Holy Family, Pietro Baratta

Signed at the base of the group: “PIETRO BARATTA”

Beautifully modelled, this terracotta Holy Family [I–XII] is a work – as certified by the
signature at the base of the group – by the sculptor of Tuscan origin Pietro Baratta.1

In the center is Jesus, now a child, who, standing, already presents himself as Salvator Mundi, that is, a
say with the right hand in a blessing act while the left supports the terraqueous globe, symbol of his divine sovereignty over the entire world. Behind him, slightly backwards, stand the figures of the Virgin and the imposing figure of Saint Joseph. Sitting on the edge of a low wall (perfectly legible both on the left side and on the back of the work), Mary, her florid face partly covered by her cloak, holds her young Son close with both hands, as if to underline the her privileged role as mediator between Humanity and God. On the right the composition ends with the elderly Giuseppe who, unlike his usual marginal position, is here called to be present as co-protagonist. Tall, with a dry face, with sparse hair and a thick, wavy beard, he is depicted with his right hand resting on his chest, in a typical gesture of humble devotion, and is accompanied by the flowered staff, the most canonical of his attributes. .

In excellent condition, the work, as anticipated, bears the signature of its author engraved in capital letters. Signature which is also found on the right side of another Holy Family [1]:
the one sculpted by Baratta himself for the oratory of Villa Barbaro in Casier (Treviso)2 and of which our sculpture appears to be the preparatory model. Camillo Semenzato, in a fundamental article from 1958, underlined, with great critical acumen, how in Casier’s group «the sculptor reveals a broad and sure sense of composition, derived from a defined, firm spatiality, in which the relationships are specified with logic and neatness. The forms, illuminated by an equal light, swell with baroque emphasis, and in the linear movement of the shadowed furrows and illuminated profiles confirm an elegant mannerist virtuosity»3. A reading that also profoundly reflects the character of our terracotta; in it, indeed, the “broad and sure sense of composition” and the emphatically elegant forms are accentuated by the fragrance of the modeling, by the sense of intimate warmth that emanates from the redness of the material used, in which, precisely, the faces, the looks and even the plump fingers of the Virgin and the sharp ones of Joseph acquire an unexpected and magnetic prominence.

The differences that can be recognized when comparing Casier’s sculpture with the model presented only underline its authenticity, allowing us to partially follow the artist’s reflections and the solutions he adopted during the work. Baratta modified the play of legs and feet visible in the model study by inserting a bench in the marble covered with a precious damask fabric which houses the Virgin and, in the centre, hoisted on its edge, the little Jesus. Although he is always depicted blessing, the Redeemer, however, has lost the terraqueous globe: with his left arm and hand Jesus clings to his father’s right forearm, who, in this case, appears with both hands crossed on his chest. The sculptor has thus amplified the human relationship between the three figures, their family bond. It is not for nothing that the Holy Family conceived in this way is also defined as the Earthly Trinity, in a mirror-image and direct relationship to the Celestial Trinity, which is however composed of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

It is interesting, on a technical and stylistic level, to note how in our terracotta the modulation of the drapery created by Baratta accentuates the chiaroscuro effects, with a result of greater plastic liveliness compared to the final work. In the marble, in fact, the Tuscan worked in synthesis, gradually trying to achieve greater brightness and clarity in the surfaces with a clearer scansion of the planes and a calmer general tone. A modus operandi, this, typical of Pietro, of his classicist orientation of central Italian origin to which he remained substantially faithful in all the years of his activity, not only in Venice.

Having arrived in the Serenissima Republic in 1693, the sculptor, born in 1668 in Massa, was first employed in the workshop of Francesco Cabianca (1666-1737) and then moved, after a few months, to that of his fellow countryman Giovanni Toschini, of whom he took the reins starting from around 1700.4 Member of an important family of sculptors, of whom the slightly younger brother Giovanni is remembered above all, Pietro arrived in the lagoon context already “well advanced in the art”, as Tommaso Temanza informs in his Zibaldon5. We know very little about his first works, since they were Tommaso Temanza in his Zibaldon5. We know very little about his early works, since they were presumably created under the direction of the older Toschini. The first documented commission known to us dates back to 1699: that of the sculptures for one of the altars of the Follina Abbey, where today there are only two adoring Angels.

