1. Architecture and Sculpture
Sensuous color is the essence of Venetian art, even of its architecture. Many Venetian churches and mansions, some business buildings, had mosaics or frescoes on their fronts. The façade of St. Mark’s gleamed with gilt and almost haphazard ornament; every decade brought to it new spoils and forms, until the face of the great fane became a bizarre medley of architecture, sculpture, and mosaic, in which decoration drowned structure, and the parts forgot the whole. To admire that façade with something fonder than wonder one must take his stand 576 feet away, at the farther end of the Piazza San Marco; in that perspective the brilliant conglomeration of Romanesque portals, Gothic ogees, classical columns, Renaissance railing, and Byzantine domes blends into one exotic phantasm, an Aladdin’s magic dream.
The Piazza was not then as ample and majestic as now. In the fifteenth century it was still unpaved; part of it was occupied by vines and trees, a stonecutter’s yard, and a latrine. In 1495 it was paved with brick; in 1500 Alessandro Leopardi cast for the three flagstaffs such pedestals as no later ones would ever surpass; and in 1512 Bartolommeo Buon the Younger raised the majestic campanile. (It fell in 1902, but was rebuilt on the same design.) Not so pleasing are the offices of the Procurators of St. Mark—the Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove, built between 1517 and 1640, and hemming in the Piazza on north and south with their immense and monotonous façades.
Between St. Mark’s and the Grand Canal stood the chief glory of civic Venice, the Palace of the Doges. It underwent in this period so many renovations that little remained of its earlier form. Pietro Baseggio rebuilt (1309–40) the southern wing facing the Canal; Giovanni Buon and his son Bartolommeo Buon the Elder raised a new wing (1424–38) on the western or Piazzetta front, and set up the Gothic Porta della Carta (1438–43)* at the northwestern corner. These southern and western façades, with their graceful Gothic arcades and balconies, are among the happiest products of the Renaissance. To the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries belong most of the sculptures on the façades, and the superb carvings of the column capitals; Ruskin thought one of these capitals—beneath the figures of Adam and Eve—the finest in Europe. Within the court Bartolommeo Buon the Younger and Antonio Rizzo built an ornate arch, named after Francesco Foscari, and mingling three architectural styles in unexpected harmony: Renaissance columns and lintels, Romanesque arches, Gothic pinnacles. In the niches of the arch Rizzo placed two strange statues: Adam protesting his innocence, and Eve wondering at the penalties of knowledge. Rizzo planned, and Pietro Lombardo completed, the eastern façade of the court, a delightful marriage of round and pointed arches with Renaissance cornices and balconies. It was Rizzo again who designed the Scala de’ Giganti, or Giants’ Stairs, from the court to the first floor—a simple, stately structure named from the gigantic statues of Mars and Neptune set up by Iacopo Sansovino at the head of the steps to symbolize Venetian mastery of land and sea. In the interior were prison cells, administrative offices, reception rooms, assembly halls for the Great Council, the Senate, and the Ten. Many of these rooms were, or were soon to be, decorated with the proudest murals in the history of art.
While the Republic glorified itself in this architectural gem, the richer nobles… Giustiniani, Contarini, Gritti, Barbari, Loredani, Foscari, Vendramini, Grimani… bounded the Grand Canal with their palaces. We must picture these not in their present deterioration but in their fifteenth-and sixteenth-century heyday: with their façades of white marble, porphyry, or serpentine; their Gothic windows and Renaissance colonnades; their carved portals opening on the water; their hidden courtyards adorned with statuary, fountains, gardens, frescoes, urns; their interiors with tile or marble floors, mighty fireplaces, inlaid furniture, Murano glass, silken canopies, hangings of gold or silver cloth, bronze chandeliers gilded, enameled, or chased, coffered ceilings, and murals by men whose names have gone around the world. So, for example, the Palazzo Foscari was decorated with paintings by Gian Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, Paris Bordone, Veronese. Perhaps these rooms were more magnificent than comfortable, the chairs too straight-backed, the windows drafty, and no mode of heating that could warm both sides of a room or a man at the same time. Some Venetian palaces cost 200,000 ducats; a law of 1476 tried to limit expenditure to 150 ducats per room, but we hear of rooms whose fixtures and furnishings cost 2000. Probably the most ornate of the palaces was the Ca d’Oro, named the House of Gold because the owner, Marino Contarini, ordered that almost every inch of the marble façade should be covered with decoration, much of it in gilt. Its Gothic balconies and tracery still make it the prettiest front on the Canal.
These millionaires, while feathering their own nests, spared something for the citadels of their incidental faith. Strange to say, St. Mark’s was not till 1807 the cathedral of Venice; formally it was the private chapel of the doge and the shrine of the city’s patron saint; it belonged, so to speak, to the religion of the state. The episcopal see was attached to the minor church of San Pietro di Castello, in the northeastern corner of the city. In the same remote section the Dominican friars had their seat, in the church of San Giovanni e Paolo; there Gentile and Giovanni Bellini found their final rest. More important to history is the church of the Franciscans—Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (1330–1443), known in fond abbreviations as I Frari, the Friars. Externally it made no show, but its interior gathered fame through the years as the tomb of celebrated Venetians—Francesco Foscari, Titian, Canova—and as a gallery of art. Here Antonio Rizzo designed a noble monument for the Doge Niccolò Tron; Gian Bellini set up his Frari Madonna,and Titian his Madonna of the Pesaro Family; here, above all, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin rises in majesty behind the altar. Lesser masterpieces adorned lesser fanes: San Zaccaria offered its congregation inspiring Madonnas by Giovanni Bellini and Palma Vecchio; Santa Maria dell’ Orto had Tintoretto’s Presentation of the Virgin, and his bones; San Sebastiano received Veronese’s remains and some of his finest paintings; and for San Salvatore Titian painted an Annunciation in his ninety-first year.
