If I were still teaching school, I might begin by asking, "Okay, class, can anyone tell me what a 'modello' is?" Don't everyone raise your hand at one time. Well, as the name might suggest, it is a model. In sculpture, it would be a preliminary miniature made of clay or wax of the final work to be rendered in marble or bronze. In painting, it is a smaller, finished painting, usually in oil, of a much larger work showing the prospective patron roughly what the final fresco or altarpiece might look like. It also served to help the artist work out his or her ideas in advance to avoid wasting time and effort when doing the final work. For art historians, modelli (the plural of modello) are quite valuable because in some cases they represent the only record of a long ago destroyed work of art, or they offer insight into just how the artist arrived at his final masterpiece. For museums, they allow modest-sized copies of major works of art to be hung on their walls and seen by a public that might not otherwise have access to them.
An example of a modello for which the final work no longer exists, is the Four Saints by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (pronounce tee-EP-olo). The altarpiece resulting from the modello was painted in 1737 for the church of San Salvatore in Venice. It depicts St. Augustine, doctor of the church, King Louis IX, and Saint John the Evangelist. Tiepolo was a Venetian artist, born in 1696, a student of Veronese, and considered the greatest Italian Rococo painter of all time. The term Rococo tends to ring up images of frivolous, romantic couples frolicking playfully amongst lush vegetation, enjoying the sensual delights of love, lust, and leisure. That's French Rococo. Tiepolo never set foot in France. Italian Rococo was a totally different animal. Therefore, the term Rococo is more one denoting a historic painting era than one of style.
Italian Rococo has some superficial similarities to its French cousin but with a much more serious bent. The Italian version was never quite free of its classical ancestors. Italian subject matter dealt with history, allegory, mythology, and religion. Tiepolo's Banquet of Cleopatra, painted in 1745 is a history painting example. His 1739 Vision of the Trinity is an interesting example combining religion and history painting It depicts St. Clement (the third pope), kneeling before an altar above which hovers the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as the title indicates. The vision is light and airy as one might expect from the Rococo, but hardly whimsical. Late in his life, Tiepolo's work did tend to lighten up a little. A modello for his 1758, Allegory with Venus and Time done for a ceiling fresco in the Contarini Palace, celebrates the birth of the family heir. It features Venus, with two doves embracing over her, passing a young child to the hands of father time to be tended by Cupid. Here we do see a bit of the sweetness usually associated with the French Rococo, but with a typically Italian reference to history and mythology.