From the earliest documented appearance of this drawing, in the 1870 Dupper sale, it has always been attributed to Thomas Wyck. There is no firm evidence for the date of his trip to Italy, but it may have been in the second half of the 1640s, as he was not recorded in Haarlem between 1644 and 1653. A ‘Tomaso fiamingo’ had already been recorded in Rome in 1640, and a ‘Tommaso pittore’ in 1644, but there is insufficient evidence to link either of these with Wyck himself (G. Briganti, L. Trezzani and L. Laureati, The Bamboccianti, Rome, 1983, p. 225). Anne Charlotte Steland has also argued that a slightly later stay in Italy is more plausible as part of Wyck’s chronology (A.C. Steland, ‘Thomas Wyck als italienisierender Zeichner’, Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, XLVIII-XLIX, 1987-88, p. 217).
Situated just off the rio di San Luca, south of the Grand Canal in the sestiere of San Marco, the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo is most famous for its striking external spiral staircase (Fig. 1), which was added when the palazzo was rebuilt in around 1499 by the architect Giovanni Candi (d. 1506). Despite its undeniable visual appeal, it is a very unusual choice of subject for a Northern artist at this date. Although many painters must have stopped in Venice during their journey to Rome, or on their return journey north, the city does not seem to have afforded them the same inspiration as the classical ruins of Rome and the Campagna. Indeed Wyck was one of the few who looked beyond the ruins and made studies of the streets and courtyards of 17th-Century Italy, often choosing quiet everyday corners of the towns he visited. Where another artist might have set the Scala del Bovolo at the centre of his composition, Wyck chooses to show it as one of a cluster of characterful buildings, glimpsed from a back street, thereby preserving an authentic sense of atmosphere.