In the construction and decoration of the churches and palaces of Venice a remarkable family of architects and sculptors played a persistent part. The Lombardi came to Venice from northwestern Italy, and so earned their cognomen, but their real name was Solari. They included the Cristoforo Solari who carved the effigies of Lodovico and Beatrice, and his brother Andrea, a painter; both men worked in Venice as well as Milan. Pietro Lombardo left his mark upon a score of buildings in Venice. He and his sons Antonio and Tullio designed the churches of San Giobbe and Santa Maria de’ Miracoli—hardly to our current taste; the tombs of Pietro Mocenigo and Niccolò Marcello in Santi Giovanni e Paolo, of Bishop Zanetti in Treviso Cathedral, and of Dante in Ravenna; and the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi, in which Wagner died; and in most of these enterprises they supplied the sculpture as well as the architectural plans. Pietro himself did much architectural and sculptural work in the Palace of the Doges. Tullio and Antonio, aided by Alessandro Leopardi, set up the tomb of Andrea Vendramin in Santi Giovanni e Paolo—the greatest work of sculpture in Venice excepting only the Colleoni of Verrocchio and Leopardi in the square before that church. For the adjoining Scuola di San Marco, or Fraternity of St. Mark, Pietro Lombardo designed a rich portal and a strange façade. Finally a Sante Lombardo shared in building the Scuola di San Rocco, famous for its fifty-six paintings by Tintoretto. Largely through the work of this family the Renaissance style of columns, architraves, and decorated pediments prevailed over Gothic ogives and pinnacles, and Byzantine domes. In Venice, however, Renaissance architecture, still unsteady under Oriental influence, was too ornate, and obscured its lines with ornament. The atmosphere and classic traditions of Rome were needed to give the new style its definitive and harmonious form.
2. The Bellini
Next to St. Mark’s and the Ducal Palace, the glory of Venetian art was in painting. Many forces conspired to make the painters the favorites of Venetian patronage. The Church, here as elsewhere, had to tell the Christian story to its people, of whom only a few could read; she needed pictures and statuary to continue the passing effect of speech; so each generation, and many churches and monasteries, had to have Annunciations, Nativities, Adorations, Visitations, Presentations, Massacres of the Innocents, Flights into Egypt, Transfigurations, Last Suppers, Crucifixions, Entombments, Resurrections, Ascensions, Assumptions, Martyrdoms. When detachable paintings faded, or grew stale to a congregation, they might be sold to collectors or museums; they were periodically cleaned and occasionally repainted or retouched; their authors, if reincarnated, might not recognize them today. This, of course, did not apply to murals, which usually disintegrated on their walls. Sometimes, to avoid this fatality, the picture was painted upon canvas and this was then fixed to the wall, as in the Hall of the Great Council. In Venice the state rivaled the Church in appetite for murals, for these could feed patriotism and pride by celebrating the grandeur and ceremonies of the government, the triumphs of trade or war. The scuole, too, might order murals and painted banners to commemorate their patron saints or their annual pageantry. Rich men wanted scenes of outdoor beauty or indoor love pictured on the walls of their palaces; and they sat for portraits to cheat for a while the ironic brevity of fame. The Signory ordered a portrait of every doge in turn; even the Procurators of St. Mark so preserved their features for a careless posterity. It was in Venice that the portrait and the easel picture achieved most popularity.
Until the middle of the fifteenth century painting developed slowly in Venice; then, like some flower catching the morning sun, it burst into unparalleled radiance as Venetians found in it a vehicle of the color and life that they had learned to love. Perhaps some of that Venetian flair for color had come to the lagoons from the East, with merchants who imported Oriental ideas and tastes as well as goods, who brought back with them memories of gleaming tiles and gilded domes, and displayed in Venetian markets, churches, or homes Oriental silks, satins, velvets, brocades, and cloth of silver or gold. Indeed Venice never quite made up its mind whether it was an Occidental or an Oriental state. On the Rialto East and West did meet; Othello and Desdemona could become man and wife. And if Venice and her painters could not learn color from the East, they could get it from the Venetian sky, observing its infinite variety of light and mist, and the splendor of sunsets touching campaniles and palaces, or mirrored in the sea. Meanwhile the victories of Venetian arms and fleets, and the heroic recovery from threatened ruin, roused the pride and imagination of patrons and painters, and commemorated themselves in art. Wealth discovered that it was meaningless unless it could transform itself into goodness, beauty, or truth.
An external stimulus was added to generate a Venetian school of painting. In 1409 Gentile da Fabriano was brought to Venice to decorate the Hall of the Great Council, and Antonio Pisano, called Pisanello, came from Verona to collaborate. We cannot say how well they performed, but it is probable that they stirred the Venetian painters to replace with softer contours and richer colors the dark and rigid hieratic forms of the Byzantine tradition, and the pale and lifeless forms of the Giottesque school. Perhaps some minor influence came down over the Alps with Giovanni d’Alamagna (d. 1450); but Giovanni seems to have grown up, and learned his art, in Murano and Venice. With his brother-in-law Antonio Vivarini he painted for the church of San Zaccaria an altarpiece whose figures begin to have the grace and tenderness that would make the work of the Bellini a revelation to Venice.
The greatest influence of all came from Sicily, or Flanders. Antonello da Messina grew up as a businessman, and presumably had no thought, in his youth, that his name would be carried down for centuries in the history of art. While in Naples he saw (if we accept Vasari’s perhaps romantic account) an oil painting that had been sent to King Alfonso by some Florentine merchants in Bruges. From Cimabue (c. 1240-c. 1302) to Antonello (1430–79) Italian painting on wood or canvas had relied on tempera—mixing the colors with a gelatinous substance. Such colors left a rough surface, were maladapted to blending for delicate shades and gradations, and tended to crack and slake off even before the artist’s death. Antonello saw the advantages of mixing pigments with oil: readier blending, easier handling and cleaning, brighter finish, greater permanence. He went to Bruges, and there studied the oil technique of the Flemish painters, then basking in the heyday of Burgundy. Having occasion to go to Venice, he became so enamored of the city—being himself “greatly addicted to women and pleasure”28—that he spent there the remainder of his life. He abandoned business, and gave all his industry to painting. For the church of San Cassiano he painted in oil an altarpiece that became a model for a hundred similar pictures: the Madonna enthroned between four saints, with musician angels at her feet, and full Venetian colors on the brocades and satins of the drapery. Antonello shared his knowledge of the new method with other artists, and the great age of Venetian painting began. Many nobles sat to him for their portraits, and several of these pictures survive: the crude, strong Poet at Pavia, the Condottiere in the Louvre, the Portrait of a Man, plump and quizzical, in the Johnson Collection in Philadelphia, the Portrait of a Young Man in New York, and the Self-Portrait in London. At the height of his success Antonello fell sick, developed pleurisy, and died at the age of forty-nine. The artists of Venice gave him a sumptuous funeral, and acknowledged their debt in a generous epitaph:
In this ground is buried Antoninus the painter, the highest ornament of Messina and all Sicily; celebrated not only for his pictures, which were distinguished by singular skill and beauty, but because, with high zeal and tireless technique, through mixing colors with oil, he first brought splendor and permanence to Italian painting.29
Among the pupils of Gentile da Fabriano at Venice was Iacopo Bellini, founder of a brief but major dynasty in Renaissance art. After this tutelage Iacopo painted in Verona, Ferrara, and Padua. There his daughter married Andrea Mantegna; and through him, as well as more directly, Iacopo came under Squarcione’s influence. When he returned to Venice he brought with him, if we may mingle metaphors, a rubbing of the Paduan technique, and an echo of the Florentine. All this, and the Venetian heritage, and, later, Antonello’s tricks with oil, passed down to Iacopo’s sons, the rival geniuses Gentile and Giovanni Bellini.
