monuments of these prodigious souls. How quickly they would surpass them all, giving Italians due cause to come to their own Holland. They claim to be in the bloom of their youth and wish to profit from it; they have no time to waste on foreign travel. Moreover, since these days the kings and princes north of the Alps avidly delight in and collect pictures, the best italian paintings can be seen outside Italy. What is scattered around in that country and only to be tracked down with great inconvenience, can be found here en masse so that one can have his fill.

A very down to earth and as it turned out valid argument, if only that the “kings and princes” were replaced by wealthy citizens who occasionally opened up their houses for painters and other privileged visitors. Ferdinand Bol once said that he habitually went to the homes of private collectors on Sundays, after church, of course. So, presumably, did Rembrandt.

The influence of the Baldassare Castiglione and Titian’s “Ariosto” on two Rembrandt self-portraits, the etched Self-portrait leaning on a stone sill of 1639 and the painted self-portrait of 1640 was first been noted by Hofstede de Groot in the early 20th century. It is interesting to note that already in the sketch made during or just after the Van Uffelen auction, Rembrandt deviated from the Raphael portrait. He was already thinking ahead: in particular, the beret’s position is changed, setting it at a jauntier angle than in Raphael’s painting and the body is slightly more turned. The slightly different body posture may also have been caused by the angle at which Rembrandt saw the portrait, sitting on his chair in the auction room. What must have appealed to him in particular was the self-confident pose of the figure of Castiglione and that of “Ariosto”, which he would put to full use in the painted self-portrait which shows him at the height of his powers at the age of 34, self-assured and in full command of his art.

Rembrandt, self-portrait, 1640, National Gallery

Rembrandt, self-portrait, 1640, National Gallery

Parallels between Rembrandt’s pose in the etching and painting have more recently been related to an already prevailing tradition in Dutch portraiture and it may perhaps have been also influenced by Dürer’s 1498 self-portrait which he might have seen when Thomas Howard, who Earl of Arundel, who had taken it with him to England as a gift to King Charles I from the City of Nuremberg, had traveled home via the Netherlands.

Rembrandt, Self-portrait, 1640, National Gallery

Rembrandt, Self-portrait, detail, 1640, National Gallery

In the costumes worn in both Rembrandt’s painting and etching too, Rembrandt seems to pay homage to illustrious predecessors. Indeed, the London self-portrait marks a high point in Rembrandt’s development towards a more authentic sixteenth-century costume. He wears a black tabbaard or gown with brown, striped sleeves and a collar trimmed with fur. Under that is a paltrock whose characteristic horizontal top edge is decorated with braid. Under the jerkin he wears a wambuis or doublet whose high, standing collar (as in the Castiglione portrait) can be seen at the neck. The shirt worn beneath the doublet has decorative smockwork at the neck and a small frill that is typical of the first thirty years of the sixteenth century, the age of Raphael. His bonnet is also one frequently seen in the early sixteenth century. Finally, in both the portrait and the etching he wears a chain with a crucifix around his neck – yet another allusion to pre-Reformation days.

The inventory drawn up at Rembrandt’s bankruptcy shows that he was, in as far a we know today, the only Amsterdam painter who possessed paintings by Raphael at the time. Only two other paintings were still in Amsterdam collections by the mid-17th century. One of Rembrandt’s Raphael paintings is described as een Maria beeltie van Raefel Urbijn (a painting of the Virgin by Raphael of Urbino) which hung in the back room or livingroom (Agtercaemer offte sael), the other, intriguingly, een tronie van Raefel Urbijn (a (male) portrait by Raphael of Urbino) which hung in the Sydelcaemer, the room next to the hall where Rembrandt  received his clients. We do not know at what time Rembrandt acquired these paintings or the nature of the male portrait, so it is impossible to speculate on any possible influence on his own portraits or self-portraits. Significantly at the time of his bankruptcy he also owned  four books with prints by or after Raphael against one by Titian.

Extract from Rembrandt's bankruptcy inventory, 1657, showing the entry with the painting of the Virgin by Raphael

Extract from Rembrandt’s bankruptcy inventory, 1657, showing the entry with the painting of the Virgin by Raphael, Amsterdam Stadsarchief

Rembrandt’s etching of 1639 and the 1640 painting constitute a singularly assertive declaration of personal dignity and self-confidence. He must have viewed this as an important opportunity for self-definition as well as self-promotion at a pivotal moment in his career. The etching of 1639 and painting of 1640 constitute a singularly assertive declaration of personal dignity and self-confidence. Clearly, he viewed both as an important project for self-promotion at this successful point in his career. He must have seen it as a practical response not only to inspiring examples of the past, but to competitive pressures in the present, hence the initial choice of the print medium, capable of being reproduced and widely circulated.

