On view now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is the first group show ever organized in America about Venetian painting of the late sixteenth century. Moderate in scale, the exhibition does not attempt a comprehensive survey of the period. Rather, it pre-sents only the three most important Venetian painters of the time—Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese—and it focuses on a selection of their works that is meant to reveal their mutual influence and competition. The exhibition seeks to demonstrate that the rivalry of the three artists was a major force in the growth of Venetian art.
As Frederick Ilchman rightly observes in the excellent catalog of the show, such a rivalry could only have occurred in Venice, where the art market was fundamentally different than in other Italian Renaissance cities. Venice was a large mercantile republic whose considerable wealth was relatively widely distributed among its richer inhabitants. Private citizens, religious confraternities, and many governmental bodies, such as the senate and the treasury, had both the means and the desire to stand out in the patronage of the arts. Virtually the entire city was an arena of struggle among patrons trying to outdo one another; as a result, there were constant chances for artists to compete for work, as well as enough commissions to keep many excellent painters simultaneously employed.
In contrast, most other Italian cities were governed by a single lord or oligarchy, and the demand for art was usually sufficient to occupy only one dominant painter at a time. Besides Venice, the only exceptions to this rule in the sixteenth century were Florence and Rome, yet comparison with them again shows that the art market in the maritime republic was unique. In Florence many artists flourished under the dominion of the Medici, but this one family had nearly absolute control of prestigious commissions. In Rome the patronage of the arts changed with each new pope, about every ten years or so, and the scale of the most ambitious projects was extraordinarily large, requiring teams of painters and sculptors. These conditions encouraged artists to learn to collaborate rather than compete. Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese painted alongside one another in Venice for thirty years. No other sixteenth-century Italian city could attract and nourish a triumvirate of great painters, or for so long a time.
The three painters may have been rivals, but they were not equals: without question Titian was the apex of the triad. Born around 1488, he was a generation older than Tintoretto and Veronese, who were born about 1518 and 1528, respectively. Titian was recognized as the supreme artist in Venice before the other two were alive; and he was acknowledged to be the greatest painter in Europe before they had even begun their careers. By mid-century Titian painted regularly for the international market, and relatively little for local clients. While Tintoretto and Veronese had to compete for the patronage of Venetian confraternities and government officials, Titian painted pictures for export to the pope and Holy Roman emperor, the most distinguished patrons in Europe.
Moreover, Titian achieved a measure of liberty in the choice of subject matter and interpretation that was without precedent or parallel. Even when working for the most eminent patrons, he often selected the themes of the pictures; he was largely free to decide for himself what aesthetic problems he wanted to examine and resolve. Driven by artistic ambition, Titian was painting for the ages, for immortal renown.
Tintoretto and Veronese, on the other hand, were rivals nearly equal in status and achievement. Throughout their long careers, they served many of the same clients in Venice, and often fought for work and prestige. Furthermore, raised in the shadow of Titian, they always had to contend with his power and his legacy. Brilliant and headstrong, Tintoretto responded to Titian both by imitating him and rebelling against him. He closely studied Titian’s style, and as a youth even briefly trained with the master. Yet he rejected Titian’s manner, replacing the older artist’s method of using many translucent layers of paint with a radically simplified technique that instead emphasized dramatic brushwork laid on in large and bold strokes.1
Tintoretto’s approach to subject matter was very different as well. Throughout his career, Titian aimed for penetrating description of the emotional states of the figures in his pictures. In his narrative paintings, Tintoretto instead chiefly sought to portray the overwhelming power of the divine. For example, in his Baptism of Christ in the last room of the show, the radiance of heaven appears as an explosion of golden and silvery light, and the ghostly bodies of Jesus and Saint John seem to twist and tremble like flashes of fire and smoke. The miracle appears as a moment of profound and sacred mystery.
