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The Eyewitness Style

Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio

by Patricia Fortini Brown
Yale University Press, 310 pp., $45.00

Large numbers of pictures were produced in Italy from at least 1300, but Italians began to write extensively about art only in the sixteenth century. This development coincided with the growth of private collections, particularly the princely galleries of painting and ancient sculpture that were the predecessors of modern museums. The qualities that collectors and critics then admired in works of art are easy enough to discover, both because the criticism is so abundant and because it is relatively consistent in character. A much more difficult task is to establish what Italians thought and said about paintings in the fifteenth century. Certainly they expected pictures to be beautiful, and they admired artistic skill, but it is far from clear how they assessed such qualities.

Much of the most influential work on these questions has been done by Michael Baxandall, whose first book, Giotto and the Orators, was concerned with one special group of texts, the few passages on contemporary art written in humanist Latin, of which the longest and best known is Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise On Painting. Composed in 1435, this is the only extended treatment of the subject to survive from the fifteenth century. Unfortunately for art historians, what Alberti and later humanists wrote about art was conditioned not so much by a desire to make judgments about the works they could see as by a wish to revive classical Latin. The forms of the language itself and of the literary texts that they sought to imitate limited and directed what they could say. So it comes as no surprise to discover that in his treatise Alberti mentioned not a single fifteenth-century artist or work of art, indeed only one modern painter, Giotto, and then in the briefest terms.

This does not mean that Alberti was indifferent to the work of his Florentine contemporaries. In the preface to his own Italian translation of his treatise, written in 1436, he mentions his admiration for the achievements of the leading artists of the city, such as Masaccio, Ghiberti, and Donatello; and there is little doubt that his advocacy of a particular kind of painting, narrative compositions—or stories, as they were called at the time—depicted with clarity and economy of means, would have been impossible without the experience of seeing works like Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. But there is little basis for supposing either that Alberti had much direct influence on his contemporaries or that the reasons he provided for championing this type of painting would have been widely shared by artists or patrons. At this period other humanists, drawing on different literary models, such as that of the rhetorical exercise called ekphrasis, advocated an entirely different type of painting, richly naturalistic and full of picturesque detail which lent itself to this type of descriptive prose.

Interesting though the humanist texts may be, they tell us very little about the attitudes of most educated Italians who paid for or simply looked at works of art. Baxandall tackled this problem in his second book, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, which is mainly concerned with vernacular texts. Here he tried to flesh out his account by suggesting how visual habits acquired in daily life, for example the need to calculate the volume of containers such as barrels, might affect the style of painters and the responses of their public. The approach had much in common with his earlier study of the humanists, since in both cases his purpose was to show how widely shared patterns of thought and language, whether commercial or literary in origin, could influence attitudes to or comments on painting.

Baxandall’s material was mostly drawn from Tuscany and central Italy, but Patricia Fortini Brown has tried to use a similar method with a very different type of painting, the large narrative compositions on canvas produced in Venice between about 1470 and 1530. To anyone familiar with the painted stories of Tuscany, the Venetian examples come as a great surprise. While the Tuscan artists tended to show relatively few large-scale figures, clear narratives, and simple settings, the Venetians filled their pictures with dozens of small figures and very elaborate architecture, and they included a wealth of carefully observed anecdotal detail which is often irrelevant to the principal subject. Such pictures seem less the representation of specific historical events than depictions of an entire world, which may either be the city of Venice itself or a fantastic variation on it.

Most of these Venetian paintings were commissioned by the large charitable confraternities known as scuole, but the first and most famous group was begun in the Doge’s Palace in 1474 as a replacement for an earlier cycle in fresco. These decorations, which were burned in 1577, included works by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio, and later Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. Fortunately the pictures for the scuole have fared better. Although some have been dispersed or lost, most of the surviving examples are still to be found in Venice. They include several of the masterpieces of early Venetian art, such as the cycles by Carpaccio for the Scuola di Sant’ Orsola now in the Accademia and for the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, as well as Gentile Bellini’s so-called Procession in the Piazza San Marco, originally in the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista.

