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How Venetian Is Venetian Painting?

Painting in Cinquecento Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto

by David Rosand
Yale University Press, 346 pp., $50.00

Historians of Renaissance painting in Italy generally make a very sharp distinction between Venice and the other major centers of artistic activity, notably Florence and Rome. Venetian painters, so it is said, may have borrowed elements from their contemporaries in central Italy, but they worked for patrons with different requirements and their own preoccupations were correspondingly different. To some extent this is certainly true. In Venice the major commissions usually came from corporate bodies rather than from rulers and courtiers, and because the climate was unsuited to fresco even the largest pictures were executed in oils. This meant that unlike painters trained in fresco the artists were accustomed to making changes as they worked, so they attached relatively little importance to sureness of draftsmanship and the use of elaborate preparatory studies. To use the familiar terminology, the Venetian specially was colorito, which does not mean specifically coloring, but rather the whole activity of painting as distinct from drawing. In Florence, by contrast, the emphasis was on disegno, the ability to represent and then elaborate by means of drawing any idea that the artist has conceived in his mind.

Another distinctive thing about Venetian art of the sixteenth century is the relative lack of written evidence about the attitudes of the painters and their public. This is partly a historical accident. The mainly official records preserved in Venice are inevitably less revealing than the semiprivate archives of the ruling families elsewhere in Italy. Moreover, Florentines in particular were addicted to preserving private papers. This is why artists such as Michelangelo and Vasari have left a mass of letters and other documents that have no real equivalent in Venice. But in Florence too there was a uniquely rich tradition of theoretical and historical writing about art. The most famous example, of course, is Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, published in two editions, the first in 1550 and the second in 1568. Its influence on later historians of Renaissance art can scarcely be exaggerated. Like most other Italians, Vasari had a strong streak of local patriotism, and although he did not entirely neglect Venetian artists his treatment of them is disappointingly perfunctory, being in large part based on a five-day visit to the city in 1566.

Vasari’s counterpart in Venice, Carlo Ridolfi, did not publish until the 1640s, and he was far inferior both as a historian and as a critic. But this does not mean that nothing of substance was written about painting in Venice during the sixteenth century. There is, in particular, a mass of material in the correspondence of Pietro Aretino, whose six published volumes of letters cover the period from about 1530 until his death in 1556. His comments on works of art are invaluable, since he knew many of the major artists of his day, not only in Venice, where his closest friends included Titian and Jacopo Sansovino, but also in other parts of Italy. His knowledge, sensitivity, and literary skill made him the most perceptive critic before Vasari. Moreover, for a few years around the middle of the century Venice was no less important than Florence as a center for the publication of writing about art. Thus the Italian translation of Alberti’s treatise on painting appeared there in 1547, followed a year later by the treatise of a minor painter named Paolo Pino, and in 1557 by Lodovico Dolce’s extremely influential dialogue, L’Aretino.

Dolce’s purpose was to redress the slighting treatment of Venetian painting in the first edition of Vasari’s Lives, in particular the idea that Michelangelo’s supremacy in disegno made him absolutely preeminent among artists. The argument took the form of a detailed comparison between Michelangelo and Raphael. Using Aretino as his spokesman, Dolce argued that although Michelangelo was indeed unrivaled in disegno there were other, no less important aspects of painting in which he was inferior to Raphael, notably invention and colorito. In the concluding pages he provided a brief account of the career of Titian, whom he praised as no less accomplished than Raphael in invention and disegno, and superior to anyone in colorito. Dolce’s critical standpoint was not new, since his praise of Titian was anticipated by both Aretino and Pino, but more than anyone else he was responsible for establishing the association of colorito with Venice.

It is most unlikely, however, that Dolce, or indeed anyone else in the sixteenth century, would have supposed that Venetian painters and those in other parts of Italy should be judged according to fundamentally different criteria. Even in L’Aretino the major confrontation was not between Michelangelo and Titian, that is to say Florence and Venice, but between Michelangelo and Raphael. Implicit in the whole argument is the idea that similar standards could be used to evaluate all three artists, for example the yardstick of invention. Aretino, too, had used the same kind of vocabulary in discussing the work of artists in Venice and elsewhere. Even Vasari, who specifically condemned the Venetians for their indifference to disegno in his second edition, saw them as belonging in every other respect to the mainstream of Italian painting, and this view was shared by later writers of the sixteenth century. The language of criticism then current throughout Italy, in fact, was rich enough to accommodate artists working in a great variety of different styles, including the Venetians.