Shortly thereafter, however, the sculptor was hired for a work of greater prestige. Namely the memorial dedicated to Doge Silvestro Valier [2], erected in 1701, the year following his death, in the «public library [ the Libreria Marciana], almost as a tutelary simulacrum of the Genii Literarij”, and which has stood out in one of the rooms of the Accademia dei Concordi in Rovigo since the end of the nineteenth century.6 Thus it was that Baratta, through a work destined for one of the most symbolic places of Venice, commissioned directly by the Marcian Senate, achieved a certain notoriety, which, in a short time, was consolidated thanks also to his participation in one of the major undertakings of the entire eighteenth century: the Valier Monument [3] in the basilica of Saints John and Paul.7 Alongside Giovanni Bonazza, Marino Groppelli and Antonio Tarsia, Baratta contributed to creating that grandiose deposit, which, as Monica De Vincenti has well underlined several times, establishes the imposition of the classicist language in the lagoon, that is, « a reforming sensibility opposed to baroque bizarreness”. The Tuscan sculptor is responsible for the full-length portrait of Doge Silvestro Valier [4], the allegory of Eloquence or Public Happiness [5] and the reliefs with Charity [6] and Humility [7] – works, the last three , signed and initialed by the artist.

Via Via Pietro was called to provide his works for the churches of the entire Dominante, among which stand out, in addition to the Holy Family of the Oratory of Ca’ Barbaro in Casier, the statues of the Annunciation already in the Venetian church of Santa Lucia, and today preserved in Mestrino, and the plastic decoration of the main altar of the Gorizia cathedral. In 1712, however, at the suggestion of the Isonzo altar artist Giovanni Pacassi, he was commissioned to create the group of the Pietà with the Sorrowful Marys and the Little Angels with the symbols of the Passion [8] for the Kapuzinerkirche in Vienna.

From the mid-1910s until 1727, the date of his definitive return to Carrara, Baratta was repeatedly engaged, together with other renowned artists, by the Manin, a Friulian family belonging to the so-called “nobility of Candia”, that is, that group of nobles registered in the Golden Book of the Venetian patriciate after the disbursement to the Republic of the huge sum of 100,000 ducats. For the monuments they wanted and paid for in the presbytery of the cathedral of Udine, the Tuscan master sculpted
the statue of Nobility [9] and the group with the personifications of Peace and Justice [10].8 Again for the Manin family, but this time in Venice, for the Jesuits, Baratta created the statue of Saint Peter for the façade of the church [ 11] and, inside, the plastic decoration of the altar dedicated to Saint Ignatius of Loyola [12].

Alongside works of a purely ecclesiastical nature, Baratta also dedicated himself to the creation of sculptures intended to satisfy the requests of private collections, both Venetian and European9. In this regard, he was among the artists consulted by Count Savva Raguzinsky, on behalf of the Tsar of Russia Peter the Great, to provide statues and busts intended to enrich the gardens and parks of the imperial residences in Petersburg. Similarly, the artist also participated with four of his sculptures in the furnishing of the garden of the palace of Augustus II the Strong, king of Poland, in Dresden; statues, the latter, which have unfortunately been lost and which we only know through engravings.

Both are commissions of undoubted importance and which certify Baratta’s achievement, thanks to the centrality of Venice in the international artistic panorama, of a leading role. A role that was also officially recognized by his appointment as “Sculptor of Moscow”, with the task – to which he dedicated himself until his death in 1729 in Carrara – of educating the young Russian artists sent to him by the Tsar in Italy.

Although no document has yet emerged from archival research regarding the terms of the commission to Baratta of the Holy Family of Casier, we know with certainty that it was the Giustinianis who asked the Tuscan sculptor to create the group. In fact, the small church in which it is preserved, dedicated to Santa Maria della Concezione, was built in the second decade of the 18th century, that is to say when the entire complex of the villa belonged to the Giustiniani family, who became its owner towards 1645 and who, finally, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, sold it to the Barbaro, a name with which the residence and the oratory are still associated today.10 It can be hypothesized, therefore, that the Giustinianis required the artist to sign as much the preparatory terracotta model as well as the final marble sculpture. An understandable request if you consider that Baratta, as we have seen, was at that time «among the most highly regarded sculptors of the first quarter of the eighteenth century in Venice» 11 and he had worked for some of the most prestigious families of the Serenissima Republic.
The corpus of terracottas recognized by critics of the Tuscan sculptor is still very small12, therefore the Holy Family presented here acquires a considerable value.

In Venice, in the Museum of the Eighteenth Century Venice of Ca’ Rezzonico, there is the preparatory model [13] for the figure of the Doge Silvestro Valier created by the Tuscan for the
Valier monument to Saints John and Paul13. Mutilated in the lower part, the terracotta still has traces of the original polychromy and gilding. Also in this case, the clay study is characterized by a search for plastic effects which were then attenuated in the marble, as can be seen above all in the left hand which sinks its fingers into the soft damask in the terracotta.

