Porta left Rome with his master, Francesco Salviati—whose name he had assumed—and arrived in Venice in July 1539. Along with Salviati and Giorgio Vasari, who was also in Venice around 1540, Porta is usually credited with bringing central Italian Mannerism to the city.
According to Giorgio Vasari and Claudio Ridolfi, Porta’s first major commission after Salviati’s return to Rome in 1541 was for paintings at the villa of Federico Priuli in Treville near Venice. This cemented his reputation as a consummate painter of facades, and thereafter he was often engaged on the exterior frescoes of Venetian palaces. Virtually all of these have been weathered away by the elements, but they were significant projects in cinquecento Venice. Giorgione, Pordenone, Tintoretto, and others also painted facades. The present drawing, which in all probability is a late study for part of a decorative program on a facade in Campo di San Polo, Venice, thus holds special significance for our knowledge of the artist’s oeuvre. Already mentioned by Vasari in 1568, the frescoes are described at length by Ridolfi:
And having learned the Venetian manner, he painted above the Campo di San Polo on the facade of the house of Signor Nicolò Bernardo in the two largest spaces the Fates spinning the thread of human life and above Time with the clock; in the other large space Bellerophon killing the Chimera; and below in smaller spaces, he made Endymion who yearns for Luna, Venus and Cupid, and two other inventions which were destroyed when some windows were inserted. And further at the top appears Peace with an olive branch in hand; and the summit is divided off by a very well coloured frieze with compartments with figures and children, scrolls and other ornaments.1
The strong view from below in the Morgan drawing accords well with this presumed location of the composition. The Greek mythological hero Bellerophon killed the terrible chimera, described by Homer in the Iliad as a fire-breathing monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. To accomplish this feat, he needed the help of the winged horse Pegasus. Perseus, another monster-slayer often shown accompanied by Pegasus—and once incorrectly identified as the subject of the present drawing— most famously killed a large sea serpent in order to rescue the naked Andromeda, who was chained to a rock. A letter of 1548 from the poet and writer Pietro Aretino to Porta praises the frescoes by the painter that adorned the palaces along the Grand Canal in Venice.2 Taking into consideration this letter as well as Vasari’s and Ridolfi’s early mentions of Palazzo Bernardi in their biographies of Porta, the Morgan drawing may well date from the second half of the 1540s, as also proposed by Molino on the basis of its style.3 The artist probably derived the motif of the energetically prancing horse from Pordenone’s well-known composition of the Conversion of Saul (see I, 70), whereas the figure of Bellerophon is lifted from Raphael’s St. Michael Overcoming Satan (ca. 1503–5) in the Louvre. In any event, the Morgan study surely predates Porta’s 1565 trip to Rome.
The drawing reveals a lessening of the linear emphasis of Porta’s Tuscan Roman heritage in favor of a more pictorial treatment of the composition, in line with the draftsmanship of Porta’s Venetian compatriots. The illusion of relief is achieved by the interplay between the generous, painterly application of dark brown wash used for much of the background and figures, the reserve of the paper, and the addition of white highlights. A copy in the same technique and of a similar size as this drawing was on the art market in the 1960s.4 A drawing in the Louvre of the Three Fates, identified by the Tietzes and Molino as a second study for the Palazzo Bernardi facade, was dismissed by McTavish as a copy not necessarily linked to the Palazzo Bernardi composition because it lacks the figure of Time mentioned by Ridolfi.5
- Ridolfi 1914–24, 1:241: “Et appresa la maniera Venetiana dipinse sopra il Campo di San Polo nella facciata della casa del Signor Nicolò Bernardo ne’ due maggiori spatij le Parche, che filano l’humana vita, e nella cima il Tempo con l’oriuolo, nell’altro il Bellorofonte, che uccide la Chimera, e più sotto in minori vani finse Endimione, che vagheggia la Luna, Venere con Amore & altre due inventioni, che furono guaste per rimettervi alcune fenestre, e nella cima apparisce ancora la Pace con rami d’olivo in mano, e nella sommità divise un fregio compartito di figurine e bambocci molto ben coloriti, cartelle & altri ornamenti.”
- Aretino 1957–60, 2:233.
- Molino 1963, 167.
- With the dealer Alistair Matthews, Bournemouth; catalogue no. 71, autumn 1967, no. 106, according to McTavish 1981, 337.
- Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. 4894. See Tietze and Tietze-Conrat 1944, no. 1386; Molino 1963, 166-67; McTavish 1981, 365-66: Roger Rearick first considered it a copy according to a note on the mount cited by McTavish.
Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 66.
Selected references: Venice 1957, no. 24; Molino 1963, 166-67; London and elsewhere 1968, no. 75; Washington and New York 1973-74, no. 101; Fellows Report 7 1976, 180; Scholz 1976, no. 73; McTavish 1981, no. 17; New York and Washington 2018-19, 45n54.
Oberhuber, Konrad, and Dean Walker. Sixteenth Century Italian Drawings From the Collection of János Scholz. Washington, D.C. : National Gallery of Art ; New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1973, no. 101, repr. (includes previous bibliography and exhibitions).
Ryskamp, Charles, ed. Seventeenth Report to the Fellows of the Pierpont Morgan Library, 1972-1974. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1976, p. 180.
Scholz, Janos. Italian Master Drawings, 1350-1800, from the János Scholz Collection. New York : Dover, 1976. no. 73, repr.
Watermark: anchor or balance inside circle.