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A Divine Art

There is an anecdote concerning Tintoretto. In the spring of 1564 one of the Venetian guilds, the Scuola of S. Rocco, ran a competition for the painting of their hall. Tintoretto and Veronese were two of the contestants. It was agreed that each artist should submit a design for the central ceiling panel of the room. The artists went away and began work, but Tintoretto had no intention of sketching a design. He obtained the measurements of the panel and began work at once upon a large canvas. The artists gathered one morning, with their designs ready for scrutiny, but Tintoretto had forestalled them. He had brought the completed canvas to the hall a day or two before, and by secret means had it fixed upon the ceiling where it was to be displayed. He merely pointed upwards when asked for his design. When the masters of the guild remonstrated with him, he replied that the only way he could “design” an image was by painting it. He added, according to Vasari, that “designs and models should always be after that fashion, so as to deceive no one, and that, finally, if they would not pay him for the work and his labour, he would make them a present of it.” Vasari concluded that the words of Tintoretto had “many contradictions” but nevertheless “the work is still in the same place.” The painting, “San Rocco in Glory,” is on the ceiling still. The comments of his thwarted competitors are not reported, although they are not likely to have been complimentary. He had in essence played a trick on them.

The stories of Vasari are not necessarily to be trusted, but there is some documentary evidence to support this particular anecdote. The records of the guild reveal that a competition between “three or four of the most excellent painters in Venice” was announced on 31 May 1564, but it was abandoned four weeks later when the guild accepted the finished painting of Tintoretto. He had completed this mighty canvas within a matter of days. Vasari was no doubt eager to reveal the somewhat devious tactics of Tintoretto in obtaining the commission, although it might be said that the artist was behaving in a manner perfectly understandable to any Venetian merchant or shopkeeper. He may have been prompted, too, by political machinations within the guild; intrigue is always in the Venetian air. Throughout his life Tintoretto would be an adept and wily bargainer, cutting his prices and changing his terms whenever the occasion demanded. Vasari was also intent upon disclosing the lack of diligence and of preparation on the artist’s part. How could he possibly take up his brush without first preparing a design? Yet the anecdote also reveals the full force of Tintoretto’s personality; it reveals his restless and headlong resort to paint as the medium in which he revelled. His figures sport like dolphins on the canvas, a reflection of his own mastery and exuberance.

He was a controversial figure from his earliest youth. Another story places Tintoretto in confrontation with Titian. Tintoretto was for a short time apprentice to the older painter; it is said, according to family legend, that Titian came upon some figures drawn by him. Observing at once their facility, and fearing for his own reputation, Titian ordered the young man to leave his studio. It is an improbable account of jealousy, but one of Tintoretto’s sons spread it abroad after the death of his father. It may reflect the essential tension between Titian’s utterly expensive art, created largely for foreign patrons, and Tintoretto’s more local and artisanal genius.

There is no doubt that the artist’s talents became quickly known. He was born as Jacopo Robusti in the autumn of 1518, in Venice, and in that city he would live and die. It owned his being. He is a distinct example of the territorial imperative, whereby the ground itself helps to shape him. He is the most thoroughly Venetian of all painters. He was the son of a dyer of silks; hence the name he gave himself as an artist. He was happy to be known as “the little dyer” because it was a token of his relatively humble Venetian origins. He only left the city once in his life and then, on a journey to Mantua, he insisted that his wife accompany him. Like other Venetian artists, he was a fervent amateur musician. He painted stage sets and designed costumes for the theatres of the city. His art cannot be understood without Venice. His great works are still to be found in the city. His paintings were once to be seen in more than forty of the city’s churches. Only in Venice can his fieriness and extravagance be properly realised. His art isVenice in its purest and most spiritual form.