Titian despised Tintoretto and did everything he could to thwart his career. In part to counter his advancement, Titian promoted Veronese, whom he viewed as something of a pawn and surrogate. Veronese in turn was careful to court Titian’s favor, and he even made his first major picture in Venice as an homage to the older master’s Pesaro Altarpiece. Where in art Titian concentrated on the intensity of emotion and Tintoretto looked for sacred grandeur, Veronese more often seemed content to make alluring pictures, images of abundance and amplitude. His paintings often feature harmonious compositions, soft light, and beautiful colors. For example, his Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood (?) has a gently flowing design, and its color accents—azure, rose, and apple green—are as carefully arranged as notes in a fugue. Veronese also loved to include charming and incidental details, such as the small girl playing with a dog in the foreground of the Supper at Emmaus. He was the most ornamental and decorative of the three artists, and it is indicative of his talent that in the 1560s he made the trompe l’oeil frescoes of elegant figures and lush landscapes in the Villa Barbaro in Maser, possibly the most beautiful private interior of the Venetian Renaissance.
The pictures in the Boston exhibition reveal time and again the fundamental relationship of the three artists. In almost every group of similar canvases, the painting by Titian dates ten or more years before the comparable pictures by Tintoretto and Veronese, and in each case the younger artists seem to be striving to respond to his example. On occasion, as if in anger or frustration, Tintoretto portrays a harsher and more violent treatment of a theme first adopted by Titian. For example, the older master’s Tarquin and Lucretia is haunting and tragic; one senses the vicious lust of the attacker and the pitiful fear of the victim. Tintoretto instead emphasizes the suddenness and brutality of the rape: dragging Lucretia onto the mattress, Tarquin knocks over a bedpost and rips her necklace from her throat, sending pearls flying down onto the floor.
Veronese’s somber Lucretia from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna could not come to the show, and in its place the exhibition offers his Perseus and Andromeda, depicting Perseus’ rescue of the beautiful Andromeda from a sea monster. It is telling that this image is an explicit tribute to Titian’s earlier masterpiece of the same theme (now in the Wallace Collection, London), and that the gracefully contorted pose of Andromeda is based on a mannerist sculpture by Giambologna. This painting shows more concern for references to other works of art than for narrative credibility or emotional power, and with its pretty heroes and silly sea monster it looks like the illustration of a fairy tale.
One section of the show features several altarpieces and other large religious narrative pictures by the artists. In the first quarter of the sixteenth century, Titian had revolutionized this genre of painting with two startlingly innovative works. For the high altar of the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, he painted the Assunta, a colossal vision of the ascent of Mary into heaven, and for the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo he made the now lost SaintPeter Martyr altarpiece, which was famous for its moving depiction of the saint’s murder. These paintings introduced a new and large dose of strong action and sharp emotion in the altarpiece, far different from the meditative calm typical of the sacred pictures of Giovanni Bellini and other Venetian painters of the previous generation. Later in his career, Titian made very few altarpieces, but each of these, such as the Annunciation in the church of San Salvador and the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence now in the church of the Gesuiti, was a work of singular creativity. All these paintings are too large and too precious to be moved, and unfortunately, there are no major examples of Titian’s religious narratives in the show.
The exhibition does include powerful pictures by the two younger artists, who dominated the market for altarpieces in Venice during the second half of the sixteenth century. Especially striking is the pairing of Veronese’s Virgin and Child with Angels Appearing to Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit and Tintoretto’s Temptation of Saint Anthony. Made on the same large scale, and depicting the same saint in virtually the same pose, these works exemplify both the independence and the rivalry of the two artists.
Also noteworthy is the comparison of Veronese’s Temptation of Saint Anthony and Tintoretto’s Saint Augustine Healing the Lame, paintings that show the artists’ fascination with the canon of heroic figures in central Italian art. Inspired by Michelangelo’s design for an unexecuted statue, Veronese here depicted Saint Anthony sprawling on the ground as a savage demon crouches over him and ferociously beats him with the hoof of an ass. The show’s selection of works by Veronese does not always reveal him at his best, but this nightmare image fully displays his power and genius.
One of the high points of the exhibition is the group of portrait paintings it has brought together. We take it for granted that a portrait should capture something of the individual character as well as the physical appearance of the person it represents. This ideal was pioneered in the Renaissance, above all by Titian and other Venetian painters of the sixteenth century.
