Renaissance Art in Venice
History, Characteristics of Venetian Painting & Sculpture.

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The Renaissance in Venice (c.1400-1600)


The Tempest (c.1508) (Detail)
Venice Academy Gallery.
By Giorgione.

Introduction to Venetian Art
Jacopo (c.1400-1470), Gentile (c.1429-1507) and Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516)
Andrea Mantegna of Padua (1430-1506)
Vittore Carpaccio (c.1465-1525/6)
Giorgione (Giorgio da Castelfranco) (c.1477-1510)
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (c.1485/8-1576)
Paolo Veronese (1528-88)
Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti) (1518-94)
Renaissance Sculptors (1400-1530)
Greatest Renaissance Paintings (1400-1600)
Best Renaissance Drawings (c.1400-1550)

Introduction to Venetian Art

Venice, another centre of Renaissance art, is a shimmering, dream-like city of canals, which for centuries has been Italy's link with the exotic East. From her earliest days, the city provided a place of refuge for the inhabitants of nearby towns like Padua at such times as the Gothic and Lombard invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries CE. Ruled in the sixth and seventh centuries by the Byzantine emperors, the city was placed under the religious and temporal protectorship of the exarch of Ravenna. Ravenna was at that period a city of splendid, mosaic-filled churches (for details, see: Ravenna Mosaics) and an important, prosperous seaport, more important than Venice herself. By the ninth century, Venice was a developing power and had become a centre for the exchange of luxury goods such as spices and silks from the East for Italian lumber, grain, and wine. It was, like other Italian cities of the time, the hub of a growing network of trade routes that brought her in contact with Europe and the East - even the Far East. Venice's cultural development, however, was largely uninfluenced by what was happening in other Italian cities. This is in part explained by her situation on the Adriatic Sea and her long association with the Byzantine Empire and its centre, Constantinople.


Her ties were with the East. When, in the ninth century, the citizens of Venice decided to build a magnificent Church in honour of Saint Mark, many noblemen and commoners sent for marble from Aquilea, Ravenna, and Constantinople." Indeed, St. Mark's Basilica, which was constructed in the eleventh century, is a monument to the durability and grandeur of the Byzantine art tradition. The basilica was erected on a square-shaped plan from which five golden domes rise in the shape of a cross. These domes dominate the splendid piazza before the church and act almost as a beacon for the visitor who approaches the city from the sea. (For more about building designs during the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, see: Renaissance Architecture.)

The three centuries between the building of St. Mark's and the fall of Constantinople in 1452 were extraordinary ones for Venice. After the consolidation of their government under a doge, or duke, the Venetians established commercial centers in the Balkans, the Ionian islands, Crete, Cyprus, Armenia, Alexandria, Caffa in the Crimean peninsula and ultimately as far away as China. Venice's prosperity was assured for years to come. Her gold ducat, first struck in 1284, became the standard currency of the Mediterranean, and by the early fourteenth century, her fleet made port in all the major commercial centers of northern Europe, England, and Holland.

Byzantine East and Gothic West met in Venice, and the fine art painting, sculpture and architecture produced during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries reveal the intermingling of the two great cultural forces. The facades of St. Mark's and the numerous palazzi that were built by the growing merchant aristocracy combine the pointed arches and vaulting system of Gothic architecture with Byzantine mosaic art and multicoloured marbles. (Read about the great Venetian architect: Andrea Palladio (1508-80), famous for his church facades and villas.) This synthesis resulted in architecture of remarkable lightness and richness, whose brilliance is dazzlingly enhanced by shimmering reflections in the many canals of the city. For more about Christian art in Venice during the late Renaissance period, see: Venetian altarpieces (c.1500-1600).

Note: For a guide to Venetian sculpture during the period 1400-1530, please see: Italian Renaissance Sculpture.

