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A Wind from the West

Il Rinascimento a Venezia e la pittura del Nord ai tempi di Bellini, Dürer, Tiziano [The Venetian Renaissance and Northern Painting in the Time of Bellini, Dürer, and Titian] 1999-January 9, 2000.

an exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice,September 5,, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Bernard Aikema, by Beverly Louise Brown
Milan: Bompiani, 703 pp., L100,000 (An English translation, Renaissance Venice and the North, will be published by Rizzoli in December.

The idea of dividing art into distinct “schools,” usually centered on a single city, such as Venice or Florence, or on a restricted geographical area, such as Flanders or Lombardy, goes back to the early seventeenth century and still survives to the present day. This approach has an obvious validity in that it is normally easy enough to recognize where a particular work was produced, but often much more difficult to decide who made it, because artists in each city or region tended to acquire stylistic characteristics from their teachers and then worked for patrons who often had rather fixed ideas about what they wanted. But even if not to the extent that this happens today, artists, patrons, and works of art themselves have often traveled, so no artistic school is ever entirely isolated.

The topic of artistic exchange has not been much explored in exhibitions of Renaissance art. By concentrating on the career of a single artist, or on the output of a single school over a restricted period, it is easier to tell a clear story in a coherent way. But the purpose of the exhibition now at the Palazzo Grassi, as its rather ponderous title implies, is to illustrate both the impact on Venice of the art of Flanders and southern Germany and that of Venetian art on these areas of Northern Europe from about 1470 to 1600. Within this large and diffuse theme, certain episodes are emphasized. The first is the adoption by the Venetians, in the second half of the fifteenth century, of the use of oil paint, a technique first perfected about fifty years earlier in Flanders. The second is the Venetian career of Albrecht Dürer, the most distinguished Northern artist to have worked in the city during the Renaissance. This is followed by sections designed to show parallels between portraiture in Venice and southern Germany and to explore developments in landscape painting north and south of the Alps. Finally the focus shifts to Northern artists active in Venice from the late 1530s onward and to the diffusion northward of Venetian paintings and Venetian artistic fashions.

The more than two hundred works on view include a notable number of paintings, drawings, and prints of the highest quality—such as Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in his Study and Dürer’s Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman (see illustration on page 13)—particularly in the earlier sections, as well as many that will be unfamiliar to all but a few specialists. Because the idea was to juxtapose works that reveal artistic interchange or at least suggest parallels between Venice and Northern Europe, the paintings that have been selected are not necessarily typical of the artists who produced them. This often makes it dif-ficult for visitors to evaluate the significance of the comparisons that are being made. Unfortunately, the explanatory material is decidedly sparse, while the catalog, as is almost obligatory today, is far too large and heavy to be consulted in the exhibition it-self. Written by and largely for specialists, it summarizes a vast amount of research. But in concentrating on the phenomenon of artistic interchange itself, few of the contributors adequately address the basic ques-tion of how important this was for the Venetians or for their contem-poraries in Northern Europe, or even why artists might have been inter-ested in the work of their foreign counterparts.

This question is particularly relevant for Venice itself, which until at least the end of the sixteenth century was among the largest cities in Europe, surpassed in population in Italy only by Naples, and elsewhere only by Paris. It was also the capital of the oldest and most stable state in Europe. In 1500 still the richest and most dynamic commercial center on the continent, it was at the heart of a trading network extending from Alexandria to London. Those who lived in Venice therefore had good reasons for self-satisfaction, an attitude that can only have been strengthened by a long tradition of official propaganda constantly proclaiming the wealth, stability, justice, and competent administration of the state.

Venice cultivated an ethos of public service and corporate solidarity, especially but not exclusively among its hereditary ruling class. This meant that decisions were normally taken by committees and that there was an unusually high degree of conformity in behavior and taste, reflected among the ruling patriciate and the so-called citizens, who provided most of the bureaucracy, even in such matters as a widely observed dress code. But this was less rigid than is often supposed. Thus it is widely but wrongly believed that only patricians wore the distinctive Venetian toga, which has led to the unfounded assumption that portraits of Venetians in this costume, by Giovanni Bellini and others, always represent members of the nobility when they may have been merely citizens. This misconception has led to an excessive emphasis on the supposedly aristocratic, elitist character of Venetian artistic patronage, particularly in the later fifteenth century.

