Pietro Longhi

Longhi uses the mask and the tendencies of those masked in his paintings to comment on Venetian society.  Life in Venice was not as glorious as the world may have thought hence Longhi’s genre approach revealed the Venetian people as they really were, masked in their denial of a decaying Venice.  The repetition of the masked couple in his paintings The Quack (1757) and The Ridotto (1757) adds anonymity, uniformity, and namelessness to the noble class of Venice.  In his paintings, the nobility all seem the same with identical masks and identical behavior; not one noble stands out.  Everyone seems to be dependent on the circumstances of the mask.  On the contrary, the mask was a way to be individualistic.  It epitomized Venice in the sense that the mask represents what the city itself exudes, which is independence and originality.  The mask served as symbol that in spite of harsh times, Venetian society will persevere.

Around the 1750s and 1760s, Longhi depicts the upper class as masked figures engaging in various acts from gambling to flirting.  For example, Longhi’s painting, The Meeting of the Procuratore and His Wife (1746, fig. 1), displays a woman seated in the foreground who is being greeted by a man that is presumed to be her husband.  The setting is of a “social milieu” which is a type of gathering place usually for masked people to engage in private matters such as romantic encounters.[1] The main focus of the composition is the meeting of the woman and her husband who are not masked, but there are masked figures in the corners of the room that also command attention.  The masked figures include one masked couple holding hands to the right in the composition and another masked couple to the left with a woman seated who is unmasking herself to address the masked man leaning over her shoulder.

Pietro LonghiThe Meeting of the Procuratore and His Wife,1746, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


The woman in the act of unmasking herself can be interpreted in many ways.  One way to view this act is to say that the woman’s Moretta mask does not allow the ability to speak because of the lack of an opening for the mouth thus she is unmasking herself in order to speak to the masked man.  Another interpretation is to assume the woman is interested enough in the masked man addressing her to remove her mask in order to reveal her true identity to him.  Her actions are bringing their encounter into reality and not just in the playful world of masks where one can do whatever he or she desires because no one can recognize them.  Removing her mask could allude to removing the illusion of anonymity because the masked man now knows who she is and therefore cannot deny the woman or their meeting’s existence.  By removing her mask, the woman removed the illusion of herself that she assumed when wearing a mask and she revealed herself as she is in reality.  Parallel to the mask, Venetian society is not what it seems.  In this work, Longhi successfully portrays duality in depicting the ordinary occurrence of the procuratore meeting his wife, but he also adds the subtle hints of the masked couples to suggest a more enticing tone and to further portray the troubling aspects of life in eighteenth century Venice.

In The Quack (1757, fig. 2), the main subject of the painting is a man standing on top of a table that is surrounded by what seems to be adoring females and a young boy.  The focus of the main subject of the man on the table is shifted into the background of the composition as opposed to being front and center.  Instead in the middle of the painting, a couple composing of a masked man and an unmasked woman are engaging the audience in their playful and alluring interaction.  The woman seems to fiddle with her fan and to slyly look at the masked man who proceeds to lift up part of her dress while returning her knowing glance.[2] There is a sense of duality in Longhi’s works thus far where he portrays the ordinary event of the man on the top of the table, while revealing the reality of Venetian life with the couple indulging themselves; this is similar to the duality of the mask used by his subjects to hide physically, but to expose their unconscious desires.  Longhi showed what people saw and what people chose not to see.  As scholars say, Longhi “saw with his own eyes” and painted truth.[3]

Pietro Longhi The Quack, 1757, Venice, Ca’ Rezzonico (http://library.artstor.org/library/iv2.html?parent=true).

Longhi’s portrayal of reality is also evident in his piece The Ridotto (1757, fig. 3) in which he paints one of the many gambling halls in Venice.  The scene is a crowd of figures, masked and unmasked.  There is no one focal point in this work because there is so much activity that draws the audience’s attention to every aspect of the composition.  Many figures are playing cards and engaging in mysterious conversation.  The center of the painting depicts a now familiar scene of a masked couple consisting of a shy woman and an aggressive man who is lifting up part of her dress.[4] Repeating the figures of the flirtatious couple, Longhi displays the Ridotto as a place where the social elite would abandon all inhibitions and pursue their actual desires.  Longhi was an observer to the happenings around him.  He observed how the mask not only affected a person’s appearance, but also their actions.  The partrician class would not exhibit such behavior in public nor unmasked.  The nobles were responsible for representing the Venetian image, in no way could they gamble or interact with prostitutes with the whole world watching; therefore even though Longhi documented these incidents, the mask helped the nobles to wash their hands of their wrongdoings.

Pietro Longhi The Ridotto, 1757, Venice, Accademia Carrara


[1] Terisio Pignatti, Pietro Longhi: Paintings and Drawings (London: Phaidon Press Ltd.,

1969) 81.

[2] Ibid, 89-90.

[3] Ibid, 20.

[4] Ibid, 85.

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