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.
But the technique of Antonello’s early pictures was rather different from that employed in Flanders. In particular, he did not first draw out his design in detail, while in modeling drapery he did not use many very thin layers in the Flemish manner, but instead modified his colors by the addition of black or white. This strongly implies that he did not have direct contact with Flemish painters of the first rank. It looks as if Antonello’s visit to Venice was important to Bellini in helping him to perfect a technique with which he was already experimenting, but it is also possible that Antonello himself also learned from Bellini.
In the development of oil painting in Italy the crucial element seems to have been access to Flemish pictures, rather than contact with Flemish artists. Works attributed to Van Eyck, Memling, and others were recorded in Venice in the early sixteenth century, some of which must have arrived there even before Antonello’s visit. The Palazzo Grassi exhibition includes a selection of these paintings and of works which must have resembled them, along with Venetian paintings by Antonello and a notable group of early pictures by Bellini. The success of the organizers in obtaining the loan of so many pictures painted on wood panels, the preferred support during the period, which museums are in general reluctant to lend, is unprecedented in recent exhibitions of Venetian art. Thus one can see, in the same room, a Venetian portrait by Antonello and a Flemish portrait attributed to Petrus Christus of a type that Antonello must have seen, with the brightly lit head and upper body of the sitter set against a black background. One can also see portraits by Memling next to others by Bellini supposedly inspired by them; Antonello’s famous painting of Saint Jerome in His Study from the National Gallery in London is placed near a small Flemish panel of the same subject. Another room contains a series of pictures of the crucified Christ, by a Flemish artist, by Antonello and Bellini, and a Pietà by Bellini with a work of a similar theme by Rogier van der Weyden. (See illustrations on this and the preceding page.)
In these pictures it is possible to observe the gradual development of the use of oil in Venice, which is admirably outlined by Jill Dunkerton in the catalog. The organizers, however, have not merely tried to illustrate the process of technical change, but have also made wider claims about the influence of Flemish art on the work of Antonello and especially of Bellini and his Venetian contemporaries. “Influence,” a favorite word among art historians, tends to be used in a rather vague way to refer to the direct borrowing of an individual detail. Such borrowings usually indicate, of course, that the artist had seen the work in question, or something very like it. But they tell us very little about the motives involved—whether plagiarism, explicit quotation, or in response to a request from the patron—and if we are to talk of influence in its more normal sense, it would also seem to apply to cases in which an artist chose not to follow a particular model known to him.
These various possibilities are not really explored in the exhibition or in the catalog, though they may all have been relevant in late-fifteenth-century Venice. And looking at the paintings in the early rooms of the Palazzo Grassi, it is striking that those by Italians look notably different from the Flemish pictures that supposedly “influenced” them. Despite the many claims of individual borrowings made in the catalog, it is evident that the Venetian response to Flemish models was not one of slavish imitation but was highly selective.
Bellini’s portraits do not look much like their supposed models in the work of Memling, which are far more strongly individualized, and his figures and landscapes have very little to do with those of Flanders. For example, in his marvelous but little-known Crucifixion, belonging to a bank in Prato, there is much less stress on Christ’s pain and suffering than in Flemish art, and a more carefully observed rendering of the effects of early evening light in the landscape. Although Bellini’s mastery of the oil technique was essential for the success of this painting, in style he seems here to be looking back to his own earlier work, rather than to any Flemish models.
Most of his output, whether his small Madonnas or his large altarpieces, is even less like the art of Flanders; and the same is true of contemporaries such as Carpaccio or Cima. In short, the Venetians may have admired the technical excellence of the Flemish, but they exploited the oil medium for different effects, with more idealized figures, a less overt display of emotion, and with landscapes in which more emphasis was placed on foreground and middle ground, on naturalistic details and the play of sunlight and shadow.
At several points in the catalog it is claimed that the Venetians tried to emulate Flemish models not merely in style but also in content. Thus it suggested that whenever Jerome, famous for his scholarship and by far the most popular male saint depicted in Venetian houses, is shown in a study surrounded by books and other objects, this reflects, directly or otherwise, Flemish models. Even more dubiously, the idea, originating with Erwin Panofsky, that the realistic details in Flemish art are supposed to be imbued with symbolic meaning is here applied to the art of the Venetians too. Panofsky’s theories are now usually treated with extreme skepticism, which makes their uncritical application to the art of Bellini and Antonello particularly unconvincing. So an inoffensive and peaceful cat, settled quietly outside Saint Jerome’s study in the famous painting by Antonello, is here interpreted as a symbol of impurity and associated with the devil, as is another cat fleeing in panic from Gabriel in a later Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto. Why Saint Jerome or the Virgin Mary should have given house room to the devil is not adequately explained. Far from being satanic, Lotto’s cat need be no more than a mute but eloquent witness to the reality of the Virgin’s angelic visitor, while Antonello’s was presumably just a useful member of Jerome’s monastic community, better at dealing with vermin than his pet lion.
Whereas the first section of the Palazzo Grassi exhibition is about the response of Venetian painters to the art of Flanders, the later sections are increasingly concerned with the impact of Venice on artists from north of the Alps. Pride of place is given to the most talented painter from Northern Europe to visit the city during the Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer, who came first in 1494 and again in 1505, when he painted a famous altarpiece in the church of San Bartolomeo. This work, which was commissioned by the community of German merchants in Venice, is now in Prague, in ruinous condition, but is represented in the exhibition by an early copy, together with several other paintings and drawings that he produced during his trip. As a group these works admirably demonstrate that the response of a painter to a very different tradition is not necessarily straightforward.
