Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 2, 2009
Frederick Ilchman, ed. Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice Boston: MFA Publications, 2009. 315 pp.; 168 color ills. $40.00 (9780878467402)
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, March 15–August 16, 2009; Musée du Louvre, Paris, September 14, 2009–January 4, 2010
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Jacopo Tintoretto. Susannah and the Elders (ca. 1555–56). Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Gemäldegalerie. Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Comparison stands as one of the central foundations of art history. Well before the Wolfllinian model of left and right slides dominated classroom lectures, writers such as Pliny the Elder told stories of comparison and its more worldly iteration, competition between artists. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric of rivalry predominates aesthetic appraisals and theoretical discussions of Italian Renaissance art and artists, giving rise to a critical category referred to as the paragone, or comparison, in which different media, regions, and artists serve as counterpoints. Common dyads in the comparison include painting and sculpture, colore and disegno, Venice and Florence; but there were often competitive situations staged rhetorically or actually within any one of these categories. The storied competition for the bronze reliefs on the doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1400–1, for example, has long been held to herald symbolically the beginning of the Renaissance.

The spectacular exhibition Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, focuses on a sixteenth-century rivalry in a city, which, with its insistent emphasis on civic harmony and stability, is not often associated with competition. The curator, Frederick Ilchman, pulled off an admirable feat by bringing to the United States fifty-six important paintings—many for the first time ever—by the three Venetian masters. Displayed in roughly chronological order and spanning the years leading up to the rivalry (1500–45) and including the four decades in which all three artists worked (1545–80), the pictures are grouped in six rooms by subject matter and/or composition to exemplify the artistic conversation. One can only imagine the administrative and diplomatic complexity of negotiating these interdependent loans in which a thematic point rests on not one picture but on two or three. Perhaps because of the practical challenges involved in mounting such an ambitiously themed exhibition, the show seems more flexibly and productively configured than Renaissance exhibitions in recent memory, with many pictures potentially exemplifying several of the thematic categories (such as Titian’s Christ Carrying the Cross [1565–70]), which demonstrates the shift from panel to canvas explored in the first room while also evoking the late style explored in the final room). Both Ilchman and the Museum of Fine Arts deserve hearty congratulations for bringing to Boston such a stunningly beautiful and ambitiously conceived exhibition.

The first room introduces the viewer to the beginnings of the three-way rivalry through three subthemes: the preference for oil paint on canvas, the training and early unchallenged career of Titian, and the emergence in the mid-1540s of Tintoretto and Veronese as potential rivals. Their paths often literally crossed as cleverly indicated at the exhibition’s entrance with color-coded dots of their activity on a reproduction of the Jacopo de’Barbari ca. 1500 view of Venice. This first room follows a circuitous path to the rivalry by orienting the exhibition around two different historical moments, 1500 and the mid-1540s, resulting in the impression, not altogether incorrect, that Titian spent the first half of his career in conversation with himself (suggested by the wonderfully evocative pairing of the Venus Rising from the Sea [ca. 1520] and Flora [ca. 1516–18]) and the second half as the protagonist of the rivalry. The exhibition essentially omits the impact of Michelangelo, or any other artist outside of the triad, on these Venetian painters. The three pictures chosen to exemplify the beginnings of the Venetian rivalry, a papal portrait and two dramatic narrative pictures—Titian’s Pope Paul III (1543), Veronese’s Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood(?) (ca. 1548), and Tintoretto’s Esther before Ahasuerus (ca. 1547–48)—reinforce the influential pull that Titian would have in this triangle, operating at first almost independently of the two younger artists, in part because of his extra-Venetian clientele. The grouping also serves to establish the distinctive formal personalities of the three painters as conceived by the exhibition: Titian’s constricted compositions executed with open brushwork, Tintoretto’s populated and energetic narratives, and Veronese’s bold, bright palette. However true these characterizations might be, especially given the specific paintings on view, they also serve in the exhibition and catalogue as foils for the imagined personalities of the artists themselves: Titian personifies the mature painter who resents the new reckless and sometimes scheming upstart, Tintoretto; and Veronese, like any good middle sibling, happily mediates between the two. Formalism, biography, and agency frequently intertwine in causal relationships.