Gentile was twenty-three when the family moved to Padua (1452). He felt intimately the influence of his brother-in-law Mantegna; when he painted the shutters for the organ in the Padua cathedral he followed too carefully the hard figures and bold foreshortenings of the Eremitani frescoes. But in Venice a new gentleness appeared in his portrait of San Lorenzo Giustiniani. In 1474 the Signory assigned to him and his half-brother Giovanni the task of painting or repainting fourteen panels in the Hall of the Great Council. These canvases were among the earliest Venetian pictures painted in oil.30 They were destroyed by fire in 1577, but the sketches that remain show that Gentile used for the pictures his characteristic narrative style, in which some major incident is portrayed at the center, and a dozen episodes play at the side. Vasari saw the paintings, and marveled at their realism, variety, and complexity.31
When Sultan Mohammed II sent a request to the Signory for a good portrait painter, Gentile was chosen. In Constantinople (1474) he enlivened the Sultan’s chambers and spirits with erotic pictures, and made of him a portrait (London) and a medallion(Boston),both showing a powerful character drawn by an expert hand. Mohammed died in 1481; his successor, more orthodox, obeyed the Moslem ban on the painting of human figures, and scattered into oblivion all but those two of the works done by Gentile in the Turkish capital. Luckily Gentile had returned to Venice in 1480, heavy with gifts and decorations from the old Sultan. He rejoined Giovanni in the Ducal Palace, and completed his contract with the Signory. It rewarded him with a pension of two hundred ducats a year.
In his old age he painted his greatest pictures. The guild of St. John the Evangelist had what it believed to be a miracle-working relic of the True Cross. It solicited Gentile to describe in three paintings the healing of an invalid by the relic, a Corpus Christi procession carrying it, and the miraculous finding of the lost fragment. The first panel has yielded its splendor to time. The second, painted when Gentile was seventy, is a brilliant panorama of dignitaries, choristers, and candle bearers parading around the Piazza San Marco, with St. Mark’s in the background, appearing very much as it is today. In the third picture, painted at seventy-four, the relic has fallen into the San Lorenzo Canal; the people crowding the bywalks and bridges are panic-stricken, and many kneel in prayer; but Andrea Vendramin plunges into the water, recovers the relic, and then, buoyed up by it, moves with uninfected dignity toward the shore. Every figure in these crowded canvases is drawn with realistic fidelity. And again the artist delights in surrounding the main event with engaging episodes: a boat slipping away from its dock while the gondolier watches the recovery of the relic; and a nude black Moor poised to dive into the stream.
Gentile’s last great picture (Brera) was painted at the age of seventy-six for his own confraternity of St. Mark, and showed the Apostle preaching in Alexandria. As usual it is a crowd; Gentile preferred to take humanity wholesale. He died at seventy-eight (1507), leaving the picture to be finished by his brother Gian.
Giovanni Bellini (Gian Bellini, Giambellino) was only two years younger than Gentile, but outlived him by nine. In this span of eighty-six years he ranged the whole gamut of his art, tried and mastered a rich variety of genres, and brought Venetian painting to its first peak. At Padua he absorbed Mantegna’s technical teaching without imitating his hard and statuesque style; and in Venice he adopted with unprecedented success the new method of mixing pigments with oil. He was the first Venetian to reveal the glory of color; and at the same time he attained to a grace and accuracy of line, a delicacy of feeling, a depth of interpretation, that, even in the lifetime of his brother, made him the greatest and most sought-for painter in Venice.
Churches and guilds and private patrons seemed never to tire of his Madonnas; he bequeathed the Virgin in a hundred forms to a dozen lands. The Venetian Academy alone has a host of them: Madonna with the Sleeping Child, Madonna with Two Holy Women, Madonna con Bambino, Madonna degli Alberetti, Madonna with St. Paul and St. George, Madonna Enthroned… and, best of this group, the Madonna of St. Job; this, we are told, is the first picture that Giovanni painted in oils, and it is one of the most brilliantly colored works in Venice—which is to say in the world. The little Museo Correr at the western end of the Piazza San Marco has another Giambellino Madonna, tender and sad and lovely; San Zaccaria has a variation on the Madonna of St. Job; the church of the Frari has a Madonna Enthroned, a little stiff and severe and hemmed in by gloomy saints, but appealing in her rich blue robes. The zealous wanderer will find many more of Gian’s Virgins, in Verona, Bergamo, Milan, Rome, Paris, London, New York, Washington. What more, in color, could be said of Our Lady after this polygraphic devotion? Perugino and Raphael would rival this multiplicity, and Titian, in that same church of the Frari, would find something more to say.
Giovanni did not do so well with the Son. Christ Blessing, in the Louvre, is middling, but the Sacred Conversation near it is movingly beautiful. The famous Pietà in the Brera at Milan has been warmly praised,32 but it shows a duet of charmless faces holding up a dead Christ who seems to need nothing more, for perfect physical condition, than to be freed from too much attention; this harsh and crude burial picture—undated—belongs to Bellini’s Mantegnesque youth. How much more pleasing is the Santa Justina in a private collection in Milan!—again somewhat stylized and posed, but with a delicacy of features, a modest drooping of the eyelids, a splendor of costume, that make this one of Gian’s most successful efforts. It was apparently a portrait, and Gian was now so skilled in rendering a living face and soul that a hundred patrons begged to share his immortality. Look again at Doge Loredano; with what depth of understanding, and keenness of eye, and dexterity of hand Bellini has caught the unfaltering, serene power of the man who could lead his people to victory in a war for survival against the united assault of nearly all the great states of Italy and transalpine Europe!—And then, rivaling the Leonardo who was creeping up on him in skill and fame, Giovanni tried his palette at bizarre landscapes like that medley of rocks, mountains, castles, sheep, water, riven tree, and clouded sky which St. Francis (in the Frick Collection) calmly confronts as he receives the stigmata.