Rembrandt may well have approached Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione as an aesthetic model and as the likeness of a historical figure whose name he realised was significant. But more urgently, Rembrandt saw it as a valuable commodity. As the Van Uffelen sale had shown him, collectors who were purchasing “old master” paintings such as Raphael’s were paying far higher prices than they did for similar works by modern Dutch artists like himself. No wonder, then, that he determined to show, through creative emulation in his self-portraits, that he could rival and even surpass such precious objects from the past, taking up Huygens’ challenge to make the art of Holland equal to that of Italy.


The other Venice

Picturesfromitaly_titlepageCharles Dickens’ account of his trip to Italy in 1846 is quite unlike those of other literati such as Goethe. In Pictures from Italy (1846) you will not find meticulous and lyrical descriptions of the wonders of Italy’s art but rather, like a child on holiday, Dickens indulges in the sheer delight of being abroad, of waking up in an Italian bed. The book, as its title suggests, is very much a photo album filled with Italian people and their customs and, so characteristic of Dickens, his indignation at what he perceives as social injustice (which he blames on the roman catholic church).

But the tone changes when he reaches Venice. While other chapters have prosaic topographic titles, the chapter devoted to Venice is simply entitled An Italian Dream and throughout it Dickens maintains the dream metaphor. Yet even in this dream of a city where “golden crosses glittered in the light, atop of wondrous churches”, he could not escape from the city’s desperate plight:

“… for the greatness of the city was no more […]. Indeed, it seemed a very wreck found drifting on the sea; a strange flag hoisted in its honourable stations, and strangers standing at its helm.”

With this description, Dickens strikes at the core of what Venice is today, as a result of events that occurred during the early years of the 19th century: the brief Napoleonic rule following the fall of the Republic in 1797 and three subsequent periods of Austrian rule lasting until 1866. Events that deprived the city of the political and economic role it had exercised for hundreds of years and moreover of its identity, reducing it to a monument of the past, robbed of its organic existence. This, in Giandomenico Romanelli’s words, established “a climate of apathy and weariness, of general demoralisation in the way lives were conducted in a city that had outlived itself.” That this had a lasting impact on Venice’s unique architecture may be self-evident.

Francesco Albotto (1721-1757), The Canal Grande with the Fondaco dei Turchi (sold Sotheby's 2005, presents whereabouts unknown)

Francesco Albotto (1721-1757), The Canal Grande with the Fondaco dei Turchi (right)  (sold at Sotheby’s in 2005, presents whereabouts unknown)

Ruskin Turchi

Ruskin, watercolour of the Fondaco dei Turchi

The Fondaco dei Turchi (Turkish warehouse) was not built as such but as a family palace of the old-fashioned Veneto-Byzantine sort in the first half of the 13th century by Giacomo Palmier, an exile from Pesaro. From the early 17th century through to 1838, the Fondaco served as a combination of home, warehouse and market for Turkish traders. As shown by Francesco Albotto (above) it had just been altered in 1751 but it was already in poor state of repair. The building was sold in 1838 to the builder Petich who made it his office, yard and warehouse. He tried several times to obtain permission to demolish the building and rebuild it on the site, but in the 1860s, when it had become, in Ruskin’s words “a ghastly ruin”, plans were finally initiated to restore what was left of it. By that time, Petich had sold the building to the Commune: the plan that was eventually carried out was designed by the engineers Federico Berchet and Agostino Sagredo.