There is plenty of historical evidence—via Vasari, Ridolfi, Boschini, etc.—to suggest that these characterizations in the exhibition are not too far afield. However, the exhibition and catalogue do not fully engage with the rhetoric of artistic rivalry, too often using the themes developed in these early modern texts as a lens for understanding, even projecting, artistic intentions and personal reactions (see, for example, pp. 112–13). Very little space is left for the possibility of positive admiration that underpins imitation, even if we bracket the prevailing Venetian ethos of harmony and the coexistence of contemporaries in a small city and limit our conception to the literary concept inherited from antiquity and impersonally and transhistorically practiced through texts. Rivalry sensationalizes influence and emulation, as Renaissance writers and artists were keenly aware, and brings a vague historical context, or at least a circumstantial specificity, to formal relationships among works of art. This is not necessarily a weakness for an exhibition. Indeed, one of the central strengths of this show is its focus on the structure and rudiments of pictorial composition, including the application of paint, in the astute and often beautifully articulated formal descriptions in both the wall text and the catalogue. This is an exhibition about painting that teaches viewers how to look closely at Venetian Renaissance painting and, given the reflexivity of the theme, is understandably not a show that concerns itself with broader socio-historical contexts and material culture. The exhibition does not take full advantage of some of the opportunities to recreate the experience of viewing these pictures, especially in the example of the masterfully hung ceiling painting, Tintoretto’s Contest between Apollo and Marsyas (1544–45), which looms over the same painter’s small Self-Portrait (ca. 1546–47) on the adjacent wall. Tintoretto’s bold depiction of himself evokes the mythological representation of artistic bravura above, but does not recreate the complex interactions between ceiling and wall paintings in Venetian palaces and institutions.

The second room, titled “Sacred Themes,” initiates the categorical study of the rivalry with one theme per room that continues for the remainder of the exhibition. The collection of pictures comprehensively exemplifies the varied locations—churches, church organs, monasteries, government buildings, scuole, and private homes—and functions of Venetian Renaissance devotional painting. The elevated ceilings and white walls contrast with the surrounding rooms’ darkened, more intimate spaces, and, although intended to give the sense of a Palladian church interior, mostly fail to transcend the “white cube” effect of the museum. The pictures themselves, with pictorial flourishes of reflections in armor, still-life details, and daring foreshortenings, remind viewers of the close connection between pictorial skill and faith in the Renaissance and also of the eloquence of pathos in these human dramas. The star of the room is undoubtedly Tintoretto’s monumental, yet hauntingly private mid-1550s Deposition of Christ (restored for this exhibition), in which five figures form a collapsing wreath at the base of the truncated cross that condenses the humility and dramatic piety of Tintoretto’s religious pictures.

The third room, “Beneath the Surface,” makes admirable use of the MFA’s self-acknowledged weak collection of Venetian Renaissance painting to elucidate pictorial practice through technical examination. Three paintings—Titian’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria at Prayer (ca. 1567), Veronese’s Jupiter and a Nude (1560s), and Tintoretto’s Nativity (late 1550s, reworked 1570s)—hang above their superimposed x-rays and infrared reflectograms to reveal pentimenti, multiple hands of the workshop, creative recycling of abandoned canvases, and use of underdrawing. The wall text clearly explains the technical tools and methods and breaks down into defined stages the often difficult interpretation of the results, especially when unexpected as in the case of Tintoretto’s Nativity. The suggestion that this palimpsest-like picture could have been a temporary cover for the Pala d’Oro in San Marco seems plausible given the subject matter, but unlikely considering the difference in dimensions and the quality of the picture for such a significant location. Regardless of its validity, the proposal gives the public a sense of how paintings were used in everyday life.

