Giovanni Migliara

(Alessandria 1785 - 1837 Milan)

Venice, Thunderstorm in St. Marco Square, c. 1837

oil on paper, laid down on canvas, 44 x 64 cm (17.32 x 25.20 inches)

  • Reference: 825
  • Provenance: Lugano, private collection

St. Mark’s Square is seen from a standpoint not far from the last arch on the north, or left, of the basilica’s façade. The diagonal perspective adds a deceptive breadth to the Piazzetta as we look towards the quay, or Molo, thus conveying a feeling of depth which reveals the artist’s scenographic intent.
The picture, of which only the upper part and the buildings stretching from the bell tower to the Piazzetta are complete, may be attributed without question to the hand of early 19th century painter Giovanni Migliara[1]. Born in Alessandria, Migliara moved to Milan in his adolescence to become a celebrated master of vedutismo and of its develpoment in the first half of the century. Enrolling at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in c. 1802, he alternated painting lessons under Giuseppe Bossi with studies in decoration under Giocondo Albertolli and in architecture under Giuseppe Levati. Thus the nature of his formative experience allowed him to hone his skills as a stage designer, a profession much in demand in Milan following the opening of the Teatro alla Scala in 1778, the Teatro dei Filodrammatici in 1800 and the Teatro Carcano in 1803. Migliara’s immense success in that specific profession is the only plausible explanation for his long delay in showing his canvas work at the Accademia di Brera. It was 1812 before he finally showed four views of Milan and two ideal compositions – Palazzo with Tabernacle e View of a City with a Church, both of which are now in the Liechtenstein Princely Collections in Vienna[2] – and they attracted instant praise. He repeated his success at the Salon de Paris, where he was to show another three views of Milan five years later. An initial spell in Venice in 1820 allowed him to perfect his grasp of perspective in the very heartland of 18th century vedutismo, where he showed on the one hand that he owed a debt to the rational, “enlightened” style that traced its origins back to Canaletto, but on the other that he was fully conversant with the mood of the new century and its social implications[3]. First of all, by comparison with Canaletto’s day the market had expanded to include the new bourgeois classes, which for a successful painter meant not focusing solely on working with canvas – a more measured and obviously a more costly process, thus the prerogative of aristocratic patrons – but also with lithography, printed illustrations, watercolours and the famous fixés sous verre[4](miniatures on small glass plates which artists painted ‘au revers’ so that the image could be admired from the other side of the glass).  And secondly, cities had become the driving force behind change. The skies painted by the artist are often divided into brightly lit and more shadowy parts, with heavy clouds billowing upwards and flashes of sunlight, hinting at the possibility of a sudden change in the weather – almost a heavenly metaphor of the revolutions which had already been taking place on earth and which it was suspected might sooner or later reappear on the horizon of history.
Thus Migliara became a formidable populariser of the new approach to vedutismo, a genre ideal for recounting “society with its myriad episodes”[5], yet the new bourgeoisie had restored dignity to the notion of work and Migliara, like many other artists of the age, seemed to be acutely aware of the importance of preparation in his art, of the steps that had of necessity to be accomplished prior to the production of a finished picture. Thus many of the painter’s studies and preparatory sketches appear unfinished precisely in an effort to demonstrate the long, drawn-out process that went into devising, executing and finishing his subjects. These preparatory works reveal two different formal aspects. On the one hand they are trial runs on paper for paintings that were later to be perfected on canvas; but on the other, they are complete pictures in their own right (thus intended for sale) which highlight the meticulous preparatory work that the artist put in and thus, by extension, the superb quality of his creations.
The View of St. Mark’s Square towards the Piazzetta under discussion here is a preparatory sketch for one of Migliara’s most celebrated paintings, a canvas now in the collections of the Civici Musei d’Arte e di Storia di Brescia (inv. 402), the picture chosen for display “before his coffin” at the painter’s funeral in April 1837[6]. In fact the painter’s sudden death is the very reason why the View of St. Mark’s Square after a Thunderstorm remained unfinished, with the figures of the common people only summarily sketched in beneath the flagpoles bearing the flags of the Austrian Empire. But while the painting’s suspended nature is a result of the artist’s demise, the “unfinished” mood of the sketch under discussion here is, on the contrary, a perfectly conscious stylistic choice. The picture is remarkable for the delicacy of the artist’s black chalk strokes, for the painstaking precision of his penstrokes – note, in particular, the meticulous quality of the decoration on the façade of the basilica, where even the number of columns standing between each individual arched void is copied from life with scrupulous accuracy –, for the care he takes with the watercolour wash and even for his methodical selection of the parts to be left uncoloured. Everything comes together in this picture to offer us a profound and sincere insight into the artist’s work. By the time Migliara had turned fifty and was approaching the end of his career, he was universally acknowledged as one of the most important artists in the whole of the Italian peninsula and had been court painter in both Turin and Naples since 1833. Thus his was the most authoritative voice for reaffirming the social importance of art and its ability to depict a world in constant evolution. While, as Giuseppe Pavanello argues, the Brescia painting was a fully-fledged “visual reportage” of life in Venice at that time[7], this preparatory work is also imbued with the same mood of expressive immediacy. And this, despite the composition’s compendiary structure reminiscent in many ways of a stage set, a tribute to the skill of an artist who marked his distance from all formal artifice and thus bore exemplary witness to the sentiment and mood of the new era.


[1] For Migliara, in addition to the historical monographs of the 1930s, see esp.: D. Sanguineti, Omaggio a Giovanni Migliara (1785 – 1837), in Giovanni Migliara, ed. D. Causa, exhibition catalogue (Alessandria, Sala d’Arte, 1-30/9/2006), Alessandria 2006, pp. 8-18; L. Facchin, entry on Migliara, Giovanni in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, 74, Rome 2006, pp. 352-354; L. Mana, Per una biografia ragionata di Giovanni Migliara (1785 – 1837). L’artista, il suo tempo, gli amici, i committenti, in Giovanni Migliara. Viaggio in Italia, ed. S. Rebora, exhibition catalogue (Turin, Museo di arti decorative Accorsi-Ometto, 28/2 – 16/6/2019, Cinisello Balsamo, Milan 2019, pp. 26-33.

[2] M. Natale, in Venezianische Kunst in der Schweiz und in Liechtenstein, ed. M. Natale, exhibition catalogue (Pfäffikon, Seedamm-Kulturzentrum, 18/6 – 27/8/1978; Geneva, Musée d’art et d’histoire, 8/9 – 5/11/1978), Milan 1978, p. 204, n. 187.

[3] M. Pittaluga, Le “vedute veneziane” di Giovanni Migliara, in “Arte veneta”, VIII, 1954, pp. 334-337.

[4] Giovanni Migliara. Acquerelli e preziosi fixé, ed. M. Tomiato, exhibition catalogue (Turin, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, 7/3 – 9/6/2013), Turin 2013.

[5] G. Sacchi, Giovanni Migliara, in “Cosmorama pittorico”, III, 1837, 17, pp. 130-133 (p. 130).

[6] M. Mondini, in Lo splendore di Venezia. Canaletto, Bellotto, Guardi e i vedutisti dell’Ottocento, ed. D. Dotti, exhibition catalogue (Brescia, Palazzo Martinengo Cesaresco, 23/1 – 12/6/2016), Cinisello Balsamo, Milan 2016, pp. 156-157, n. 43.

[7] G. Pavanello, in Venezia nell'Ottocento. Immagini e mito, ed. G. Pavanello and G. Romanelli, exhibition catalogue (Venice, Museo Correr, 1/12/1983 – 31/3/1984), Milan 1983, p. 65, n. 60.

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