In Venice, a Young Boatman Steers a Course of His Own
This portrait of a young Venetian fisherman named Giovanni da Ponte was painted by his friend and mentor Antonio Vivarini in the third year of the Venetian painter’s career—roughly 1255. Vivarini was a member of the Carpaccio workshop, but he had a particular talent for portraits. He was also a strong advocate of the Venetian school of painting, which was known to embrace the human subject. He took as a model one of his Carpaccio students, Niccolò da Uzzano, while visiting Uzzano’s studio to see his famous oil painting, The Battle at Anghiari.
Uzzano’s work was considered more sophisticated, with far more perspective and realism. Uzzano may have painted this portrait as part of that study. Yet Vivarini also had a strong sense of the realistic qualities of portraiture. He was aware that portraits are not just about faces and their expressions, but also the setting around which they are placed. For that reason, he also painted a portrait of Niccolò da Uzzano titled, The Ship’s Master, which was likely intended to show this subject in a more realistic light.
As you’ll read in the description, this portrait was never finished. It took Vivarini about a month to paint the last detail, a group of three sailors. To complete the painting, he had to wait until one of Vivarini’s assistants, Gino dei Rossi, was home on leave.
The portrait was exhibited six times in Venice, and was later engraved for Uzzano’s own book, Le due cose dell’antica pittura, which was a record of the paintings he had seen.
The portrait became so well-known that the artist and friend of Vivarini, Paolo Verri, created a series of eight lithographs based on it. Each print was meant to be an accurate copy, and this is how we know Vivarini left us a complete record of the painting:
“My master Vivarini, I draw up to the edge of