The red velvet curtain pulled aside from the doorway to the fourth room indicates a change in tone in moving from the laboratory to the bedroom with “Mythological Nudes.” However kitschy the curtain, the stunning collection of female nudes reminds viewers of the Venetian origins for the sensuous representation of flesh and fabric and for the generic categories of the recumbent nude female and the woman before a mirror in Western art. It is staggering to have in a single room Titian’s Danaë (1544–46), Venus with an Organist and a Dog (ca. 1550), Venus with a Mirror (ca. 1555), and Venus and Adonis (ca. 1555–60). The comparisons with Tintoretto’s Danaë (ca. 1580) and Susannah and the Elders (ca. 1555–56) and Veronese’s Mars and Venus United by Love (mid-1570s) indicate both their indebtedness to Titian’s occupation with the female figure and their transformation of these goddesses from sensuous flesh into symbolic figures (see David Rosand’s discussion of this shift in the catalogue essay, “Allegories of Love and Fertility,” esp. pp. 101–4).

Perhaps because of this inundation of depicted women, it was difficult not to notice the striking absence of women in the following room, “Portraiture.” With the exception of Veronese’s charming portrait of Livia da Porto Thiene and Her Daughter Porzia (ca. 1551), here happily reunited with its pendant Iseppo da Porto and His Son Adriano (ca. 1551), the room displays portraits of austere men in somber clothes. (One slight exception is Titian’s endearing 1542 child portrait of Ranuccio Farnese.) The catalogue notes the relative scarcity of Renaissance portraits of women, in part because of the additional costs of depicting women in a private location (pp. 197–98). These pictures do exist, though, both as allegorical half-lengths and as representations of historical women, and by not including them (or mentioning them more extensively in the wall text) the exhibition misses a productive opportunity to raise to visitors the visual expression of gender construction in Renaissance Venice.

The last room, “Late Styles,” explores some of the final pictures executed by the three painters at the end of their lives. Following the recent exhibition in Vienna and Venice of late Titian paintings, the current one also understands the loose brushwork and restricted palette that predominate his paintings from 1550 until his death in 1576 as deliberate aesthetic choices rather than as indications of unfinished work. But, like those exhibitions, this last room does not completely discard the notion that these stylistic changes resulted in part from physical disabilities of old age. The direct challenge to the idea of a late style as an inevitable, transhistorical phenomenon comes from the very works that are chosen to illustrate its extension to the three-way rivalry. All of the later paintings by Tintoretto and Veronese could be seen as demonstrating some aspect of Titian’s later style, but, given the theme of rivalry, one wonders if the shared qualities have more to do with emulation of that specific painter rather than with biological determinations of stylistic evolution. The two Baptisms (ca. 1580) by Tintoretto and Veronese respond to Titian’s powerfully abstract Deposition (1559), and the terrific grouping of Saint Jeromes (1575–80) and the inclusion of the new genre of dog painting (cat. nos. 48–49) suggest that something less personal and more pivotal is beginning to occur in the later decades of the sixteenth century in Venetian painting.

The beautifully produced exhibition catalogue includes only color reproductions of the paintings in the exhibition and of supportive examples referenced in the essays, and the many details allow the reader to observe the painting techniques of the three painters. There are four thematic essays that address the rivalry (Ilchman), patronage (Patricia Fortini Brown), collecting (Linda Borean), and materials and technique (Robert Wald). Instead of standalone catalogue entries for each object, the paintings are more productively clustered together based on subject, iconography, or composition for themed essays that frame their formal comparisons against the background of rivalry. Some of the discussion in the essays seems familiar and is sometimes repeated within the essays themselves. (Indeed, some contributions reprise sections of earlier publications.)

These small points aside, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice is all that a blockbuster show should be: ambitious, smart, stunning, and rare.

Jodi Cranston
Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Boston University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.