Professor Brown’s decision to consider these pictures as a group, rather than concentrate on a single artist or a single cycle, has allowed her not just to deal very competently with the many specific problems raised by individual works, but also to look at more general issues, such as the stylistic origins of the genre and the motives and attitudes of the patrons. Her discussions of these broader questions are the most interesting part of the book, if also the most contentious. What principally distinguishes the Venetian examples from the Tuscan and other central Italian religious narratives of the same period is the contradiction between the ostensibly religious content and the apparently undecorous way in which it is depicted. This has usually been seen as reflecting either a rather naive piety or an incipient secularism, on the assumption that the actual subjects were little more than a pretext for producing attractive, if often much idealized, depictions of contemporary life. Brown’s analysis of the values of the nobility and the “cittadini,” members of old-established families who staffed the Venetian state bureaucracy and controlled the scuole, makes it clear that the second alternative, at least, is quite unrealistic. Venice was a corporate state of a strongly conservative kind, and the ruling groups of the scuole, who often included painters, were the principal upholders of the traditional values of piety and civic responsibility.

Much the same could be said of their counterparts in other Italian cities. But, as Brown argues, one thing that distinguished the Venetians was a widespread interest in a strongly parochial type of history, consisting almost exclusively of vernacular chronicles of local events embroidered with all kinds of inconsequential details. It was the accumulation of facts, and the careful observation of daily life, that provided the appeal of these texts and established their authenticity. The parallel between this kind of historical writing and some of the painted stories is a persuasive one, all the more so when one considers that the most famous of them, those in the Doge’s Palace, which illustrated legendary events in the life of Pope Alexander III, were invoked by Venetian propagandists even into the seventeenth century as a historical source whose validity was comparable to that of written records. If the Venetian government, it was said, had commissioned paintings that showed a particular series of events not long after they had happened, this was evidence of the historical truth of the episodes depicted. Moreover, Brown suggests that the other cycles in the scuole were painted in a similar way in order to underline the fact that the stories themselves were really true. They look different from painted narratives elsewhere because the artists themselves had different intentions, for which they adopted a distinctive approach. This she aptly calls “the eyewitness style.”

Her analysis works best with the cycle from the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, which shows a series of miracles performed in Venice by the power of a reliquary of the True Cross owned by the scuola. In these paintings the principal events, the miracles themselves, were given no particular prominence. But, Brown argues, this does not mean that they were thought to be unimportant, merely that the accumulation of circumstantial detail from Venetian life was regarded as appropriate in the narration of historical subjects.

This is by no means the only way in which she believes that the values of the patrons were reflected in this group of paintings. For example, she suggests that Venetian interest in processions and other forms of public ritual would have sharpened contemporary response to a work such as Gentile Bellini’s Procession in the Piazza; and she sees the inclusion of large groups of members of the scuola not just as an expression of vanity or simple piety, but as underlining the authenticity of the events depicted, for which they act as witnesses. Again, she considers that the huge and topographically accurate views of Venice, for example the splendidly animated representation of the Grand Canal and Rialto which occupies over half of the canvas by Carpaccio, were intended to “imbue the area…with a divine charisma” that reflected the potency of the miraculous reliquary and its central place in the ritual life of the city.

Of course, if the patrons held certain views about their place in Venetian society and commissioned pictures showing Venice, with many of them present, it is easy enough to argue that these pictures embody their social values. But problems arise with another cycle, this time with an exotic setting, Carpaccio’s paintings of the life of Saint Ursula. Here the principal events are prominently placed in the foreground, while the settings, predominantly architectural, are largely made up of elements taken from illustrations of foreign cities combined and elaborated in an apparently unsystematic way. Brown claims that “with these scenes set in lands outside Venice, the eyewitness painters seem to have moved away from the primarily documentary—and hence, didactic—functions of the istoria, toward those of aesthetic enjoyment,” and she suggests that the artist’s role here “was shifting subtly from that of recorder toward that of creator.” But there is an obvious reason why a different conception of the artist’s role was called for here: it is an inevitable consequence of the fact that the subject matter of these pictures (some of which predate the San Giovanni cycle) did not call for a Venetian setting.

