Close to the fall of the Serenissima Republic, Count Girolamo Manfrin, an entrepreneur in the tobacco sector, acquired a palace in Cannaregio from the Venier family in 1787, now known as Palazzo Priuli Manfrin.
In this building, Manfrin kept and exhibited some of the most significant paintings of Venetian painting, establishing himself as one of the most important Venetian art collectors of the late 18th century. Thus wrote Francis Haskell del Conte in "Patrons and painters: study on the relationship between art and Italian society in the Baroque age" (Florence, 1966): "almost with a sense of agony and anxiety (...) preferring to look at the past rather than at the present or future to provide subsequent generations with an idea of what Venice had been in the days of its independence".
The main floor of the building was thus transformed into an art gallery, a real art gallery in which paintings and works of the most important that the city possessed at the time were exhibited, quickly becoming one of the major tourist attractions of the city, which "enjoyed primacy over all private galleries in Venice" and was visited by illustrious personalities including Antonio Canova during his stay in 1795.
The gallery remained accessible for about a century: from the end of the eighteenth century to the last decade of the nineteenth century. In the mid-19th century it was open to the public on Mondays and Thursdays from 10 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. The first director was Giambattista Mengardi, who also created the cycle of decorations on the first floor of the building, who collaborated closely with Pietro Edwards, curator of the art gallery. Their function was to assist the owner in the selection and arrangement of the works in the collection. In a letter addressed to Pietro Edwards, Count Manfrin entrusted him with the task, with the collaboration of Mengardi, to search the market for the paintings and works that would later have been part of his gallery. For the purchase, they could spare no expense, as long as they were famous works of real merit, performed by artists with undoubted fame and experience.
Imagining what a nineteenth-century tourist walking through the various rooms of this building could admire, is possible thanks to the guides of the time who allow us to visit the gallery rooms in a virtual and suggestive way: "The friend of art and of history here he will find works by excellent brushes, which are not so light you can see elsewhere, and he will see any painting that with his epigraph will introduce him to new names and eras that he did not know "Among the rooms "... relics of ancient Italian painting by Cimabue, Giotto and Mantegna were collected, the first links of the chain, continued by Antonello da Messina, the Vivarini, and views by Canaletto, and works by Bellini, Titian, Giorgione, by Reni, by Fra Sebastiano dal Piombo, by Rubens, by Morillo and by Padovanino. (…) Each room was equipped with a kind of portable drawing, which served as a guide, without even having to resort to the custodians. The last room contained curiosities of natural history, jewels, inlay enamels, a library and a register ".
Pietro Edwards compiled a list of the works in the gallery describing in detail over 247 paintings, specifying the author, the subject, the state of conservation and in some cases also the arrangement inside the gallery. Among the many works present, one in particular can be elevated to the symbol of the gallery, in order to highlight its importance and prestige: the painting in question is Giorgione's The Tempest. The painting became the property of Manfrin at the end of the 1700s together with the Vecchia, another painting by the artist from Castelfranco.
Count Manfrin as well as being an art collector, was also a patron of works and used to organize competitions between painters for paintings depicting erotic themes he himself suggested: Joseph and Putiphar's wife, Betsebea in the bathroom, The daughters of Lot , Susanna and the Elders.
Girolamo Manfrin died unexpectedly in 1801, leaving no wills; the picture gallery was inherited by his son Pietro who continued to manage and guard his father's museum, also trying to further enrich the building with precious objects, fine furniture, mirrors and luxury ornaments. In 1817 Lord Byron visited the gallery and was particularly struck by the female figure in the painting The Giorgione family, that is the Tempest from the twentieth century. The gallery remained a fundamental destination for those visiting Venice in the nineteenth century, and it is no coincidence that Leopoldo Cicognara defined it as the only one in the city able to stand up to the "princely" ones of the families of Florence and Rome.
