I have always loved architecture. As a child, nothing excited me more than a big old Victorian farmhouse. Greek Revival, Carpenter Gothic, Second Empire, Queen Anne—I was probably one of the only Wisconsin middle-schoolers who knew the nuances of American house design and could read—and draw—a floor plan.
As an undergraduate, one of my majors was Classical Civilization, and my interest in architecture easily translated to ancient buildings. When I studied in Rome during my junior year and was able to see ruins that I had been studying in photographs, I was so excited.
I actually cried a little when I walked into the Pantheon for the first time!
Working in the European department at the Milwaukee Art Museum doesn’t allow me a lot of possibilities to directly study architecture, but I have found one way to explore it indirectly. Tucked away in the corner of the Italian Baroque gallery (Gallery #6) is a painting that most visitors probably miss. It is Architectural Fantasy with Figures attributed to Girolamo Mengozzi (Italian, ca. 1688–ca. 1766).
As you can imagine, what interested me about the painting at first is the meticulous classical setting—columns with Ionic and Corinthian columns, barrel vaults, and ancient sculpture.
A few figures in Roman costume sit and stand; in particular, the two figures almost at the center (detail at right) appear to be Roman soldiers with a flag and a sword.
With all of these details masterfully rendered by the artist, it should be easy to figure out the location of the painting, right?
Well, as the title of the painting hints, the painting does not show a setting that can be identified. It is a fantasy, an imaginary building from the artist’s mind, based upon examples that he saw around him in Italy.
“Fantasies” such as this were a common subject during the 18th century in Italy when a number of artists made their name depicting Roman architectural scenes called capriccio. Capriccio could be one of three types: views of ruins; the artist’s imaginary reconstruction of actual ancient monuments; or made-up buildings, either ancient and contemporary. The ancient built environment offered a wealth of artistic inspiration for imaginative experiments in composition and atmosphere. (Capriccio comes from the Italian word for the unpredictable jumping of a young goat.)
Some masters of the cappricio are Marco Ricci, Giovanni Paolo Panini, and Piranesi. In particular, Piranesi’s work inspires the Romantic landscapes of the late 18th and early 19th century, such as those by Caspar David Friedrich.
Paintings like the Museum’s Mengozzi fantasy are not just part of the capriccio tradition, however. They reflect the 18th-century Italian interest, particularly in the area around Venice, in decorating villas with frescos that “extended” the room to an imaginative space beyond it. To accomplish this, special artists called quadratura created detailed architectural settings of columns, vaults, and railings that utilized the illusionistic technique of one-point perspective. This type of artwork is commonly known in English as trompe-l’œil, from the French phrase used for artwork that “fools the eye.”
The quadratura would work with a second artist who specialized in figure painting and who would paint narratives from mythology, ancient history, or the pastoral tradition inside the architectural framework. The Italian aristocrat who owned the villa could then sit back and enjoy his beautiful painted setting which makes the building look grander and bigger—not to mention makes him look well-educated for knowing the stories depicted in the frescos!
This leads me to the surprise about the Museum’s painting. When I started looking into it, I didn’t know anything about the artist, Girolamo Mengozzi (also spelled Mingozzi and sometimes called Girolamo Colonna). There is not much written on Mengozzi in English, but I soon discovered that he was a famous quadratura who worked for over twenty years with one of the greatest Venetian Baroque artists, Giambattista Tiepolo (Italian, 1696-1770). Together, they painted some of the best-known frescos of the period, such as the story of Antony and Cleopatra at the Palazzo Labia, Venice (ca. 1744) and mythological scenes in the Villa Valmarana, Vicenza (1757).
If Mengozzi is the artist of our painting, we really do have a treasure, because Mengozzi, like most quadratura, rarely painted on canvas. Therefore, all known works by the artist are either in Italy or on frescos that have been removed from their site (such as this one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
There is one pair of paintings that was sold at Christie’s in 2001 that has been attributed to Mengozzi (and Tiepolo), but that attribution is highly contested.
The Museum’s identification of the artist rests on the fact that it was sold to the donors as Mengozzi in 1979. Did the dealer only rely on the label on the frame? Or did he seek out expert opinion? As I’ve shown before in my post on Charlotte-Françoise DeBure by Catherine Lusurier, taking those little plaques at their word is not always the best idea.
Unfortunately, the painting does not appear to be signed. And if the architecture is by Mengozzi, who painted the figures? Could they have been done by Tiepolo?
At this point, I plan to send a photograph of the painting to experts in the field to get more reactions, in addition to continuing my own research. I’ll keep you updated!