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…

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