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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.

After establishing the relationship between Jacopo Pesaro, St. Peter, and the Madonna, evidently Titian found that his main problem was to devise a suitable background. His solution, with the famous columns, was achieved only after several experiments. The main reason why these columns have often been considered anomalous is that their spatial relationship to the rest of the design is far from clear. But if one looks hard enough peculiarities of perspective can be found elsewhere in the picture too. Thus Jacopo Pesaro’s relatives are crowded into an unrealistically narrow space below the Madonna, and the vanishing point, indicated principally by the steps of the podium, falls a few feet outside the composition. Rosand thinks that Titian meant to indicate an ideal viewpoint slightly to the side of the altar, but it is difficult to see what purpose this might have served. It seems more reasonable to suppose that the recession of the steps was determined by the position and pose of St. Peter. Given the complexity of his task, Titian was bound to bend the rules of perspective. But he produced a composition that was visually effective and subjectively convincing. To ask for more is to ask too much.

In his very long discussion of Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (see page 33), painted for a charitable institution, the Scuola di Santa Maria della Carità, now in the Accademia in Venice, Rosand certainly asks for more. Not content with seeing the picture as an eloquent and very beautiful representation of a familiar story and as a brilliant example of mural decoration, he also wants it to be imbued with meaning. More specifically, he argues that many apparently naturalistic features are at the same time full of symbolic significance. Many historians of Renaissance art will find Rosand’s attitude sympathetic, but this does not make it right; and in this instance, at least, many of the specific interpretations which he proposes seem extraordinarily far-fetched.

This is a problem, for example, with his analysis of the steps up to the temple, which are an indispensable element in the story and occupy a large part of the picture. Rosand claims that their construction, following the recommendations of Vitruvius, is based on a Pythagorean triangle. Even if this were strictly accurate, which does not seem to be the case, it still would not follow that “the deliberate planimetric articulation of the drafted masonry…thus assumes a critical function in underscoring the commensurability and proportionality of this structure.” All Titian did was to show the divisions between the blocks of stone, thus following current architectural fashion and providing something more interesting to look at than a plain wall. Had he thought it significant he could surely have arranged the blocks to indicate that he was using a ratio of 3:4 to establish the angle of the staircase; but he did not do so.

More credible is Rosand’s suggestion that Titian gave the Virgin a full mandorla to evoke a familiar Marian text, “For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty.” Certainly the use of this rare motif invites some kind of explanation, even if it does not demand one. The same is true of a prominent pyramid, because these appear very often in paintings of the Presentation. Unfortunately, the best that Rosand can offer is the theory that it symbolizes radiance and therefore alludes to the Virgin, a reading that is unacceptable since it depends on a hieroglyphic interpretation not found before the seventeenth century. In the absence of any plausible alternative, it is surely reasonable to suppose that the pyramid was used here by Titian, as by countless other Renaissance artists, simply as a characteristic antique structure. Rosand’s search for meaning, however, does not stop here; even the mountains in the distance and the clouds in the sky are supposed to have iconographic significance, once again evoking biblical texts associated with the Virgin.

What is at issue here is not the appositeness or familiarity of the texts in question, but the attitude of Titian’s contemporaries to religious paintings. Rosand believes that Italians of the sixteenth century would as a matter of course have tried to read a wealth of significance even into naturalistic details. But he does not produce solid evidence to support this belief, nor, to the best of my knowledge, has anyone else ever done so. In the case of Venice such evidence would of course be particularly hard to come by. But we do know of one revealing incident involving the very people who commissioned the Presentation. Shortly after Titian’s picture was completed the leading members of the Scuola approached another artist, Pordenone, for a canvas to hang beside it. They wanted an Assumption of the Virgin, but Pordenone pointed out that the horizontal space available was unsuitable for a subject requiring a vertical format, that the Assumption did not follow chronologically from the Presentation, and that the Scuola already owned a picture of this very theme. As an alternative he proposed the Marriage of the Virgin, and this was agreed. Rosand says of this episode, “While the iconographic issues involved are hardly profound, it is important to recognize the position of the Renaissance painter as a qualified expert in such matters of iconography and decorum.” More important, surely, is what it tells us about the iconographic expertise of the patrons, whose lack of sophistication now seems scarcely credible.

There also exists a famous document about Veronese’s attitude to religious imagery, which is discussed by Rosand elsewhere in the book. * It is a record of the artist’s interrogation by the Inquisition about the vast painting now called the Feast in the House of Levi, but originally conceived as a Last Supper (now in the Accademia). When asked why he had included Germans, buffoons, dwarfs, and drunks in a picture with such a sacred theme, Veronese offered several lines of defense. He invoked poetic license and the precedent of Michelangelo’s nudities in the Sistine Chapel, he explained that the painting was large and needed many figures, and he pointed out that the ones to which the Inquisitors objected were outside the loggia in which the meal was taking place.