The distinctiveness of Venice was therefore relative rather than absolute, largely centered on the controversy about the importance of disegno. But over the centuries it came to seem more and more marked, especially as the great painters of the city continued to be admired while their Mannerist contemporaries in central Italy were regarded increasingly with distaste. Now the situation has been strangely reversed. The Mannerists have been restored to favor, and thanks to writers like Vasari their work is thought to be sophisticated and interesting, unlike that of the unfortunate Venetians, who left few explicit statements about what they were doing. Even though in recent years there has been much discussion concerning the influence of Mannerism in Venice, this is almost always based on the premise that the artists there regarded the ideals of their colleagues in central Italy as fundamentally alien.

One might expect that David Rosand would be concerned with issues of this kind, but in his new book, based on a series of articles published over the last twelve years, he treats Venetian painting largely as an isolated phenomenon. The introductory chapter begins with a discussion of the social status of artists, the general conditions of patronage, and the disegno-colorito controversy. This is followed by a rather more theoretical account of the basic principles on which the Venetians supposedly constructed their pictures, particularly altarpieces and other large canvases for public buildings. In the rest of the book Rosand examines in detail some of the major masterpieces of Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, concentrating primarily on the ways in which these function as compositions and narratives.

This kind of analysis, one of the favorite forms of undergraduate teaching, always runs the risk of seeming gratuitous or contrived, but Rosand defends his approach on the grounds “that analysis properly proceeds from experience, that our own response to pictures can be a generally reliable guide to rediscovering pictorial intention.” Even if one accepts that here he is not using the authorial “our,” this is a large and questionable claim. One need only recall that scholars in the early part of this century, working on just such a basis, came to believe that the Mannerists were consciously rejecting the aesthetic ideals of the previous generation; and that this view is now generally considered, in the light of contemporary written evidence, to be wholly misguided. In assessing the intentions of an artist there is no obvious merit in disregarding the criteria by which the public of his day were accustomed to judge and interpret works of art. The question with Rosand’s book is whether he takes sufficient account of these criteria, whether his readings of individual paintings are enlightening and plausible historically as well as visually.

One of the pictures he discusses in detail is the Pesaro Madonna by Titian (above), which is still in its original location on a side altar in the church of the Frari in Venice. As it happens this provides a striking demonstration of the fallibility of visual analysis, for a few years ago it was suggested, by among others Rosand himself, that one of the most conspicuous and admired features of the altarpiece, a pair of enormous columns in the background, was incompatible with Titian’s supposed intentions and must be a seventeenth-century addition. A technical examination, however, has now established that even though these columns were not part of the initial design they certainly were painted before the figures.

The Pesaro Madonna has always been recognized as a landmark in the history of the Venetian altarpiece, because here Titian did not follow the traditional pattern for such pictures, with an enthroned central figure—usually the Madonna—on a high podium, flanked by symmetrical groups of saints on a lower level. Instead, the podium is moved slightly to the right of the composition and turned toward the left. Rosand argues at some length that Titian adopted this arrangement to take account of how the picture would look not only from directly in front, but also to people seeing it obliquely as they advanced along the nave. Although this is an ingenious idea it seems implausible. The purpose of an altarpiece, after all, is to provide a focus of devotion for worshipers at the altar on which it stands; and it is difficult to believe that the patron, a prominent cleric named Jacopo Pesaro, would have attached much importance to catering for passersby in the nave. Had this been his intention, he would hardly have spent a large sum of money on a very elaborate marble frame with projecting columns which actually prevent the picture from being seen in its entirely except from directly in front.

The unusual character of the composition can be readily explained in a very different way. The Pesaro Madonna was unlike most earlier altarpieces in Venice in that it had to include not merely the Madonna and saints, but also Jacopo Pesaro as well as five of his relatives and two other figures. When patrons were shown in religious paintings of this type they were by convention represented kneeling and in profile; but no artist had previously succeeded in creating a strong visual and psychological relationship between the donor and the Madonna and saints, who naturally had to be shown facing fairly directly out of the picture. Titian’s asymmetrical design brilliantly solved the problem. Mary and the most important saint, Peter, who is on a lower level in the center of the composition, are seen frontally by the spectator before the altar, as they look down toward Jacopo Pesaro at the bottom left. The basic scheme was derived from a fresco of Judith which Titian had painted about a decade earlier, and he was to use it again a few years later for a painting in the Doge’s Palace. The work in question no longer exists, but it certainly occupied the end wall of a room, so in this instance there can be no doubt that Titian’s adoption of this type of composition was prompted by the nature of the subject, not by a desire to provide two viewpoints.

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