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Venice 2014

The Mask and Pietro Longhi

Lady in the Painter's Studio

Longhi, Pietro. Venetian Masks. ca. 1730-1785. 

The government’s desire for peace for the city of Venice was aided through the practice of wearing masks. In the eighteenth century, masks were the norm in Venice and were used extensively beyond carnival season for occasions that were far from festive. In Venice, masks were an accepted article of clothing and were simple, cheap, and easily had. The cheap availability of masks allowed for anyone to wear them, however, the diarist Giovanni Rossi describes the mask as ‘noblissima’.[4] Rossi’s wording suggests that masks were used to protect the “nobility” of the wearer rather than provide a sense of equality. The genre painter, Pietro Longhi, through his intimate scenes of the nobility best documents the Venetian practice of wearing masks in the eighteenth century.

Pietro Longhi, originally named Pietro Falca, was born in Venice in 1702. With encouragement from his father, he first studied under the tutelage of Antonio Balestra. In 1719, Longhi left Venice to study with Giuseppe Maria Crespi in Bologna where he spent the next decade developing his skills as an artist.[5] One must point out that during Longhi’s time in Bologna, his mentor Crespi who was famous for his historical and religious works was painting genre scenes. One piece of evidence of Crespi’s work as a genre painter is a work entitled A Woman Looking For Fleas which dates back to somewhere between 1715 and 1720.[6] Arguably, Crespi’s work could have been Longhi’s first exposure to the style and subject of genre painting. Scholars know that Longhi returned to Venice in 1730 as there are documents recording transactions he made with the Parish of San Pellegrino in Venice that same year. Upon his return, Longhi painted religious subjects and later made the attempt at a grand historical painting entitled The Fall of the Giants in 1734. Unfortunately, this historical painting proved too ambitious for Longhi and scholars believe this is another reason Longhi might have turned to the smaller-scale genre works for which he is renowned. [7]

[4] James H. Johnson, Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 49.

[5] Jane Turner, The Dictionary of Art (New York: Grove's Dictionaries, 1996), 19: 634.

[6] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Giuseppe Maria Crespi," (accessed April 29, 2014.)

[7] Jane Turner, The Dictionary of Art (New York: Grove's Dictionaries, 1996), 19: 634.