From our forthcoming newsletter: 

Sir Nicholas Penny presented his audience with the story of what was to many an unknown Venetian collection from the 18th century as well as a feast of ideas, reflections and analysis of taste and acquisition.

The Manfrin collection was created in the later 18th century by Count Girolomo Manfrin of Zara, a rich tobacco merchant. Acquiring his palace in 1789 (now the Palazzo Manfrin Venier), Manfrin determined to build a collection that would represent the development of painting in Italy and with public access in mind.  He was collecting at a time when works of art from churches were being brought to the market through the dissolution of the confraternities. Penny  argued that the rescue of these old altarpieces was for collectors such as the Ercolani in Bologna and the Biffi in Cremona, was a key factor in the formation of their collections- more so than was the case with Manfrin, for whom showing the history of Venetian art was a key factor in the range and diversity of his collection. He thus bought works from the Early Renaissance and also owned works by Dutch and Flemish artists, Teniers, Poelenberg, Ostade, Seghers and Rembrant, which were mixed in with the Italian paintings in the various rooms of his palace. Manfrin had put together his collection with the advice of leading advisors in Italy, such as the art agent, Pietro Edwards and the Venetian dealer Giovanni Maria Sasso.

On his death in 1802, the collection was inherited by his two heirs and on the death of his son, passed to his daughter in the 1830s. Her heirs started selling the collection after her death in 1848.. They hoped that the collection to be sold as a single entity and Penny pointed out the often-underrated importance of the laws of inheritance, which both encouraged sales and made it easier to divide the collection between heirs if the sale took place en bloc. An inventory taken for his daughter in 1834 gives some idea of the surprising range and quality of the collection, and as it was taken by room, it also gives an idea of the disposition of the collection, presumably much as it had been left by Manfrin himself. The inventory is transcribed in full in Linda Borean’s La Galleria Manfrin a Venezia, which Penny used as the basis of his discussion and which cites the relevant documents as well as useful illustrations of known paintings from the collection.  Penny paid homage to the several publications on Venetian collecting history by Borean and others, which, as he said, enables us to put the Manfrin collection in context and assess its nature more accurately.

The heirs approached the Accademia and also the National Gallery, who were not interested in the whole, but in picking out certain paintings for the collection. According to a valuation made by Uwins and Woodburn for the National Gallery in 1851, 120 paintings they thought were worth buying. In the end Eastlake bought three, including Vincenzo Catena’s St Jerome in his Study, above (at the time considered by Eastlake to be by Bellini); in the end the Gallery acquired 17 from his collection in all, among them Previtali’s Madonna with St Catherine and donors (then thought to be by Cima da Conegliano) as well as G B Moroni, The Vestal Virgin Tuccia and A Vivarini, Madonna with Child and the studio of Van Eyck, Portrait of Marco Barbarigo.

As Penny argued, the discussions between the various experts who viewed the collection form a fascinating picture of connoisseurship and taste in the period. When discussing the potential purchases, the Trustees asked that the authenticity and condition be examined, but also the character of the artist and the story of the painting, in view of the Gallery’s recent formation. Eastlake in his visit a few years later in 1856 stated that the collection had many interesting smaller works, but that much of the collection would have to be sold at auction as not being worthy of the National Gallery collection.

Penny ended with the story of the two Giorgiones that Manfrin had owned, The Tempesta and La Vecchia, both of which ended up in the Accademia and were rejected by the National Gallery although the Tempesta was described by Eastlake as ‘a picture of great charm’. As Penny pointed out the understanding of the style of many artists, including Giorgione, was at a very early stage. Penny also gave credit to Pietro Selvatico, Secretary and then President of the Accademia between 1849 and 1858, in his struggle to prevent the heritage of Venice from leaving, taken by the ‘rapacious’ English and said it was a fitting tribute that some of the works now to be of greatest importance, such as the two Giorgiones, remained in Venice and in the Accademia.

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