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Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Study of the Bust of Giulio Contarini by Alessandro Vittoria, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

NGC, Ottawa

As Venetian artists go, Alessandro Vittoria was a bit of a showman.

Painters, poets and musicians in Renaissance Italy created by the grace of patrons and churches, and Vittoria – a 16th-century sculptor – relied just the same on the retainers of the wealthy to fund his art. But unlike some of his contemporaries, he would use the funds to commission some of his own art: portraits of himself that he would hang in his home to impress guests.

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“He displayed them so he could kind of seduce clients that would come in and view not only his own artworks … but also to showcase what kind of persona he was in Venice,” said Sonia Del Re, senior curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Canada.

Vittoria and a bust of his most important, wealthy patron are the centre of the latest edition of the National Gallery’s Masterpiece in Focus. The series takes one work from the gallery’s collection and dives deep into the past, building an exhibition around it that brings new context to the art and to the artist.

This summer, the focus is on Vittoria and his terracotta sculpture of Giulio Contarini, a bearded nobleman of 16th-century Venice and backer of the sculptor’s studio.

The show also includes information about the bust, how it was restored and works by other artists inspired by the sculpture or by Vittoria himself.

The gallery first acquired the bust of Contarini in 2002 to add to its permanent European collection. The piece had a provenance that spread across Europe, but it is believed by the gallery to be the only work by the artist in a public collection in Canada.

Alessandro Vittoria, Giulio Contarini, c. 1570-1576, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

NGC, Ottawa

One pair of hands that it passed through on the way were those of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, one of the most important painters of 18th-century Europe. Hanging on the National Gallery’s walls are five drawings of Tiepolo’s, sensitive red-chalk sketches that depict a bearded man with a faraway gaze.

They appear to be likenesses of a live subject, but according to Del Re, they are not – they are sketches of the bust made by Vittoria decades before.

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“This is what is extraordinary about these drawings: Tiepolo gives us the impression that he’s looking at a live model,” Del Re said, pointing to a video display that compares the drawings to photos of the bust.

“But we know it’s Giulio, a terracotta sculpture. It doesn’t move, it doesn’t breathe. But you look at these drawings and you think the man in them is alive.”

Even Vittoria would copy the face of Contarini into other pieces. A sculpture he made of the Catholic Church’s St. Jerome – also on display – carries the likeness of the Venetian nobleman, and that image in turn carried over to works by other artists, such as Giuseppe Scolari’s 1590 woodcut St. Jerome in the Wilderness.

Despite the bust’s influence, it was only originally intended as a stepping stone to another work. The clay sculpture is a modello, a preparatory piece made between 1570 and 1576 for a funerary monument of Contarini that was installed in Venice’s Santa Maria del Giglio in 1576.

But although it was, in some ways, a work in progress, Del Re said the terracotta has some advantages over the ultimate bust made of marble.

“In fact, it’s much more true to nature than the final marble, because the marble is carved whereas terracotta is hand-modelled,” Del Re said.

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“The detail is much finer. You can feel the hand of the artist.”

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Head of Giulio Contarini, after a Bust by Alessandro Vittoria, c. 1743, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

NGC, Ottawa

Masters of Venetian Portraiture: Veronese, Tiepolo, Vittoria runs in Ottawa until Sept. 16 at the National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca).

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