Resplendent in red, the freshly elevated Cardinal impassively holds our gaze; in one hand he grips a sheaf of papers, in the other he fingers his mozzetta. This magnificent painting is in a long line of formal ecclesiastical portraits stretching back to works by Raphael, Titian, and Velasquez of which Mengs would no doubt have been aware. Nevertheless, this is a decidedly modern composition, the background spare: a simple column, a gray wall, and a crimson curtain. The energy in the painting derives from the contrast between the static figure of the cardinal and the competing shades of red that dominate—in the chair, the curtain, and the swirling scarlet drapery of the Cardinal’s cassock. The reds are set off by the bright white of the sitter’s surplice and the brashly gleaming gold of his splendid chair. For all the richness of detail this is a disturbingly direct piece of painting.
Carlo Rezzonico was the nephew of Pope Clement XIII Rezzonico also called Carlo, who was elected Pope in 1758. The family originally came from Como, but they moved to Venice where they made their fortune in the fabric trade in the 17th century. Quintiliano Rezzonico was ennobled having donated 100,000 ducats to finance a Venetian victory against the Ottoman Empire in 1699. The family name lives on in their palace in Venice, the Ca’ Rezzonico which now houses the city’s museum of 18th-century art. The wealthy Rezzonico acquired it from the more ancient but less solvent patrician Bon family in 1750.
The Venetian Rezzonico Pope went on to be a major patron of the arts in Rome, though two of his favorite artists Antonio Canova (who designed his superb funerary monument in St. Peter’s Basilica) and Giovanni Battista Piranesi were also Venetian immigrants. Clement XIII’s pontificate saw the crucial aesthetic transition in Rome from the late Rococo to Neoclassicism in the late 1750s, a movement spearheaded by the German critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), whose writing on Greek art transformed the cultural philosophy of mid-18th-century Rome. Winckelmann, who would be painted by Mengs, held the position of librarian to the powerful Cardinal Alessandro Albani, whose residence on the Via Salaria, the Villa Albani built by Carlo Marchionni to house the Albani collection of antiquities, was the epicenter of Neoclassicism in Rome at the time.
When this portrait was commissioned in 1758, probably one of a diptych to celebrate the elevation of Clement XIII to the papacy and his nephew Carlo to the cardinalate, there would have been two principal candidates for the assignment, Pompeo Batoni and Anton Raphael Mengs. One might imagine that a Venetian patron would want an Italian painter for such an important project. In fact, there were good recent precedents for foreign artists to execute papal portraits, notably Pierre Subleyras’s Portrait of Benedict XIV Lambertini (Musée des Châteaux de Versailles, MV 3852). Mengs, though born a Protestant, had converted to Catholicism in 1749 to marry a Roman woman, Margherita Guzzi, but he was still closely connected to the influential Saxon court. Mengs had painted Augustus III and then his youngest son, Prince Friedrich Christian in 1751. The Electors of Saxony had been allies of the Imperial Hapsburgs in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) and it was to their influence that Rezzonico owed his election as Pope. That Mengs and Winckelmann and the powerful Cardinal Alessandro Albani (for whom Mengs would paint the vault of his main salone with a fresco depicting Parnassus) were all connected, cemented the German/Vatican connection and smoothed the way to this important commission.
Winckelmann called Mengs the Apelle sassone (the Saxon Apelles) and by the 1750s Mengs had established himself as Batoni’s principal rival as a painter of portraits and as a painter of altarpieces and history pictures. Among Mengs’s British sitters were the celebrated expatriate collector Lord Cowper (Cassa di Risparmio, Florence), William Burton Conyngham (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.82; fig. 1) and John Viscount Garlies, whom the artist depicted in Van Dyck costume (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2001.21; fig. 2). Mengs’s studio was an important center for artists studying in Rome: Zoffany and Von Maron (see cat. 41) were among his best pupils. Mengs was known for his impeccable draftsmanship (see cat. 11), his beautiful works in pastel, as well as his skill at painting in the Greek style—he famously once fooled Winckelmann with a fake antique fresco of his own making.
Although they were contemporaries and direct rivals, Mengs’s portraits differ materially from those by Batoni. An instructive point of comparison are the portraits of John Montagu, Lord Brudenell who was painted by both artists within a year of each other in around 1758. Batoni produces a more languid, contemplative likeness while Mengs’s image is bolder and more demonstrative. The German’s palette is more saturated, his surfaces more polished and his flesh tones more radiant. His paintings have what Clark calls a ‘softly crystal-like atmosphere’ and his ‘vision of reality’ a ‘new richness and genuine intellectual nobility’. All qualities immediately apparent in the Portrait of Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico.
Although Batoni did not win the inaugural commission, Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico did commission a portrait of Pope Clement XIII from him two years later (Palazzo Barberini, 4659). With less gravitas than the Mengs portrait, Batoni shows the Pope standing, with the hint of a smile, almost shyly blessing the viewer. Although it spawned at least 16 copies, Batoni’s portrait was not as highly regarded as the painting by Mengs. The Hon. Thomas Robinson observed in a letter to his father in 1760, ‘Battoni made one notice how well the Gold Lace was finished, how transparent the linen was…the likeness was indeed very perfect. Menx on the other hand, who neglected no Circumstance which could render his picture more compleat in respect of the height of it’s finished, did not however point out these circumstances so circumstantially. He rather dwelt on the Effect of the Whole picture, on the Composition of it, it’s Force, & it’s dignity, none of which things the Older with all his Accuracy ever thought of’. Even Clark, Batoni’s most ardent admirer writes of the two portraits, ‘It is extremely difficult for a man in the rich vestments of an eighteenth-century pope to look anything but ridiculous unless seated on a throne’.
Rudolf Wittkower, unfairly, described Mengs as one of the last painters of the Rococo, not among the first of the Neoclassical age, and indeed some of Mengs’s portraits, especially those of the Saxon and Hapsburg princes do have a Rococo sensibility; however, the cool, smooth surfaces of a portrait such as this show him to be a far more progressive artist. Because he was seen as a more modern painter than Giaquinto and because of his German connections (the Spanish king was married to Maria Amalia of Saxony), Mengs was invited to replace the Neapolitan painter at the court of Charles III in Madrid in 1761. His students there included Francisco Bayeu, teacher of Goya. Mengs spent 11 years intermittently in Spain after 1761 but came back to Rome permanently in 1777 and died there two years later.
Pope Clement XIII was elected to the Holy See in 1758 and in the same year made his nephew Cardinal. In that year Mengs executed the Portrait of Pope Clement XIII (private collection), following which the young Cardinal Rezzonico commissioned from Mengs two portraits, one of his uncle and the present portrait of himself. The former portrait is now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna (196; fig. 3), while the present painting remained in the family until it was sold in 2016. Mengs had already shown his abilities as a painter of cardinals with his exuberant Portrait of Cardinal Alberico Archintoof 1756–57 (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, H 687), in which the cardinal is portrayed in the identical late Baroque chair seen in this painting.
Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico, as Vice Chancellor, exercised power as an arbiter of taste in Rome and it was he who appointed Winckelmann Papal Commissioner for Antiquities in 1763; Winckelmann would dedicate Abhandlung von der Fähigkeit der Empfindung des Schönen in der Kunst, und dem Unterrichte in derselben to him. He would outlive his uncle by 30 years, dying in 1799—the same year as the demise of the Venetian Republic. After the death of his uncle, Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico remained a significant force throughout his life, overseeing the property and revenues of the Holy See as Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church. He, like his uncle, unsuccessfully defended the Jesuit order which was eventually suppressed in 1773.❖