One contemporary reported that “in his gestures, expression, movement of the eyes and in his words he is alert and quick in argument.” So his art embodied his person. He had what Stendhal called “Venetian liveliness” to the utmost degree. Vasari called him “hot-headed.” His speed of execution was known to everyone. He could complete a painting in the same time as another artist might finish a sketch. His was a vivacious and exuberant and impetuous art. He was filled with divine fury, with all the rage and energy of creation. He was the lightning flash. When some young Flemish artists came to his studio, they showed him certain drawings over which they had laboured for weeks. He took up his brush and with three strokes of black paint created a figure. He put in some white highlights, and turned to his guests. “This,” he said, “is how we poor Venetians paint our pictures.” It was the Venetian way, known throughout Europe as prestezza. The Venetian painters, too, were known for the art of improvisation. They were also known for their speed. Tiepolo said that he could finish a painting while other artists were still mixing their colours. Two centuries earlier Vasari remarked that a work by Tintoretto was finished before others thought it begun.

Yet his was not entirely an improvised art. He fashioned little models out of wax, and placed them in tiny houses made out of wood and cardboard; then he would suspend lights above and around them. Out of this toy theatre came his great creations filled with radiance and majesty. Saints hurtle through the air at enormous speed. Then they come to a halt, suspended a few feet above the ground. Vistas of figures stretch into eternity. Light floods the dwelling place of mortals. His figures are always in energetic movement, quick and furious; they whirl around some central pillar of light, their limbs and muscles transfigured in centrifugal flight. In his later work light does not follow structure; it supersedes structure; it becomes structure. The world is dissolved in radiance. Drama was an essential element of Venetian art. Canaletto was trained as a designer of theatrical sets. Tiepolo worked as a costume designer. Veronese built up his canvases on the model of the sixteenth-century stage.

Tintoretto himself worked instinctively and naturally, caught up in the rush of inspiration which seems never to have flagged. Some have sensed in his pictures a certain anxiety—an unease, an insecurity, in the perpetually whirling forms. It is of a piece with his endless activity and prolificity. He could never rest. If this is so, then it may coincide with the anxiety of Venice in the sea, and with its endless search for meaning in the wilderness of the world. Tintoretto once said that “the further you go in, the deeper is the sea.” In the late spring of 1594, at the age of seventy-five, he died of a fever.

In 1581 a Venetian collector wrote that there were more paintings in Venice than in all the rest of Italy. Painting, Ruskin said, is the way that the Venetians write. Can a graphologist of art, therefore, identify some salient characteristics in the wealth of Venetian painting? Are there certain harmonies between one artist and another that can be plausibly credited to the nature and position of the city itself? The way in which painting replaced painting, in the ducal palace and in the churches of the city, suggests that the art of Venice was deemed by the authorities to possess an identifiable history and an independent unity. It was capable of endless renewal without compromising its essential identity. For Venetians themselves there was such a thing as Venetian art. It was not the invention of art historians. In the mosaics and in the sacred paintings of the fifteenth century, for example, there is a mingling of Byzantine, Gothic and Tuscan art that is uniquely Venetian; the city drew on the traditions from East and West. Throughout Venetian history various styles and stylistic traits were mingled. It was a port at which many called.

The art of Venice, in the thirteenth century, was Byzantine in inspiration. The images of Christ Pantocrator, of the Virgin, and of all the saints, were painted on wooden panels burnished with gold. At least one workshop in the city specialised in copying, or faking, early Byzantine originals. Thus by imitation Venetian art acquired an identity. It had no other past. The looting of Constantinople in 1204 created the conditions for a Byzantine “revival” in the chief city of the looters. In previous centuries the art of Venice had been provincial and stiffly medieval. There was in fact no really important Venetian work until the middle of the fifteenth century. Yet there were frequent Byzantine “revivals” in the city, most notably in the latter half of the fifteenth century when hostility to the cities of the mainland led to the rejection of the Classical and the Gothic. Venice wished to create an historical and cultural identity with the region of the upper Adriatic, where the Byzantines had once held dominion.

