Domenico Piola (1627–1703)

Domenico Piola (1627–1703)

Domenico Piola (Genoa 1627 – 1703 Genoa)

The Infant Christ Appearing to Saint Anthony of Padua: a design for an antependium

Black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, 258 x 367 mm (10.2 x 14.4 inch)

Inscribed ‘No 17’ (pen and brown ink, verso)

- Santo Varni (1807–1885), Genoa (Lugt 3531), with associated inscription ‘Dmco Piola N. 54. collz S. Varni’ (pen and brown ink, lower left)
- Anonymous sale, Christie’s, South Kensington, 15 December 2000, lot 33
- Barbara Piasecka Johnson (1937–2013)

Justyna Guze (ed.), The Masters of Drawing. Drawings from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection (Mistrzowie Rysunku), Warsaw (Royal Castle), 2010-2011, p. 148, repr. (colour) p. 149

The Masters of Drawing. Drawings from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection (Mistrzowie Rysunku)
, Warsaw (Royal Castle), 2010-2011, catalogue ed. by Justyna Guze, pp. 148-49


During the second half of the seventeenth century, much of the enormous demand for the frescoed decoration of the sumptuous palaces that were still being erected by Genoa’s wealthy aristocracy was satisfied by the very large, highly organised, and exceedingly busy workshop of Domenico Piola and his son-in-law Gregorio de’Ferrari, the ‘Casa Piola’.1 A pupil of his brother Pellegro, Domenico Piola studied the works of Castiglione and Valerio Castello as well as those of Rubens and Van Dyck, developing a spirited Baroque style of decoration that combines painting and stucco, and in which large numbers of gracefully posed figures are integrated into elaborate feigned architectural settings.

Domenico executed numerous preparatory drawings in connection with each of the projects he undertook.2 Many sheets by artists associated with the ‘Casa Piola’ are preserved in the museums of Genoa and Stuttgart, and further fine examples are preserved in the print rooms of leading museums all over the world. The holdings of the Casa Piola were saved from oblivion by the Genoese sculptor Santo Varni (1807–1885), who realised the importance of the drawings.3 Varni also owned the present drawing.

In this large, assuredly executed and beautifully preserved drawing Domenico Piola has sketched a design for an antependium, the front of an altar. Centralized under a frieze decorated with cherubs’ heads is an elaborately sculpted Baroque cartouche with a scene of the Christ Child appearing to St Anthony of Padua. According to legend, Christ manifested himself to Anthony when he was praying far into the night in the house of the Lord of Chatenauneuf, filling the room with light more brillant than the sun.

We can be certain that the drawing is a design to submitted to a patron because the cartouche shows a different treatment at left and right, as do the cherubs' heads at the sides, from which the patron could choose a favourite. The eventual altar would be symmetrical in design. This provides a fascinating insight in the working methods of Baroque artists. A comparable yet more elabore design for a wall decoration with a scene of the Crucifixion in a similar cartouche was on the art market in 1992 (see last fig.).4

The drawing was previously owned by the Polish-born billionaire philantropist and art collector Barbara (‘Basia’) Piasecka Johnson, and was exhibited with other drawings from her collection at the Royal Castle in Warsaw in 2010-2011, together with drawings by Sandro Botticelli and drapery studies from Verrocchio’s workshop, traditionally attributed to Leonardo. She also owned the Badminton Cabinet (now in the Liechtenstein collections) and Mantegna’s masterpiece of the Descent into Limbo.


1. For the artist, see: Ezia Gavazza and Giovanna Rotondi Terminiello (eds.), Genova nell’età barocca, exh. cat. Genoa (Galleria di Palazzo Reale) 1992, pp. 230-42.

2. For Piola’s drawings, see: T. Clifford, 'Some Italian drawings in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris', Apollo 159 (January 2004), pp. 3-13 and P. Boccardo and M. Priarone, Domenico Piola (1627-1703): progetti per le arti, Genoa 2006.

3. See C. Cavelli, 'Il « museo » dello scultore Santo Varni : vidence e vicissitudini testamentarie. Le opere acquistate dal Commune di Genova', Bolletino dei Musei Civici Genovesi, XI, 1989, n° 32-34, pp. 55-75 and P. Boccardo, I grandi disegni italiani del Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe di Palazzo Rossi a Genova, Milan 1999, pp. 88-90.

4. Pen and brown ink, brown wash, 340 x 225 mm; Phillips, London, 8 July 1992, lot 150, repr. A less finished drawing of the same design (343 x 217 mm) is preserved in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Rouen, see Choix de Quelques Peintures et Dessins de la Donation H. & S. Baderou, Rouen 1977 (no pagination).

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Domenico Piola (1627–1703)
Domenico Piola (1627–1703)
Domenico Piola (1627–1703)
Domenico Piola (1627–1703)
Domenico Piola (1627–1703)
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