In his old age the master tired of repeating the usual sacred themes, and experimented with allegory and classic mythology. He turned Knowledge, Happiness, Truth, Slander, Purgatory, the Church herself, into persons or stories, and sought to bring them to life with alluring landscapes. Two of his pagan pictures hang in the Washington National Gallery: Orpheus Charming the Beasts, and The Feast of the Gods—a picnic of bare-breasted women and half-naked, half-drunken men. The picture is dated 1514; it was painted for Duke Alfonso of Ferrara when the artist was eighty-four years old. We are reminded again of Alfieri’s boast—that the man-plant grows more vigorously in Italy than elsewhere on the earth.
Giovanni lived only a year after signing that testament of youth. His was a full and reasonably happy life: an astonishing procession of masterpieces, a kaleidoscope of warm colors on soft robes, an immense advance in grace, composition, and vitality upon the Giotteschi and the Byzantophiles, a power of perception and individualization unseen in the arid figures and indiscriminate masses of Gentile’s pictures, a fruitful mediation, in time and style, between a Mantegna who knew only Romans and a Titian who felt and pictured every phase of life from Flora to Charles V. One of Gian’s pupils was Giorgione, who developed his master’s idyls of wood and stream; Titian worked with Giorgione, and received the great tradition. Generation by generation Venetian art was accumulating its knowledge, varying its experiments, and preparing its culmination.
3. From the Bellini to Giorgione
The success of the Bellini made painting popular in Venice, where mosaics had held so long a sway. Studios multiplied, patrons opened their purses, and artists developed who, though they were not Bellini or Giorgiones, would have been the brightest stars in lesser galaxies. Vincenzo Catena painted so well that many of his pictures were credited to Gian Bellini or to Giorgione. Antonio Vivarini’s younger brother, Bartolommeo, met a conservative demand by applying to medieval themes the technique of Squarcione and the fuller colors that painting had learned to mix and convey. Bartolommeo’s nephew and pupil, Alvise Vivarini, threatened for a time to rival Gian Bellini with pretty Madonnas, and achieved a monumental altarpiece—Madonna with Six Saints—whichpassed from Italy to the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin. Alvise was a good teacher, for three of his pupils found moderate fame. Bartolommeo Montagna we leave to Vicenza. Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano worked for the Madonna market; one at Parma has a handsome figure of the Archangel Michael, while another in Cleveland redeems itself with brilliant color. Marco Basaiti painted a fine Calling of the Sons of Zebedee (Venice), and a delightful portrait—A Youth— in the London National Gallery.
Carlo Crivelli may also have been a pupil of the Vivarini; however, he had to abscond from Venice soon after his seventeenth year (1457): having abducted the wife of a sailor, he was fined and jailed; released, he sought safety in Padua, where he studied in Squarcione’s school. In 1468 he moved to Ascoli, and spent his remaining twenty-five years painting pictures for the churches there and thereabouts. Perhaps because he left Venice so soon, Crivelli hardly shared in the progressive movement of Venetian painting; he preferred tempera to oil, kept to the traditional religious subjects, and adopted an almost Byzantine scheme of subordinating representation to decoration. He gave his pictures an enamel finish, which went well with the gilded frames of the polyptychs he filled; and though his Madonnas seem cold, there is a delicate grace in their drawing that presages Giorgione.
Vettor (Vittore) Carpaccio was a major among these minors. Starting with studies in perspective and design in the manner of Mantegna, he adopted the narrative style of Gentile Bellini, added to it a youthful preference for imaginary idyls rather than contemporary events, and applied to his romantic themes a fully developed technique. Quite alien to his usually blithe spirit is an early picture (in New York), Meditation on the Passion—a macabre study of Sts. Jerome and Onofrius imagining Christ seated before them dead, with skull and crossbones at their feet, and a background of lowering clouds. When he was thirty-three (1488) Carpaccio received an important commission: to paint for the School of St. Ursula a series of pictures illustrating her history. In nine picturesque panels he told how the handsome Prince Conon of England had come to Brittany to wed Ursula, daughter of its king; how she begged him to postpone the wedding until, with a train of 11,000 virgins, she could make a pilgrimage to Rome; how Conon accompanied her lovingly, and all received the papal blessing; how, then, an angel appeared to Ursula and announced that she and her virgins must go to Cologne and be martyred; how she leaves the sorrowing Conon and, with her train, goes in calm dignity to Cologne; how its pagan kinglet proposes marriage to her, and, when she refuses, slays all 11,001. The legend suited Carpaccio’s fancy; he delighted in picturing the crowds of maidens and courtiers, and made nearly every one of them aristocratic and fair and colorfully dressed; and to the various scenes he brought not only his pictorial science but his knowledge of actual things—the forms of architecture, the shipping in a bay, the patient procession of the clouds.
In an interval of his nine years’ labor with Ursula, Carpaccio painted for the School of St. John the Evangelist The Healing of the Demoniac by a relic of the Holy Cross. Daring comparison with Gentile Bellini, Vittore described a scene on a Venetian canal, crowded with people, gondolas, and palaces. Here was all of Gentile’s realism and detail, done with a brilliant finish beyond the older man’s reach. Stirred by Carpaccio’s success, the School of St. George of the Slavonians asked him to commemorate their patron saint on the walls of their Venetian oratory. Again he took nine years, and painted nine scenes. They do not quite equal the Ursula series, but Carpaccio, now in his fifties, had not lost his flair for representing graceful figures in harmonious combinations, and architectural backgrounds fanciful in conception but convincing in presentation. St. George attacks the dragon in an impetuous charge; in contrast St. Jerome is shown as the quiet scholar immersed in study in a surprisingly handsome room, with no other company than his lion. Every feature in the room is pictured with minute fidelity, even to the musical score so legible on a fallen scroll that Molmenti transcribed it for the piano.
