Colnaghi Foundation Journal 02 - Page 56

Love, lies, and litigation: the saga of Alessandro Vittoria’s Saint John the Baptist
Your discourteous reply – which is just what
I expected from you, Reverend Parish Priest
and priests of San Geremia of Venice – to
me, Alessandro Vittoria, Sculptor, in response
to my very honest protest, does not merit a
further response: only this shall I tell you: that
if you intend to take any action concerning
the statue of Saint John which I made,
without having satisfied my deserving protest
[which I have] already put to you, then you
must inform the Giustizia Vecchia of this
within fifteen days after the holidays, so that
you cannot use the impediment of divine
offices as an excuse. Otherwise, as outright
owner of the said statue, I will dispose of
it as my own property. I also tell you that I
have only ever had two ducats from the late
Magnificent Priuli and the marble to make
this statue. Should you not want this statue
for the amount it will be valued by mutual
friends, or be willing to go to the Giustizia
Vecchia as above, I, out of sheer courtesy on
my part and not out of any obligation, am
happy to give back the two ducats to the
church and also pay you for the marble if
you can demonstrate how much it cost.22
The documentary evidence picks up the saga of the
statuette again on 14 May 1565, when a further
notarial act recorded the final resolution of the discord
between the two parties, in what is evidently an out-ofcourt settlement.23 As a whole month had passed since
Vittoria’s reply with his threat that San Geremia act
within fifteen days or the statuette remain his and his
alone, it seems likely that further, as yet undiscovered
(or perhaps purely verbal), discussions between the two
parties had taken place. The final settlement begins
with a summary of both parties’ grievances. On the
one hand, the chapter and procurators of San Geremia
demanded that Vittoria consign the figure of Saint John
the Baptist to them so that they could place it on their
Love, lies, and litigation: the saga of Alessandro Vittoria’s Saint John the Baptist
baptismal font, and also that he acknowledge that he
had, in fact, received full payment from Priuli.24 On
the other hand, Vittoria claimed that he had to be paid
in full for the said figure, on the understanding that he
had only ever received two ducats from Priuli.25 The
document concludes:
Both parties having gone before the Giustizia
Vecchia in dispute, now to avoid litigation and
expense, have come together in the present
agreement. That is, that the Reverend Mr
Priest Marcuola Zamoro, Deacon of the said
church … has had and received from the said
Misser Alessandro here present twelve and a
half ducats in cash … as settlement for all that
the said Church Chapter was claiming from
Mr Alessandro in order for him to have the
said figure. Therefore, this figure should now
remain with this Mr Alessandro as his outright
property, and he can do with it and dispose
of it howsoever he sees fit, thus bringing the
above [dispute] for both parties to a mutual
end and permanent settlement.26
On the same date, Vittoria noted the twelve-and-a-halfducat payment to the chapter of San Geremia in his
record book declaring that he was now “absolute owner
of the marble Saint John.”27
Fig. 6 / Jacopo de’ Barbari,
Bird’s Eye View Map of Venice,
(detail of San Geremia in the
upper right corner), 1500,
woodcut, 134 x 280.8 cm,
London, British Museum.
Fig. 7 / Giovanni Antonio
Canal, known as Canaletto,
San Geremia and the Entrance
to the Cannaregio Canal, ca.
1726-1727, oil on canvas,
78.5 x 47.2 cm, London, Royal
Apart from the more obvious facts outlined above, an
examination of these documents reveals considerable
supplementary information not just about the
commission itself and its outcome following Priuli’s
death, but also about the ways in which problems in
the commissioning process could be resolved, and
about Vittoria himself. In terms of the commission,
it would seem that after Priuli’s death, the statuette
had been forgotten for fifteen years until something
induced the chapter and procurators to pursue the
case. Why such a long period of time had elapsed
remains a mystery, but the chapter may have been
mindful of the fact that some parish churches were
undergoing Pastoral Visitations under the aegis of
Patriarch Giovanni Trevisan (r. 1560-1590).28 Part of
the remit of such inspections was the assessment of a
church’s interior, noting unfinished or inappropriately
adorned areas, such as altars, or missing liturgical
items, which the church chapter was then usually
instructed to rectify. Although the visitation records do
not list San Geremia as one of the churches inspected
during Trevisan’s patriarchate, the prospect of such
a visit may well have been motivation enough for the
chapter to redress the issue of the missing font figure.
Alternatively, the litigation may simply have been
prompted by a member of Priuli’s family, or by a
diligent new lay procurator, who had learnt about the
earlier commission and saw that there was nothing on
the font to show for it.29
Certainly, the language of Vittoria’s initial declaration
of 3 April 1565 supports the supposition that the
litigation was instigated by the church and not by
him. With its indignant tone, it reads like a defensive
response to a complaint lodged against him. After all,
why would Vittoria go to the trouble of instituting
legal proceedings when he had already been paid in
full and had retained possession of the statuette? It
would have made much more sense for him to keep
quiet in the hope that the church chapter would not
remember the undelivered commission.


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