Giovanni Bonazza was one of the leading sculptors active in the Veneto in the early 18th century, creating reliefs and figurative groups for palaces and villas throughout the Venetian Republic. The present subjects would have been particularly attractive to the regional Patrician elite, who would have wished to assimilate themselves to their illustrious forebears deep in the Dark Age past. Such images would have created an illusion of lineage and antiquity, whilst serving as impressive adornments to sumptuous interiors. The subject of the Dark Age kings appears to have been particularly fruitful for Bonazza: there is a very similar relief of Teias, last Ostrogoth King of Italy in the Walters Art Gallery (inv. no. 27.483-488), whilst a series of roundels with Barbarian monarchs can be seen on the walls of the atrium of the Corner Spinelli Palace in Venice (Warrior, 2009, op. cit., pp. 208, 233).
Bonazza's choice of subject coincides with wider interest in Dark Age rulers throughout Europe from the second half of the 17th century onwards. The present reliefs are undoubtedly inspired by engravings from Emanuele Tesauro's Del regno d'Italia sotto i barbari, published in Venice by Giovanni Giacomo Hertz in 1667. The first four profile portraits derive from engravings from Tesauro's chapter entitled Secondo Regno d'Italia sotto i Longobardi (the Second Kingdom of Italy under the Lombards), whilst the final two follow prints from the section, Terzo Regno d'Italia conteso tra gli stranieri et italiani (the Third Kingdom of Italy contested between foreigners and Italians). Bonazza has followed the 17th-century sources faithfully, though in reverse. Compare, for example, the present relief of Flavio Richisio with the portrait appearing in Tesauro's volume. Here we see the same figure, although Bonazza has taken the liberty of presenting a slimmer, more youthful, king, with a charming, finely, delineated, moustache. The most striking of each of the roundels, the bellicose portrait of Guido, Marquis of Ivrea, with flowing beard and elaborate fortified coronet, is a tour-de-force in which the sculptor has managed to translate the energy of the engraving into marble, whilst retaining his own Baroque style and adding in elements like the beautifully drilled plumes above the crown.
The present reliefs are consistent with Bonazza's oeuvre when he was at his artistic maturity. Compare with other carvings dating from the first decades of the 18th century, such as his Apostles from the Palazzo Dondi dell'Orologio, Padua (Guerriero 2003, op. cit., pp. 107-108, figs. 2-13). These have the same rounded forms and enlarged eyes, with crescent moon eyelids, and similarly drilled hair. Tantalisingly, in a description of the Palazzo dei Forzadura di Stra, dated 1765, the writer Giambattista Rossetti refers to 'una serie di Ritratti di sessanta Re d'Italia scolpiti in marmo' ('a series of portraits of sixty Italian kings, carved in marble'; Rossetti, op. cit., p. 349).
G.B. Rossetti, Descrizione delle pitture, sculture ed architetture di Padova, Padua 1765; S. Guerriero, 'Per l'attività padovana di Giovanni Bonazza e del suo “valente discepolo” Francesco Bertos', in Bollettino del Museo Civico di Padova, XCI, 2002, pp. 105-120; S. Guerriero, 'Il collezionismo di sculture moderne', in L. Borean e S. Mason, Il collezionismo d'arte a Venezia. Il Seicento, Venice, 2007, pp. 42-61; S. Guerriero, 'Per un repertorio della scultura veneta del Sei e Settecento. I', in Saggi e memorie di storia dell'arte, 33, 2009, pp. 205-292
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