In 1508 Carpaccio and two obscure artists were appointed to set a value on a strange mural painted by a rising young artist on an outer wall of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi—the warehouse of the Teuton merchants near the Rialto bridge. He judged it worth a fee of 150 ducats ($1875?). Though Carpaccio still had eighteen years of life in him, he painted only one more great picture—a Presentation in the Temple (1510) for the chapel of the Sanudo family in the church of San Giobbe. There it had to compete with Gian Bellini’sMadonna of St. Job; and though the Virgin and her attendant ladies are lovely, Giovanni, not Vittore, is victor in this silent contest. Carpaccio, in a later century, might have been the master of the age; it was his misfortune that he came between Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione.
It might seem strange that artists should be hired at high fees to paint a warehouse wall. But in 1507 the Venetians felt that life without color was dead; and the German traders there, some from the great Dürer’s Nuremberg, had their own lusty sense of art. So they sublimated part of their profits into two murals, and had the luck to choose immortals for the task. The paintings soon succumbed to salt moisture and the sun, and only vague blotches remain, but even these attest the early fame of Giorgione da Castelfranco. He was then twenty-nine years old. We do not know his name; an old story made him the love child of an aristocratic Barbarelli and a woman of the people; but this may be an afterthought.33 In his thirteenth or fourteenth year (c. 1490) he was sent from Castelfranco to Venice to serve as apprentice to Gian Bellini. He developed rapidly, won substantial commissions, bought a house, painted a fresco on its front, and filled his home with music and revelry; for he played the lute well, and preferred gay women in the flesh to the loveliest of them on canvas. What influences formed his wistful style it is hard to say, for he was unlike the other painters of his day, except that he may have learned from Carpaccio some grace and charm. Probably the decisive influence came from letters rather than from art. When Giorgione was twenty-seven or twenty-eight Italian literature was taking a bucolic turn; Sannazaro published his Arcadia in 1504; perhaps Giorgione read these poems and found in their pleasant fancies some suggestions of idealized landscapes and amours. From Leonardo—passing through Venice in 1500—Giorgione may have acquired a taste for a mystic, dreamy softness of expression, a delicacy of nuance, a refinement of manner that made him, for a tragically brief moment, the summit of Venetian art.
Among the earliest works attributed to him—for in hardly any case can we be sure of his authorship—are two wood panels describing the exposure and rescue of the infant Paris; the story is an excuse for painting shepherds and rural landscapes breathing peace. In the first picture that is by common consent his—The Gypsy and the Soldier—we get a typically Giorgionesque fancy: a casual woman, naked except for a shawl around her shoulders, sits on her discarded dress on the mossy bank of a rushing stream, nurses a child, and looks anxiously about her; behind her stretches a landscape of Roman arches, a river and a bridge, towers and a temple, curious trees, white lightning, and green storm-laden clouds; near her is a comely youth holding a shepherd’s staff—but richly garbed for a shepherd!—and so pleased with the scene that he ignores the gathering storm. The story is uncertain; what the picture means is that Giorgione liked handsome youths, soft-contoured women, and nature even in its moods of wrath.
In 1504 he painted, for a bereaved family in the town of his birth, the Madonna of Castelfranco. It is absurd and beautiful. In the forefront St. Liberale, in the shining armor of a medieval knight, holds a lance for the Virgin, and St. Francis preaches to the air; high aloft on a double pedestal Mary sits with her babe, who leans recklessly out from his high perch. But the green and violet brocade at Mary’s feet is a wonder of color and design; Mary’s robes fall about her in wrinkles as lovely as wrinkles can ever be; her face has the gentle tenderness that poets picture in the mates of their dreams; and the landscape recedes with Leonardesque mystery till the sky melts into the sea.
When Giorgione and his friend Tiziano Vecelli received the assignment to paint the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, Giorgione chose the wall fronting the Grand Canal, and Titian took the Rialto side. Vasari, examining Giorgione’s fresco half a century later, found it impossible to make head or tail of what another spectator described as “trophies, nude bodies, heads in chiaroscuro… geometricians measuring the terrestrial globe, perspectives of columns, and between them men on horseback, and other fantasies.” However, the same writer adds: “It may be seen how accomplished Giorgione was in handling colors in fresco.”34
But his genius lay in conception rather than coloring. When he painted the Sleeping Venus that was a priceless treasure of the Dresden Gallery, he might have thought of her in purely sensual terms as an inviting formation of molecules. Doubtless she is that, too, and marks the passage of Venetian art from Christian to pagan themes and sentiment. But there is nothing immodest or suggestive about this Venus. She lies asleep, precariously nude in the open air, on a red cushion and a white silken robe, her right arm under her head, her left hand serving as a fig leaf, one perfect limb outstretched over another raised beneath it; seldom has art so simulated the velvet texture of feminine surfaces, or so conveyed the grace of a natural pose. But on her face is a look of such innocence and peace as rarely accord with naked beauty. Giogione here has put himself beyond good and evil, and lets the esthetic sense transiently dominate desire. In another piece—the Fête champêtre or Pastoral Symphony of the Louvre—the pleasure is frankly sexual, and yet again has all the innocence of nature. Two nude women and two clothed men are enjoying a holiday in the countryside: a patrician youth, in a doublet of gleaming red silk, strumming a lute; beside him a disheveled shepherd painfully trying to bridge the gap between asimple and a cultivated mind; the aristocrat’s lady, in a graceful motion, emptying a crystal pitcher into a well; the shepherd’s lass waiting patiently for him to attend to her charms or her flute. No notion of sin has entered their heads; the lute and the flute have sublimated sex into harmony. Behind the figures rises one of the richest landscapes in Italian art.
Finally, in The Concert of the Pitti Palace, desire seems forgotten as irrelevantly primitive, and music is all, or becomes a bond of friendship subtler than desire. Until the nineteenth century this “most Giorgionesque” of all pictures35 was regularly accredited to Giorgione; many critics now ascribe it to Titian; since the matter is still doubtful let us leave the authorship to Giorgione, because he loved music only next to woman, and because Titian is rich enough in masterpieces to spare one to his friend. At the left a plumed youth stands, a bit lifeless and negative; a monk sits at a clavichord, his beautifully rendered hands on the keys, his face turned round to a bald cleric on our right; the cleric lays one hand on the monk’s shoulder, and holds in the other a cello resting on the floor. Has the music ended, or not yet begun? It does not matter; what moves us is the silent depth of feeling in the countenance of the monk, whose every fiber has been refined, and his every sentiment ennobled, by music; who hears it long after all the instruments have been mute. That face, not idealized but profoundly realized, is one of the miracles of Renaissance painting.
