Miniatures by Rosalba Carriera

An Englishman handing a woman a letter — miniature by Rosalba Carriera

Rosalba Carriera was one of the most famous and most popular Venetian portrait painters of the first half of the 1700s. People came to Venice to sit for her, and she was invited to foreign courts to paint the royals.

One of the staples of her early careers was miniatures, both portraits and other motifs, in watercolour and gouache on ivory.

A recent exhibition at the civic museum in Ca’ Rezzonico displayed many of her miniatures, including quite a few from private collections.

Ivory and snuff

Painting on ivory might seem like an odd choice, but snuff was a very popular way of consuming tobacco in the 1700s. Elaborately decorated snuff boxes were therefore sought after luxury items. Everybody would see the box when the owner pulled it out for a sniff.

Venice was a major centre for the production of expensive snuff boxes, often made in ivory, with the lids decorated by Venetian artists.

Carriera did quite a bit of such miniatures in the early 1700s.

A photo in the wallet

Before mobile phones became commonplace, many men would have a photo of their fiancee, wife and/or children in their wallet, to show anybody interested. Now we pull out our phone for the same purpose.

Before the advent of photography, miniature painting could serve the same purpose, for those who could afford it.

Snuff box lids and pocket-size portraits aren’t that different, so of course Carriera also did such portraits.

With her exceptional talent for intimate portraiture, she soon had success.

Since she made many portraits for foreigners on the Grand Tour, much of her production is now in private collections around the globe. However, quite a few made for the Venetian aristocracy are in the civic museums of Venice, such as the Museo Correr and the Museo Mocenigo.

Miniatures are small

Most of the miniatures on display at the Ca’ Rezzonico are about 10cm in height, but some are much smaller. A few are only about 5cm in height, yet with many details in the painting.

Traditionally, artists made such miniatures with a needle, one small point at a time. Rosalba Carriera, however, managed to paint miniatures using brushes and strokes.

Later in life, Carriera lost her eyesight, so she couldn’t paint during the last years of her life. She consequently suffered from a depression in her last years.

We don’t know whether working on such miniscule objects, probably in conditions of poor lighting, damaged her eyesight, but it cannot have been beneficial.

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Photos of miniatures by Rosalba Carriera

The photos on this page are by myself, at the exhibition at the Ca’ Rezzonico museum, which is why there are many reflections.

There are some far better images of some of the miniatures by Rosalba Carriera in an article in the Bollettino dei Musei Civici Veneziani.

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