Zanchi, Antonio

(Este 1631 – 1722 Venice)

The Death of Socrates

93.5 x 111 cm. (36 x 43 in.)
oil on canvas

Provenance:

Private collection, London.

Bibliography:

Andreose, Beatrice and Felice Gambarin. Antonio Zanchi, “Pittor Celeberrimo.” Vicenza: Terra Ferma, 2009.
De Sandrart, Joachimi. Academia Nobilissimae Artis Pictoriae. Norimberg, 1683.
Pavanello, Giuseppe. “Temi Mitologici nella Decorazione Monumentale Veneziana fra Sei e Settecento.” In Metamorfosi del Mito: Pittura Barocca tra Napoli Genova e Venezia, ed. Mario Alberto Pavone. Milan: Electa, 2003.
Riccoboni, Alberto. “Antonio Zanchi e la Pittura Veneziana del Seicento.” In Saggi e Memorie di Storia dell’Arte, Vol. 5, (1966), 53, 55-135, 191-229.
Riccoboni, Alberto. “Antonio Zanchi, Pittore Veneto (1631-1722) nel Secondo Centenario della Morte.” In Rassegna d’Arte Antica e Moderna, IV, (1922), 109-119.

Catalogue Entry

A Baroque painter par excellence, Antonio Zanchi was one of the most distinguished artists active in Venice between the second half of the seventeenth century and the first two decades of the Settecento. Zanchi was born on December 6, 1631 in Este, a small town in the Veneto region. As a young painter, he trained under Giacomo Petrali and, after moving to Venice, he was a pupil of Roman painter Francesco Ruschi.1 In Venice, Zanchi came into contact with the oeuvre of Johannes Carl Loth, and of Genoese painters Luca Giordano and Giovan Battista Langetti, whose tenebrism had a great impact on the artist’s style. Indeed, Zanchi soon became the most significant representative of the so-called tenebrosi in Venice.2 In 1666, he painted the Plague of Venice for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, his first dated work, which established him as one of the most renowned painters in seventeenth-century Venice.3 Throughout his career, Zanchi worked for the most prestigious Venetian palaces and churches, and was active in cities, such as Padua, Treviso, Rovigo, Verona, Vicenza, Loreto, Brescia, Milan, and Bergamo. In addition to his engagement in Italy, the artist was also commissioned with the execution of The Praying Saints Gaetano and Adelaide glorify the Trinità and the Prince Elector of Bavaria’s family for the residence of the Electors of Bavaria in Munich.4

Fig. 1. Antonio Zanchi, Socrates, oil on canvas, 125 x 100 cm., Private collection.

The semi-nude half-length figure of an old, bearded man wearing a brown turban dominates the composition of the present painting. Looking out of the canvas, he holds a metallic, shell-shaped bowl with both hands and slightly bends to his left. There, a fully armed soldier holding a lance obliquely stares at him, inquiringly pointing at the bowl with his right index finger. Between the soldier and the old man, the face of a third figure emerges from the plain, dark background.

A recent cleaning of the painting has revealed an inscription – which is original and coeval with the work – that may reveal its subject. The letters ‘SOCR’, clearly visible behind the lower back of the old man, suggest he might be Socrates, the Classical Greek philosopher. Accused of corrupting the Athenian youth with his irreverent teachings, Socrates was forced to choose between renouncing his beliefs and being condemned to death. Although no other example of the same subject has been identified in seventeenth-century Venetian painting, Zanchi’s work may depict the moment when Socrates, courageously accepting to die, was offered a cup of hemlock by a soldier. The expressive gesture of the latter may recall the moment when, as recorded by Plato in his Phaedo, Socrates’ executioner explained him how to assume the poison. Such a subject could have been much appreciated by Venetian patrons. Considering that, in mid-seventeenth-century Venice, ancient history started to be increasingly used by the city’s aristocracy to convey ethical and philosophical messages, Socrates’ courage and virtue would have ideally paralleled those of the painting’s owner.5

Fig. 2. Antonio Zanchi, Socrates and a disciple looking at a mirror, oil on canvas, 118 x 170 cm., Istituto per i beni artistici, culturali e naturali – Regione Emilia Romagna.

In addition to the inscription, a visual analysis of other works attributed to Zanchi may reinforce a possible identification of the old man as Socrates. Alike in the present painting, in a canvas recently sold at auction (Fig. 1),6 the philosopher is depicted as an aged, half-naked man with a strong musculature, a drapery covering the lower section of his body. He also wears a turban and holds a cup possibly containing the hemlock. Zanchi then treated the figure of the Greek philosopher in two other paintings: Socrates and a disciple looking into a mirror (Fig. 2, Istituto per i beni artistici, culturali e naturali – Regione Emilia Romagna) and the Socrates today in the collection of the Fodanzione Cassa di Risparmio di Padova e Rovigo (Fig. 3), where the philosopher reappears once again as an old yet muscled man.