"A ghastly ruin". The Fondaco dei Turchi photographed c. 1860

“A ghastly ruin (…) blanched into dusty decay by the frost of centuries”. The Fondaco dei Turchi photographed c. 1860

Bechet and Agostino Sagredo's project for the restoration of the Fondaco, 1860

Berchet and Sagredo’s restoration of the Fondaco dei Turchi, 1860s

One of the problems with 19th century restoration in general – and glaringly obvious today – is that imaginative interpretations of still existing historical elements were forced onto structures without fully understanding them. For the Fondaco dei Turchi this resulted in two towers being added on either end against any historical evidence that these were ever there. In addition, “Turkish” crenellations were supplied, inspired, incredibly, by the triangular crenellations on the mosque of Ahma Ibn Tulin in Cairo. The cladding of the building, though still incorporating a few original elements, was largely provided from the Greek marble left over from the restoration of the north façade of San Marco while the decorative reliefs and cornices were retrieved from the attics of half the city. After lengthy discussions whether or not to polish the marble cladding, Berchet cleaned it severely with a lead-plate polisher. The result looks rather, to stay with Dickens, like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.

The Fondaco dei Turchi today

The Fondaco dei Turchi today houses Venice’s Natural History Museum

Venice had its Fondaco dei Turchi back but at the cost of the building’s integrity and history. Formerly a “ghastly ruin”, today it might be called a “ghastly failure” and it is ironic that the building is still described as twelfth or thirteenth century. In 1985 Manfredo Tafuri wrote:

“[it] was the worst possible betrayal of Venetian “continuity”: in the face of an evident crisis in that continuity, “hypervenetianism” was invented. There is one name that summarises all this: Berchet.”

To do justice to Berchet, he did conduct detailed historical research, only with so little left of the building he superimposed his own imprint on it with a total disregard for the material reality of what was there. Anyone looking at the ruins of the Fondaco and comparing it with historic prints can see that the medieval Veneto-Byzantine building it once was was lost forever. This is easily said with hindsight and in those early years restoration as we know it today had not been born yet – in Venice the term was “archeological engineering” – and it was John Ruskin’s great merit to be the first to insist on the distinction between conservation and restoration. For many unique Venetian buildings, however, this distinction was not heeded.


Canaletto, Canal Grande with the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (left) showing the two towers at either ends of the building (c. 1670)

Ironically, while the Fondaco dei Turchi acquired turrets where there had never been, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the German Warehouse near Rialto Bridge, lost them. The history of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi goes back to 1228 but after its destruction by fire it was completely rebuilt between 1505 and 1508, resulted in a functional four-storey building with a grand inner courtyard. The ground floor, accessible by water, was used for storage, the first floor was dedicated to offices and an upper area contained about 160 living quarters.

Fondaco dei Tedeschi; Triumph of Justice; Giorgione, Titian, Galleria Francetti, Venice.

Fondaco dei Tedeschi; Triumph of Justice; Giorgione, Titian, Galleria Francetti at Ca’ d’Oro, Venice.

In 1507 Giorgione was commissioned to decorate the façade with frescos and the young Titian either assisted him or received an independent commission. Unfortunately, the salt water wreaked havoc and the frescos started to deteriorate not long after their creation. In Canaletto’s painting above, they are only just discernible. Only a few tantalising fragments have been preserved.

Fondaco dei Tedeschi, 1853

Fondaco dei Tedeschi, 1853

In this 1853 photograph, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi has already lost its two towers (see the painting attributed to Dominichini above). As early as 1838, a Venetian report indignantly states:

“When this building was recently restored, the two external torricelle were demolished, and for them were substituted merlature along the rooftop like those already existing. What may have induced those responsible to do such a thing we have no idea. (…) Their action had two other unfortunate consequences: first, that the two historic inscriptions between the windows of the towers (…) disappeared; secondly, that the two figures by Giorgione were destroyed, and they were perhaps the best preserved among those that survived.” (Le fabbriche e i monumenti più cospicui di Venezia, 1838).

The Fondaco dei Tedeschi today

The Fondaco dei Tedeschi today

Today the Fondaco dei Tedeschi remains an unhappy building. It was very radically restored in the 1930s when it became the central post office. The original structure was reinforced by the insertion of an iron grid or cage of reinforced concrete, utterly destroying the basis on which the building had been constructed and irreversible. This solution to counter sagging is used even today since it is a cheap and, so it is believed, permanent remedy, but when a building is immured and can no longer organically counteract the movement of the soft soil, in the end concrete reinforcement proves detrimental for a long-term survival.

When, in the early years of the 21st century, the post office was moved to the mainland and the building was put up for sale the only interested buyers were hotel consortia and in a desperate attempt to prevent such a fate, the Commune negotiated its purchase. Failing to find a permanent destination, in 2008 the Commune sold it for GBP 45 million to clothing giant Benetton. The prestigious architectural firm OMA was engaged to convert it into a combined shopping mall and cultural center.

