“Johann Anton Venuto and his Work in the Context of Landscape Painting and Vedutas in the Czech Lands at the Turn of the 19th Century”. A Very Special Exhibition and Catalogue as a Result of a Czech-Austrian Cooperation
Aleš Veselý: Jan Antonín Venuto a jeho dílo. Havlíčkův Brod: Galerie výtvarného umění, 2018, 328 pp., ISBN 978-80-906447-5-5.
Eva Chodějovská (Brno)
For decades, Johann Anton Venuto’s town views (vedutas), dating back to the turn of the 19th century, have been appreciated as important iconographical historical sources. His portraits of Bohemian and Moravian towns, castles and monasteries are even familiar to the general public as copies of them have been displayed in several castle exhibitions run by the National Heritage Institute of the Czech Republic (Národní památkový ústav) and in other public buildings.
Notwithstanding these facts, until 2018 only partial studies focusing on Venuto’s works from specific regions were available. Aleš Veselý, a curator at the Havlíčkův Brod Art Gallery, carried out systematic research and organised an exhibition in this East Bohemian town, which was opened on 8 September 2018. Since its ending (21 October 2018), it has continued as a travelling poster exhibition. Both the exhibition and catalogue were produced in Czech and German by the Havlíčkův Brod Art Gallery in collaboration with the Austrian National Library in Vienna.
Venuto’s family came from Italy but settled in Jevišovice in south-western Moravia. Johann Anton (1746–1833) started his career as a clergyman in the cultural and scientific centres of Moravia of the period: Olmütz (Olomouc) and Nikolsburg (Mikulov). As the newly discovered archival sources show, he was in close contact with other Moravian scholars, among them Franz Joseph Schwoy, with whom he collaborated on Topographische Schilderung des Markgrafthum Mähren. One of his friends, Johann Leopold Hay, became the bishop of Königgrätz (Hradec Králové) and invited Venuto to collaborate with him in 1785. Thanks to this invitation, Venuto not only joined a group of Bohemian Enlightenment-influenced scholars such as Josef Dobrovský and Gelasius Dobner, but also had the opportunity to join the bishop on his “visiting journeys” and sketch places in Eastern Bohemia.
Aleš Veselý carried out comprehensive research in dozens of GLAM-institutions in the Czech Republic and Austria, and managed to collect over 500 of Venuto’s works. The most important part of Venuto’s work is to be found in the Map Department of the Austrian National Library in Vienna. 398 watercolours were given to Emperor Franz I on the occasion of his visit to Königgrätz, and became part of the Habsburg-Lotharingen Fideikomissbibliothek. Here they were bound together in several volumes and forgotten. These volumes were only discovered in 1983. Slightly less numerous are Venuto’s sketchbooks, preserved in the Regional Museum in Vysoké Mýto and in Žleby Castle (Eastern Bohemia). This is the most important finding of the authors of the exhibition, as it opens new research perspectives regarding Venuto’s work. It enables an analysis of Venuto’s work process, an understanding of the places he selected, a reconstruction of his itineraries, and the identification of his sources and models, etc.
It is already clear that Venuto strove for topographical accuracy. I find Veselý’s opinion of Venuto’s work very apposite when he ranks Venuto alongside respected vedutists of the period (Anton Pucherna, Anton Karl Baltzer, Vojtěch Šembera, Vincenc Morstadt) because of his original work, while he also considers him to be a successor to Johann Joseph Dietzler and Friedrich Bernhard Werner because of his copies of their works. However, it does not seem he aimed at complex pictorial topographical work comparable with, for example, Franz Alexander Heber’s vedutas of Bohemian castles, he participated in several projects, seeking to publish a collection of important towns and castles in Bohemia described in words and images (Abbildungen sämtlicher alten und neuen Schlösser in Böhmen organised by Franz Karl Wolf, a series by Georg Döbler, etc.).
Although the information and hypotheses presented in the catalogue are based on archival research, there is still some room left for further analysis. For example, Venuto’s testament, a crucial source which may explain his activities in the latter phases of his life, has not yet been found. It will also be necessary to analyse Venuto’s activities as a cartographer more carefully than has been done in the catalogue, which mentions only two of Venuto’s maps (Moravia, 1784, and the Diocese of Königgrätz, 1792, pp. 326–328) and provides their reproductions without any contemporary cartographic context. The other critical note addresses the editorial work of this high-quality book. There are some contradictory statements in different chapters written by different authors (e.g. the date of the origin of Venuto’s map of Moravia mentioned in the chapter by Elisabeth Zelinger (1790, p. 33), while in his introduction (p. 16), Veselý brings new information and corrects the year (1792).
Despite these minor issues, the exhibition and bilingual catalogue organised by an important, albeit local gallery (!), represents the praiseworthy results from a systematic and expensive project that provides readers and visitors with systematically collected data on Venuto and his works, which also makes it an important insight into the lesser well known aspects of the Enlightenment culture of the Habsburg monarchy. Aleš Veselý and his colleagues have definitely managed to cross the frontier of the region.
Printversion: Frühneuzeit-Info 30, 2019, S. 201f.