Currently on display at the art dealer Pietro Scarpa in Venice, there’s a reclining nude by the Venetian painter Giacomo ‘Palma’ Vecchio (c. 1480-1528), which is worth a second look for anyone interested in the practice of replication in the Italian Renaissance workshop. It repeats with slight variations the figure of Venus in a canvas in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Both pictures are datable to the 1520s, with the latter falling late, left as it was unfinished in the master’s studio at his death.

Although it lacks the tension of soft flesh and perilous arrow point, as well as the crystalline landscape of the Cambridge painting, the later replica is comely in its own right. It lacks finish in the background and parts of the figure, which would surely have given it deeper colouristic resonance, but one can definitely see where the painter was going. As to the subject, I suspect this is an allegory of marital love (and fecundity), rather than a traditional Venus seen in the Cambridge picture — Cupid is nowhere in sight, and she wears what appears to be a wedding ring.

The thing that interests me, as a Titian scholar, is that the picture seems to reflect the practice of producing replicas in the younger master’s studio around the same time, and to an increasing extent later in his career, from the mid-1540s onwards, when he and his workshop produced a series a reclining Venuses in the same, voluminous mould — a practice that has been receiving increasing scholarly scrutiny over the last few years but of which we still know very little.

Just as is the case with Titian’s Venuses, there are no ‘hard contours’ of the kind on often finds in paintings done on the basis of cartoon transfers in Palma’s picture. Neither are there any traces of spolveri — ie. pouncing marks left as part of the process of transferring a design from a cartoon — under the surface paint layers, according to the gallerist.

In fact, when one inspects the painting, and sees how confidently articulated it is, it becomes clear that it must have been laid in freehand, probably with reference to some kind of modelloof the original design kept in the studio. I wonder if this was also the case with many of Titian’s replicas. From seepthrough to the back of the canvas, we know some of them were based on tracings onto the canvas of the earlier design, and that others were laid in alongside the first completed version only to be picked up and finished later, but many of them could well have been executed freehand. When the contours are compared, a Titian replica is often very close to its model, but this does not necessarily mean that some kind of mechanical aid was used in its layout. We are, after all, talking about one of the most confident and virtuosic artists of his time here. I wonder.

If you’re in Venice, do go to Scarpa’s gallery right next to the Accademia. They also have a decent Tintoretto on display, as well as this fascinating picture of around 1648-50 by Joseph Heintz, which shows the medieval legend of angels moving the house of Mary from Nazareth to the West — first Dalmatia, then Italy — when the former was conquered by the the Saracens in 1291. A highly unusual iconography lent a touch of ominous drama by a German repatriate working in the styles of Tintoretto and Veronese:

This series of centrefolds: Palma Vecchio’s Venuses at Pietro Scarpa in Venice and at the Fitzwilliam, respectively. Titian’s Venus at the Uffizi and the Reclining Nude with a Organist at the Prado. Joseph Heintz’ Translocation of the House of Mary to Loreto, at Pietro Scarpa, Venice. The image of the Scarpa Palma is slightly cropped because the damn thing couldn’t fit my scanner. You’ll have to imagine the additional bit at the top. Apologies.


  1. Metabunker is one of my favorite blogs (and one of the most interesting for commentary on Renaissance art). I was glad to meet Matthias in person.

    To offer a small correction: you must mean that the Joseph Heintz was painted in 1648-50, not 1548-50.

  2. Hi Frederick,
    Thanks so much for your comment — it means a lot coming from someone as distinguished as yourself.

    And oops, I don’t know what happened with that date. It’s been changed now.

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