(Formeaso 1682 – 1748 Venice)
A Resident of the Venetian Ghetto
Oil on canvas
21 ¼ x 16 1/8 inches
(54 x 41 cm)
Private Collection, United Kingdom
Grassi, born in Friuli, made his career in Venice, where he was known as both a distinguished portrait painter and an artist of ambitious religious compositions. His brilliant brushwork recalls that of his contemporaries Giambattista Pittoni and Sebastiano Ricci, and his fluid compositions and vivid palette are emblematic of the rococo in Venice.
The present work portrays a Jewish resident of Venice. He is bearded and wears a blue skull-cap (a kippah or yarmulke) over his balding head. He is turned left in near profile and wears a brown coat surmounted by a white prayer shawl (a tallit, tallis, or manto di preghiera) with pale blue stripes. This painting of an unknown man would seem to have been painted less as a portrait than a character study, a closely observed record of a person that the artist might well have known, but who would always remain an alien figure in a culture divided by religious strictures. Whatever the relationship (if any) of subject to artist, and the circumstance that caused the picture to be painted, this remains, unlike many depictions of Jews at the time, a sympathetic representation that veers away from stereotype to portray an individual with respect and dignity.
The Venetian ghetto was established by decree on March 29, 1516 – an event that is being commemorated with a series of exhibitions and conferences this year. Venice both accepted and confined its Jewish residents and, by the time of the present painting, in the first half of the eighteenth century, Jews had achieved great social and commercial success in the city. However, both economic conditions and relations with their neighbors would deteriorate over the course of the century, as the population of the ghetto declined from 4800 in 1655 to 1700 in 1766 withJews leaving for more hospitable cities. The conquest of Venice in 1797 by Napoleon’s troops brought to an end both the Venetian Republic and the ghetto that divided its populace.