The intermingling of East and West so characteristic of Venetian architecture was also characteristic of her population. A growing colony of foreign merchants from northern Europe established warehouses and built themselves palaces on the Grand Canal, and from at least the fifteenth century on, the city's population was also increased by a considerable migration from the Christian East. Of the many Greek immigrants to Venice, the most famous is probably the painter Domenikos Theotocopoulos, who studied in Venice with the great master Titian (c.1485/8-1576) and later earned his own fame in Spain, where he was called El Greco (1541-1614), after his homeland. The migrations from the East bronght to Venice both merchants and an intellectual elite. The city became, especially after the Moslem domination of the Near East, the guardian of Greek art and culture and a vital center for oriental studies - most notably medicine and geography, in which the Arabs excelled. Although literature seems to have played a fairly small role in the city's intellectual life, she was rich in art and architecture. Certainly from the sixteenth century on, the city was regarded as an essential stop-over by merchants, artists, and pleasure seekers from all of Europe. Her beauty was celebrated in plays and in paintings, while the magical name of Titian earned a reputation for painting that rivaled that of the Florentines Leonardo (1452-1519), Raphael (1483-1520), and Michelangelo (1475-1564).

The sea not only brought the city her prosperity, but provided painters with extraordinary raw material. From Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1455-1525) on, Venetian painters have been inspired to record the dazzling effects of light on the buildings and bridges that line the canals. They have depicted the bustle of the canal traffic, the gondolas decorated for secular festivals or religious processions, and in large paintings like Carpaccio's "Legend of St. Ursula" series, they have even represented the high-masted merchant vessels that carried luxury goods to the city from all parts of the world.

With the beginning of the quattrocento (15th-century), Venice embarked on a policy of strengthening her position on the Italian peninsula. She conquered the neighboring cities of Padua, Verona, and Vicenza and established strong diplomatic and economic contacts with Milan and Mantua. In 1424, when the Venetian Senate wished to find a mosaicist capable of restoring some of the wall decorations in St. Mark's, they sent for the Florentine master Paolo Uccello to supervise the efforts of local artists. Uccello's coming ended the artistic isolation of Venice. Soon the influential but short-lived Andrea del Castagno (1420-57) and the sculptor Donatello (1386-1466) followed him to the city.

Jacopo, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini

At the time of this new contact with Florentine artists, the most noted representatives of Venetian painting were the three members of the Bellini family, Jacopo (c.1400-70), and his sons Gentile (c.1429-1507) and especially Giovanni (c.1430-1516), who became known as the Father of Venetian painting.

Jacopo had been a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano and was one of the first Venetian Old Masters to evidence an interest in linear perspective. His sons were quick to learn their father's perspective technique, and their development was strongly influenced by him. The Bellini workshop was immensely popular, besieged by commissions for large ceremonial altarpieces like Gentile's "Procession of the True Cross on the Piazza San Marco", or portraits like Giovanni's marvellous likeness of Doge Leonardo Loredan. Gentile had spent a year in Constantinople at the Sultan's court, and he produced magnificent sketches of the exotic personages who graced the crowded streets of that city.

Gentile's "Procession of the True Cross on the Piazza San Marco" is typical of the numerous works that give us a view of Venice as she appeared in the late 1400'S. The great precision of detail in Gentile's painted panoramas provides almost photographic documentation of the Renaissance city, her monuments, buildings, and costumes. In this painting, the artist depicts the annual Corpus Christi holy day procession, when relics - splinters from the True Cross - were solemnly borne through the streets by the devout members of a popular religious society. Thousands of spectators witnessed this ceremony each year, along with the doge, representatives of the local government, and visiting dignitaries. (See also Gentile Bellini Biography.)

Venice was the first modern state to commission a group of portraits of her chief administrators. Giovanni Bellini's painting of Doge Leonardo Loredan is an impressive and forceful example of this type of portrait art. Like many Northern European painters, Giovanni abandoned the early Renaissance formula of the profile portrait in favour of a three-quarter view of the sitter. The Doge, in the ceremonial attire of brocade coat and cap, is pictured behind a short, dark ledge that acts as a spatial barrier between the viewer and the sitter. Giovanni has captured the textures of the garments and the taut, thick skin of the Doge's face. His head stands out sharply against the dark blue background, and the total impression is scarcely less three-dimensional or sculptural, than those portraits painted by contemporary Florentines, such as Filippino Lippi's "Portrait of a Youth" and Botticelli's portrait "Giuliano de' Medici".