Looking at his powerful image of Pope Paul III in the show, several characteristics of Titian’s portraits strike me as particularly fundamental to his achievement. One is the use of his gift for extraordinary fidelity in the representation of textures to create an impression of immediacy. The crushed red velvet of the pope’s chair and purse, the heft of his thick cope, the near translucency of his elderly skin, and the dry silkiness of his gray hair and beard all contribute to creating an intensely physical sense of his presence. He appears to be seated right in front of you, as if you could reach out and touch him.
Furthermore, Titian understood that expressions are not static, but instead manifested through subtle and transitory actions of the muscles of the face. In all his paintings, and especially his portraits, he recorded the details of facial movements with unprecedented accuracy, and painted the fall of light to increase the sense of their implicit motion. Standing before Paul III, for example, you feel that the Pope has just turned his head, and that he is arching one eyebrow as he focuses his gaze on you. His penetrating and world-weary regard is utterly gripping: it is hard to turn away.
The sense of engagement this produces was not unique to Titian’s painting; directness of emotional appeal is found in a number of the most important portraits of the early sixteenth century, such as Raphael’s canvas of Baldassare Castiglione. But Titian was the first artist to make a sense of intimate rapport between the sitter and the viewer a regular characteristic of portraiture. His Pope Paul III shows why Titian was perhaps the most innovative portrait painter in European history, and gazing upon this picture it is easy to think of the many artists he influenced, from Rubens, Velázquez, and Rembrandt in the seventeenth century to Courbet, Degas, and Manet in the nineteenth.
The strongest gallery in the Boston exhibition is the one dedicated to paintings of the female nude. This room is marked off from the rest of the exhibition by its dramatic decoration: the walls are painted a deep red, and its entrances are draped with scarlet curtains. While this could have had the lurid feel of a bordello, the effect is more of some private sanctum in the palace of the imagination. These paintings exemplify the new liberty in the depiction of erotic and romantic subject matter that occurred in Venice in the sixteenth century. One reason for the rise of what Francis Haskell has termed the “bachelor culture” of the city may have had to do with its marriage customs.2 Seeking to preserve honor and capital, rich families typically concentrated wealth in the dowry of the eldest daughter, and sent all the other girls to convents. As a result, there was a chronic shortage of potential brides, and many men turned to courtesans for companionship. It has been estimated that about ten thousand of Venice’s 150,000 inhabitants were prostitutes.
Moreover, in sixteenth-century Venetian culture there was unprecedented concern for accurate description in accounts of sexual desire. An example of this is found in the work of Pietro Bembo, the great writer, historian, and theorist, who was a friend of both Giovanni Bellini and Titian as well as a famous lover of women. (Lucrezia Borgia was among his conquests.) In 1505 he published a dialogue on love, Gli Asolani, which was one of the most popular books in the sixteenth century. The text ends with a celebration of Neoplatonic transcendence, yet most of the book is a long and scrupulously detailed depiction of the pains and pleasures of romantic passion; in the realism of its observations this part of the book will remind many readers today more of a modern novel than of Plato or Dante.
The great glory of the pictures on view is Titian’s Danaë from the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, which is here exhibited in the United States for only the second time. Celebrated even before it was completed around 1546, the painting has attracted a long and diverse list of admirers, from Michelangelo and Vasari, who praised it in the sixteenth century, to Hermann Göring, who stole it in 1943. Despite its somewhat abraded condition, it is easy to see what has caused excitement for nearly five hundred years.
The picture represents nubile Danaë reclining naked on a bed as Zeus comes to her in the form of a shower of gold. Lost in a reverie of affection and desire, she has just sunk back onto the pillow and mattress, as she grips the sheet with one hand, and parts her legs to receive the manifestation of her lover. The earlier great paintings of a recumbent nude—Giorgione and Titian’s Dresden Venus and Titian’s Venus of Urbino —depict the woman lying motionless. But this picture is a narrative, and the story it tells refers explicitly to the grip and languor of sexual climax and release. No wonder in the first description of the painting in 1543 it is said that this picture would make the Venus of Urbino look like a passionless nun.