Giorgione lived a short life, and apparently a merry one. He seems to have had many women, and to have healed each broken romance with a new one soon begun. Vasari reports that Giorgione caught the plague from his latest love; all that we know is that he died in the epidemic of 1511 at the age of thirty-four. His influence was already extensive. A dozen “Giorgionesque” minor artists painted rural idyls, conversation pieces, musical interludes, masque costumes, in vain efforts to capture the refinement and finish of his style, the airy overtones of his landscapes, the guileless eroticism of his themes. He left two pupils who were to make a stir in the world: Sebastiano del Piombo, who went off to Rome, and Tiziano Vecelli, the greatest Venetian of all.
5. Titian: The Formative Years: 1477–1533
He was born in the town of Pieve, in the Cadoric range of the Dolomites, and those rugged mountains were well remembered in his landscapes. When he was nine or ten he was brought to Venice, and was apprenticed successively to Sebastiano Zuccato, Gentile Bellini, and Giovanni Bellini. In Giovanni’s studio he worked side by side with Giorgione, who was his senior by only a year. When that Keats of the brush set up his own studio Titian probably went with him as assistant or associate. He was so deeply influenced by Giorgione that some of his early pictures have been ascribed to Giorgione, and some of Giorgione’s later pictures to Titian; the inimitable Concert probably belongs to this period. Together they painted the Fondaco walls.
From the plague that took Giorgione’s life—or from the moratorium laid upon Venetian art by the war of the League of Cambrai—Titian fled to Padua (1511). There he painted three frescoes for the Scuola del Santo, recording miracles of St. Anthony; if we may judge from their crudity, Titian at thirty-five had far to go before equaling the best work of Giorgione; Goethe, however, with penetrating hindsight, saw in them “the promise of great things.”36 Returning to Venice, Titian addressed to the doge and the Council of Ten (May 31, 1513) a letter that recalls Leonardo’s appeal to Lodovico a generation before:
Illustrious Prince! High and mighty lords! I, Titian of Cadore, have from childhood upwards studied the art of painting, desirous of a little fame rather than of profit…. And although in the past, and also in the present, I have been urgently invited by His Holiness the Pope and other lords to enter their service, I, as the faithful subject of your Excellencies, have rather cherished the wish to leave behind me a memorial in this famous city. Therefore, if it seem good to your Excellencies, I am anxious to paint in the Hall of the Great Council, employing therein all my powers; and to begin with a canvas of the battle on the side of the Piazzetta, which is so difficult that no one has yet had the courage to attempt it. I should be willing to accept for my labor any reward that may be thought proper, or even less. Therefore, being, as aforesaid, studious only of honor and to please your Excellencies, I beg to ask for the first broker’s patent, for life, that shall fall vacant in the Fondaco de’ Tedeschi, irrespective of all promised reversions of such patent, and on the same conditions and with the same charges and exemptions as Messer Zuan Belin [Gian Bellini], besides two assistants to be paid by the Salt Office, as well as all colors and necessaries.… In return for which I promise to do the work above named with such speed and excellence as will satisfy the Signori.37
A “broker’s patent” (senseria) was formally an appointment as trade intermediary between Venetian and foreign merchants; actually, in the case of the broker’s patent with the German merchants in Venice, it made the holder the official painter of the state, and paid him 300 crowns ($3750) a year for painting a portrait of the doge and such other pictures as the government might require. Apparently Titian’s proposal was tentatively accepted by the Council; in any case he began to paint The Battle of Cadore in the Ducal Palace. But his rivals persuaded the Council to withhold the patent from him, and to suspend the pay of his assistants (1514). After negotiations that irritated all concerned, he received the post and pay of the patent without the title (1516). He in his turn procrastinated, and did not complete till 1537 the two canvases that he had begun in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. They were destroyed by fire in 1577.
Titian developed leisurely, like any organism dowered with a century of life. But as early as 1508 he showed the spiritual penetration and technical power that were to put him above all his rivals in portraiture. A nameless portrait once named Ariosto has in it a memory of Giorgione’s style—a poetic face, and subtle eyes a little malicious, and sumptuous raiment that set a model for a thousand later works. And in this period (1506–16) the maturing artist already knew how to paint women of ample loveliness, stemming from Giorgione and expanding toward Rubens. The movement from the Virgin to Venus continued in Titian, even while he painted religious pictures of great spendor and renown. The same hand that stirred piety with a Gypsy Madonna and an Adoration of the Shepherds could turn to a Woman at Her Toilet, and that incarnation of voluptuous innocence, the Flora of the Uffizi Gallery. This gentle face and generous bosom probably served again in The Daughter of Herodias; Salome is as thoroughly Venetian as the severed head is powerfully Hebraic.
In or near the year 1515 Titian produced two of his most celebrated pictures. The Three Ages of Man shows a group of naked infants sleeping beneath a tree; a Cupid so soon inoculating them with the mad pursuit; a bearded octogenarian contemplating a skull; and a young couple happy in the spring of love, yet looking at each other wistfully, as if foreseeing the erosive pertinacity of time. Sacred and Profane Love has a modern title that would surprise a resurrected Titian. When first mentioned (1615), the picture was called Beauty Adorned and Unadorned;38 probably it aimed not to point a moral but to adorn a tale. The “profane” nude is the most perfect figure in Titian’s repertoire, the very Venus de Milo of the Renaissance. But the “sacred” lady is secular too; her jeweled girdle draws the eye, her silken gown tempts the touch; probably she is the same buxom courtesan who posed for Flora and the Woman at Her Toilet. If the spectator looks long enough he will see a complex landscape behind the figures: plants and flowers and a thick clump of trees, a shepherd tending his flock, two lovers, hunters and dogs chasing a hare, a town and its towers, a church and its campanile, a green Giorgionesque sea, a clouded sky. What difference does it make that we cannot know just what the picture “means”? It is beauty made to “stay awhile”; and is that not what Faust thought worth a soul?
