The patient master

The typical 18th-century Venetian painter was a virtuoso who never hesitated. Not so Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, a slow, patient, steady worker - and one of the masters.

Rather than being flights of fancy, his pictures contain depth of expression and understanding of structure. Color had a meaning for him quite different from the way other artists felt about it. He preferred the strong effects that can be developed by the use of chiaroscuro, the subtle contrasts between darks and lights.

Piazzetta was continually retouching. His severe self-criticism drastically slowed his production of paintings. At times he had to sell drawings to live. Some of these were preparations for pictures, others were of casually encountered people and incidents. The demand for them was enormous, for he was recognized to be greatly skilled in design. Their destiny? To be framed and hung on the walls of rich homes and museums throughout the world.

How it happened that major artists arose on the social quicksand of Venice of the 1700s will forever remain a mystery. For nearly a thousand years, Venice had been a very powerful sovereign maritime republic. Now its star waned. Capitulation loomed. Yet the charm of its beauty and its aristocratic traditions created an ambiance of pleasure and luxurious elegance then typical of all Europe. In art and culture there was new energy, and Venice emerged at the head of the Italian movement.

An impassioned interpreter of Italian civilization, Piazzetta has given us some remarkable portraits. Behind the gaiety, he could see nostalgia and the shadow of melancholy deep in the eyes. Quite often he used family members as models: son Giacomo, daughter Barbara, and throughout the years, Rosa, his beautiful wife.

Piazzetta had a quiet manner, a reserve, that enchants. He dwelt long on the faces of his models to surprise any flickering, telltale evidence of their state of mind. Almost always at least one hand is shown; hands can be indicators of personality. Using charcoal on tinted paper with a slight texture, he produced a fragility that seems to render the ephemeral throb of the heart.

''Standard Bearer and Drummer Boy'' is a composition of two partial figures, an arrangement likened to a sonnet in poetry. The plan was adopted frequently by Piazzetta, who carried it to an independent art style. Here, one boy looks intensely toward the spectator while the other is absorbed in his task. The artist has fashioned an eloquent counterpoint. The drawing can be dated about 1735-40. White lead accents are of an unusual delicacy.

An adorable picture, ''Boy With Little Dog,'' celebrating the rapport between children and small animals, has been used as the basis for paintings by several artists. The study shows that a knowledgeable use of shading can replace color in communicating both form and sentiment.

In all Piazzetta's work, it is the breath of inner life that makes his characters so fascinating. They have a precious sense of reality, bestowed on them by a discerning artist whose goal was perfection.

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