Venice, Art in

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VENICE, ART IN. In about 1500 Venetian art bore an intimate relationship to its economic and political context. The traditional society of the Republic of Venice remained tied to the past, its conservative ideology reflected in well-established artistic conventions. Leading painters such as Giovanni Bellini (c. 14381516) worked mainly for local patrons, producing predominantly religious paintings of well-defined types (such as half-length devotional paintings and altarpieces). Their work was essentially public and patriotic in nature and reflected the nexus of religious and political values common to the wider populace of the city. The Venetian painter or sculptor was understood less as an individualistic genius than as a respectable civil servant. To a greater extent than elsewhere in Renaissance Italy, his professional life was controlled by the twin agencies of family workshop and guild. Certain of these traditional "core" conditions for the activity of artists in Venice did not change much over the following centuries (it is significant that a Venetian academy of painting was not founded until as late as 1754). And yet the history of Venetian art from 1500 onward must nonetheless map the gradual breakup of the integrated relationship between art and society in the city.

Giorgione (c. 14771511) was the first Venetian artist to radically challenge the traditional model for artistic activity in Venice. The small body of highly original paintings he produced in the first decade of the sixteenth century opened a new world for a generation of younger painters, including Palma Vecchio (c. 14801528), Vincenzo Catena (c. 1470/801531), Lorenzo Lotto (c. 14801556), Sebastiano del Piombo (14851547) and Titian. Perhaps most significant in this regard was Giorgione's partial withdrawal from the kind of painting that had previously tied Venetian artists to the cultural mainstream. Working primarily for a narrow elite of high-ranking patrons, Giorgione produced sophisticated "private" paintings, in which meaning was frequently rendered deliberately opaque or ambiguous. Giorgione's creation of a more intimate and secular kind of painting proved immediately inspirational. Artists made "portraits" of classical goddesses and courtesans in states of erotic dishabille (Palma, Flora, c. 15201525, National Gallery, London), or arcadian landscapes peopled by poeticized figures. A new type of Giorgionesque devotional imagery emerged, showing the Holy Family or sacra conversazione (sacred conversation) in wooded landscapes, often with a donor in attendance (Titian, Madonna and Child, Saint John Baptist, and a Donor, c. 1515, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Titian, in particular, responded to Giorgione's exploitation of the special potentials of oil paint, adopting a similarly spontaneous approach, which ignored preparatory drawing on paper in favor of the manipulation of paint on the picture surface. It was through this special emphasis on coloring (colorito) that Venetian painting of the early sixteenth century increasingly differentiated itself from that practiced elsewhere in Italy.

Titian, though, quickly developed a figure style that demonstrated his understanding of the monumental classicizing form of High Renaissance art in contemporary Florence and Rome. His frequent reference to antique and contemporary works in three dimensions may in part have been intended to show the ultimate superiority of painting to sculpture. But in works such as the Bacchanals (15181523, Museo del Prado, Madrid; National Gallery, London) he also responded to the developed classical taste of his high-ranking patron, Alfonso I d'Este, duke of Ferrara. Titian's interest in classical form was fully shared by Tullio and Antonio Lombardo (c. 14551532; c. 1458c. 1516), younger representatives of the family that had dominated the field of Venetian sculpture since about 1470. In a number of double bust-length portraits of young couples, for example, Tullio effectively bridged the gap between Giorgione's poetic mood and the revival of antique types: his so-called Bacchus and Ariadne (c. 1500, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) was clearly inspired by Roman reliefs. Antonio, meanwhile, carved more than thirty marble reliefs with classical subjects for Alfonso's private apartments in Ferrara (c. 15061516, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; Bargello, Florence). These works may not have been intended for the so-called Alabaster Room housing Titian's Bacchanals, but they are very similar in their attempt to revive an antique form of domestic decoration.

The d'Este commissions at Ferrara indicate that the developing interest in classicizing form was closely linked to the expansion of artistic patronage beyond the confines of Venice itself. The new type of courtly portraiture that Titian developed in the 1520s and 1530s was dependent on his contact with an increasingly international clientele of high-ranking aristocratic and royal families. But the new cosmopolitanism in Venetian art was certainly not confined to the work of Titian. Peripatetic painters such as Lotto and Pordenone (c. 14831539), who arrived in the city in 1527, brought styles that integrated formal ideas from other parts of Italy with more local conventions. The repeated references to antique sculpture and steep formal foreshortenings in Lotto's Portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527, Queen's Collection, London) reflect his experience of the art of central Italy, although the soft handling and warm palette recall the recent portraits of Titian. Pordenone's Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani (c. 15321535, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice) refers pointedly to the quattrocento Venetian tradition of the sacra conversazione altarpiece. But Pordenone, who became an aggressive rival to Titian's hegemony in Venetian painting during the 1530s, shrinks the pictorial space and exaggerates the bodies of the main actors in a manner that pointedly recalls the Michelangelesque art of contemporary Florence and Rome.