The Byzantine influence had emerged earlier, in the first mosaics for the basilica of Saint Mark’s. The earliest of them, dated to the latter part of the eleventh century, were the work of Greek artists imported from Byzantium. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, however, there had emerged a distinctive Venetian school of mosaic art. The mosaic then became an essential element of Venetian cultural identity. It has been described as “painting for eternity”; the materials do not fade or decay in demonstrably historical time. Mosaics reflect the Venetians’ passion for surface and decorative pattern, as elaborate as the lace of Burano. They embody their love for rich and hard material. The smallest pieces or tesserae are cubes of gold or enamelled glass. They possess the sensual pleasure of jewels and other glittering merchandise, so dear to the imagination of a trading city. Mosaics fulfil the Venetian desire for colour and detail. Even the later work in Saint Mark’s betrays no interest in the linear perspective of fourteenth-century Italian art; perspective is a reminder of the fallen world. Pattern and colour are eternal. The lesson was not lost on Venetian painters, who seemed to compete with the mosaicists in creating a glowing and richly tinted world. The art of the mosaic was taught in Venice long after it had fallen into disuse in other Italian cities, and indeed a school or establishment of professional mosaicists was organised as late as 1520.

The shining glass and gold surfaces glow with the hieratic detail and brilliant colour of the icon, but they also set up a play of light and shadow that is intrinsic to the Venetian genius. The glass was to hand in Murano, where the workshops were well known for the lucidezza or lucidity of their product. When Commynes came to Venice in 1494 he noted on the walls of Saint Mark’s “the curious work called Musaique or Marquetry; the art also whereof they vaunt themselves to be authors of.…” This typically Venetian “vaunt” was of course without foundation, but his comment suggests how odd and exotic the mosaic seemed to a foreign eye. When Thomas Coryat came to Venice in the early seventeenth century he remarked that “I never saw any of this picturing before I came to Venice.” So Venice became associated with the art of mosaic.

The city was the focus. The city was the arena for competition and display. There is not a huge leap from the art of Tintoretto to the art of Tiepolo, although they are separated by almost two centuries. They are both recognisably Venetian. The city absorbed them. The city gave them strength. Whereas the great artists of Florence—Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo—seem unyielding and separate from their home city, the artists of Venice are at home and at ease with their birthright. Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese were not attracted to the patronage of other cities or other courts; they rarely, if ever, left the city on the lagoon. Giovanni Bellini spent his entire life in the neighbourhood of Castello. Titian hated leaving Venice. They seemed to be family men, whereas the artists of Florence tended to be single and of homosexual persuasion.

But there was also a larger continuity. Bellini is to be seen in the context of the work of his father, Jacopo Bellini; in turn Giorgione learned from Bellini, and Titian learned from Giorgione. Tiepolo was called Veronese redivivio. It is perhaps a familiar pattern of influence and inheritance, but one that takes place more fully and intensely in the small and relatively isolated city of Venice. The conservative bias of the citizens, in all matters of social and political policy, must also have had its effect upon the local artists. The importance of tradition and authority was asserted on all occasions of public discourse. If the mosaics in Saint Mark’s were faded, they were replaced by exact replicas. If the paintings in the ducal palace were damaged or destroyed, they were replaced with images of the same historical or mythological scene. All of the instincts of the Venetian painter were to maintain, or to learn from, the past.

Their methods of working were different from their respective contemporaries in other cities. In Venice artists were characteristically viewed as a particular kind of artisan. In a city noted for its pragmatic tendencies, theirs was a wholly practical training. They were concerned with craft skills. They were not considered heroic, with the possible exception of Titian; they were not filled with the divine afflatus. They were essentially servants of the state. The painters belonged to a guild that was supervised by three magistrates. Alongside Tintoretto and Titian were sign-painters and makers of playing cards. Painters were also expected to practise their expertise in other matters pertaining to the state; they were hired as cartographers or as designers of festive banners and of shields. They made their own tools, like any other craftsman. They considered their work in its material rather than its aesthetic guise. They looked at a canvas as a carpenter might look at a wooden chest or a cobbler look at a pair of shoes.