The main problem is that Brown takes the San Giovanni paintings, for no very good reason, as the model of the eyewitness style. In fact, they are unusual in one major respect: the subject matter, consisting of a series of miracles that occurred in Venice. Other Venetian scuole generally chose to show stories of their patron saint or biblical subjects, so the obvious choice for the Scuola di San Giovanni would have been the life of Saint John (which was actually painted there in the sixteenth century). Such subjects are far more common in narrative cycles than illustrations of the miraculous powers of relics. But the scuola had commissioned a similar cycle of miracles in the fourteenth century, and now they did so again. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that an important reason for their choice was to proclaim to visitors—and it is reported that there were many of these—the potency of the reliquary, thus attracting offerings. In other words, it is quite possible that these paintings were addressed not so much to the officials of the scuola as to a much wider public.

If so, some of the emphases in Brown’s account may be misplaced. For example, one may doubt whether “part of the original attraction…was the visual exercise and delight in locating the narrative core of the scene.” To those who knew the stories, such a delight must soon have palled. To those who did not many of the subjects would have been incomprehensible. The same is true of all but the most familiar historical subjects, because, in general, paintings, unlike texts, cannot tell but only retell stories. This is why depictions of unusual subjects in public settings, such as the Alexander cycle in the Doge’s Palace, were often provided with explanatory inscriptions. At the Scuola di San Giovanni there do not seem to have been such inscriptions, but presumably the painters would have assumed that visitors could have asked the caretaker for any explanations they required. The miracles illustrated there were, for the most part, notably undramatic and difficult to convey effectively in pictorial terms: the reliquary falls off a bridge, but floats miraculously above a canal; a citizen of Brescia sees it carried in procession and prays for the recovery of his son, then languishing at home with a fractured skull; the reliquary becomes as heavy as lead and cannot be carried into church for the funeral of a member of the scuola who had doubted its efficacy. Faced with such subjects and required to paint huge canvases to impress pious visitors, it is no wonder that the painters filled them with colorful crowds of onlookers and attractive topographical detail. As a result, their pictures must then have delighted people with little experience of art as powerfully as they do today.

This is not to say that particular Venetian attitudes to history or society may not have played some part in the formation of the eyewitness style, but it is questionable whether the importance of such attitudes was as great as Brown would have us believe. Other factors of a more practical kind, which she tends to overlook, may also be relevant. The preferred medium for narrative painting in Tuscany, from at least 1300, was fresco. Tuscan churches, in particular, are filled with frescoes arranged one above the other. Although these could include elaborate settings, the fresco medium did not readily lend itself to such features, and the fact that many of the scenes were seen from a distance put a premium on large figures and clear narrative. Painted histories in churches are supposed to remind the faithful about the fundamental tenets of their faith—principally the life of Christ, of the Virgin, or of the most popular saints. To do so, the stories have to be easily recognizable; and in any case simple frescoes are cheaper and quicker to paint than more detailed ones, a factor which may well have been relevant to the private individuals who paid to have their chapels decorated.

In Venice the climate was unsuited to fresco. Very few such cycles existed, and these were mostly in places well away from rising damp, such as the first floor of the Doge’s Palace. Even here they deteriorated rather quickly. In churches narrative fresco cycles were almost nonexistent. As a result Venetian artists and their public had no practical experience of the large-scale representation of familiar religious stories. Their model for painted stories was the cycle of secular historical subjects in the Doge’s Palace, which were indeed the painted counterpart of written history, made all the more authoritative by a proliferation of circumstantial detail and explained by inscriptions. The whole situation changed with the increasing use of oil as a medium. Only with this innovation was it possible to paint durable large-scale narratives, not on plaster but on canvas. We need hardly be surprised that the appearance of these pictures, which were invariably displayed in a single register relatively close to the spectator, owed more to the tradition of panel painting than to large-scale fresco.

