Secrets of the Bortoloni Code

There is an intriguing art review in today’s New York Times about an exhibition now on in Italy concerning the work of the little know early eighteenth century master, Bortoloni. Apparently a Freemason, recent art historians and scholars have been able to identify the Masonic symbolism in his work.

Below are highlights from the article. Full text is available at:

May 28, 2010
A Forgotten Master’s Irreverence
ROVIGO, ITALY — In 1716 Mattia Bortoloni, while still only in his twentieth year, won a remarkable commission. The Venetian nobleman Andrea Cornaro contracted the young painter to execute 104 frescoes, in eight rooms over two floors of his villa, one of Palladio’s grandest, in the town of Piombino Dese. The subject matter was unorthodox for the times, being for the most part scenes from the Old Testament, with more or less explicit references to the world of Freemasonry.
But after the fall of the Venetian Republic, the villa was sold and fell into disrepair, the frescoes and even the name of the painter who had done them were forgotten.

The resurfacing of documents recording the precocious Mattia Bortoloni’s role in Villa Cornaro’s decoration began to stir interest in the frescoes and their author in the second half of the 20th century. But by that time, a sizable part of the rest of the artist’s oeuvre was no longer identifiable with that of any known artist or had been attributed to others, primarily to a trio of Venetian Giambattistas: Tiepolo, Pittoni and Crosato.

The work of several scholars has now made it possible to reconstruct Bortoloni’s life and to stage “Bortoloni Piazzetta Tiepolo: The Veneto in the 1700s,” an exhibition of 80 canvases, nearly 20 of them by Bortoloni, curated by Alessia Vedova. The show puts Bortoloni in the context of his times and highlights the bizarre, irreverent and satirical qualities that characterize a number of his images.
Bortoloni was born in Canda, or the nearby village of San Bellino, in March 1696 (in the same month and year as Giambattista Tiepolo), in the ancient marshlands to the west of Rovigo that stretch down to the banks of the Po. Bortoloni seems to have begun his artistic apprenticeship young, with the Veronese Antonio Balestra, who had set up a studio in Venice.

Like Tiepolo, Bortoloni was to be above all a painter of frescoes. It is possible that his teacher Balestra, who deplored the flamboyant direction that art was then taking, passed the commission for the Villa Cornaro frescoes on to his talented student, not least because Balestra much preferred painting in oils.

The Masonic inspiration of the frescoes — which include multi-part sequences of the building of Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel and the Temple in Jerusalem — was rediscovered by the American scholar Douglas Lewis. Carl Gable, who with his wife Sally has owned Villa Cornaro since 1989, narrowed the original source of the imagery down to a two-volume Dutch bible, published by Pieter Mortier in Amsterdam in 1700 (there was also a French edition). The Mortier Bible, a copy of which is displayed at the show, contains over 460 illustrations, done by a team of five Dutch engravers.

The most likely bearer of the bible to Venice was Francesco Cornaro, cousin of Andrea, the villa’s owner. Francesco served as the Serenissima’s ambassador in London until 1709 and came in contact with Masonic circles there. He may have acquired a copy of the volumes there, or when passing through Amsterdam itself. Although Bortoloni followed the overall composition of the engravings for the main narrative scenes fairly closely, he gave himself considerable license in their graphic interpretation, his pastel palette and assured brushwork creating an admirably fluid and harmonious decorative effect….

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