Renaissance Art in Venice (c.1400-1600)
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
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).
The intermingling of East and West so characteristic of Venetian Renaissance 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 ranked alongside that of the giants of the Florentine Renaissance, including 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 neighbouring 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 several active figures in the Italian Renaissance - including the influential but short-lived Andrea del Castagno (1420-57) and the sculptor Donatello (1386-1466) - followed him to the city.
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.
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. Best known for his naturalistic Christ Crowned with Thorns (1470), 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. See, for instance: The Ecstasy of St. Francis (1480, Frick Collection, New York), Doge Leonardo Loredan (1502, National Gallery, London) and The San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505, Church of San Zaccaria, Venice). 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY