Colnaghi Foundation Journal 02 - Page 53

Love, lies, and litigation: the saga of Alessandro
Vittoria’s Saint John the Baptist
On 6 December 1601, Alessandro Vittoria (ca.
1525-1608), seventy-six years old and for many years
the most successful and highly regarded sculptor in
Venice, requested that a notary come to his house
in Calle della Pietà, as he wished to write his eighth
and what would prove to be his penultimate will.1
Ever concerned to ensure that all of his affairs were in
order, Vittoria – a widower twice over and childless
– left precise instructions about the fate of his beloved
marble statuette of Saint John the Baptist (figs. 1 & 2).2
These are worth citing in full, as they shed light on the
statuette’s importance to the elderly sculptor:
Fig. 1 / Alessandro
Vittoria, Saint John the
Baptist, 1550, marble,
San Zaccaria, Venice.
Fig. 2 / Alternative
view of fig. 1.
I leave the Reverend Mothers of San
Zaccaria my marble Saint John, which
should be placed in a tabernacle that
opens on four sides, tall enough that it
will fit inside comfortably, and it should
be lined in satin, or crimson velvet, as
seems best to them, and entirely gilded on
the outside. And I desire that it should be
preserved in perpetuity, and placed on the
altar of Saint Zacharias during Eastertide,
and on the feast of Saint Zacharias, and
looked after the rest of the year in the
place that seems most secure to them,
because it is worthy of being held in great
esteem, and I implore them to do so.3
On Vittoria’s death on 27 May 1608, his little Baptist was
indeed placed in the care of the nuns of San Zaccaria,
and today can be found on the right-hand water stoup
as one enters the church.4
This article examines the Baptist’s commissioning
history, discusses how it came to remain with Vittoria,
and considers why it became one of his most cherished
possessions. Based on an analysis of new archival
evidence and a re-assessment of previously published
documents, the statuette’s story is a fascinating tale of
love, lies and litigation.
The Baptist’s story begins in April 1550,5 when the twentyfive-year-old Vittoria had been in Venice for some seven
years (fig. 3), working as an assistant in the busy workshop
of the sculptor and architect, Jacopo Sansovino (14861570).6 By this date, Vittoria is documented as having
assisted with a number of Sansovino’s most important
Venetian commissions, including cleaning the three
bronze castings of the reliefs of the north singing gallery
for Saint Mark’s Basilica and the wax models for the
Sacristy Door (fig. 4).7 By the end of March 1550,
Sansovino had tasked Vittoria with carving four stone
River Gods for his Library in the Piazzetta, paying the
young sculptor twenty ducats for his work (fig. 5).8 It is
at this point that Vittoria was commissioned to carve
the marble Baptist – highly significant in being his first
documented independent commission.
While the original contract has yet to come to light,
a record in Vittoria’s account book of 26 April 1550
indicates that the Saint John had been commissioned
not long before.9 In this entry, Vittoria notes that on
this date he was paid two ducats by nobleman Angelo
Priuli as a first instalment for a marble figure of Saint
John, two Venetian feet tall, which was to crown the
baptismal font of San Geremia.10


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