In Venice, too, there was much greater specialisation of trade than in other cities. That, again, is part of the inheritance of the Venetian merchant tradition. The carvers of frames had their own guild, while the gilders formed a “column” of the painters’ guild. The goldsmiths often practised their art in consortium. There were painters of furniture panels, and painters of chests. There were the ivory carvers, their art first emanating from Byzantium. It was always a question of supply and demand. Painted organ shutters, for example, were a Venetian speciality. Painting, in any case, is bound to be different in a city so attentive to the appetite for luxury goods. Luxury represents the love of the material world. Is that not the quality present in the paintings of Bellini and of Titian?

The imperatives of trade are to be seen in the replacement of wood by canvas as the preferred support for oil painting. The supply of material was guaranteed by the presence of a thriving sail industry. In any case the sea air rotted wood. Canvas was also easier to transport in a city, and a lagoon, notoriously difficult to navigate. The line between aesthetic and economic preference is a fine one. In Venice, of all cities, it is hard to know which of them was predominant. It is also worth noticing that the painters of Venice turned to landscape at precisely the time of the city’s colonisation of the mainland.

So the studio or workshop (known as bottega) of the Venetian painters was created in response to the trading practices of the city. Tintoretto had one of the most efficient studios, for example, based upon the Venetian instinct for familial ties. His two sons were his assistants, and they continued to turn out replicas of their father’s work long after his death. In his will Tintoretto left all of his “property, as far as appertains to my profession” to the sons. His wife was responsible for the finances, and his daughter married a young man on the perfectly acceptable grounds that he had proved himself to be a good artist. As she explained in her will, “if the said Sebastian proved to be an able painter I should take him for my husband; in this way, by virtue of his talent, the Tintoretto name would be maintained.” Indeed the Tintoretto business lasted for more than a century and involved three generations. In a city that was established upon the primacy of family, too, the artists followed precedent. The sons of Bellini were painters. The studios of Tiepolo and Bassano, Veronese and Zuccaro, were family businesses. They were clearly created on the pattern of the merchant families of the city, in which trade was passed from father to son. A man might become a painter for the simple reason that he was part of a painter’s family.

Art was seen as a communal, rather than an individual, enterprise. Paintings were worked upon by many hands. A master like Bellini would provide drawings of heads as “patterns” that his apprentices could copy; the same was true, in other studios, of figure and gesture. In a city that had pioneered the model of the production line, in the shipyards of the Arsenal, such enterprise is hardly surprising. So it is that the workshops created the identity and unity of Venetian painting. From the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries it was a distinct and distinctive Venetian phenomenon. There was nothing comparable in the other cities of Italy. Art was pre-eminently a trade, and a profitable one at that, which may explain why artistic change was always slow in Venice.

So by indirection we may be able to provide a rudimentary portrait of the Venetian artist. He or she (there were female artists in Venice) was hard-working and energetic, content to be a member of the larger community and happy to serve that community, concerned not with aesthetic theory but with trading practice, intent upon contracts and profits. It is significant that not one Venetian artist ever completed a treatise on painting. In Florence there were many such works.

It is not altogether surprising, perhaps, that the ordinary Venetian seemed to know nothing whatever about art. There was a great appetite for devotional pictures, of course, but little debate about the quality of such productions. Throughout the centuries there has been a general indifference to the more sublime work of the natives. As W.D. Howells put it in Venetian Life, published in the middle of the nineteenth century, “As to art the Venetians are insensible to it and ignorant of it … I would as soon think of asking a fish’s opinion of water as of asking a Venetian’s notion of architecture or painting.” In the modern age of the Biennale, the same judgement may apply.