Having learned that female beauty, adorned or natural, would always find customers, Titian pursued the theme joyously. Early in 1516 he accepted the invitation of Alfonso I to paint some panels in the Castello at Ferrara. The artist was lodged there, with two assistants, for some five weeks, and presumably came frequently thereafter from Venice. For the Alabaster Hall Titian painted three pictures that continued Giorgione’s pagan mood. In The Bacchanal men and women, some of them naked, drink, dance, and make love before a landscape of brown trees, blue lake, and silver clouds; a scroll on the ground bears a French motto: “He who drinks and does not drink again does not know what drinking is.” In the distance an old Noah sprawls naked and drunk; closer a lad and lass join in dance, their garments whirling in the breeze; in the foreground a woman whose firm breasts display her youth lies nude and sleeping on the grass; and near her an anxious child raises his dress to ease his bladder and bring the Bacchic cycle to completion. InBacchus and Ariadne the abandoned woman is startled by a Bacchic procession bursting through the woods-drunken satyrs, a naked male entwined with snakes, the nude god of wine leaping from his chariot to capture the fleeing princess. In these pictures, and The Worship of Venus, the Pagan Renaissance is in full command.
Meanwhile Titian painted an arresting portrait of his new patron, the Duke Alfonso: a handsome intelligent face, a corpulent body dignified with robes of state, a beautiful hand (hardly that of a potter and gunner) resting on a beloved cannon; this is the picture that stirred even Michelangelo to praise. Ariosto sat for a portrait, and returned the compliment with a line in a later edition of the Furioso. Lucrezia Borgia too sat for the great portraitist, but no trace of that painting remains; and Laura Dianti, Alfonso’s mistress, may have posed for a picture that survives only in a copy in Modena. It was probably for Alfonso that Titian made one of his finest pictures, The Tribute Money: a Pharisee with the head of a philosopher, asking his question sincerely, and a Christ answering without resentment, brilliantly.
It is characteristic of the times that Titian could pass from Bacchus to Christ, from Venus to Mary, and back again, with no apparent loss to his peace of mind. In 1518 he painted for the church of the Frari his greatest work, The Assumption of the Virgin. When it was placed behind the high altar, in a majestic marble frame, the Venetian diarist Sanudo thought the event worth noting: “May 20, 1518: Yesterday the panel painted by Titian for… the Minorites was put up.”39 To this day the sight of the Frari Assumption is an event in any sensitive life. Near the center of the immense panel is the figure of the Virgin, full and strong, clothed in a robe of red and a mantle of blue, rapt in wonder and expectation, lifted up through the clouds by an inverted halo of winged cherubim. Above her is an inevitably futile attempt to portray the Deity—all raiment and beard, and hair disheveled by the winds of heaven; finer is the angel that brings Him a crown for Mary. Below are the Apostles, a variety of magnificent figures, some gazing in astonishment, some kneeling in adoration, some reaching up as if to be taken with her into paradise. Standing before this powerful evocation, the unwilling skeptic mourns his doubts, and acknowledges the beauty and aspiration of the myth.
In 1519 Iacopo Pesaro, Bishop of Paphos in Cyprus, in gratitude for the victory of his Venetian fleet over a Turkish squadron, commissioned Titian to paint another altarpiece for the Frari—for the chapel that had been dedicated there by his family. Titian knew the risk he was running in challenging comparison between this Madonna of the Pesaro Family and his masterpiece so lately acclaimed. He worked for seven years on the new picture before he released it from his studio. He chose to represent the Virgin enthroned; but, defying precedent, he placed her at the right in a diagonal scheme that put the donor at the left, with St. Peter between them, and St. Francis at her feet. The composition would have been thrown off balance but for the bright illumination focusing the Mother and her Child. Many an artist, tired of the traditional centralized or pyramidal structure of such pictures, welcomed and imitated the experiment.
About 1523 Marquis Federigo Gonzaga invited Titian to Mantua. The artist did not stay long, for he had commitments in Venice and Ferrara; but he began a series of eleven paintings representing Roman emperors; these have been lost. On one of his visits he painted an attractive portrait of the young bearded Marquis. Federigo’s mother, the splendid Isabella, was still living, and sat for a picture. Finding the result uncomfortably realistic, she put it among her antiquities, and asked Titian to copy a portrait that Francia had made of her forty years before. It was from this that Titian produced (c. 1534) the famous picture with the turban hat, the ornate sleeves, the stole of fur, the pretty face. Isabella protested that she had never been so beautiful, but she arranged to have this reminiscent portrait descend to posterity.
Here for a while we leave Tiziano Vecelli. To understand his later career we must fill in the background of political events in which his greatest patron after 1533—Charles V—was intimately concerned. Titian was fifty-six in 1533. Who would have supposed that he had still forty-three years to live, and that he would paint as many masterpieces in his second half-century as in the first?
6. Minor Artists and Arts
We must retrace our steps now, and briefly honor two painters who were born after Titian but died long before his death. We bow, in passing, to Girolamo Savoldo, who came to Venice from Brescia and Florence, and painted pictures of high excellence: theMadonna and Saints now in the Brera Gallery; an ecstatic St. Matthew in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and a Magdalen in Berlin, far more tempting than the stout lady of that name in Titian.
Giacomo Nigreti was named Palma from some hills near his birthplace, Serina, in the Bergamasque Alps; he became Palma Vecchio when his grand-nephew Palma Giovane also acquired fame. For a time he was considered the equal of Titian by their contemporaries. Perhaps some jealousy arose between them, which was not eased by Titian’s stealing of Giacomo’s mistress. Giacomo had painted her as Violante; Titian had her pose for his Flora. Like Titian, Palma handled sacred and profane themes with equal skill if not with equal zest; he specialized in Sacred Conversations or Holy Families, but probably owed his fame to his portraits of Venetian blondes—full-bosomed women who dyed their hair to an auburn hue. Nevertheless his finest pictures are religious: a Santa Barbara in the church of Santa Maria Formosa, the patron saint of the Venetian bombardiers; and the Jacob and Rachel of the Dresden gallery—a handsome shepherd sharing a kiss with a buxom lass. Palma’s portraits would have ranked with the best of his time and city had not Titian produced half a hundred deeper ones.
