Kneeling Venus with Dolphin (Giovanni Battista Pieratti)

Attributed to:

Giovanni Battista Pieratti (1599-1662) and/or

Domenico Pieratti (4 Oct. 1600 – 22 May 1656).

Florence, ca. 1620s

Kneeling Venus with Dolphin


Height 82 x diameter 61 cm


Private collection, Bristol from 1995 until 2012

Private collection, Taunton, Somerset before 1995


Venus kneels with her left hand holding drapery over her left thigh. Her hair is exquisitely carved forming a highly intricate all’antica hairstyle. Individual locks are differentiated and drill marks are evident. Deep undercutting in her hair creates the effect of multiple braids looped around a low headband. The dolphin is shown with fish scales typical of antique Roman and Renaissance sculpture, both of which served as a source for the sculptor. The tips of the toes of her right foot (restored) and part of the drapery hang over the edge of the base. The composition is remarkable for a marble since it contains no external supports yet balances on its integral base.

Venus kneeling with a dolphin beside her was a typical motif in Roman sculpture, but this model follows no known antique prototype. It is a combination of Venus Anadyomene, in which the goddess wrings water from her hair, and the kneeling Venus of which various types existed.

The small knot of hair at the top of Venus’ head, held by a taenia, was used in antiquity to signify a god or goddess, most commonly Venus or Apollo. Sixteenth-century Italian artists were particularly interested in the motif, as its correct interpretation allowed them to demonstrate their familiarity with the details of antique models.[i] Venus seen here pulling her hair away from her neck recalls the Venus Anadyomene, or Venus Rising from the Sea, a painting by Apelles described in Pliny’s Natural History. During the Renaissance, the painting was often recreated and imagined as Venus wringing water from her hair. Vincenzo Danti used a similar knot in the hair of Venus Anadyomene displayed in Francesco I de’ Medici’s studiolo in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence [fig. 1].

Venus Anadyomene is usually shown standing, whereas this seemingly unique variation shows Venus kneeling while she arranges her exquisitely carved hair. Though many antique models exist of Venus Kneeling or crouching at her bath, her arms are normally arranged in the pudica pose or above her head and she was often accompanied by Cupid pouring water from a vase. A Venus kneeling on a Tortoise now in the Prado, Madrid was known in Rome early in the sixteenth century, while the Lely Venus at the British Museum was sent to London in 1631[ii] [fig 2]. Giambologna’s variation on the theme is his small model of Kneeling Venus Drying Herself (bronze, h. 25.5 cm, Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, inv. 62B).[iii] 

The present Venus was most probably created by the Florentine brothers, Giovanni Battista and Domenico Pieratti, who were sculptors to the Court of Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici. The suggestion that Domenico Pieratti was more technically skilled than his brother Giovanni Battista is difficult to confirm as they very frequently worked together. It is probable that this fine marble represents a collaborative work by the two brothers, since Venus evinces the high technical skill of Domenico, while her physiognomy more closely resembles works given to Giovanni Battista.

The Grand Duke commissioned new statuary for the Boboli gardens from both brothers, but also had Giovanni Battista restore antique sculptures which allowed him to experiment with compositions and postures.  He was influenced by such Cinquecento sculptors such as Michelangelo, Vincenzo Danti and Valerio Cioli. The brothers delighted in creating seemingly precarious poses for their figures, like the Venus shown here, whose body extends over the small round base upon which she kneels. Giovanni Battista’s Cupid with Hammer and Domenico’s Cupid with Key both in the Boboli Gardens, Florence, lean in similarly rather exaggerated, open postures. These poses broadly derive from Michelangelo’s ignudi on the Sistine Ceiling, filtered through later sixteenth century sculptures such as Narcissus, 1548, (now Florence, Bargello), carved by Willem van Tetrode in Benvenuto Cellini’s workshop.

Typical of the Pieratti is the very elaborate carved hair of the present Venus, as demonstrated by Domenico in his Speculation in the Casa Buonarroti, Florence [fig. 3]. Most directly comparable is Giovanni Battista’s head of Bellezza, made to complete an antique torso for the Cortile del’Aiace in Palazzo Pitti (ca. 1636)[iv] [fig. 4]. The knot of hair seen on the figure of Bellezza is set towards the back of her head, while she pulls her hair away from her neck, with her hand, creating an aperture between the braid and her body is left, much like the marble Venus discussed here [fig. 5]. The profiles of the Bellezza and the present Venus bear a striking likeness, seen in their elegant straight noses, full cheeks, small round chins and long necks [fig. 6]. 

