This portrait of a man with luscious curls and articulated eyes, while unidentifiable, is clearly of fine quality and must depict a high-status individual from the early Antonine Period.
The marble features a conspicuous lead stamp, or bollo, punched into the back of the head. The bollo reads IO. GRIM. PAT. AQ. MUNUS identifying it as part of a donation of antique marbles made by Giovanni Grimani, (1506-1593) to the Venetian state in 1586. Decades earlier, the Grimani collection was begun when Giovanni’s uncle Cardinal Domenico Grimani (1461-1523) ordered the building of a new palazzo on the Quirinal hill in Rome, and as one contemporary recorded in his diary, “a great number of marble figures, and many other ancient things” were unearthed. To these Giovanni added many others, some purchased on the art market, others excavated on the Venetian terraferma, with many of the finest pieces coming from the city of Aquileia, where Giovanni held the title of Patriarch between 1545 and 1550. With Giovanni’s donation, a gesture of good will with an aim to secure a favorable legacy, some two hundred Greek and Roman marbles were transferred to the antechamber of the Marciana Library, redesigned specifically to house the Grimani antiquities. Put on display for the enjoyment of travelers and members of the government, the marbles would remain in the newly christened Statuario Pubblico (Public Museum of Statues) until 1812, when they were moved out of the library and into National Archeological Museum of Venice, where most of the collection can be seen today.
When studying the Grimani collection and the 16th century donation, scholars have long made use of a range of inventories. The most comprehensive of them dates to 1736, when the library’s custodian Anton Maria d’Alessandro Zanetti (1706-1778) catalogued, with accompanying illustrations, all of the marbles of the Statuario Pubblico. This “Head of a Man” does not appear in the Zanetti catalogue, nor does it feature in any of the subsequent inventories, meaning that, if it had in fact been part of the Grimani donation, it must have been removed before 1736. The earlier inventories, the first of which ordered in 1593, are less detailed and do not include drawings, making identification of such a nonspecific piece that much more difficult. For an extensive study of the history of the Statuario Pubblico, cf. M. Perry, ‘The Statuario Publico of the Venetian Republic’, in Saggi e Memorie di storia dell’arte, vol. 8, Venice, 1972, pp. 75-150 and 221-253.
If the marble head did at one time belong to the museum, it may have been removed and presented as a ceremonial gift to an accomplished citizen of the Serenissima or to an honored guest, as happened on a very limited number of occasions. Alternatively, this marble head may never have left the Grimani residence with the rest of the donation. Given the tall order of cataloguing, stamping, and transferring the marbles, a process that took some three years to complete, it is possible that the head was given its distinctive bollo and then mistakenly laid aside and left at Palazzo Grimani of Santa Maria Formosa.
Giovanni’s donation was always strongly contested by the family, who did not want to see their home emptied of all its treasures. As a compromise it was agreed that all the statues and reliefs which were fixed to the walls should stay at Santa Maria Formosa and the head might have been one of those pieces.
That the head should have ended up in a French private collection is in many ways keeping with the trends in the art market of the 18th and 19th centuries, which saw many classical antiques purchased at reduced rates as renowned Venetian families struggled under financial pressure. Such was the case for the Grimanis of the 19th century, whose paterfamilias Michele (d. 1865) needed for funds and lacked the antiquarian interests of his ancestors. From 1815 until the end of the century, what remained of the Grimani collection was sold to dealers in Venice such as Antonio Sanquirico and Consiglio Ricchetti, and then purchased by merchants and purveyors from all over Europe who in turn, in some cases, left their pieces to the great European museums. For a partial list of Grimani pieces sold by Sanquirico, cf. A. Sanquirico, Monumenti del Museo Grimani: pubblicati nell’anno 1831, Venice, 1831.
Examples of Grimani pieces conserved in museums throughout the world are many: sixteen sculptures formerly of the Grimani collection entered the Antikensammlung of the Berlin state museums, among them a statue of Antinous carved in nero antico, a gift from Anton Steinbüchel in 1854 (Sk 362); a pair of fountain reliefs, admired for their tender scenes of wildlife by 19th century travelers passing through Venice, ended up in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Antikensammlung, I 604 and 605) after they were purchased by the prince of Lichtenstein; a marble stela of Phila, which once was displayed in the courtyard of Palazzo Grimani, made its way to Budapest and then to the collection of Francis Cook, before being bought by the British Museum (1947,0714.2), where two Grimani busts can also be seen (1847,0414.1 and 1850,0116.1); the J. Paul Getty Museum owns two Grimani heads, one a Portrait of a Veiled Female Head, Perhaps Sabina in marble (70.AA.117), the other a Renaissance bronze Bust of a Young Man (86.SB.688), both of which passed through the workshop of Venetian art merchant Antonio Sanquirico; and although the St. Mark’s horses were returned in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon, the suovetaurilia relief, once in the Statuario Pubblico, is still at the Louvre in Paris (MA 1096 – INV. MR 852). While many of the Grimani pieces are accounted for in museum collections in Europe and abroad, there are still a number of objects which remain lost or unidentified, a challenge for scholars, who over the past half century and in increasing numbers have turned their attention to one of the most iconic and influential collections ever assembled.
For a detailed account of the donation and a reconstruction of the courtyard, cf. I. Favaretto, ‘Un “Cortile delle Statue” Veneziano. Per un percorso della memoria nel Palazzo dei Grimani di Santa Maria Formosa’, in Studi di Archeologia in Onore di Gustavo Traversari, Vol. I, Rome, 2004, pp.341-361. For a similar reconstruction of the Tribuna in the palace, cf. I. Favaretto, M. De Paoli, ‘La tribuna ritorvata, uno schizzo inedito di Federico Zuccari con l’antiquario dell’ill. Patriarca Grimani’, in Eidola 7, Rome, 2012, pp. 97-135.