Dürer belonged to the first generation of German artists conscious of the difference between their indigenous art and that of the Italians, which they increasingly associated with the prestige of ancient sculpture and architecture. Dürer’s own attitude is well illustrated in the exhibition by his pains-taking copy of Mantegna’s engraved Bacchanal with Silenus, and it is clear that one of the reasons for his trips to Italy, especially the second, was to gain a better understanding of Italian, but not specifically Venetian, artistic ideals.
He believed that the basis of ancient art was proportion and he eventually wrote a book on the subject, but for the most part he produced figures far more strongly individualized than the Venetians considered appropriate for depictions of the Madonna and saints, which they then predictably criticized as not being sufficiently antique. He traveled from Venice to Bologna to learn, as he put it, “the secrets of perspective.” But, as the exhibition shows very well, his attempts to reduce Italian art to a system of rules and principles was doomed to failure, because his own artistic personality was so strong and so different from that of his Italian contemporaries, especially the elderly Giovanni Bellini, whom he rightly considered in 1506 to be still the best painter in Venice.
No Venetian artist shared Dürer’s passion for the observation of nature and none could match his ability to record what he saw, in drawings of unparalleled fluency and vigor. Whereas the Venetians tended to use familiar conventions for figures and landscape, Dürer was fascinated by the ephemeral and the distinctive. Thus in his small picture of a young woman in Venetian dress, evidently painted during his second visit, he adopted a format then popular in Venice. Yet no local artist up to that time had ever endowed a portrait with so much indi-viduality or informality. Whereas the Venetians favored entirely static poses, smooth surfaces, regular lighting, and an objective record of the sitter’s features, Dürer emphasized the transient expression of the face, the slight asymmetry of the mouth, the lively curls flanking the cheek, and the heavy bows of fabric on the dress. In the exhibition comparisons are made between his altarpiece for San Bartolomeo and an earlier work by Bellini, and between his Christ Among the Doctors and earlier compositions by Bellini and Mantegna. But what emerges most strongly is how little these works have in common. Dürer was incapable of idealization; he avoided the lucid spatial organization so prized by the Italians, and his characterization of the faces of saints, developed through his brilliant drawings and expressed with an obsessive concern with outline and plasticity, often verged on caricature.
For their part the Italians admired Dürer above all for the inventiveness of his prints, while his paintings were commended rather grudgingly for their diligence. According to a seventeenth-century physician, Francesco Scanelli, who claimed to have heard the story from a friend of the artist, Titian once met a group of Germans who asserted that Dürer alone had given his pictures a high degree of finish and criticized the Italians for not doing so. Titian had replied that if he had believed this was the ultimate goal of painting he would have followed the German painter’s lead, but nature and the example of the best masters had persuaded him otherwise. Among the Venetians, only Lotto, for example, in an early Madonna with Two Saints, painted in 1506, seems to have tried to emulate the Venetian pictures of Dürer, but even he soon adopted a more seductive type of pictorial surface.
The rest of the exhibition has a less clear focus than the early sections. There are plenty of juxtapositions between Venetian and German or Flemish works, showing for example the imitation by a few young Venetian artists of the exotic type of firelit landscape popularized by Bosch and his followers. But it is not always clear whether we are dealing with Northerners borrowing from Italians or the reverse, or even—and more probably—with a parallel evolution north and south of the Alps. Thus there is a fine selection of Venetian and Northern portraits, but Venetian artists seem to have had little direct exposure to northern portraiture, at least before the 1540s, while the Venetian portraits available north of the Alps were probably confined to works by Paris Bordone in Augsburg and of Titian in the collections of the Habsburgs. A large group of Titian’s paintings for Charles V and his sister Mary of Hungary were in Flanders between 1548 and 1556, when they were sent to Spain, and a smaller selection in the collection of Ferdinand I of Austria disappeared without a trace. Few artists could have seen them.
During the sixteenth century Northern painters were increasingly drawn to Italian models, often transmitted through engravings, but it is difficult to isolate their specific debt to Venice, and even more difficult to understand its importance without a much more comprehensive display of Northern art than could be shown in an exhibition of this kind. More informative was a section devoted to Northern painters who worked in Venice, such as Lambert Sustris, Lodewijck Toeput, and Pauwels Franck (better known as Lodovico Pozzoserrato and Paolo Fiammingo). There has been much research on such artists in recent years, but none of them was particularly talented and it is striking how little we still know, in general, about the activity of visiting foreigners such as these.
Thus it turns out (although some of the evidence is still unpublished) that the Augsburg painter Emanuel Amberger spent at least fifteen years in Venice, longer than any other known German artist of the period, including eleven years working with Titian. But none of his works has been identified and we still have no idea of what he did. The claim made in the exhibition that the principal contribution of Northern artists in Venice was in the production of domestic paintings, usually with landscape settings, is probably correct, although it is unlikely to be true of Amberger. But their surviving works are of only limited interest and historical importance, and these made a rather subdued ending to an exhibition which had begun with a series of masterpieces by artists of the first rank.
The effect would have been very different had the decision not been made to end the show in 1600, because it was in that year that the Northern artist whose work was most profoundly transformed by Venetian painting arrived in the city, namely Rubens. His exposure to Italian art, and especially to the masterpieces of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, was decisive for his own development and for the later history of European painting. When he reached Venice his own style was much less firmly established than that of Dürer had been a century earlier and he had the self-confidence to draw not just on the work of his contemporaries, which does not seem to have greatly impressed him, but on the entire tradition of Venetian sixteenth-century painting. His career underlines the most obvious lesson to be drawn from this ambitious exhibition, that the impact of a foreign artistic idiom is often unpredictable and complex, depending crucially on the talent, temperament, and historical circumstances of the painter involved.
December 2, 1999