At the Rialto market with… an early 17th century painter
In Venice he was known as Todaro. Just like the city’s first patron saint who observes the traipsing tourists from high up on his column in Piazzetta San Marco, slayed dragon at his feet, alongside the winged lion perched on a twin column.
His real name was in fact Dirck de Vries, and though he was often labelled the Flemish Todaro, he wasn’t Flemish at all. According to Karel van Mander, the Dutch Vasari, he was from Frisia, that vast green and plain province interspersed by waterways that connect eleven small towns in the northern Netherlands.
We can only guess what brought Dirck De Vries to move to Venice.
Was it curiosity for the great Venetian painters of the late 16th century, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and the Bassano family or the hope he might begin an apprenticeship or even a full collaboration in one of their studios? Was it the love for a Venetian girl?
Presumably, a well-to-do client-base among the patricians and the wealthy, including the German Fontego and Flemish merchants, and young bachelors from the elite families of northern Europe on a Grand Tour of Italy ready to commission “personalized” paintings, all of this would have been enough to make him stay and earn a living for himself and his large family.
The “Grand Tourists” wished to return home with a memento of the famous Venetian Carnival: if Rome was reserved for Christmas and the Jubilees, and Florence for the “Scoppio del Carro” (Explosion of the Cart), Venice was for the fun.
De Vries then specialized in “Costume parties”, as well as in “Kitchens” and “Markets”, where he let loose in depicting typically Dutch scenes in Venetian settings.
We know that from 1584 he lived in the parish of Santi Apostoli, where his children were born, and from 1600 circa he moved to the nearby parish of San Giovanni Crisostomo, where his daughters were married, and where he himself died in 1612.
From there, a simple boat ride would have taken him to the market and his beloved subjects: fish, fruit and vegetable stalls. In those days there were two ferries just for this stretch of the Grand Canal: one at Santa Sofia, which still takes people from the small square there across to the Pescheria opposite; and the other was the private ferry of a very prestigious luxury hotel, the “Lion Bianco” in Ca’ da Mosto, which ferried its guests to the heart of Venice’s financial centre, with its banks, insurance and trade institutions and, of course, the Rialto Market.
A wholesale and retail market for every type of vegetable, with an abundance of onions, shallots, turnips, horseradish, parsnips, chicory, cabbages, cardoon and carrots. Venetian customers and “foresti” (foreigners), noblemen and housewives, servants and owners, everyone went to the market.
Amid all the hustle and bustle, De Vries would have made some preparatory sketches he would later have elaborated on in his study. We may recognize many of the spots he enjoyed so much, such as the “ashlar” column of Sansovino’s New Fabbriche, the Grand Canal with its felze-covered gondolas, the noble Palaces opposite, and the many stalls… confirming that a fragment of the place’s aura survives to this day…
Yet, the differences are noticeable, starting from the many products on offer, no longer tied to the seasons and often just used as tourist baits. Several shops have shut down, a reflection of the ever-decreasing number of residents, who still come to food shop here. Red and orange dominate the scene, what with all the tomatoes, peppers, mandarins, clementines and oranges on display.
Once upon a time citrus fruits had a dedicated selling corner, the Naranzeria, next to Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, not too far from here. At the turn of the 17th century, fruit and veggies would have been largely “home-grown”, itself a modern term.
Notice that, though America had been discovered over a century ago, there are no potatoes, peppers, tomatoes or pumpkins in De Vries’ baskets. All the leafy vegetables, turnips and onions, would surely have come from the Lagoon’s orchards.
Dirck de Vries shows us here a different corner of the Rialto market. It looks like “Ruga dei Oresi”, the Goldsmiths street which leads to the Rialto bridge. We see fruit for sale and, with plenty of freedom and imagination, the painter inserted fake and fanciful architectural elements from buildings close by: the three windows on the right towered over by a small tympanum pediment all belong to the New Fabbriche façade, while the windows on the left are exactly where and how they should be, on the Old Fabbriche.
The colour of the wall plaster is exactly like it is today. But what of the bell-tower in the background? A welcome reference point indeed, if it still existed of course.
In the background here we can make out the bell-tower of the church of San Bortolomeo, on the other side of the Rialto Bridge. A baroque tower built around 1750. We can make out De Vries’ version in De’ Barbari’s famous birds-eye plan from 1500 and even in a 1725 Canaletto painting, with a clearly slender and octagonal pinnacle.
Dirck de Vries was then a forerunner of landscape painting who documented the Venice of his time, albeit with a few inventive touches.
The elegant gentleman in purple tights and black cape draped nonchalantly over his shoulder steals the show by obscuring our view of Rialto Bridge, which had recently been completed. In the foreground we see baskets filled with peaches, red-cheeked pears, endive –escarole chicory –and long neck pumpkins, or lagenaria siceraria, the only pumpkin native to Europe, which could be consumed fresh and, once matured and sun-dried, was also used as a handy water-bottle by willing pilgrims.
The gentleman is buying some chicory, as he hands the greengrocer with the accurately depicted low cut blouse a coin from his money-bag. The man kneeling next to his basket filled with endive tries to offer him two tufts for the same coin…the intrigue of gestures and objects at the centre of the scene creates a seemingly erotic role-play.
If De Vries’ paintings have sparked the reader’s curiosity to capture glimpses and sensations of the Rialto Market, to see first-hand that merger of past and present among the buildings and stalls, or to get hold of some castraure (typical Venetian artichokes), bruscandoli (hop plant buds), finferli (golden chantarelle mushrooms) and other seasonal delicacies on offer there, simply get in touch with one of the BestVeniceGuides, who will be delighted to show you around this beating heart of Venice.
Who knows, you might find it as inspiring as it was for the Flemish Todaro 400 years ago.