Rosand, who is anxious to rescue Veronese from the charge of indifference to iconographic requirements, rightly observes that this last argument does indicate a certain sensitivity to decorum. But another feature of the picture suggests that this concern did not extend very far, for there are fifteen people eating at the table. This unprecedented anomaly can only be explained, I believe, by the fact that Veronese was here using again a composition devised for a slightly earlier picture in Vicenza, the Supper of St. Gregory, and simply did not bother to modify the basic design in accordance with the requirements of a Last Supper.

Most of Rosand’s section on Veronese is about the structure of his pictures, and he draws an interesting parallel with contemporary stage practice. But his thesis that the artist’s treatment of narrative is deeply considered and unusually subtle does not really carry conviction. Often he seems to expect us to be impressed by quite standard devices, such as the placing of Christ at the exact centre of the Last Supper, silhouetted against the sky—an idea taken directly from Titian. On occasion, too, the analysis is clearly mistaken. Thus Rosand claims that in a painting which shows the Baptist pointing to the approaching figure of Christ “there is a clear juxtaposition of separate but related moments in time, rather a montage effect.” But here Veronese was merely illustrating John I: 29, “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God.” This surely occupied a single moment in time.

Rosand is much more successful in demonstrating Tintoretto’s commitment to effective storytelling. His analyses of this artist’s religious paintings are the most persuasive and revealing in the book, not least because he provides convincing corroboration for his interpretations in Venetian devotional practice at the time. These contain little in the way of complex iconography, which Rosand believes would have been inappropriate because Tintoretto’s patrons were relatively unsophisticated. The artist himself, of course, certainly was not. Indeed, more than any other painter of his generation he consciously set out to fulfill one of the major ideals of contemporary artistic theory, the synthesis of disegno and colorito. This has always been recognized, but Rosand does not really pursue the implications.

His attitude is exemplified by a comment about the Crucifixion in the Scuola di San Rocco: “There is little room for rhetorical display, as actions and postures, no matter how extreme or forced, fulfill explicit dramatic functions.” But Tintoretto’s careful orchestration of every figure and his use of a highly exaggerated but supremely eloquent vocabulary of gesture is rhetoric at its most accomplished, the calculated deployment of a style based on artifice in order to persuade. It would be difficult to find a work of art more perfectly in accord with the spirit of sixteenth-century art criticism, whose most distinctive feature was precisely that it was derived from rhetoric and was concerned above all with the evaluation of style. In this kind of writing the subject was generally treated as little more than the pretext which allowed the artist to display his skill.

Tintoretto’s educated contemporaries were therefore highly discriminating in their appreciation of style, but often relatively unconcerned with content; and it was this audience that he was explicitly addressing, especially by his use of foreshortening, which was generally recognized as the supreme test of the painter’s virtuosity, as something to be evaluated only by connoisseurs. In concentrating on the way in which Tintoretto’s pictures function as narratives, Rosand largely overlooks the very qualities which would have been most highly prized at the time, such as the emphasis on muscular figures in complex poses, the bravura brushwork, the brilliant handling of light—notably in such features as the highlights on suits of armor—and the copiousness of picturesque incidents. We get a very different idea of Tintoretto’s priorities when we remember that Vasari praised him above all as capriccioso.

In the same way, to look for subtleties of meaning in the work of Veronese is to judge him by anachronistic standards. There is no need to suppose that he was being insincere when he invoked poetic license before the Inquisition; among sixteenth-century artists and their public this was an entirely legitimate defense. It takes special pleading to argue that he was deeply concerned with subject matter, but his work does possess other qualities which certainly account for the esteem in which it was held—the highly accomplished disegno, the variety of the figures, the fanciful invention of the costumes, the masterly rendering of the textures of the fabric. In these respects his paintings very adequately meet the requirements of Renaissance art theory. Historians have long been accustomed to regard such texts as a valid guide to the preoccupations of painters in Florence and Rome. It is unfortunate that Rosand, starting from the premise that Venice was different, did not make more use of them. Had he done so, he would have seen the achievements of the great Venetian artists in a different and, I believe, more revealing light.

  1. *

    The text is published in an article by Philipp Fehl, “Veronese and the Inquisition,” in Gazette des Beaux Arts, vol.58(1961), pp.325-354.

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