Monday, June 15, 2009

Gaetano Zompini, The Lantern Bearer, 1753

Gaetano Zompini, The Lantern Bearer, 1753

Gaetano Zompini, ‘The Lantern Bearer’, from Le Arti che vanno per via nella Città di Venezia, 1753

At night, I move backwards and forwards from the theatres to the casino,
I am the man who lights your way with a lantern,
I’ll go anywhere [you want], as long as you pay me.

There is a long established tradition of genre painting in European art, in which poor people and tradesmen are presented in allegedly naturalistic surroundings for a respectable, middle class audience. In the nineteenth century, Venetian studio photographers like Carlo Naya picked up on this tradition, and supplemented their architectural views with posed images of Venetian urchins, fishermen, beggars, and lacemakers.

Zompini’s work is an unusually forceful and vivid example of genre illustration, whose first edition, published in 1753-4, was a commercial failure. His engravings, which depict tradesmen in the streets of Venice, were only rescued from obscurity by the local British consul, who sponsored a second edition.[1]

Many of Zompini’s subjects work in what we would now call service industries (as sellers of trinkets, snacks, drinks, and so on), catering to the needs of their social superiors. In this capacity, Zompini’s lantern bearer, like modern waiters, bellhops and shop assistants, is not only required to perform a specific task, but to be deferential, pleasant and cheerful as he does so. Nonetheless, his words strike a faintly sardonic, or even threatening, note. ‘I’ll go anywhere [you want], as long as you pay me’, he says, with the emphasis seemingly on the latter clause.

In modern Venice, the volume of visitors places unique strains on this kind of interaction, which are symbolised by a dramatic reversal of the terms of Zompini’s illustration. Today, waiters wearing tuxedos and bow ties move among customers dressed in singlets, shorts and sandals. Prices may vary significantly in cafes depending on whether the staff recognize you, and it is not uncommon for Venetians to deride oblivious foreigners in dialect.

[1] The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century, eds J. Martineau and A. Robison, exhibition catalogue, 1994, p. 287.

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