The work of Jacopo Sansovino, the Florentine sculptor and architect who immigrated to Venice in 1527, owes relatively little to the kind of meticulous and prosaic classicism practiced by the Lombardi family in Venice in the early decades of the century. In works such as the bronze classical gods erected on the Loggetta in St. Mark's Square (15371542), Sansovino's manner is closer to the delicate and sophisticated mode of his Florentine contemporaries. Moreover, from about this time onward Venice was flooded with reproductive prints and statuettes after famous works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Parmigianino, and others. Perhaps inevitably, a "mannerist" phase followed, with even Titian's painting briefly affected. But it was in the work of young painters such as Jacopo Bassano (c. 15101592), Andrea Schiavone (c. 15101563), and Jacopo Tintoretto that the mode really took root. These painters developed aggressively unorthodox styles, featuring complex, twisting figure groups, decentralized compositions, and heightened, sometimes non-naturalistic colors (Schiavone's Adoration of the Magi, c. 1547, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan).

It is no accident that this new intensity of response to foreign models coincided with the first concerted attempts to define a specifically "Venetian" tradition of art. Writing in response to the Tuscan Giorgio Vasari's disparagement of Venetian art in his Lives of the Artists (1st ed., Florence, 1550), local patriots such as Paolo Pino (fl. 15341565) and Ludovico Dolce (15081568) sought to define the local tradition. In his Dialogue on Painting (Venice, 1557), Dolce argued that Venetian art was quintessentially naturalistic and that this was achieved through the special skill of the city's painters in the use of color (colore). But while the idea of Venetian tradition as internally coherent and as essentially independent of the more idealizing design-based art of central Italy has often been restated, it does not really account for the wider diversity of manners practiced in the city after 1550. Tintoretto's work was deeply influenced by the formal idealism of Michelangelo, and careful preparatory drawings were central to the restrained manner of Veronese. Titian himself was soon to develop an unprecedented "late" style in which naturalistic features such as correct perspective and anatomical proportion were increasingly abandoned.

Many artists in mid- and later-sixteenth century Venice were visual opportunists, readily modifying their manner according to patron or picture type. Bonifazio de Pitati (14871553), for example, who ran a busy and influential workshop from the 1530s onward, took a pragmatic approach to painting in which consistency of style was sacrificed to flexibility. As the demand for visual imagery of all types increased (the vast majority of Venetian households possessed visual images by 1600), so artists diversified their products and devolved responsibility within their workshops to maximize production. Sansovino's own part in his later sculptural commissions was small: after sketching in clay, he typically left the execution to his pupils, Alessandro Vittoria (15251608) and Danese Cataneo (c. 15091572). In like manner, Tintoretto employed specialist assistants to paint landscapes, still lifes, and even figures in his paintings as the scale of his pictorial commissions increased in the 1570s and 1580s. Artists, increasingly, marketed their work: Tintoretto may even have used his professional identity as "the little dyer" in this way, to suggest his readiness to paint for less prestigious patrons.

Two disastrous fires in 1574 and 1577 destroyed the main state rooms in the Ducal Palace and their pictorial decoration, resulting in an enormous commission for replacement ceiling and wall paintings for the workshops of Veronese and Tintoretto during the later 1570s and 1580s. But their work on this patriotic commission, devoted to the "myth" of Venice as home of justice, peace, and liberty, ran alongside an increasing demand in the city's churches and lay confraternities for sacred imagery stressing the centrality of Christ and his sacraments to the faith. Under the impact of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, there was a marked upturn in commissions for paintings showing the heroic martyrdom of the saints or their acts of charity (Titian, The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, c. 15471556, Gesuiti, Venice; Bassano, Saint Roch Healing the Plague-Stricken, c. 15701573, Brera, Milan). In these works the Tridentine theologians' call for greater clarity of presentation was only partially answered. But the fiery spirituality of the imagery nonetheless reflects the deepening Catholicism of the age. Dramatic reduction in color, a lowering chiaroscuro, and a rough or unfinished painting surface combine to obscure all worldly form, as if to deny the viewer any enjoyment in mere external display.

