As we look back across the heyday of Venetian art, and diffidently seek to assess its role in our heritage, we may say at once that only Florence and Rome rivaled it in excellence, splendor, and scope. It is true that the Venetian painters, even Titian, probed less deeply than the Florentines into the secret hopes and feelings, the despairs and tragedies of men, that often they loved the raiment and the flesh too keenly to reach the soul. Ruskin was right: after the Bellini, and excepting Lotto, real religion fades from Venetian art.38 The Venetians could not help it if the collapse of the Crusades, the triumph and spread of Islam, the deterioration of the papacy at Avignon and in the Papal Schism, the secularization of the papacy under Sixtus IV and Alexander VI, and finally the secession of Germany and England from the Roman Church, had weakened the faith even of the faithful, and had left many vigorous spirits no better philosophy than to eat and drink and mate and disappear. But never elsewhere had Christian art and pagan art lived in such contented harmony. The same brush that painted a Virgin painted a Venus next, and no one effectively complained. Nor was it a sybaritic art or life of luxury and ease; the artists worked themselves to exhaustion, and the people whom they portrayed were often men who fought battles and governed states, or women who ruled such men.
The Venetian painters were too enamored of color to match the careful draftsmanship of the Florentine masters. But they were good draftsmen none the less. A Frenchman once said that l’été c’est un coloriste, l’hiver c’est un dessinateur—”summer is a colorist, winter is a designer”;39 the leafless trees reveal pure line. But those lines are still there under the green of spring, the brown of summer, and autumn’s gold. Beneath the glory of color in Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese there is line, but it is absorbed by the color, as the structural form of a symphony is concealed by its flow.
Venetian art and literature sang the glory of Venice even as her economy sank to ruin in a Mediterranean dominated at one end by the Turks and deserted at the other by a Europe seeking American gold. And perhaps the artists and poets were justified. No vicissitudes of trade or war could extinguish the proud memory of a marvelous century—1480–1580—during which the Mocenigo and Priuli and Loredani had made and saved imperial Venice, and the Lombardi and Leopardi had adorned her with statuary, and Sansovino and Palladio had crowned her waters with churches and palaces, and the Bellini and Giorgione and Titian and Tintoretto and Veronese had lifted her to the art leadership of Italy, and Bembo had sung impeccable songs, and Manutius had poured forth, to all who cared, the literary heritage of Greece and Rome, and the irredeemable, irrepressible, Mephistophelean Scourge of Princes had sat enthroned on the Grand Canal, judging and milking the world.