Antonio Zanchi is known for having looked extensively at the oeuvre of Giovan Battista Langetti (1635-1676). Two canvases executed by the Genoese-born painter in the late 1650s, depicting the encounter between Diogenes and Alexander (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5), may have been sources of inspiration for the present work. Indeed, the three paintings seem to slightly variate the same composition, with the armed figure entering it sideways. The Death of Socrates can also be closely compared to a piece attributed to the circle of Langetti today at the London Wellcome collection. Uncertainly identified as Aristotle refusing the hemlock (Fig. 6), it shows two figures that are closely reminiscent of those in Zanchi’s painting. Particularly, the repetition of the same detail of the metallic, shell-shaped bowl suggests a possible exchange of visual ideas between these two painters active in Venice at the same time.

Fig. 3. Antonio Zanchi, Socrates, oil on canvas, 117.5 × 106.5 cm., Collection of the Cassa di Risparmio di Padova e Rovigo.

Fig. 4. Giovanni Battista Langetti, Diogenes  and Alexander, oil on canvas, 133 x 142 cm, c. 1650, Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice

From a stylistic point of view, the present work could be ascribed to the artist’s early maturity, possibly to the 1660s, when he adopted a distinctively tenebrist style. The bright colors of the painter’s early production have been replaced by a sober palette and chiaroscuro has intensified. Comparison with other Zanchi’s paintings of the time provides visual evidence for dating The Death of Socrates to the 1660s. To illustrate, the figure of Socrates can be closely compared to the half-naked men on the right in Zanchi’s Job Derided (Fig. 7, Wawel Castle, Cracow) and Abraham teaching Astrology to the Egyptians (Fig. 8) in the Church of Santa Maria del Giglio in Venice, both dating to around 1665. In the three works, Zanchi has rendered human anatomy in a similar way, the figures’ vigorous torso defined by a sharp light coming from the upper left, originating distinct areas of light and shadow. The dramatic chiaroscuro and composition of the present painting suggests Zanchi’s fascination with Caravaggism. Indeed, compositions featuring half-body figures emerging from a dark background and illuminated by dramatic lighting were widely explored by Caravaggio in the first decade of the seventeenth century. In Caravaggio’s works, few half-length figures occupy almost the entire surface of the canvas. They are placed close to the picture plane and strike the viewer with their realism, as they do in Zanchi’s piece. The strong Caravaggesque luminism of The Death of Socrates imbues its figures with strong plasticity, creating a sense of physical presence. In this work, Antonio Zanchi has therefore created a tangible yet subtle image, which proves, using the words of painter, engraver and art writer Joachim Sandrart, his “great mastery and perspicacy of invention.”7

 

Fig. 5. Giovanni Battista Langetti, Diogenes and Alexander, oil on canvas, 151 x 127 cm., Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna.

 

Fig. 6. Circle of Giovanni Battista Langetti Aristotle refusing the hemlock (?), oil on canvas, 114.5 × 114.5 cm., Collection of the Cassa di Risparmio di Padova e Rovigo

Fig. 2.

Fig. 7. Antonio Zanchi, Job Derided, oil on canvas, 1660s, Wawel Castle, Cracow.

Antonio Zanchi, Abraham teaching Astrology to the Egyptians, oil on canvas, 276 x 370 cm, 1665 ca., Church of Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice.

Fig. 8. Antonio Zanchi, Abraham teaching Astrology to the Egyptians, oil on canvas, 276 x 370 cm, 1665 ca., Church of Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice.

1 Alberto Riccoboni, “Antonio Zanchi e la Pittura Veneziana del Seicento,” in Saggi e Memorie di Storia dell’Arte, Vol. 5, (1966), 56.
2 Beatrice Andreose and Felice Gambarin, Antonio Zanchi, “Pittor Celeberrimo,” (Vicenza: Terra ferma, 2009), 113.
3 Alberto Riccoboni, “Antonio Zanchi, Pittore Veneto (1631-1722) nel Secondo Centenario della Morte,” in Rassegna d’Arte Antica e Moderna, IV, (1922), 110.
4 For detailed biographical information on Antonio Zanchi, see Riccoboni, “Antonio Zanchi,” 111-115.
5 Giuseppe Pavanello, “Temi Mitologici nella Decorazione Monumentale Veneziana fra Sei e Settecento,” in Metamorfosi del Mito: Pittura Barocca tra Napoli Genova e Venezia, ed. Mario Alberto Pavone, (Milan: Electa, 2003).
6 Auktionsverket.com, last accessed on February 8th, 2019: http://auktionsverket.com/auction/fine-arts/2018-12-05/373-antonio-zanchi-sokrates/
7 Joachimi De Sandrart, Academia Nobilissimae Artis Pictoriae, (Norimberg, 1683), 398.

 

Show More

Related Works