Closer to our Holy Family is certainly the study [14] created by Baratta for the Pietà [15] today in the chapel of the Canal–Marovich Institute of Venice, but originally placed on an altar of the lagoon church, no longer existing, of Saint Lucia.14 Conserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the terracotta for the Venetian Pietà is magnificently executed, with a level of finish very similar to that of the work studied here and an undoubted consonance in the way in which the drapery and use the toothed slats to define the rock on one side and the base on the other.
The last known sketch is the Galatea [16] from the De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. This is the preparatory model for the marble [17] of the same subject today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and probably created by Baratta for the
Manin.15 collection

Alongside the works briefly mentioned, the Holy Family discussed here, for the high
quality that distinguishes it, only confirms the great ability to model clay recognized in Baratta already in the first years of his apprenticeship with Francesco Cabianca, when, locked in a room alone and without any help, he created a flayed Saint Bartholomew in clay in such a way that the Venetian “was happy with it”.16

Maichol Clemente


1 Un profilo sintetico sullo scultore è offerto dalla voce biografica compilata da M. Klemenčič, in La scultura a Venezia da Sansovino a Canova, repertorio fotografico a cura di A. Bacchi, Milano 2000, pp. 690-692. Per una comprensione più approfondita della personalità di Baratta e del suo ruolo in ambito veneziano si rinvia comunque a C. Semenzato, Lo scultore Pietro Baratta, “Critica d’Arte”, 25-26, 1958, pp. 150-168; Id., La scultura veneta del Seicento e del Settecento, Venezia 1966, pp. 31-32, 94-95; M. De Grassi, Pietro Baratta per le corti del Nord, “Arte Veneta”, 51, 1997, pp. 51-61; S. Guerriero, Giovanni Toschini e gli esordi veneziani di Pietro Baratta, “Venezia Arti”, 13, 1999, pp. 41-50.
2 C. Semenzato, Lo scultore Pietro…, cit., p. 155 (fig. 100, p. 153).
3 Ibidem.
4 Cfr. S. Guerriero, Giovanni Toschini e…, cit.
5 T. Temanza, Zibaldon [1738], a cura di N. Ivanoff, Venezia-Roma 1963, pp. 72-74.
6 Cfr., con bibliografia precedente, M. De Vincenti, ‘Piacere ai dotti e ai migliori’. Scultori classicisti del primo ‘700, in La scultura veneta del Seicento e del Settecento. Nuovi studi, a cura di G. Pavanello, Venezia 2002, p. 228.
7 Il più aggiornato e preciso resoconto sulle vicende di questo magnifico deposito è quello di M. De Vincenti, Il “prodigioso” mausoleo dei dogi Valier ai Santi Giovanni e Paolo, “Arte Veneta”, 68, 2011 (2012), pp. 143-163.
8 Cfr. M. De Vincenti, Sui monumenti Manin del duomo di Udine, “Venezia Arti”, 11, 1997, pp. 61-68.
9 A tal proposito M. De Grassi, Pietro Baratta per…, cit.
10 Vedi S. Chiovaro, in Ville venete: la Provincia di Treviso, a cura di S. Chiovaro, Venezia 2001, p. 87, cat. TV 083.
11 Così H. Honour, Baratta, Pietro, in Dizionario Biografico degli italiani, V, Roma 1963, pp. 793-794.
12 A tal proposito vanno escluse dal catalogo delle terrecotte di Baratta quelle recentemente attribuitegli in A taste for sculpture V, Trento 2018, catt. 11-12, pp. 72-83. Nella scheda, stranamente, non si prendono in esame le opere in creta ad oggi note dello scultore, le quali, infatti, presentano un modellato e una forza plastica assai distante da quella dispiegata in quelle due sculture.
13 Vedi M. De Vincenti, ‘Piacere ai dotti…, cit., p. 228, n. 28.
14 S. Guerriero, in I tesori della fede. Oreficeria e scultura dalle chiese di Venezia, catalogo della mostra (Venezia, chiesa di San Barnaba, 10 marzo – 30 luglio 2000), a cura di A. Augusti, Venezia 2000, cat. 52, pp. 112-114.
15 Cfr. M. De Vincenti, ‘Piacere ai dotti…, cit., p. 228, n. 28.
16 Episodio, questo, ricordato da Tommaso Temanza, Zibaldon…, cit.