Giovanni Bellini was among the first Venetian artists to take up oils, partly due to his reaction to the Sicilian Antonello da Messina (c.1430-1479) who made a visit to the city in 1475-6. Antonello had become acquainted with Northern Renaissance art in Naples and as a result was one of the early Italian pioneers of oil painting - a method he passed on to his Venetian hosts. Although he was only a short while in Venice, his art made a powerful impression. His concentrated paintings, reduced to the most important essentials, united Italian physiognomy with Dutch realism and made full use of oil techniques used by Northern Renaissance artists in the creation of glow and depth. Giovanni Bellini had a huge impact on Venetian artists - both during his lifetime and later - like Giorgione, Titian, Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) and others.

Andrea Mantegna

The first artist to introduce the Venetians to the Florentines' interest in nature and the classical past was Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506), who first worked in the nearby university town of Padua and subsequently at the court of the Duke of Mantua, who was devoted to art. The pupil of a local master in Padua named Francesco Squarcione, Mantegna displayed such unusual talent that he attracted the interested attention of Jacopo Bellini. Later in life, Mantegna formed not only an artistic alliance with the Bellini, but a family alliance as well, when he married one of Jacopo's daughters.
We know little of Mantegna's early training except that his master Squarcione presumably had a great love of ancient art; he used to require his students to make copies of pieces of Greek sculpture that he had assembled in his workshop. This early training served Mantegna well in later life, when he began seriously to study and copy ancient monuments. In 1447, the great Florentine Renaissance sculptor Donatello arrived in Padua to erect an equestrian sculpture, a monument to a successful general. Mantegna was impressed both by Donatello's re-creation of a classical prototype and by the Florentine sculptor's numerous perspective studies. Moved by Donatello's example, Mantegna taught himself perspective through careful, disciplined drawing.

When he was barely twenty, Mantegna produced a series of fresco paintings in the Church of the Eremitani ("Hermits") in his native town, Padua. The paintings describe the life of St. James; they stand among the most amazing achievements of the early Renaissance in their simulation of extraordinary depth and in their scholarly emulation of classical art forms. To prepare himself for these and other similar works, Mantegna made incredibly detailed drawings of surviving classical statues and buildings he had seen in the north of Italy and, later, in visits to Rome. Many of these drawings served as the basis for compositions that he later engraved and that were widely circulated as prints. Today Mantegna enjoys the reputation of being one of the greatest exponents of graphic art that Italy has ever produced. Mantegna became so well-known as a classical scholar that Pope Innocent VIII was to invite him to visit Rome in the 1480's.

In 1459, Mantegna accepted an invitation by the Duke of Mantua to join his service. He remained connected to that court - with brief absences for trips to Venice, Rome, and Verona-for the rest of his life.

A piece of altarpiece art created by Mantegna for the ruling Gonzaga family displays his ability to combine his own mastery of human anatomy with the new spatial techniques of the Florentines. The altarpiece is a triptych, or three-paneled work, the right wing of which is "The Presentation of Christ in the Temple". The figures who participate in the age-old Jewish rite of circumcision are imposing, elegant, yet human. The scene is set in a lofty hall elaborately decorated with classical columns, a marble-surfaced wall covered with floral motifs, and simulated sculptural reliefs with scenes from the Old Testament.

A far simpler work, but even more affecting in its communication of human emotion, is Mantegna's "Judith with the Head of Holofernes". The work is done in tempera, the technique in which a mixture of coloured pigments with a viscous substance such as egg yolk is applied to a treated wooden panel. This painstaking process was used long before the development of oil painting on wood or canvas; it results in brilliant pure colours, and conveys an appearance of smoothness of surface. In this composition Mantegna has combined careful observation and depiction of naturalistic detail with an awareness of the classical rules of bodily proportion to produce figures of rare beauty. Although the work is full of stark realism - note the particularly jarring detail of the foot of the dead man on the bed in the background - Mantegna still conveys an impression of poignant sadness. Especially touching is the pathetic gaze of Judith as she avoids looking at the grisly severed head of the Assyrian general Holofernes, whom she has slain in order to protect her countrymen, the Israelites. As she hands the head to her attendant, Mantegna's Judith could easily be mistaken for the heroine of a classical Greek tragedy.