The light and color of the painting increase its erotic allure. The illumination streaming into the picture falls caressingly across Danaë’s skin, and the shadows cast by her right leg on her left leg, and by her left breast on her left arm, are soft and hazy. Moreover, Titian has ringed her entire form with a wavering umber outline that seems to radiate a tender glow; this adds to the impression of the warmth and weight of her body. The application of paint is lush and tactile: the strokes that form the drapery on her leg still bear the trace of Titian’s brush where it touched her thigh.
In recent decades there has been considerable discussion of the male gaze and the objectification of women in depictions of the female nude. Looking at some of the paintings in this gallery, with their odd mix of prurience and idealization, it is easy to understand this analysis. For instance, the naked women in Tintoretto’s Danaë and Veronese’s Venus with a Mirror do not appear to think or feel; they are bodies but not persons. The experience Titian’s painting urges on the viewer is of a completely different kind, for it asks you to identify with Danaë. The painting is told from her point of view: it is a picture of her experience and response—that is to say, of her subjective state—not just of her body, and it is meant to induce empathy with her. Yet this strong sense of rapport with Danaë is the ultimate source of the emotional and erotic power of the picture. As no other artist before, Titian conveys that part of the attraction of sexual love is the empathy that comes from union with another human being.
In 1576, the year of Titian’s death, the Venetian philosopher Antonio Persio published a Treatise on the Human Mind, where he said that the healthiest children are produced by sex between lovers who feel “the most intense passion and emotion of the soul so that their spirits are joined together.” Then, remarkably, he added:
I do not know how better to explain this than by analogy with the great Titian, the father of painting. As I have heard from his own mouth and from those who were present when he was working, when he wanted to draw or paint some figure, and had before him a real man or woman, that person would so affect his sense of sight, and his spirit would enter into what he was representing in such a way that he seemed to be conscious of nothing else, and it appeared to those who saw him that he had gone into an ecstasy. Through this absorption, he obtained in his works little less than another Nature, reproducing so well her flesh and blood.3
Titian has always been praised for his brushwork and handling of paint, and rightly so. But his innovative technique was merely a servant of his capacity for empathy. As few other artists, he can make the viewer imagine in vivid detail the experience of the figures portrayed—whether the sensual fulfillment of a young woman such as Danaë or the spiritual anxiety of an old man such as Saint Jerome in the Wilderness.
The curators of the show propose that the rivalry of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese helped to create two basic components of the modern concept of art: the use of oil on canvas as the primary medium of painting, and the emphasis on distinctive individual style as a key to professional success. Going through the exhibition, one sees these points, but something else stands out as well. Painters in sixteenth-century Venice greatly expanded the range of emotion and experience that could be recorded in art. In comparison with the physical presence of Titian’s Danaë, the nude in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus looks like a bloodless abstraction. In comparison with the fierce and noble temperaments evident in Tintoretto’s portrait of Sebastian Venier, and Veronese’s portrait of Agostino Barbarigo, Piero della Francesca’s Federigo da Montefeltro looks like an emblem of an ideal.
From antiquity through the early Renaissance, much of visual art concentrated on the depiction of moral exempla. Although artists and patrons in Venice still sought images of ideal figures, they insisted that this imagery be rooted in a more subtle and insightful interpretation of human life and character. This blend of the ideal and the natural was new in the sixteenth century, and it was presented with such great force that it can still grip our attention five hundred years later.
See my “Brush with Genius,” The New York Review, April 26, 2007. ↩
Francis Haskell, “Titian—A New Approach?,” in Tiziano e Venezia: Convegno Internazionale di Studi, Venezia 1976 (Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 1980), p. 42. ↩
Antonio Persio, Trattato dell’ingegno dell’uomo (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1576), p. 98. First quoted by Charles Hope, Titian (London: Jupiter, 1980), pp. 169–170. On the basis of the Italian, I have modified Hope’s translation slightly. I am grateful to Professor Tomaso Montanari for his advice on this. ↩