(1651 – Venice - 1736)
The Three Graces
Signed and dated on the right on the cloak: NBAMBINI/MDCCXVI (1716)
Oil on canvas; 262 x 183 cm
Art dealer H.P. Buchen, Berlin, 1954: Coll. Werner Kelch, Berlin, 1977; by descendant to the present owner.
To be published by Giuseppe Pavanello (University of Triest), in the new journal Ricchere Minerve.
Niccolo Bambini provides a stately view of the beautiful and winning handmaidens of Venus in his imposing presentation of The Three Graces. Interlocked in their circular dance, the goddesses are tall and shapely, a portrayal of the sumptuous sensuality of eighteenth-century taste. This harmonious arrangement of sisters originated in classical works of art and was revived by the Renaissance after encountering the motif through ancient sculptures and mosaics, as well as literary descriptions. Notably, the celebrated Roman marble group of the Graces in the Piccolomini library in Siena cathedral inspired many depictions of the beguiling young goddesses. According to Hesoid their names were Aglaïa, Euphrosyne and Thalia. As the attendants of Venus in ancient myth and poetry, each of the Graces displays an attribute of the goddess of love and beauty. The figure on the left who engages the viewer, for instance, wears the fragrant pink rose in the golden tresses of her hair. The Grace on the right holds a sprig of myrtle, symbol of everlasting love. Lastly the third attribute, a die, lies at the foot of the central goddess; this symbolizes fortune, for all the children of Venus play the game of chance.
Consistent with the antique form that persisted throughout the Renaissance, Bambini paints the central figure from behind while the flanking Graces face the spectator. This convention provided the opportunity to view the female form from multiple angles but also carried symbolic meaning. According to Seneca (c. 4 BC 1 AD 65) this arrangement demonstrated that a benefit received should be twice repaid. In fact, the entire allegory of the round dance was meant to demonstrate that goodwill passes from one person to another and returns again to the giver, in an unbroken circle of generosity. The youth of the Graces emphasized the importance of keeping the memory of charity fresh, while their nudity was meant to symbolize the transparency in giving, since gestures of benevolence should be made without hidden motivations. The three Graces are also virgins, underlining the purity of heart in acts of kindness. The Venetian painter included a treccia, or rope of pearls, intertwined in the hair of the Graces on the left and the right; the pearls represent incorruptible purity. It was with the aid of the singing, frolicking Graces that all charity and pleasantry came to mortals. By way of Bambini’s brush their presence imparted benevolence and gracefulness to the ordinary pleasures of the patron’s home.
Bambini painted another version of the three Graces, a canvas in a collection in Schio, near Vicenza (fig. 1). In this undated version the artist included Venus and Mercury, the alleged parents of the Graces, and Cupid floating above in the clouds; whereas our version depicts solely Cupid. Though the rendering of the goddesses is fairly similar in each composition, their poses are moderately looser and more elegantly rendered in the present work, particularly in the serpentine line of our central figure’s dancing body. The green sash flows around the figure on the left creating a greater suggestion of movement, while the fabric in the Schio picture merely drapes and covers the bodies.
Born in Venice in 1651, Bambini’s work was eclipsed, along with many of his contemporaries, by the glories of Venetian painting, which preceded and succeeded him. The intervening years between Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) are often overlooked but Bambini enjoyed a respectable reputation in his time. In his Compendium delle vite de' pittori (1762), Abate Luigi Longhi praised Bambini unequivocally, asserting that Venetian nobles vied for his paintings. Most of his notable contemporaries were foreigners who had come to work in Venice, artists like German painters Johann Carl Loth and Johann Liss, and Genoese-born artist, Bernardo Strozzi. A.M. Zanetti applauded Bambini in his 1733 book Descrizione di tutte le pubbliche pitture di Venezia for being one of the first Venetian painters wise enough to leave his homeland to study other academic trends in central Italy. After training in Venice under Giulio Mazzoni, Bambini went to Rome where he was a pupil of Carlo Maratta. During this time his artistic development evolved away from the painterly Venetian manner concentrate more on disegno. Upon returning to Venice Bambini’s critics found fault with his strong outlines and negligence to layer and blend his pigments in the Venetian mode. Most of his contemporaries acknowledged Bambini’s skill at drawing and ability to create pleasing compositions, but still found that his designs were too meticulous, his contouring too harsh and figures too static for Venetian values. Still, the artist received steady work, with most of his commissions coming from Venetian churches. His best known works include the Birth of the Virgin in San Stefano, which clearly reveals Maratta’s influence, and The Adoration of the Magi in San Zaccaria. Bambini died in his hometown in 1736, leaving two sons, also painters, Giovanni and Stefano.