Pietro Manfrin died on August 28, 1833, bequeathing the palace and all the assets kept inside to his sister Giulia Angela Giovanna Manfrin married to Giovanni Battista Plattis, who tried to sell the collection of paintings as a whole. In 1849 the Marquis Antonio Maria Plattis and his sister Bortolina Plattis inherited the palace and the adjoining picture gallery. Two years later, Count Manfrin's nephews tried to sell the collection as a whole, but without success, probably due to the excessive cost involved. Bortolina Plattis in 1850 tried to sell the collection of works kept in the palace to the National Gallery in London, and then in 1851 he offered it to the Italian State. In December 1851 Antonio Maria Plattis was willing to sell even just a share, no less than one hundred and thirty paintings.
Meanwhile, the gallery continued to be admired by travelers, scholars and artists, including illustrious ones such as Édouard Manet and his brother Eugène, who made a trip to Venice towards the end of 1853.
In the summer of 1856 Bortolina, married to Francesco di Sardagna, and Antonio Plattis decided to sell individual pieces of the picture gallery, and it is probably for this reason that a printed catalog was drawn up in which 455 works are enumerated, specifying the author, the measures and the material, whether canvas, table, stone slab, copper or brass, but without monetary estimates. In this sale, the art gallery was deprived of over a quarter of his works and was drastically resized. The only public and institutional presence among the numerous private buyers was that of the Gallerie dell'Accademia which, thanks to the grant from the Austrian government, saw its rooms enriched with twenty-one paintings of the Manfrin art gallery attributed to Nicolò di Pietro, Mantegna, Antonello da Messina, Holbein, Perugino , Titian, Savoldo, Moretto, Canaletto, Rembrandt.
After the significant alienation of works in 1856, the Plattis brothers "since they did not need immediate money, could afford to modify the exhibition layout, crystallized for decades, so much so that in 1863 Bortolina Plattis moved a portion of the paintings to her apartment, located above the gallery ". In May 1870, Antonio Maria Plattis, who had long since moved to Padua, decided to auction off his paintings, by virtue of a decision signed with his sister in 1861, which were partially auctioned in an auction. in London in 1868 and partly in Paris by Drouot.
In 1872 the gallery continued to exist and, even if deprived of many works, it still remained a prestigious collection. This year, Abbot Giuseppe Nicoletti, deputy director of the Correr Museum, listed the 215 works, including canvases and panels, left in the gallery in his catalog "Pinacoteca Manfrin in Venice". His intent was to disprove the rumors that there was no longer anything important in the Manfrin gallery and that it was worth visiting. He listed the works indicating the author with a brief biography, a description of the painting and its dimensions. Among the paintings that he noted as most deserving of interest there is a Lorenzo Lotto (Madonna with child and saints Giuseppe, Caterina, Rocco and Sebastiano); Giorgione (The Giorgione family, the previous name of the Tempesta); Giotto (Madonna with child in glory with angels in adoration); Titian (Christ taken down from the cross); and finally a terracotta sculptural group representing the Virgin and Child attributed to Michelangelo.
The Manfrin gallery, a treasure trove of art treasures and pride of Venice in the nineteenth century, ceased to exist definitively in 1897, almost a century after its probable foundation, when what remained of the illustrious art gallery was auctioned. public held in Milan at the Sambon Gallery.
- P. Edwards, Abbozzi catalogo galleria Manfriniana 1794
- G. A. Moschini, Della letteratura veneziana del secolo XVIII fino a’ giorni nostri, II, Stamperia Palese, Venezia, 1806, p. 107.
- G. A. Moschini, Itinerarie de la ville de Venise et des iles circonvoisines, Venise, 1819, p.221
- Catalogo di quadri della Galleria Manfrin in Venezia, Tipografia Clementi, Venezia, 1856.
- Catalogue des objets d’art provenant du palais Manfrin de Venise et appartenant à M. le marquis A. M. Plattis de Padoue, Paris, 1870.
- Ab. G. Nicoletti, Pinacoteca Manfrin a Venezia, Ed. Vicentini, Venezia, 1872.
- Catalogo della Galleria Manfrin. Impresa di vendite in Italia di Giulio Sambon, Venezia 24 – 25 Maggio 1897, Milano, 1897
- S. Moschini Marconi, Gallerie dell’Accademia. Opere d’arte dei secoli XIV e XV, I, Roma 1955, p. XXI
- B.M.C.Ve., Epistolario Moschini, lettera di Girolamo Manfrin a Pietro Edwards del 3 dicembre 1793.