The massive oeuvre of Palma Giovane (c. 15481628) is dominated by religious paintings. In works such as the cycle for the Oratory of the Crociferi hospital (15831592), Palma combined Titianesque naturalism in portraits and landscape with more idealized forms for the allegorical and sacred actors based on Tintoretto. Palma's stylistic pragmatism, like his constant reference back to the older generation of painters, was destined to become a kind of leitmotif of Venetian art in the seventeenth century. Pietro della Vecchia (16031678) made his name producing mock "Giorgionesque" paintings for collectors (The Concert, undated, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), while the Fleming Nicolas Régnier (Niccolò Renieri, 15911667) combined painting with art dealing and collecting. But the internationalism of Venetian art also greatly intensified. The fame of the city's artistic tradition attracted important painters such as Bernardo Strozzi (15811644) from Genoa, along with Germans such as Johann Liss (c. 1595/16001631) and Johann Carl Loth (16321698). Strozzi and Liss, who arrived in the 1620s, used strong and varied color to produce an emotive stylistic hybrid of Venetian colorism and the international baroque. Later, in the 1660s, Loth, along with Giovanni Battista Langetti (16351676), introduced a darkened tenebrist manner, probably derived from paintings in Venice by Luca Giordano. But this in its turn quickly gave way, on the one hand, to the studious academism of Gregorio Lazzarini (16551730), and on the other to the decorative early rococo of Sebastiano Ricci (16591734).

The resulting stylistic potpourri has usually been seen as a reflection of the decline of Venetian artistic authority relative to other centers such as Bologna, Rome, and Naples. But art in Venice had long been responsive to other traditions, and the evident decline in quality in the seventeenth century had deeper causes. The aesthetic malaise reflected a more general social and economic one and is characterized by a kind of intense but ultimately debilitating retrospectivity. Early in the seventeenth century, Sansovino's pupil Vittoria was already busy collecting self-portraits of the famous Venetian masters, and later painters such as Carlo Ridolfi (15941658) and Marco Boschini turned their efforts to writing ecstatic histories of the great Venetian tradition. The glorification of the Renaissance meant that the present constantly had to defer, and to this extent Venetian art of the seventeenth century became the victim of its own celebrated past.

If Venetian art had previously enjoyed a vital relation to the communal institutions and ideologies of the Republic, this was increasingly not the case. It is symptomatic that painting of the eighteenth century was dominated, on the one hand, by view painters working for a predominantly foreign clientele; and on the other, by those working in a decorative style in which form was more significant than content. The brilliant naturalism with which Giovanni Antonio Canaletto (16971768) and Francesco Guardi (17121793) represented Venice nonetheless served a growing pan-European idea of the city as a kind of miraculous survival or relic from a past age, whose special allure lay precisely in its "otherness." The intensely decorative paintings of Ricci, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (16831754), and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (16961770) similarly work their magic by detaching the viewer from the real and the present. Like their seventeenth-century predecessors, these artists were, in an obvious sense, deeply retrospective, their intense color harmonies referring back to the art of the Renaissance past, especially to that of Paolo Veronese. But in the case of Tiepolo, at least, the result was an art of revision rather than reversion, which transformed the conventions of Renaissance naturalism into an intensely self-contained decorative idiom that had no real precedents in Venetian art. In his vast decorative scheme for the Kaisersaal and grand staircase of the prince-archbishop's palace at Würzburg (17501753), Tiepolo's aesthetic dominance over the pretensions of his subject matter seems directly to anticipate the artistic autonomy of the artist of modern times.

See also Painting ; Tiepolo, Giovanni Battista ; Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti) ; Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) ; Vasari, Giorgio ; Veronese (Paolo Caliari) .


Primary Sources

Dolce, Ludovico. Dolce's "Aretino" and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento. Translated and edited by Mark Roskill. New York, 1968. Includes text and translation of Dialogo della Pittura (1557).

Ridolfi, Carlo. Le Maraviglie dell'Art. Venice, 1648. Edited by Detlev von Hadeln. 2 vols. Berlin, 19141924.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Patricia Fortini. Venice and Antiquity: The Venetian Sense of the Past. New Haven and London, 1996.

Humfrey, Peter. Painting in Renaissance Venice. New Haven and London, 1995.

Huse, Norbert, and Wolfgang Wolters. The Art of Renaissance Venice: Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, 14601590. Chicago and London, 1990.

Levey, Michael. Painting in XVIII Century Venice. London, 1959.

Rosand, David. Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Le siècle de Titien: L'âge d'or de la peinture à Venise. Exh. cat. Paris, 1993.

Venetian Seventeenth Century Painting. Exh. cat. by Homer Potterton. London, 1979.

Tom Nichols