PIENOVI (Pianovi), ANGELO (Angello or Angel, the latter his apparent preference, at least c. 1833; sometimes called M. Angelo), painter and decorator; b. c. 1773 in Genoa (Italy); d. 17 Nov. 1845 in Montreal.
Angelo Pienovi is said to have received his training as an artist at the “Academy of Rome,” but nothing is known of his career in Europe. His presence in North America is mentioned for the first time in 1811, at New York, when he painted a drop-curtain with views of the city for a theatre.
Pienovi came to Montreal in 1828 at the time construction of the new church of Notre-Dame was being completed. In September 1827 its architect, James O’Donnell*, had contacted the fabrique’s agent in New York, where he had previously practised, in order to find a painter for the decoration and finishing of the church interior. As Pienovi declared himself available, the agent had a contract drawn up in late April 1828 stipulating that the artist undertook to “paint adorn and ornament in fresco and oil or either . . . in such manner and after such drawings, patterns, descriptions and directions as may be furnished and given to him” by the fabrique. That body was to supply him with certain “very simple” colours, “principally yellow ochre, indigo, umber, lime.” A friend of the fabrique who also knew Pienovi had sent a warning to Montreal about the artist’s character, noting that he was “a person of great talents and excellent taste but I believe is rather dissipated.” Thus the contract specified the penalties he would suffer if he failed to do the work, notably a daily fine double his fees.
At the very beginning these fears proved well founded, for Pienovi, who would later be called a “scoundrel,” lingered in New York for four days, squandering two-thirds of his travel allowance. He does not seem to have incurred his employers’ censure, however. The indications are that he respected the terms of his contract in executing large decorative works inside the new building, which was scheduled to be consecrated in the third week of October 1828, and also that the results were sufficiently pleasing to earn him at least one other contract of the same sort.
In 1832 Pienovi again emerges from the shadows. Towards the end of October he finished decorating the “portal vaulting” of Notre-Dame, a lesser piece of work that has disappeared. At the same time he put up scaffolding to do fresco work in the new church of the Sisters of Charity of the Hôpital Général in Montreal, a task that occupied him for 11 months.
In September and October 1833, when that project was coming to an end, Pienovi inserted an advertisement in La Minerve; referring to his experience in decorating churches, he sought “work, along his line . . . : churches, architectural commissions, salons, landscapes, ornamentation, in fresco, oil, or tempera.” He was then living “at the hay market,” not far from Notre-Dame, and was about 60 years of age. Despite what seems to have been a new start, no trace has been found of Pienovi until 1841, when he did the decoration on the “transparent screen of the great window” in Notre-Dame, a piece that must be considered minor. Then, after a short interval during which he was not heard from and was said to have “wandered” about western Canada, Pienovi died in Montreal in 1845, at the recorded age of 72.
Pienovi’s career was unusual. An Italian decorator who by all accounts brought a thoroughly European craftsmanship to North America, he ended up working within the framework of a neo-Gothic form of architecture, a source of innovation in French Canada, under an Irish Protestant architect who had laboured for 12 years in the United States. At the time, reaction to Pienovi’s decorative work in Notre-Dame was generally negative. Seeing the lack of finish and the meagreness of the decoration, one critic spoke of a “smear of colours . . . without poetry and without taste,” while another accused the artist of having caused the death of O’Donnell, who, he said, “died of a broken heart, disgusted at the bad taste which had spoiled his handiwork.”
Unfortunately the traces of Pienovi’s brush disappeared in 1876 under the decorations of a Frenchman named Cleff. Nevertheless, in his defence it must be remembered that the role he had played in decorating the vaulting was determined by budgetary constraints which forced him to resort to expedients, and also by his obligation to respect the precise directions in the architect’s drawings. For example, to replace the ribbing initially intended by O’Donnell, Pienovi had to paint the “hollow” vaulting in black and projecting sections in grey. These colours probably also had to compensate for the excess light from the great window, which had been given plain glass because there was not enough money to put in stained glass.
As for the decoration of the pillars, here again Pienovi had to conceal a noticeable defect, the excessive width of the nave, which Napoléon Bourassa* later called “an ugly amphitheatre for a hippodrome.” The paint he applied made the vertical elements stand out more independently and in this way reinforced the sense of height. Pienovi probably had given decorative motifs to these painted surfaces, adopting a style of Gothic inspiration, as the terms “medley of colours” and “spotted” used by some critics suggest. After all, it seems unthinkable that O’Donnell had had Pienovi come from New York simply to cover up extensive surfaces in monochrome.
It would be the task of Victor Bourgeau* to finish Notre-Dame’s interior. Around 1830 an Italian painter he had met, Pienovi according to some, introduced him to Giacomo da Vignola’s treatise, as a result of which Bourgeau was inspired to try his hand at wood-carving. Angelo Pienovi could thus be credited with an unexpected influence that would lead to the completion of what he had only been able to sketch in roughly under O’Donnell’s direction as a makeshift dictated by financial exigencies.
ANQ-M, CE1-51, 17 nov. 1845. AP, Notre-Dame de Montréal, boîte 23, chemise 34, brouillon d’une lettre de la fabrique à James O’Donnell, 16 mai 1828; Cahiers des délibérations de la fabrique, 28 sept. 1828; Fichier, 20 ou 28 sept. 1827, 20 juin 1828; Lettre de John Power à F-A. Larocque, 14 mai 1828; Lettre de Lewis Willcocks à F.-A. Larocque, 30 avril 1828; Livres de comptes, 26 oct. 1832: 194; 4 nov. 1841: 359. Arch. des Sœurs Grises (Montréal), Livres de comptes, septembre 1832: 102; septembre 1833: 114. MAC-CD, Fonds Morisset, 1, Montréal, île de Montréal, église Notre-Dame; 2, dossier Angelo Pienovi. E. T. Coke, A subaltern’s furlough . . . (London, 1833), 335. La Minerve, 9 sept.–3 oct. 1833; 24 nov. 1845. G. C. Groce and D. H. Wallace, The New-York Historical Society’s dictionary of artists in America, 1564–1860 (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1957; repr. 1964). Harper, Early painters and engravers. Maurault, La paroisse: hist. de Notre-Daine de Montréal (1957), 63. Morisset, La peinture, traditionnelle, 134. F. [K. B. S.] Toker, The Church of Notre-Dame in Montreal; an architectural history (Montreal and London, Ont., 1970), 23, 36, 61, 66, 92.