Napoleone Mellini, born in Como in 1800, attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Parma for a while and then moved to Milan to complete his studies at the Accademia di Brera. Here, he took the canonical steps of a traditional education based on the study of classical models. His first subjects, all of which are sacred, mythological or literary, reflect a typically romantic orientation and guaranteed him his first critical successes at academic exhibitions. Examples are the Flood, with which he won first prize at the Parma Academy of Fine Arts competition in 1826, Venus with Wounded Adonis and Two Cupids in 1827, or Tancredi Medicated by Erminia in 1834.
From Romanticism to Biedermeier
After this first phase of purely Romantic taste, Napoleone Mellini became one of the main interpreters, together with Giuseppe Molteni, of a realism with a popular tone, in which subjects oriented towards social criticism take on a stylistic and thematic ennobling, thanks to the choice of a mild naturalism and a serene and calm luminism. Mellini’s narrative of everyday life was decidedly disengaged, even in its most dramatic pages, and he achieved considerable success when he presented A hoe-keeper of the dying Italian Guard at the Promotrice in Turin in 1847, kept in the Palazzo Reale in Turin, followed by Return from the market, exhibited at the same exhibition in 1848.
A skilful and well-known portrait painter in Lombardy (his Portrait of a Benefactor is kept in the Quadreria dell’Ospedale Maggiore in Milan), he also played a leading role in the transition from aristocratic to bourgeois portraits. From the 1820s onwards, the portrayal of a character was no longer limited to the physiognomic rendering of the face and physical appearance, but also to the description of the clothing that complemented it and the environment that surrounded it. It is thus a strand of portraiture à la mode, in which clear, technically impeccable painting is combined with a clear adherence to reality and an unquestionably Biedermeier taste. These characteristics are accompanied by a slight tendency to idealise the character, seen in his most aesthetically appealing dimension.
The portrait of an antique dealer
The Portrait of the Antiquarian Antonio Sanquirico, painted in 1841, is part of this stylistic context. Antonio Sanquirico, as well as being the brother of Alessandro (Milan, 1777 – 1849), an architect, painter and stage designer, best known for his work at La Scala in Milan from 1817 to 1832, was also the most famous art dealer and antiquarian in the Lombardy-Venetia period, following the Restoration.
His Venetian shop, located first in the Procuratie Vecchie and then in the Scuola Grande di San Teodoro, was a rich and curious repository of all kinds of classical art pieces, from urns to bas-reliefs, consisting mainly of marbles from the Grimani collection, which were the subject of a series of engravings that were later circulated on the market and are now preserved in Palazzo Correr. Several collectors were prestigious clients of Antonio Sanquirico, including the painter Pelagio Palagi, who often frequented his shop to organise his valuable and rich collection of antiques, as evidenced by the correspondence between the two during the 1930s. Thus, a skilled art dealer and finder of artefacts, he slowly built up a veritable museum of ancient art in the heart of Venice. Jules Lecomte, in his guide to the lagoon city, also mentions an exceptional collection of paintings: one could come across a Pordenone, a Titian or a Domenichino, but he also mentions ‘Armour, mosaics, cameos, Chinese objects, enamels, ivories […], antique smallwares, porcelain, weapons, mirrors, old and new Murano glass […]’. And he adds: ‘All the great personalities who come to Venice visit this immense Capernaum, which has no equal in Italy’.
The portrait Mellini painted in 1841, as we have already mentioned, is fully in line with the Biedermeier taste of Austrian origin and the interest in narrating an affected simplicity, in which the protagonists are men linked to the world of restoration, the art market and collecting. Antonio Sanquirico is therefore the perfect subject for this type of representation, rendered by Mellini with an extraordinary descriptive elegance. The luminous colour scheme offers a privileged view of the refined clothing and the marble fireplace on which the antiquarian rests his elbow, showing a relaxed and informal pose, completely at ease in his cabinet de curiosités, as indicated by the vase resting on the fireplace, an indication of the collector’s sensitivity.