Ca’ Rezzonico houses an extraordinary collection of sculptural sketch models, whose provenance is just as important as the intrinsic value of the pieces. This collection is not the result of works assembled by a single collector, or purchased by the museum at different times on the antiques market, but rather the entire model collection from the studio of sculptor Giovanni Maria Morlaiter (Venice, 1699-1781), one of the leading figures of eighteenth-century Venetian art. The studio collection remained intact after the death of the sculptor, and was sold in its entirety by the heirs to the Venetian patrician Marcantonio Michiel. It later became part of the Dona delle Rose collection by inheritance, and was finally purchased by the Municipality of Venice in 1935.
The collection is comprised of about a hundred pieces in terracruda (unfired clay) and terra cotta; their uniformity and homogeneity offer the viewer the unique experience of “seeing” this eighteenth century sculptor at work in his studio and follow his creative process step by step, right from the moment in which the artist models the clay to give form to the maquette that will then be transposed into the finished work. In addition to these preliminary studies, sculpted with quick strokes of the modelling tool, the collection also includes full-scale models, finished in all their details and presented by the artist to the clients who had commissioned the work for final approval.
After many years in storage, thirty-two pieces were selected among the most important and best preserved, and are today exhibited to the public in the Library of Ca’ Rezzonico. This selection displays all the specimens a successful sculptor might be called on to create during his career. This comprehensive sampling is unique in its great variety: preparatory studies for sculptures to be placed on church altars, but also allegorical figures for garden statues, portraits and models for processional signs. Another outstanding example is the maquette of the full statuary group for an altar, and some delightful terracruda putti that were perhaps intended for porcelain production. An extraordinary mascaron depicting a bearded man is instead the maquette for the keystone visible on the ground floor door of Ca’ Rezzonico, near the water gate. It is nothing short of a miracle that objects of simple unfired clay have remained intact after so many years in spite of their extreme fragility.
The examples displayed here show a protagonist of rococo sculpture who more than any other sculptor was able to translate the luministic effects of contemporary painting into vibrant three-dimensional forms, which possess a freshness of execution that has often been compared to Sebastiano Ricci’s, who, on the other hand, was also a close friend of the artist. Helped by the ductility of the material, Morlaiter’s hand is exalted in the sinuous, quivering treatment of the surfaces which, especially in the reliefs, impart a swirling motion to the figures.
The studio also contained sketch models by other sculptors. Such is the case of the four busts and the pair of cherubs by Enrico Marengo, whose pupil Morlaiter had been. Giusto le Court, the so-called Bernini of the Adriatic, the sculptor who introduced the forms of Roman Baroque in Venice, is instead the author of two rare models (we have records of a total of only four) depicting Ceres for a garden statue and an preparatory Angel for the altar of the church of Santa Maria della Salute.