Giovanni Battista Pittoni’s imposing oil painting ‘An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton’ returned to the Wren Library last week following an absence of over a year during which time it was displayed in the exhibitions Eblouissante Venise at the Grand Palais, Paris and Canaletto e Venezia in the Doge’s Palace, Venice.
The painting, which belongs to the Fitzwilliam Museum, is on long-term loan to the Wren Library. It was conceived as one in a series of 24 that depict imaginary monuments or tombs to major political, military or intellectual figures of the late-17th and early-18th centuries commissioned by Owen Swiny [McSwiny] (1676–1754), in the 1720s.
Swiny spent his early career as a theatre impresario and helped to popularise Italian opera in London, but faced with large debts he moved to the continent in 1713 eventually settling in Venice. It was here that he conceived the idea for the series of paintings.
A team of artists from Venice and Bologna, including Sebastian and Marco Ricci, Franceso Morti, Piazetta, Giovanni Battista Cimaroli and Canaletto, were contracted to work on the series. Giovanni Batista Pittoni (1687-1767) was responsible for four of the paintings including the ‘Allegorical Monmument to Sir Isaac Newton’. His other subjects were Archbishop Tillotson, Lord Dorset and the first Earl of Stanhope. The Newton painting was designed by Pittoni and executed with the assistance of brothers Guiseppe (d. 1762) and Domenico (d. 1761) Valeriani, well-known scene painters, who were responsible for the architectural setting.
The paintings were sold to members of the English nobility. Swiny’s principal patron Charles Lennox, second Duke of Richmond acquired ten of the pictures which he hung at Goodwood House, Sussex. The ‘Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton’ was bought by Sir William Morice. The series is now dispersed among major collections and museums throughout the world.
The subject matter of the ‘Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton’ was discussed with John Conduitt, a relative by marriage of Isaac Newton, whose papers are deposited at King’s College, Cambridge. The painting depicts the mourning figures of Minerva (Roman goddess of Wisdom) and other muses of science led by an angel towards a large urn containing Newton’s ashes. In the middle ground, on either side of a pedestal supporting symbolic figures of Mathematics and Truth, people study diagrams and instruments. A ray of light striking through a prism across the centre of the picture, represents Newton’s celebrated experiments with light.
A second interpretation of the subject painted by Pittoni, following more closely suggestions made in a rough sketch in John Conduitt’s papers, is in the Marzotto Collection, Valdagno, Italy.
Pittoni was an accomplished draughtsman and painted many altarpieces and devotional images, but is best known for his paintings of subjects from mythology and Classical literature. His distinctly personal French Rococo style was extremely popular during his lifetime and he received many important commissions, but he was largely forgotten until the early 20th century.
Swiny returned to London in 1733 and later attempted to have all the paintings engraved in a single volume. He published a prospectus ‘To the Ladies and Gentleman of Taste of Britain and Ireland’ in the 1730s to try to raise funds for the project by subscription. However, only nine of the paintings were included in the volume when it was finally published in 1741 as Tombeaux des princes, grands capitaines et autres hommes illustrés, qui ont fleuri dans la Grande-Bretagne vers la fin du XVII et le commencement du XVIII siècle. One of these engravings made by Louis Desplaces (1682-1739) from a detailed drawing by Domenico Maria Fratalli was of the ‘Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton’. The British Museum has a copy.
The painting which is on permanent display on the Wren staircase was purchased by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1973 with assistance from the Art Fund. It can be seen by visitors during public opening hours.
Keynes, M., The Iconography of Sir Isaac Newton to 1800 (Woodbridge, 2005)