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Vittore Carpaccio

Vittore Carpaccio (c.1465-1525/6) was probably a pupil of Gentile Bellini. His paintings are enriched with a wealth of naturalistic detail that may have been influenced by his study of Northern painters, particularly the Flemish masters like Jan Van Eyck. Like the members of the Bellini family, he depicted panoramic views of Venice, but he displays an even greater sensitivity than theirs to the particular quality of atmospheric light.

Among Carpaccio's greatest series of paintings are the large altarpieces he produced around 1496 for the Brotherhood of St. Ursula, depicting scenes from that saint's life. The altarpieces were destined for a chapel in the School of St. Ursula, a small building now incorporated into the large museum of Venetian painting called the Accademia. In relating the various moments in the young martyr's life, Carpaccio tells her story against city backgrounds that are reminiscent of the cities of Cologne and Rome, among others. His work is vibrant with the bustle of the crowded streets of contemporary Venice, and he particularly delights in parading before the viewer all of the exotic trappings of the visitors from the Near East whom he observed in the city. In his "Disputation of St. Stephen", he takes a similar delight in the particularized rendering of costumes and of specific racial and national character types; however, the viewer is even more impressed with his creation of the illusion of a deep, generous space with foreground, middle and background clearly and logically indicated.

Giorgione

While the early Renaissance artists in Florence had created harmonious compositions by achieving a balance between line and light and shade, and while the Renaissance in Rome was mastering the art of the dramatic, the Venetians perfected the subtle use of colour. Among the most important exponents of Venetian colourism was Giorgio da Castelfranco, called Giorgione (c.1477-1510).

Little is known of this artist, to whom only five or six paintings have been ascribed with certainty. Presumably he was a pupil of Giovanni Bellini, and certainly there are qualities that his works share in common with those of the older man. The earliest reference to Giorgione indicates that he was commissioned to paint frescoes in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi ("Guildhouse of the German Merchants") in Venice in 1508 and that he was aided in this undertaking by the young Titian.

Giorgione's most famous picture is "The Tempest" (1506, Venice Academy Gallery). The subject of the composition is somewhat ambiguous: it may represent a scene from some classical poem.

Another of Giorgione's paintings, "The Three Philosophers", conveys a similarly vivid mood and is also an unusually sensitive study of the various effects of light. Sometimes characterized as "the three ages of man" or "three temperaments," the separate identities of the figures are clearly established, and they appear against a landscape of great beauty. Each may represent a different philosophic tradition, it has been suggested - the Christian, Arab, and Hebrew - as may be indicated by their highly individualized dress. Like the saints in a Renaissance altarpiece, each man is absorbed in his own speculations.

The "Concert Champetre" ("Concert in the Countryside") may have been one of the artist's last pictures. It too explores the atmospheric effects of light and subtleties of relating figures to one another. The charming pastoral scene, like that of the earlier "The Tempest," may reflect a classical poem; it was a common convention of some classical poets to set events in the countryside, with principal characters portrayed as simple shepherds. As in the earlier work, there is a contrast between clothed male figures and nude women. There is, however, no mutual awareness: the youths play and converse without acknowledging the presence of the lovely young women. Perhaps Giorgione is fancifully portraying a moment when the singers, enchanted with the beauty of nature and composing songs of love to classical deities, have actually been visited by the divine spirits whom they celebrate.

Giorgione's poetic visions of a classical paradise may be viewed as a part of Venetian evolution from the great ceremonial paintings of Bellini to the work of his follower, Titian, with its attention to communicating the tangible and sensuous aspect of animate and inanimate forms.

[NOTE: Among the better known sculptors involved in the Venetian Renaissance was: Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570).]

