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Portrait of a Collector: Andrea Odoni and His Sixteenth-Century Venetian Palace

Monika Schmitter
, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, June 18–August 15, 2012

In a letter to the nonnoble Venetian citizen (cittadino) and art collector Andrea Odoni (1488–1545), Pietro Aretino (1492–1556) intimated that Odoni’s house and its contents could be construed as a portrait of the man: “Whoever wishes to see how clean and candid his spirit is should look first at his face and his house; look at them, I say, and you will see as much serenity and beauty as one can desire in a house and in a face.” The letter goes on to describe the ornaments and works of art in Odoni’s house in effusive and florid language, which is nonetheless laced with a subtle current of irony. The combination of Aretino’s evocative and complex missive and the fact that Odoni is the subject of one of the most remarkable and innovative portraits in Renaissance art, now in the collection of Queen Elizabeth II, sets the stage for my book.

Cornelis Visscher, Lorenzo Lotto, Andrea Odoni, c. 1660c. 1660

Cornelis Visscher, Lorenzo Lotto, Andrea Odoni, c. 1660, engraving on laid paper, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1988.18.3

The body of my study takes Aretino up on his implication that Odoni’s house could be read as a kind of portrait of the man, akin to the actual portrait by Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480–1556). In a series of chapters on the different parts of the house—the mythological fresco on the facade, the “antiquarium” in the courtyard and garden, the works of art and other furnishings on display in the main salon, and the two principal bedchambers on the piano nobile—I demonstrate how each space projected a different facet of Odoni’s complex subjectivity. In the final chapter, this “portrait by property” informs my reading of Lotto’s famous likeness, which then hung in one of the bedrooms. Lotto’s image is itself a meditation on the practice of collecting, centered on the spiritual relationship between Christian faith and the ancient pagan past.

My research demonstrates that Odoni was both an insider and an outsider in Venetian society. As a well-to-do cittadino and civil servant, he was accorded a certain social stature and economic privilege, but as a nonnoble and the son of a wealthy Milanese immigrant, he was politically disenfranchised and excluded from the highest elite. Odoni nonetheless rose to the top of the office that collected the wine tax, which grew in the sixteenth century to be the single greatest source of revenue for the Venetian state. While this position gave him wealth, prominence, and power, it also made him susceptible to suspicions of corruption and graft. Perhaps in compensation, Odoni used his house and art collection to promote respectability for himself and his family in their newly adopted homeland.

The chief challenge I have faced in my study is finding a balance between the demands of constructing a “portrait” of Odoni as a collector and demonstrating the significance of this case study for our understanding of Venetian art and society. One key question has been to determine how typical or atypical Odoni was as a collector and patron for his time and his class. The further I delve, the more convinced I am that he was an exceptional individual, as Lotto’s highly original portrait would suggest. At the same time, I think that the role and importance of cittadini in Venetian society and art as a whole has not been fully recognized, in part because of the common assumption that patricians were the only tastemakers and in part because of the lack of primary sources for the lives and collections of nonnobles. Among other things, my study of Odoni will provide a solid cornerstone for future research on cittadini and their engagement with the arts.

During my two months at CASVA, I completed the chapter devoted to the main salon (called the portego in Venetian architecture) of Odoni’s home. In this most public and representational space of the house, Odoni displayed arms and armor in a manner usually thought to be the preserve of patricians. He also exhibited narrative paintings featuring exemplary male role models, including The Clemency of Scipio, by Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo; The Justice of Trajan, by Giovanni Cariani; The Conversion of Saint Paul, by Bonifacio de’ Pitati; and The Penitence of Saint Jerome, by an unknown artist. In this way, he proclaimed his moral rectitude as well as his engagement in civic affairs. But Odoni’s portego was also full of sculpture that was displayed in a way that did not follow conventions established by patrician Venetian families. He transformed what was normally a rather sparsely furnished and ornamented room into a showcase for his collection of ancient and modern statues. For his daring emphasis on art as a sign of a man’s worth, he could be both admired and criticized by his contemporaries.

Center 33 (includes image not shown here)

Lotto, Lorenzo
Italian, 1480 - 1557
Cornelis Visscher after Lorenzo Lotto
Andrea Odoni
c. 1660