Plan for the inner courtyard of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi by OMA architect Rem Koolhaas, 2012.

Plan for the inner courtyard of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi by OMA, 2012.

United colors ...OMA’s plans include cutting out part of the roof to create a terrace, building two new entrances and fitting escalators inside. Heritage campaigners, among which Italia Nostra (Our Italy) protested that the alterations would cause “serious damage to the building’s physical integrity and historical identity” – but one wonders, after the many aggressive interventions that took place in the past centuries, what historical identity remains? The protests had no effect other than postponing the inevitable and in 2012 OMA was given the go-ahead to transform the Fondaco into a shopping complex and cultural center.

The question is, of course, whether Venetians, or indeed Venice, needs yet another luxury shopping area and whether Venetians are not better served with affordable infrastructure rather than a cultural center. A city dies when its citizens leave and that, alas, is currently the tragic fate of Venice.

Ca'da Mosto

Ca’da Mosto in 2005

The 20th century has seen two major restoration campaigns, one between 1902 and 1912 following the collapse of San Marco’s Campanile and one, which is still ongoing, after the floodings of 1966. One of the grand buildings along the Canal Grande to be restored in the 1902-1912 campaign was the Ca’ da Mosto, the oldest building along the canal. The uniqueness of Ca’ da Mosto lies in the fact that it managed to escape the devastating “archeological engineering” of the 19th century, perhaps because it served as a famous inn, the Leon Blanco from the 17th to the early 19th century and so had not fallen into “dusty decay” like its unfortunate contemporaries.

Ca' da Mosto, detail of Veneto-Byzantine facade

Ca’ da Mosto, detail of Veneto-Byzantine facade

Ca' da Mosto, c. 1853

Ca’ da Mosto, c. 1853

The palazzo’s origins are Veneto-Byzantine of the thirteenth or even twelfth century. It was extended in the 16th century with two further storeys. The holes of the former grilles are (or I should say: were) still visible in the lateral single windows of the first floor, each of which is crowned by a patera (an oval feature). An aperture of the central loggia was bricked up later but reopened in the early 20th century restoration. Apart from the paterae, this loggia with its seven arches has reliefs with floral motifs in the marble incrustation. Remnants of an open stairway can be seen in the public courtyard.

Detail of ceiling, Ca' da Mosto

Detail of ceiling, Ca’ da Mosto

Ca’ da Mosto has been decaying and its fate remained uncertain. With its structure becoming unsound and sagging, its lower floor is permanently submerged in the salty water (the difference in the lower floor level can clearly be seen when compering the recent images with that of 1853) that eats at its stonework. Certainly, for some it must have been a sight for sore eyes among the splendours of the spruced up palazzi along the Canal GrandeBut while the building requires conservation, it may well be asked how desirable it is that it should be pristine. Is there not something immensely appealing to its “dusty decay? And most of all: should not its historic integrity be respected rather than “rendered like a corpse in a funeral parlour to a decent state of viewing” as Gianfranco Pertot phrased it?

Ca' da Mosto, 2010, photograph author

Ca’ da Mosto, 2010, photograph author


The gutted interior of the Ca’ da Mosto

Some ten years ago, Ca’ da Mosto passed into the hands of a buyer who had intended to refurbish it but was unable to obtained the necessary funds. As always, when a historic building of such importance falls into the hands of a private investor, the object is not altruism but economic viability and profit with its inherent dangers of negation of a building’s integrity. We have seen this in the case of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, but there is so much more to lose here as the building, though practically gutted on the inside, is still so much more intact. What would be required in an ideal world is a sensitive restoration, or better: a minimally interventionist conservation to ensure this unique building continued life.

But this is not to be: apparently between 2010 when I last saw it and today funds have been raised and the restoration of the façade is well under way. On a photograph taken earlier this month it looks as if Ca’ da Mosto will, like the other grand buildings along the Canal Grande, look pristinely polished. Of course one should reserve judgement until the end result is known but the signs do not look promising.

Ca’ da Mosto’s destination is as yet uncertain: it is “for sale as a residence, hotel or gallery.” Just what Venice needs.

Ca' da Mosto, September 2013. By kind permission of John and Carol Isles

Ca’ da Mosto, September 2013. By kind permission of John and Carol Isles