Even with the introduction of canvas, painted stories appeared very late and rather slowly in Venetian churches. Such paintings were laborious and expensive to produce, and as a result they were usually commissioned not by private patrons but by the government or by rich confraternities for their own meeting rooms. In other words, they look different from the predominant mode of Tuscan narrative in part because they were painted in a different medium and for a different context and because many of them drew on a rather different type of subject matter. As a strictly historical cycle, the pictures in the Doge’s Palace do not have many contemporary parallels elsewhere, though it is worth mentioning that one obvious analogy, the scenes from the life of Pope Pius II in the Piccolomini Library of Siena Cathedral, is also highly decorative and full of irrelevant details. And it is an unfortunate historical accident that most of the biblical stories and those of the better-known saints that were painted at this period have not survived. But it is surely no accident that the ones that still exist, principally by Carpaccio, even though full of incident, do not, in the way in which the principal subject is shown, fully conform to what Brown characterizes as the eyewitness style.

It is all too easy to suppose that the qualities admired today, or even in the sixteenth century, in works of early Renaissance art are the qualities for which they were admired at the time. In particular, there is little doubt that everywhere in Italy there was a taste for attractive decorative features—flower-filled meadows, colorful costumes, and fanciful buildings—as well as for a conspicuous display of expense that now seems naive or even embarrassing. Nor should we take fresco cycles in churches as representing some kind of ideal. It is notable, in fact, how much more elaborate are stories on panel, even in Florence. Indeed, many of the qualities of the Venetian stories have their parallels elsewhere, as even Brown admits.

But artists do not simply reflect the taste of their patrons: they create it. And the principal force of stylistic change is not new types of demand from patrons, to which Brown gives special emphasis, but competitiveness and peer-group pressure. In this respect some of the differences between Venetian and Tuscan art can most easily be explained by differences in working practice. Florentine artists were expected to be good at painting frescoes—a technique which requires sureness of hand and mastery of drafts-manship, especially of the human figure, because the plaster itself dries fast, and changes are difficult to make. Hence in Florence draftsmanship was central to artistic training, and by 1500 many members of the public seem to have been responsive to this quality in works of art. For example, they tended to distinguish between the work of different artists principally in terms of figure style and physiognomy.

In Venice, a city virtually without frescoes, this kind of skill was acquired and appreciated much later. Gentile Bellini, for example, although regarded as one of the supreme painters of his day, was a pitifully feeble draftsman. But the emphasis on architecture so evident in the Venetian narratives was something that the local painters obviously prized. Brown rightly draws attention to the famous sketchbooks of Jacopo Bellini, the father of Gentile and Giovanni, which are full of religious stories in fantastic architectural settings. But it is not at all clear whether these drawings really provide evidence of a distinctive Venetian attitude to visual narrative that predates the paintings of the eyewitness style.

At the back of one of these books is a table of contents written in a fifteenth-century hand, and therefore compiled while the books were still in the possession of the Bellini family. And it is significant that although some of the drawings are characterized as stories, those are the ones in which the narrative is clear and relatively straightforward. The drawings in which the ostensible subject is overwhelmed by buildings are called “casamenti,” which might be translated as “elaborate buildings.” For example, a drawing that scholars now call The Annunciation is entitled A casamento, with the Virgin Annunciate with a landscape. So far as I know, this category of representation is unparalleled in contemporary documents; it is a genre unique to Venice (unless, perhaps, we might class Piero della Francesca’s famous and mysterious Flagellation in that way).

But it does suggest that in Venice the standard category of the “story” did not cover the whole range of what we would consider painted narratives, and it is possible that the paintings of the eyewitness style do not conform to our normal expectations in part because they draw on this different local tradition. They were admired because architecture in perspective was seen as a particular test of a Venetian painter’s skill, which is hardly surprising in that most urban of cities.

This is not to deny the importance of Professor Brown’s arguments. She has assembled a mass of information, and she has characterized the preoccupations and values of the patrons with skill and sympathy. But we still need to know much more, not about their piety or their attitudes to Venetian society as a whole, but about their responses to paintings. We need to know why they found these pictures—and also other types of picture—beautiful. Baxandall’s Painting and Experience was persuasive because his analysis of what he called “the period eye” was grounded in a body of texts about artists and works of art. Such texts are rare in Venice, but more work can be done on material such as descriptions of churches, palaces, costumes, or landscape. Indeed, this kind of investigation is relevant to Renaissance art not just in Venice but throughout Italy. It might encourage some modification of our present concern with style, narrowly understood, and of our habit of seeing the art of the fifteenth century principally as a prelude to the High Renaissance.

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