From the latter part of the fourteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, there were two dominant schools in the city. One emphasised sensuous and decorative effects while the other relied upon narrative exposition. The former encompassed the Venetian love for opulent surface and gorgeous texture. The latter served the Venetian passion for scenic display. Yet through them both can be traced the same instinct for rhythmic grace, the same flowing line. When the Venetian patrician, Pietro Bembo, described the Venetian dialect as “softer, more imaginative, more rapid and more alive” than any other variant of Italian, he might have been referring to the brushwork of the Venetian painters. There is a sense of movement and of rhythmic display. There has always been a certain sensuousness and voluptuousness in Venetian art, most clearly seen in the female nudes of Titian. Planes and lines are supplanted by curves. When Manet travelled to Venice, he had decided to paint the scene of the annual regatta on the Grand Canal. While sitting in a Venetian café he told a friend and compatriot, Charles Toche, that “there can be no sharp definition, no linear structure in something that is all movement; only tonal values which, if correctly observed, will constitute its true volume, its essential underlying design.” This is also an interesting observation on the nature of Venetian painting itself.

The instinct for narrative is in part the instinct for drama. The Venetian stage was well known for its machines and spectacles. The public spaces of Venice were the home for elaborate processions. The earliest mosaics in the basilica of Saint Mark’s are driven by narrative, and the first great narrative painting was executed by the school of Paolo Veneziano in the spring of 1345. In these early works, human existence is seen as a series of communal events. In that sense it is a public art. In the narrative paintings there are always groups and crowds of people. That would have been the experience of Venice itself. Such art lends coherence and impressiveness to the public record. It imparts significance to the diurnal life of the city. When Carpaccio, for example, depicted the occurrence of miracles in the streets and canals of the city his works were taken as proof positive that such events had in fact occurred.

The artists of the city were concerned with the glory of the city. They were attuned to social, rather than individual, reality. It is instructive that they did not suggest the content of the narrative cycles themselves, but were content to fulfil the demands of the state. If the state was not the patron, then the commissions came from the many social and religious institutions of the city. The patrician statesmen, also, wished to commemorate the role of their families in the increasing glory of the entire polity. So there is not much self-communing in the art of Venice. This may help to explain the intense conservatism, or rather the reliance on tradition, in that art.

Art was also a form of political life. Everything in Venice has to do with politics, and is enmeshed in the intricate network of power relations that linked state with guild and church. Public art, for example, can be an example of social control. This is as true of sixteenth-century Venice as of the twentieth-century Soviet Union. In Venice the essential notion is one of the underlying unity of the city, in its customs and in its traditions. The death of a doge made no difference to any of the artistic commissions then being completed. The death of a prince in Milan, or the death of a pope in Rome, would have meant absolute rupture.

The paintings of the doges arrayed in solemn lines on the walls of the great council hall are themselves designed to represent calm continuity, one to another, and loyal impersonality. They are images of stability. They bear themselves, and their robes of state, well. Their lucid gaze is not troubled by hesitation or inward meditation. Venice was the first city to preserve images of its rulers, not as individuals but as guardians and representatives of the city. The painter of these state portraits was himself known as pittore di stato or state painter; he also restored the paintings in the state collections, designed the banners and stage machinery for the pageants, and designed the mosaics for the basilica. Collectors often bequeathed their acquisitions to the city for the sake of la patria.

After two great fires in the 1570s had partially destroyed the ducal palace, a new programme of public art was instituted. So complex was the symbolism, and so significant the interpretation, that in 1587 a book was published under the title of a Declaration of All the Histories Contained in the Paintings recently Placed in the Halls of the Scrutinio and Great Council of the Ducal Palace; the long title concludes with an adumbration of the Most Famous Victories Won over Various Nations of the World by the Venetians. If history is seen in sacred terms, then historical paintings can become objects of devotion no less than the icon or the triptych. They pre-empt critical enquiry. In funerary monuments, and in sacred paintings, the doge is to be seen in the company of saints—even in the presence of the Virgin and the crucified Christ. Thus the city is blessed by divine favour and protection.

The “myth of Venice” was therefore, in pictorial terms, endlessly being patched and redesigned. In the work of Giovanni Bellini the image of the Madonna and Child in the landscape was in part a sacred representation of the domination of Venice over the mainland. More than a century later, in the work of Veronese, the Queen of the Adriatic becomes the Queen of Heaven. Almost two centuries after that, Giambattista Tiepolo was depicting the homage of Neptune to Venetia. These images are all part of the same enterprise, a social and political project deeply imbued in the work of the Venetian artists.

