The first half of the eighteenth century coincided with outstanding accomplishments in painting by Venetian talents. Venice came to outdistance all other Italian artistic centres. Among these artists, Piazzetta holds a particularly important place, not least for his diversity of talents. He was an accomplished painter and a superb draftsman, etcher and book illustrator, as well as a teacher, and became the first director of the Venetian Academy in 1750. After some initial study in Venice and Bologna, where he was influenced by tenebroso style, which emphasized a dark, tonal application of colour with dramatic contrasts of light and shadow. Back in Venice by 1705, Piazzetta’s initial paintings, with strong chiaroscuro and strikingly foreshortened figures often featured energetic zigzag compositional structures and religious subjects whose treatment was characterized by a poignant chromatic scale of contrasting warm and cold reddish and brown tones. His style was an autonomous blend of seventeenth-century realism and highly dramatic chiaroscuro with a peculiarly Venetian softness and atmospheric rendition of forms. As his home became a sort of open academy for other artists, including the young Tiepolo, his influence on Venetian art of the time cannot be overstated.
The Penitent Magdalene is a fine example of his work about 1720. It is also a rare reflection of his sophisticated absorption and transmutation of earlier, Northern Italian Renaissance sources consonant with his own sensual, tenebroso style during the period. The composition of the work ultimately derives from a celebrated but now lost painting by the sixteenth-century Parmesan artist Correggio, The Penitent Magdalene Reading.