In practice, whereas elsewhere in Italy artists increasingly had to satisfy the tastes of rulers or of rich and often competitive noblemen, in Venice they had to please committees of businessmen, who tended to be rather conservative in their attitudes. This did not mean that such patrons were entirely provincial in their taste. Venice often attracted artists from its subject cities and from other centers in Italy, such as the Florentine sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino. But it did mean that originality and self-expression were less admired than elsewhere in Italy and that those artists who were most successful in obtaining commissions from the state tended to acquire a particular prestige.

Given the particular character of Venice, it is not surprising that the history of Venetian art, especially of its painting, tends to be treated in isolation, even in relation to the rest of Italy. This is partly because the canonical account of the history of Renaissance art, by Vasari, was written from the perspective of Florence. But it is also because few of the leading Venetian painters were tempted to work elsewhere in the peninsula, except for occasional commissions, and because they normally seem to have felt that they had little to learn from outsiders. Thus most of them never bothered to visit Rome or Florence, and in general such visits had little lasting effect on the work of those who did.

The principal debt of the Venetians to the art of these cities was confined to two distinct episodes. Some time after about 1450 the local painters, and especially the Bellini family, seem to have become interested in contemporary developments elsewhere in Italy, notably the use of perspective and the adoption of a decorative idiom derived from classical antiquity, a change that can also be seen in architecture and sculpture. Again, in the sixteenth century Venetian painters were certainly aware of the innovations introduced into Italian art by Raphael, Michelangelo, and younger artists such as Parmigianino, Giulio Romano, and Salviati, principally through prints. The work of these painters embodied new ideals, such as the desire to improve on nature, especially by the imitation of certain famous ancient statues and by the conspicuous display of artistic skill. These ideals soon found their way into Venetian painting too, but in a rather attenuated form, because the Venetian artists never accepted the importance given by their central Italian contemporaries to virtuosity in drawing, which, at least until the end of the sixteenth century, was not central to their artistic education.

Even though their response to artistic developments elsewhere in Italy was selective and critical, the Venetians always felt themselves culturally and intellectually part of a larger Italian world. Like other Italians, they regarded the art of Northern Europe as something quite distinct, for which they had a specific term, ponentina (meaning “western”). Just what was thought to distinguish it from Italian painting is not entirely clear, apart from the representation of landscape, which was supposed to be particularly realistic, even creating the strange misconception that Flanders was a land of precipitous rocky mountains. But landscape was not a particularly prestigious genre, so one would expect that Venetian artists would have found little in Northern painting to attract their attention or inspire their emulation.

There was one respect, however, in which fifteenth-century Flemish art was thought to be in advance of Italy, and that was in the use of oil paint, which permitted a much greater brilliance of tone, luminosity, subtlety of modeling, and rendering of detail than the traditional technique of egg tempera, which had the advantage of drying more rapidly. According to a story whose origins have never been established but which is first found in Vasari’s Lives, oil painting was invented by Jan Van Eyck, one of whose works was seen by Antonello da Messina in the collection of Alfonso I of Naples. This picture so impressed Antonello that he traveled to Flanders, where he studied with Van Eyck for many years. He then moved to Venice, where he taught the use of oil paint to the local artists, including Domenico Veneziano, who in turn transmitted it to the Florentines.

Parts of the story are true, and parts manifestly false. Alfonso did indeed own a painting by Van Eyck, presumably executed with the astonishingly meticulous rendering of the details of costume, physiognomy, and setting that was the hallmark of his style, and Antonello was in Naples and later, around 1475, in Venice. But it is most unlikely that he ever visited Flanders and impossible that he could ever have met Van Eyck, who died in 1441, or for that matter Domenico Veneziano, who left Venice before 1440.

Detailed examination of a number of fifteenth-century paintings carried out in recent decades has shown that the introduction of oil painting into Italy was a much more gradual and complex process than Vasari implied. The idea of using oil as a medium for pigment was already mentioned in a treatise written by Cennino Cennini in the early years of the century, and artists in Italy had long experimented with oil paint in a limited way, in conjunction with egg tempera, sometimes mixing a small quantity of oil into the egg, sometimes using oil and egg in different parts of the picture, as Giovanni Bellini was often to do in his early works. Although the chronology of these pictures is still controversial, there is little doubt that Bellini was using oil to an increasing extent before the arrival of Antonello, as were various artists in Ferrara. As for Anto-nello, he seems to have learned about oil painting in Naples, partly from an artist named Colantonio and partly by studying Flemish pictures there, notably the lost Van Eyck; and he was probably using oil more extensively than Bellini before he reached Venice, in particular creating much more dramatic contrasts between light and dark.

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