In Venetian art, Venetian arts and crafts

Metal in Venice: blacksmiths and foundries

Metal in Venice, needless to say, had to be imported from somewhere else. The close mountain chain of the Dolomites would be a resource which however Venetians neglected preferring higher quality metal from Tirol or Germany. 

Across the Alps and finally along the Canal di Cannaregio metal would reach the foundries originally placed in the areas called “Getto”. This is the same area where later on Jews moved to in 1516 and mispronouncing the word “getto” started using a new word: “ghetto”. More metal foundries were at the Arsenale, at the far end of the Castello district. Here the whole ship building industry had concentrated its assembly-line based production.

Blacksmiths and foundry workers are different professions. One of the main differences is the need for space where to perform the melting, then the casting and finally where to store the polluting debris.

However, while one looks at the metal artefacts between the mid-1400s and the end of the 1500s, what strikes everybody’s attention is the ability to create real works of art. This is also true for foundry metal workers.

Alessandro Leopardi and the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni

The first amazing art work in Venice that shows how foundry workers could create statues of importance in metal is the equestrian monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni. Placed in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, in front of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, the sculpture was for long the largest equestrian monument since the ancient times. Twice as big as natural size and weighing almost 6 tons, the statue is usually attributed to the Tuscan artist Andrea del Verrocchio. 

Andrea del Verrocchio & Alessandro Leopardi, Equestrian monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni, 1496, Venice

Verrocchio, who was also the teacher of Leonardo da Vinci, is the one art historians say had the idea of the statue. However, while the original invention was Verrocchio’s, the final outcome we all admire is the result of  the collaboration between the sculptor and the foundry worker Alessandro Leopardi. Actually, it seems Leopardi played a major role not just in the casting, but also in the creation of the art work as Verrocchio died after the clay models for the horse and the knight were made. Colleoni’s face, the armour, the horse bridles, the saddle and the work to polish and chisel the statue’s details: that was all Leopardi’s work.

A detail of Andrea del Verrocchio & Alessandro Leopardi, Equestrian monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni, 1496, Venice

Colleoni, Verrocchio and Leopardi

The story of the monument is quite well known. Bartolomeo Colleoni was a mercenary from Bergamo hired by the Venetian State as General Captain. He expressed in his will the wish to have a statue of himself placed in St Mark’s square (and left the money to do so). The will dates back to October 31st in 1475. Four years later the Senate decided to honour his memory and commissioned the work to Verrocchio in 1487. After the artist died in 1488, however, the Venetian State chose Alessandro Leopardi to continue the work. Leopardi had been banished for fraud from Venice. He had spent some time in Ferrara, where he worked in several foundries, learning how to make cannons. 

In Venice, in two years only, he was able to cast in 16 pieces (8 for the horse, 8 for the man) the whole monument. He also signed it along the band wrapping the body of the horse.

Andrea del Verrocchio & Alessandro Leopardi, Equestrian monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni, 1496, Venice

The Council of the Ten would remember Leopardi as “perfectissimus et rarissimus magister in sculptura”. Such was the admiration for Leopardi that he was later on entrusted with the three flagpoles in St Mark’s square and the Cardinal Zen Chapel in St Mark’s Basilica.

Detail of the central flag pole in St Mark’s square by Alessandro Leopardi, Venice

A curiosity: the monument was placed in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in March 1496 and not in St Mark’s square as the “Condottiero” had wished. How could this happen? The legend claims that the Venetian State didn’t want that statue in St Mark’s square and the will didn’t mention St Mark’s Church, so there could be different interpretations… 

Venetian artillery: mortars, cannons and culverins

If Alessandro Leopardi became a “most perfect and rare master in sculpture”, it is also true that his expertise stemmed from casting metal for heavy artillery. This is also the professional career more artists of the time followed. For instance, Sigismondo Alberghetti who completed the bronze Moors on top of the Clock Tower in St Mark’s square was also a foundry worker specialised in gunfounding. 

But one would make a mistake thinking that the career as a foundry worker would be viewed as a means to become sculptor. The case of the artist or foundry worker that completed one of the well-heads of the water cisterns in the courtyard of the Doge’s palace tells us that making artillery or art works was like the two faces of a medal. 

The well-head in the courtyard of the Doge’s palace in Venice designed by Niccolò Conti (1556) photo source:ò_dei_conti,_vera_da_pozzo_di_palazzo_ducale,_1556.JPG

The bronze wells in the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace in Venice

There is so much to see in the Doge’s palace in Venice and it may happen that, overwhelmed with the whole, you miss the beauty of the two bronze cisterns in the courtyard. Not just, you may think they are identical. Not really. One of them is a true masterpiece. It was cast in 1556 by Niccolò II Conti at the age of twenty. Please mind that, in one single piece. The other well-head is made of more pieces assembled together.

The one designed by Conti is enriched with fascinating mythological figures, such as satyrs, mermaids or festoons of fruits, monstrous creatures. A sort of a bronze version of the Domus Aurea, Emperor Nero’s house. The quality of the art work leaves you breathless.

A detail of the well-head in the courtyard of the Doge’s palace in Venice designed by Niccolò Conti (1556)

A detail of the well-head in the courtyard of the Doge’s palace in Venice designed by Niccolò Conti (1556)

This is something the Contis were aware of. In fact, they mentioned the quality of this art work to convince the Council of the Ten they deserved to work in the Arsenale and to be responsible for the artillery. In other words: if they could cast a beautiful bronze well-head, they could make the best State bronze artillery. So better hire them than somebody else.

Art at war times

Let’s not forget that Venice in the middle of the 16th century was the main State in the Italian peninsula. It led the most powerful military fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. Working as metal foundry workers was serving the country at its chore. Making excellent cannons that would not explode when shooting or crack apart or rust because of salt water was certainly a reason to be proud for.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

Victoria Avery, From Weapons to Well Heads: The Artistic Output of Raw State Artillery Founders of Renaissance Venice, 2008, Scripta Edizioni.

Because of Covid-19 the Naval museum is currently closed (April 2020) and I could not go to take photos of the artillery there. In this post, the photos of the well-head aren’t mine either. The other ones are and were taken the very first day I could go out after 51 days of lockdown.

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