Titian

One of the greatest painters in the history of art, Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian (c.1485/8-1576), almost single-handedly created the reputation of High Renaissance painting in Venice. During the High Renaissance and later Mannerism period, he achieved a celebrity that rivalled the fame of Michelangelo. He was born in the southern Alps in the town of Cadore; after his arrival as a young man in Venice, he seems to have studied with Gentile and Giovanni Bellini before becoming the pupil of Giorgione. He is known to have worked with Giorgione on the fresco decorations of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in 1508, but his own artistic temperament seems to have asserted itself very early - he evolved a visual style of expression far more dramatic than the quiet contemplations of his master. In his Lives of The Artists, Giorgio Vasari relates an anecdote that illustrates this difference. In describing the collaboration on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi frescoes, he states:

"In connection with this facade, Titian uncovered part of what he did, and then many gentlemen, not realizing that he was working there instead of Giorgione, cheerfully congratulated Giorgione when they happened to meet him and said that he was doing better work on the facade towards the Merceria than he had done for the part which is over the Grand Canal. This so incensed Giorgione that until Titian had completely finished and his share in the work had become general knowledge he would hardly show himself out of doors. And from then on he would never allow Titian to associate with him or be his friend."

A religious history painting illustrates Titian's mastery of landscape art: his "Noli me tangere" shows the risen Christ warning Mary Magdalene not to touch Him, because He has not yet joined His Father. The background, like those in Giorgione's paintings, shows soft, rolling hills, farm-houses, and grazing sheep. However, what is very different is the scale of the figures and the dramatic and intimate relationship established by their gestures, in contrast to the ambiguous, distant melancholy of Giorgione's compositions. Striking too, is the new intensity of Titian's colour painting - the vibrant warm scarlet of the Magdalene's dress and the lush green of the vegetation. See also his Giorgione-esque female nude Venus of Urbino (1538, Uffizi).

Even before Raphael died, Titian was seen as an extraordinary talent - witness his awesome altarpiece Assumption of the Virgin (c.1518). After Raphael's demise, Titian became the most celebrated portraitist of his time. Among his best portrait art is his portrait of the painter and critic Pietro Aretino and a wonderful self-portrait. Both the painting of Aretino, done in about 1555, and the self-portrait, executed about 1563, thirteen years before the artist's death, reveal his mastery of the oil painting technique. In each, the sitter emerges from a dark background, and his thoughtful face is presented in a three-quarter view, partially obscured by qualifying shadows. A warm, golden light pervades each canvas and animates the rich textures of the sitters's clothing. When compared with the "Woman in Furs", done about twenty years earlier, the brush stroke of Titian's later portraits seems much freer and the effect more spontaneous. See also: Venetian Portrait Painting (c.1400-1600).

The increasing freedom of brush stroke or painterly quality that marks Titian's late style can also be noted in his group 'portrait Pope Paul III with His Grandsons, which might be compared to Raphael's portrait of Pope Leo X and his nephews. In contrast to the highly finished surface of Raphael's work, Titian's canvas seems almost incomplete: slashes of paint are visible, and parts of the canvas are left virtually untouched, while in other areas the pigment is applied heavily and globules of glistening oil almost seem to cling to the surface.

Titian's deft ability to grasp the personality or character of the sitter is remarkable. In the painting of Paul III and his nephews, this character delineation is very strongly asserted. The fragile, wizened figure of the pontiff clearly dominates over those of his attendants, making an interesting comment on the nature of the relationship; the painter underlines the dependency of the younger men on their powerful uncle.

During his lifetime, Titian earned the title "prince among painters." Vasari noted in his life of Titian that there was scarcely a single great lord or lady whose likeness he did not paint. He was a favourite of the Emperor Charles V, who made him a count palatine in 1534. His manners were cultivated and his household luxurious, and he regularly received all of the important dignitaries who came to the city of Venice. One of Titian's biographies states that the Emperor held him in such esteem that when visiting his studio, he did him the honor of picking up a brush that the painter had dropped. So great was the impact of Titian's colouristic innovations that even the Florentines were moved to admiration. (See also: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting c.1500-76.) Michelangelo, although he lamented Titian's lack of "disegno," or drawing, nevertheless praised him highly for his colouring and style. The full influence of Titian's achievements was probably not felt until the seventeenth century, when countless artists from Italy and northern Europe journeyed to Venice to study and absorb his extraordinary and celebrated style.

