Colnaghi Foundation Journal 02 - Page 59

Love, lies, and litigation: the saga of Alessandro Vittoria’s Saint John the Baptist
From the newly discovered documents, we also learn
that the marble had been provided by the patron,
and how much it was worth. Archival research has
shown that it was common for patrons, rather than
sculptors, to supply marble when it was the chosen
medium for sculptural commissions.30 Marble was an
expensive sculptural material, and it was impractical
and uneconomic for most stonemasons and sculptors
to stock large quantities for speculative sale in Venice,
it being a sea-girt city where space was at a premium.
Indeed, it appears to have been more cost effective
for many patrons in Cinquecento Venice to source
marble directly as no profit margin could be added
by the sculptor (or stonemason), and it undoubtedly
allowed patrons greater control over the quality of the
stone supplied.31 In this case, it is not at all surprising
that Priuli should have supplied it rather than Vittoria
– even such a small piece – given that the sculptor
was then at the start of his career, with few resources
to draw upon. While it is impossible to know whence
Priuli obtained the marble, it seems probable that he
had either purchased it from a local stonemason or
had a piece left over from some other project, such as
the rebuilding of the family’s palazzo in 1528, which
he had overseen.32 Whatever the case, the marble was
relatively inexpensive: as Vittoria’s work on the statuette
was valued at ten ducats and as he reimbursed San
Geremia a total of twelve and a half ducats, one can
deduce that the marble had originally cost two and a
half ducats.
With regards to the litigation process, the documents
shed light on some of the ways in which disgruntled
patrons and artists could resolve problems when things
went awry in artistic commissions in Venice.33 The
process instigated here was the exchange of notarized
complaints and rebuttals (generally recorded as a
“protestatio” and “refutatio” in the margins of notarial
documents), to which people frequently resorted for all
manner of disagreements if direct negotiation proved
unsuccessful. Having reached this point, the most
Love, lies, and litigation: the saga of Alessandro Vittoria’s Saint John the Baptist
common way to proceed was to opt for the republic’s
celebrated arbitration process, which sought to solve
problems amicably and avoid the expense of taking
a case to court. Arbitration was effected through the
appointment by each conflicting party of an arbiter or
arbitrator, who would then investigate the problem and
seek to settle it definitively.34 If the two arbiters could
not come to an agreement, they could formally request
more time to consider the matter, and if still undecided,
then a third arbiter would be appointed to facilitate
a resolution. This situation occurred, for example,
in the dispute between the retired admiral Giovanni
Vrana and the sculptor Domenico da Salò over the
completion of the Altar of the Nativity in San Giuseppe
di Castello in 1573, with no less than three extensions
and the eventual intervention of a third arbiter.35 In the
case of San Geremia versus Vittoria, arbitration was
one of three solutions suggested by the sculptor in his
rebuttal of 14 April 1565, with his reference to having
the statuette valued by “mutual friends” implying the
arbitration route.36 The other two avenues Vittoria
proposed were either for both parties to appear before
the Giustizia Vecchia (which, it should be remembered,
already knew about the case) or for him to pay back
Priuli’s initial down payment of two ducats and the
value of the marble.37 As the latter option was clearly
unacceptable to the church (given that the chapter
had proof of Priuli having paid Vittoria in full) and
the arbitration route does not appear to have been
desirable, the disputed parties went before the Giustizia
Vecchia, as the subsequent document of 14 May
1565 records.38 While there were other magistracies in
Venice through which legal redress could be sought, the
evidence examined here reflects James Shaw’s extensive
research on the Giustizia Vecchia’s role in dealing with
private disputes of relatively small value.39 The Giustizia
Vecchia was a lower ranking but widely used magistracy
based in the Rialto district of Venice, with a variety of
responsibilities. Overseen by elected amateur patrician
judges, with no formal legal training, it administered
what Shaw has termed “market justice.”40
Fig. 8 / Alessandro Vittoria,
Feminoni, ca. 1553-1555,
limestone, possibly bronzo
da Verona, Venice, Marciana
Library entrance.
Fig. 9 / Giangiacomo de’
Grigi (project manager),
Francesco de Bernardin
Smeraldi (stonemason)
and Alessandro Vittoria
(sculpture), Altar of Saint
Anthony Abbot, with
Saints Roch and Sebastian,
1557-1564, Istrian stone
and marble, Venice, San
Francesco della Vigna.
It also dealt with civil justice, such as small claims cases,
under which category the dispute between San Geremia
and Vittoria fell. As Shaw has observed, emotionallycharged language rather than legal reasoning tended
to be used in complaints, to appeal to the judges’
consciences and pull at their heart-strings, such as that
found in Vittoria’s colourful statements.41 Small claims
cases (which from 1537 had been assigned a maximum
value of fifty ducats) could entail an exchange of
numerous complaints between plaintiff and defendant.
While some cases did result in a final hearing before
the court’s judges, many were eventually resolved out
of court to save money, as was the case here.42 Indeed,
the final settlement between San Geremia and Vittoria
recorded that, having appeared before the Giustizia
Vecchia, a mutually-acceptable agreement had been
reached “to avoid litigation and expense.”43
As to Vittoria himself, the documents suggest that he
was being dishonest and was not averse to lying when
he thought he could turn a situation to his advantage.
Could he have simply forgotten about the final
payment? This seems doubtful: Vittoria was a diligent
record keeper – although it should be acknowledged
that the final settlement of eight ducats is one of a
number of gaps in his surviving payment books.44 One
might ask whether, once San Geremia began legal
proceedings, Vittoria thought that he could “pull a
fast one” and extract more money out of the church,
given that the original patron was dead? Unfortunately
for him, the documents show that San Geremia’s
representatives were able to offer written proof to the
contrary – something he was clearly not expecting.
What is startling is that even after the production of
this irrefutable evidence, Vittoria still refused to back
down – whether out of pride or sheer pig-headedness
– repeatedly claiming that he had only ever been paid
two ducats and not the full amount.
So why did Vittoria decide to buy his statuette
back? By 1565 he was well on his way to becoming
Venice’s leading sculptor, with numerous successful
independent commissions under his belt, such as the
colossal Feminoni (ca. 1553-1555; fig. 8) at the entrance
to Sansovino’s Library in the Piazzetta; the sculptural
decoration for Marc’Antonio Grimani’s funerary
chapel in San Sebastiano (early 1560s); and the
sculptures for the Montefeltro Altar in San Francesco
della Vigna (ca. 1563-1564; fig. 9).45 He was now quite
well off and ran a busy sculpture workshop, employing


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