In his restoration of the Bellezza Pieratti created space between the crossed legs of the figure, a technique repeated by the sculptor in the present Venus, when he similarly cut through the marble between the drapery and her forward leg in order to demonstrate his skill. The elaborately carved hair of this Venus also compares to that of the Latona group, executed by Domenico Pieratti for the Barberini family in Rome, ca. 1626 – 28[v] [fig. 7].  Domenico’s Youthful St John the Baptist, ca. 1625 (h. 71.1 cm, Acc. No.  2006.70, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) demonstrates a similar interest in highly detailed virtuoso carving, as evidenced by the detailed honeycomb held in the saint’s right hand and the ivy leaves on the tree trunk.[vi]


Among the documentary references to sculptures created by the Pieratti, yet to be identified are at least two marble sculptures of Venus; one with a putto and dolphin (height 1.75m) and one alone (height circa 1.75m); both were in the Strozzi collection in about 1677.[vii]  In 1634 Cardinal Francesco Barberini commissioned Domenico to make a sculpture, for which he paid him 80 scudi.[viii] The reputations of the Pieratti, which extended beyond Florence, are indicated in a letter to Michelangelo Buonarotti the Younger, which notes a commission from an unknown patron in Venice, requesting a statue similar to the one owned by Jacopo Giraldi (1576-1630).[ix]  Giraldi and Michelangelo the Younger who were both councilors in the Accademia Fiorentina were also friends and supporters of Galileo Galilei, who succeeded Giraldi in the role in 1622.[x] Jacopo’s erudite patronage of the arts, is recounted by Filippo Baldinucci.[xi] Giraldi’s descendent Giacomo, also called Jacopo, became a Knight of Santo Stefano in 1688. By 1693 he was in the employ of the Medici Grand Dukes who appointed him Tuscan ambassador to the Court of St James’s (England) from 1699-1714.[xii]  A list dated 20th June 1700 which details expenses incurred by Giacomo when he moved to London does not include costs for moving any art works.[xiii]


Biographical information: [xiv] 

The Pieratti brothers, Giovanni Battista (1599-1662) and Domenico (4 Oct. 1600 – 22 May 1656) were apprenticed to Chiarissimo Fancelli (d.1632) and subsequently worked with Andrea di Michelangelo Ferrucci (d.1626), mainly in Florence. They received many commissions for the Boboli Gardens from the Medici Grand Dukes.  Their work is sometimes difficult to differentiate as they worked together, but both were influenced by the Florentine mannerists of the

[i]      Luba Freedman, The Revival of the Olympian Gods in Renaissance Art, Cambridge (UK), 2003, p. 83.

[ii]    Phyllis Prya Bober & Ruth Rubinstein, Renaissance Artists & Antique Sculpture, Oxford, 1986. pp. 62-63.

[iii]    Giambologna, gli dei, gli eroi, eds. Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, Dimitrios Zikos, exh. cat., Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, 2 March – 15 June 2006, pp. 199-200, cat. 18, the entry by Dimitrios Zikos.

[iv]    Claudio Pizzorusso, A Boboli e altrove. Sculture e scultori Fiorentini del Seicento. Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1989, p. 42, suggests it represents Feminine Beauty, (Bellezza) based on the flame or lit fasci held in her right hand, which he states are equivalent to the cupid’s arrows mentioned by Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia of feminine beauty.  

[v]     Pizzorusso, p. 31.

[vi]     Ian Wardropper, European Sculpture, 1400-1900 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven, 2011, pp.    119-120, No. 39.

[vii]     Anthea Brook, “Sculptors in Florence during the Reign of the Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany (1621-1670) Ferdinando Tacca and His Circle,” Unpublished Ph.D Diss., Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1986, p. 500, citing Ms. Cod. Palat., 1031, Pittura, scultura e architettura civile e militare. Di Luigi del Senatore Carlo Strozzi, 1677, c.30v, “statua del Pieratti di marmo, 3 braccia, più il dado,” “marble statue by Pieratti, 3 braccia [ca. 1.749 m] not counting the base.”

[viii]     Ibid., citing Biblioteca Vaticana, Archivio Barberini, Libro Maestro B, c. 257, “Adì 21 Marzo [1634] a domenico Pieratti scultore in Firenze... a conto del prezzo di una statua che fa per nostro servizio - --- -- scudi 80. “on 21 March [1634] to domenico [sic] Pieratti sculptor in Florence...for the price of a statue that he made in our service - - - - 80 scudi.”

[ix]     Ibid., citing a letter from Jacopo Giraldi in Florence to Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger in Rome, 27th June 1629, published in Vliegenthart, De galleria Buonarroti, 1969, p. 223, no. 909.

[x]     Atti e memorie della Reale Accademia di scienze, lettere ed arti in padova, 1884, vols. 7 -9, p. 29

[xi]   Filippo Baldinucci, Notizie de’ professori del Disegno da Cimabue in qua, Milan, 1812, p. 101.

[xii]    On Giacomo/Jacopo Giraldi, (1663-1738) see Stefano Tabacchi,

[xiii]   British Library, Egerton MS. 1701.

[xiv]   See Anthea Brook. "Pieratti, Domenico." In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, (accessed February 23, 2012). See also Giovanni Pratesi, ed. Repertorio della Scultura Fiorentina del Seicento e Settecento, vol. I, pp. 56-57, biographical entries by Silvia Blasio, see also Palazzo Pitti, La Reggia Rivelata,  exh. cat. Florence, Palazzo Pitti, 7 December 2003 – 31 May 2004, pp. 488, 500 cats. 9 & 11, the entries by Maria Cecilia Fabbri.



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