His pupil Bonifazio de’ Pitati, called Veronese from his birthplace, adopted the style of Giorgione’s Fête champêtre and Titian’s Diana to adorn Venetian walls and furniture with attractive landscapes and nudes; and his Diana and Actaeon is worthy of these masters.
Lorenzo Lotto, less popular than Bonifazio in their day, has gained repute with the years. A shy, pious, melancholy spirit, he was not quite at home in Venice, where paganism resumed its sway as soon as the church bells and choirs ceased to sing. At the age of twenty (1500) he produced one of the most original paintings of the Renaissance, the St. Jerome in the Louvre: no hackneyed image of the emaciated eremite, but an almost Chinese study of somber chasms and mountainous rocks, amid which the old scholar is a minor element, at first hardly seen; this is the first European painting that reproduces nature in its wild dominance rather than as an imaginary background.40 Passing to Treviso, Lorenzo painted for the church of Santa Cristina a monumental altar back of The Madonna Enthroned, which made his fame throughout northern Italy. Another success with a Madonna for the church of San Domenico at Recanati earned him a call to Rome. There Julius II commissioned him to paint some rooms in the Vatican; but when Raphael came the frescoes that Lotto had begun were destroyed. Perhaps this humiliation helped to darken Lorenzo’s mood. Bergamo better appreciated his peculiar talent for moderating the warm colors of Venetian art into softer tones more congruous with piety; twelve years he labored there, modestly paid but content to be first in Bergamo rather than fourth in Venice. For the church of San Bartolommeo he painted an overcrowded but still beautiful altarpiece, The Madonna in Majesty. Lovelier is an Adoration of the Shepherds at Brescia; the color, while full and pervasive, has a subdued tone more restful to eye and spirit than the brilliant effects of the great Venetians.
A sensitive soul like Lotto’s could at times penetrate more deeply into a personality than Titian. Few artists have caught the glow of healthy youth so intimately as in Lotto’s Portrait of a Boy in the Castello at Milan. His Self-Portrait shows Lorenzo himself apparently well and strong, but he must have known much sickness and pain to represent illness so sympathetically as in The Sick Man of the Borghese Gallery, or in another of the same title in the Galleria Doria at Rome—an emaciated hand pressed over the heart, a look of pain and bewilderment on the face, as if asking why should he, so good or so great, be chosen by the germ? A more famous portrait, Laura di Pola, shows a woman of quiet beauty, also puzzled by life, and finding no answer except in religious faith.
Lotto too came to that consolation. Restless, solitary, unmarried, he wandered from place to place, perhaps from philosophy to philosophy, until in his final years (1552–6) he settled down as a resident in the convent of the Santa Casa at Loreto, near the Holy House that pilgrims believed to have once sheltered the Mother of God. In 1554 he gave all his property to the convent, and took an oblate’s vows. Titian called him “as good as goodness, and as virtuous as virtue.”41 Lotto had outlived the Pagan Renaissance, and had sunk to rest, so to speak, in the arms of the Council of Trent.
In that vibrant century—1450–1550 —during which Venetian commerce suffered so many defeats, and Venetian painting scored so many victories, the minor arts shared in the cultural exuberance. It was not for them a Renaissance, for they were old and mature in Italy by Petrarch’s time, and merely continued their medieval excellence. Perhaps the mosaicists had lost some of their skill or patience; even so their work on St. Mark’s was at least abreast of their age. The potters were now learning to make porcelain; Marco Polo had brought some from China; a sultan had sent fine specimens of it to the doge (1461); by 1470 the Venetians were making their own. The glass blowers at Murano reached in this period the acme of their art, making cristallo of exquisite purity and design. The names of the leading glass blowers were known throughout Europe, and every royal house competed for their wares. Most of them used a mold or model; some put the mold aside, blew a bubble into the molten glass as it poured from the furnace, and shaped the substance into cups, vases, chalices, ornaments of a hundred colors and a thousand forms. Sometimes, learning from the Moslems, they painted the surface with colored enamel or gold. The glass artisans kept jealously in their families the secret processes by which they achieved their miracles of fragile beauty, and the Venetian government passed stern laws to prevent these esoteric subleties from becoming known in other lands. In 1454 the Council of Ten decreed that
if a workman carry into another country any art or craft to the detriment of the Republic, he will be ordered to return; if he disobeys, his nearest relatives will be imprisoned, in order that the solidarity of the family may persuade him to return; if he persists in his disobedience, secret measures will be taken to have him killed wherever he may be.42
The only known case of such an assassination was at Vienna in the eighteenth century. Despite the law, Venetian artists and artisans found their way over the Alps in the sixteenth century, and brought their technique to France and Germany as gifts to the conquerors of Italy.
Half the artisans of Venice were artists. The pewterers embellished dishes, platters, beakers, and cups with graceful borders and floral designs. The armorers were famous for damascened cuirasses, helmets, shields, swords, and daggers, and sheaths chased or engraved with elegant patterns; and other masters might make for short weapons ivory handles studded with gems. In Venice, about 1410, Baldassare degli Embriachi, a Florentine, carved in bone the great altarpiece, in thirty-nine sections, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The wood carvers not only made fine sculptural figures and reliefs, like the Circumcision in the Louvre, or the chest painted by Bartolommeo Montagna and formerly in the bombed Poldi-Pezzoli Museum in Milan; they decorated the ceilings and doors and furniture of Venetian aristocrats with carvings, bosses, and intarsia, and chiseled the choir stalls of such churches as the Frari and San Zaccaria. Venetian jewelers met a heavy foreign as well as domestic demand, but took time to rise from quantity to quality. The goldsmiths, now under German instead of Oriental influence, turned out tons of plate, personal adornment, and decorative fixtures for everything from cathedrals to shoes. The illumination and calligraphy of manuscripts continued, slowly yielding to print. French and Flemish influences entered into the designs of Venetian textiles, but Venetian dyes and skills gave the products their favored texture and hues. It was from Venice that the queen of France ordered three hundred pieces of dyed satin (1532); and it was in the soft and luxurious stuffs worked in Venetian shops, and in the colors given them in Venetian vats, that the great painters of Venice found models for the lordly and glowing robes that made half the brillance of their art. Venice almost realized Ruskin’s ideal of an economy in which every industry would be an art, and every product would proudly express the personality and artistry of the artisan.