For details of the colour pigments used by Venetian Renaissance painters, in fresco, tempera and oil painting, see: Renaissance Colour Palette. For a general review of colourism, see: Colour in Painting.

Paolo Veronese

Paolo Veronese (1528-88) arrived in Venice after having acquired a thorough artistic training in his native Verona. Shortly after his arrival in the city, he became one of the leading Venetian Mannerist artists and exponent of the colourful, sumptuous Venetian manner that is reflected in his monumental canvas "The Marriage Feast of Cana". This work is only one of a number of banquet scenes executed by Veronese: "The Meal in the House of Simon" and "The Banquet in the House of the Levi" are among the other famous works typifying the contemporary taste for elaborate groupings of people and animals against palatial architectural backgrounds. Veronese's paintings seem almost to be theatrical performances of the most spectacular scale and magnificence. Richly garbed gentlemen and ladies are shown enjoying the pleasures of life amid a wealth of material detail-glittering gold vessels, wine-filled glasses - in the exotic atmosphere and architecture of sixteenth-century Venice.

In his paintings of solemn religious stories like "The Finding of the Infant Moses", Veronese translates the Old Testament into a contemporary idiom. The daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh and her attendant are portrayed as two exquisitely dressed Venetian ladies, out for a stroll in the countryside that surrounds the city, attended by maidservants and a misshapen dwarf. The joy and pageantry of Renaissance society fairly leaps from Veronese's canvases, and it is not surprising to learn that his paintings found great favour with the public, although their worldly spirit prompted the Church to censure the artist. For Veronese's drawings, see: Venetian Drawing (c.1500-1600).

See also the Venetian Mannerist painter: Jacopo Bassano (1515-92).

Tintoretto

The last great Venetian master of the sixteenth century was Jacopo Robusti, called Tintoretto (1518-94). According to legend, the artist proclaimed his intention to combine the colour of Titian and the drawing of Michelangelo, and even a cursory glance at his canvases and frescoes reveals how different they are from the stately compositions of his master, Titian. In a painting like "Christ with Mary and Martha", despite its clear link with the sumptuous Venetian colourist tradition, we observe a new agitation, a new sense of dramatic urgency, typical of Mannerist painting in Italy (c.1530-1600). Tintoretto introduces powerful diagonal movement that pulls the spectator's eye along the table's edge from figure to figure. Moreover, in place of the rich, warm colour scheme of Titian or Veronese, Tintoretto introduces a subtle but unmistakable white underpainting that illuminates the garments of all of the figures in a disturbing and supernatural way.

As his style developed, Tintoretto's paintings seemed to increase in drama and movement. This is visible in his painting "The Transportation of the Body of St. Mark", one of three scenes relating the legend of the Venetian patron saint painted by the artist between 1548 and 1566 for the Scuola di San Marco. In this work, the diagonal movement into space is even more exaggerated than in "Christ with Martha and Mary," and the distortions of colour have been intensified as well. The entire psychological atmosphere of the painting is heightened, due mostly to the eerie and threatening quality of light, which tends to rob forms of their three-dimensionality. The viewer senses that he is witness to an extraordinary event - the recovery and return of the body of the dead St. Mark from its burial place in Alexandria to the city of Venice - for the event is depicted in the most emotional and dramatic manner. In fact, the body of St. Mark was stolen from Alexandria by two adventurous Venetian merchants in 828, and it was this event which inspired the Doge Giustiniano Partecipazio to erect a church to shelter the holy relic.

In order to develop his new pictorial style of Mannerist painting - a style that became a highly successful vehicle for communication of the strong feeling of religious stories - Tintoretto sacrificed the healthy colour of Titian in favour of hues that appear harsh or abnormally intense by comparison. It is reported that Titian expelled the young Tintoretto from his studio because he was dissatisfied with his distorted forms and colours. Yet just as Titian's paintings had carried the achievements of the Renaissance one step further, so those of Tintoretto paved the way for the additional formal and psychological innovations of the Baroque style in the next century. For the impact of Venice painters on European art, see: Legacy of Venetian Painting (after 1600).

• For the chronological history of Italian culture, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For styles of painting and sculpture in Venice, see: Homepage.


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