Pietro Della Vecchia was born in 1602 or 1603, probably in Venice. His father, Gasparo, was a painter registered with the Venetian guild, yet the younger Vecchia probably received his initial training from Alessandro Varotari (1588-1648), known as Padovanino. Varotari was the leading painter of the first half of the seventeenth century in Venice, and his style attempted to recapture the classicism of Titian's early manner. Varotari had a large and successful school, and he was compared by the eighteenth-century historian Luigi Lanzi to the Carracci for the diversity and excellence obtained by his students. Varotari's pedagogy may have served as an inspiration to Vecchia, who later ran his own academy and was one of the founding members of the Collegio de Pittori, a precursor to the Venetian academy created in 1752.
Vecchia himself was registered with the Venetian guild between 1629 and 1640, though his first documented work likely dates from 1626-1628. He was married to Clorinda Regnier (?-c. 1715), the daughter of the Caravaggesque painter, Nicholas Regnier (Nicolò Renieri, 1591-1667). Clorinda was herself an accomplished artist who imitated both her husband's and her father's manners. Vecchia, Renieri, and the Venetian art critic Marco Boschini (1605-1681) were the leading connoisseurs of painting in Venice, and served as agents for, among others, the great Florentine collector, Leopoldo de' Medici, whose collection of Venetian masterpieces is now housed in the Pitti Palace.
In the 1630s, Vecchia became the preeminent religious painter of Venice, leading to his commission in 1640 for designs for new mosaics for the Basilica of Saint Mark, and to the title of Ducal Painter. Vecchia achieved this recognition as a result of his ability in the monumental manner of Venetian history painting as established by the great masters of the sixteenth century, especially Titian. This knowledge also served Vecchia in his capacity as a restorer, and confidence in him was so great that he was called upon to restore Giorgione's Castelfranco altarpiece in 1643-1645.
Vecchia's affection for and knowledge of Venetian sixteenth-century painting is evident not only in his original paintings and his restorations, but also in his capricious imitations of old masters, especially of Giorgione and Titian. These were not simply copies or forgeries in the modern sense, but rather feats of virtuosity designed to appeal to sophisticated connoisseurs. These imitations are recognizable for what may now seem exaggerations of the manners of their models, but this was perhaps less evident at the time they were painted. Vecchia's Giorgionesque landscapes, and his imaginary portraits of philosophers and bravos, pages and courtesans, are also "modern" in that they depend to some extent on the seventeenth-century taste for bizarre subject matter and character heads deriving from Caravaggio and Rembrandt.
The sophisticated taste to which Vecchia catered in his imitations must also have provided the audience for Vecchia's many depictions of arcane subject matter, such as philosophers and mathematicians. Vecchia's interest in the cabala and in alchemy partook of the general scientific curiosity of his period, and his involvement with scientific, literary, and artistic academies in Venice is well-documented. His only son, Gasparo (1653-1735) was a mathematician as well as a musician and a painter. Gregorio Lazzarini (1655-1730), the teacher of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), was one of Vecchia's many students. Through Lazzarini, Tiepolo may have been influenced by Vecchia's taste for fanciful and arcane subject matter, and for feats of artistic virtuosity. Vecchia died, probably in Venice, in 1676. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Zanetti, Anton Maria. Della pittura veneziana e delle oper pubbliche de' veneziani maestri. 1771. Reprint. Venice, 1972: 387-390.
Lanzi, Luigi. Storia pittorica della Italia. (Bassano, 1795-1796). 3 vols. Florence, 1970: 2:135-136.
Boschini, Marco. La carta del navegar pitoresco. (Venice, 1660) Edited by Anna Pallucchini. Venice, 1966: 536-541, 710.
Aikema, Bernard. Pietro della Vecchia and the Heritage of the Renaissance in Venice. Florence, 1990.
De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 327-328.