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Venice 2014

Longhi and His Patrons

Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice

Longhi, Pietro. Exhibiton of a Rhinoceros at Venice. 1751. National Gallery of Art, London.

Longhi’s smaller scale genre scenes often feature the nobility of Venice. In these works, Longhi sought to portray the society through “which he moved: the nobility of Venice, somewhat impoverished, by no means brilliant either as to social life or culture, fervently conservative and excessively respectful of public authority, careful not to provoke the vigilant curiosity of official censure.”[8] Pignatti points out that Longhi must have been prudent when composing his works so as not to hint at any of the problems that were developing at the base of society.  This included “the restriction of freedom of thought and expression to the infinite wretchedness of the lower classes.”[9] It is a fact that out of the 25,000 or more paupers registered in the Republic, not one of them makes an appearance in Longhi’s paintings. In addition, there is no depiction of the public and private charity, which was so freely handed out all over the city. Pignatti acknowledges that Longhi took his patrons wherever he could find them, however, there are many references in eighteenth-century sources to the goodwill of the patrician families towards Longhi. One such example is the work entitled Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice, which dates to 1751 and was commissioned by Giovanni Grimani, a relative of the current Doge at the time.[10] One can conclude that Longhi was a slave to his noble patrons, and that they motivated his choice in style and subject matter.

Also known as The Rhinoceros, Longhi’s painting would have been significant to Giovanni Grimani because it actually records a historical event unique to Venice. This event was the exhibition of a rhinoceros that had been brought to Europe ten years previously and at the time would have been on display during the carnival of 1751. This was one of the few rhinoceroses that had been seen in Europe since 1515 so it was an exciting and rare sight.[11] Longhi depicts the showman displaying the animal to a group of nobility, holding in one hand the horn of the animal and a whip. Giovanni Grimani confirms through his commission of this work that the nobility were interested in scenes that were pleasing and “seduced” the eye. The intimate perspective of the work causes the viewer to feel as a part of the crowd watching this circus spectacle. However, the masks of the figures place a distance between them and the viewer communicating a type of easy truce while everyone enjoys this spectacle. In other words, the lightness and spectacle of this work communicates the pleasures to be seen in the city while one travels freely about.

As is evidenced by The Rhinoceros, Pietro Longhi would often depict the nobility in his works as masked. The concealment of the nobility stems out of the artist’s desire to save face, as well as to protect the figures whose reputations would otherwise be in jeopardy if unmasked. This is not to say that masks were worn strictly for these reasons. The French traveler Ange Goudar, who traveled to Venice during the eighteenth century, attempts to explain the reasoning behind the custom of wearing masks. He writes, “For six months of the year, Venetians give themselves over to madness and extravagance, and so that they can do so more freely, the Republic allows them to disguise themselves.” [12] Goudar’s writing would suggest that masks and costumes were used strictly for concealment so as to partake freely in pleasure. For the nobility, this also meant masks and costumes were also often worn in situations to maintain society’s expected level of formality.

[8] Terisio Pignatti, Pietro Longhi: Paintings and Drawings (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1969), 10.

[9] Terisio Pignatti, Pietro Longhi: Paintings and Drawings (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1969), 10.

[10] Terisio Pignatti, Pietro Longhi: Paintings and Drawings (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1969), 8.

[11] The National Gallery of Art, London, “Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice,” The National Gallery of Art, London, (accessed April 28, 2014)

[12] James H. Johnson, Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001),112.