Giuseppe Bernardino BISON

(Palmanova 1762 – Milan 1844)

Billiards players at the Caffe’ Specchi

Tempera on cardboard
mm. 395 x 545 

Inscribed on the verso: Il Caffé Specchi a Trieste

Rome, Giuliano Briganti; Florence, private collection.


Giuseppe Bernardino Bison was born on June 16th, 1762 in Palmanova. After a brief sojourn with his family in Brescia, he moved to Venice in 1777, where he attended the Academia and pursued his studies under the guidance of Zanetti and then Cedini, whom introduced him toward decorative painting. In the meantime, Bison travelled to several Italian cities working as decorator for upper-classes palaces, and realizing decorations in several Venetian villas, among which Casino Soderini in Treviso, and Villa Catajo in Padua. Around 1801 Bison moved to Trieste, where in 1803-4 he decorated the palace of the merchant Demetro Carciotti; in 1805 he decorated the Exchange Palace; and in 1807 the New Theatre. In 1831 he moved to Milan, where he dwelled until he passed away in 1844. Bison was an artist of great ability and versatility. During his long career he dedicated himself to different genres, from peinture du genre, to landscapes, to peasant and pastoral scenes, improving in urban views and becoming one of the main Venetian landscape painters of that time. A part from landscapes and views, Bison was also interested in entertainment and narrative scenes of contemporary life – as attested by his oeuvres representing taverns’ interiors, cafes or palaces. Despite the subject choice remains almost constant during his whole career, the compositional style changed. During the Trieste and Venetian sojourns the artist developed a new scenographic style: this compositional nature is observable in paintings such as Ricevimento a Palazzo Pola, Scena familiare in interno di palazzo, or Conversazione veneziana del XVIII secolo (cfr. Pavanello, 1983, p. 214). The airy structure of the landscape arrangement of the above-cited oeuvres clearly recalls the Pool Players drawing. As a matter of fact, its tiny characters sink in the vast setting and they are made visible thanks to specific scenographic rules, in facts the wide setting of the venue interiors is accentuated by the shot from on high. Here, characters are dedicated to several different dialogue scenes, and they are dressed in accordance with the time customs; some gentlemen had been depicted while playing pool around a wide billiard table, whereas waiters had been represented on the background of the scene while preparing drinks on the counter. Besides the artists ability to accurately define the anonymous characters, he was also able to recreate a meticulous representation of the surroundings, despite the modest dimensions of the cardboard – which

were following the traditional “quadro da camera” approach, well known to the collectors of that time. The characters had been realized with a free and vibrating mark, a distinctive feature of the artist’s maturity oeuvres; whereas in the late Settecento the mark of his paintings became rather fine and still, with a tendency toward miniaturizing the figures. The dating of the painting could lead back around the Thirties, the years of his Trieste sojourn, therefore before Bison left Milan. Several years after his arrival in the Lombard city, Bison re-proposed an analogous subject to that examined in the paper under consideration, which is a canvas portraying the notorious Caffè dei Servi of Milan (cfr. Magani 1997, n. 31) – even though his compositional expression had already remarkably changed. The Pool Players, as specified on the back of the paper, also represents the well-known Caffé degli Specchi of Trieste, which is the meeting and collective space par excellence. Since its inauguration, on December 1939, the Caffé degli Specchi became one of the main protagonists of Piazza Grande of Trieste, a square that had also accommodated the forerun coffee bar for a few decades, before the great Stratti Palace was built (cfr. Il Caffé degli Specchi, 1985). Today’s aspect of the above-mentioned building does not correspond to the original project because it was later modified several times, eventually resulting in the current elliptic aspect. The Caffé degli Specchi was renovated and reopened when Bison had already left the Friulian city, therefore this drawing quite likely illustrates the venue before the Stratti Palace’s restoration.

C. Piperata, Giuseppe Bernardino Bison (1762-1844), Padua, Cedam, 1940.
Il caffé degli Specchi, Trieste, 1985.
Giuseppe Bernardino Bison pittore e disegnatore, (eds.) Bergamini, Magani, Pavanello, exhibition catalogue (Udine, October 24th , 1997 – February 15th , 1998), Milan, Skira, 1997.
Magani, Giuseppe Bernardino Bison, Soncino, Edizioni del Soncino, 1993.