We may seize upon the vigour and brilliance of Venetian colour as a token of cultural splendour. Volumes have been written on the subject. The painters of Venice laid one colour over another. They experimented with tonal harmonies, lending the world of the painting vibrancy and movement. It was an intuition about the nature of life. It was also a form of thought. When scarlet and green are joined, then power is created in the world. The words used to describe it are “rich,” “sumptuous,” “glowing,” “radiant.” That is why, from the mid-1470s, the Venetians became pioneers and innovators in the use of oil paint. The idea may have come from Flanders, but it reached its apotheosis in Venice. The Venetian artists worked from light to dark colour, building up layers of oil in which forms shimmered and dissolved. With oils there came light. The colours were said to “participate” one in another, and to produce the effect of harmony. The same might be said of the governance of Venice itself.

Vasari disapproved of the colorism of Venice. He noted that the artists worked immediately on canvas “without making a drawing”; he elucidated the general Venetian rule that “painting only with the colours themselves without any other work of drawing on paper was the best and true method.” Giorgione never drew at all. It was, in abstract terms, the difference between disegno or drawing and colorito or colouring. Vasari considered disegno to be the “father” of art, architecture and sculpture; the Venetians believed colorito to be the mother of painting. They enjoyed the bliss of its warm and capacious embrace. Colour was soft and intimate and harmonious. That is why Venetian painting has often been associated with the depiction of the female nude. The naked woman can be said to be the invention of the Venetian artists of the sixteenth century. Willem de Kooning once remarked that “flesh was the reason that oil painting was invented.” It may not be accurate, but it is suggestive. Where design was the product of intelligence and discipline, colour was the token of emotion and sensory pleasure. That is the setting in which English artists like William Blake and Joshua Reynolds expressed their disapproval of Venetian painting; they couched their criticisms in moral rather than aesthetic terms.

There are certain consequences of this method. It has been suggested that, as a result, the artists of Venice were less concerned with the “inner meaning” of the world than with the variety of surfaces and textures. There was no evident concern for ideality or profundity. But what do these resonant terms mean in the context of paint and canvas? As Wilde said, and Pater intimated, only superficial people do not judge by appearances. Venetian art is never learned, or even historically accurate, but instead elusive and evocative. The emotion and passion of the Venetian painters are to be found precisely in the revelation of the surface. Their profundity lies in the relationship between colours and tones. Are not colour, and light, and shade, the happenstance of the eye? As Aretino said of Titian, “he has the sense of things in his brush.” There is optimism, and exuberance, in the air. There is a lightness of being manifest, for example, in the aerial figures of Tiepolo who skim the empyrean, uplifted by a wind of light. It might be depicted as Venetian gaiety, with the knowledge that eternity is in love with the productions of time. The constant refrain in Vasari’s account of Titian is that the Venetian’s work seems “alive”; it captures the movement and the appearance of life. It captures the effect of the transient moment. It is ardent. It has no sense of calculation or theory. It irradiates and envelops the spectator, so that it seems to acquire more than planar dimensions. It becomes part of the world.

There may on occasions be a certain straining after effect. That is the less pleasing aspect of the theatrical genius. There seems, in Venetian art, to be a taste for the extraordinary. Veronese and Tiepolo were condemned by some for creating vast and exuberant stage sets. There were also less than flattering comments upon the apparent gaudiness and over-elaboration of Venetian art. It was noted that Venetian painters liked to present what were almost inventories of goods, of fabrics, of ceramics, of furnishings, even of the latest fashions in dress. They had a tradesman’s eye. They display tapestries and cloths and hangings like a hawker in a market. We may speak in almost a literal sense of the richness of the surface. Even the beggars of Tiepolo are sumptuously clothed. Joshua Reynolds concluded that “a mere elegance is their principal object, as they seem more willing to dazzle than to affect,” with many Venetian works “painted with no other purpose than to be admired for their skill and expertness in the making of painting, and to make a parade of that art.” Yet what is Venice but an endless parade?

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