Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 7, 2010
Alison Luchs Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture Exh. cat. Washington, DC and New Haven: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC in association with Yale University Press, 2009. 160 pp.; 62 color ills.; 23 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780300156676)
Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, July 4–November 1, 2009
Tullio Lombardo. Bacchus and Ariadne (ca. 1505). Marble. Overall: H. 56 cm, W 71.5 cm, D 22 cm (22 1/16 x 28 1/8 x 7 7/8 in.). Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Kunstkammer.

Renaissance art historians conventionally work in terms of types. Artistic production to a large extent can be thought of in terms of basic forms or categories—portrait, altarpiece, devotional image, etc.—customized according to the requirements of patrons. The artistic culture of Venice in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century saw the production of many objects that frustrate that approach by being insistently sui generis. Among them are a pair of marble reliefs: one signed by the sculptor/architect Tullio Lombardo around 1495, presently in the Ca’d’Oro in Venice, and another, clearly by the same artist, in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. Each depicts a youthful male and female figure, bust length and life-size. If the reliefs are inspired by Roman funerary portraits of married couples, they are also manifestly unlike these in their informality and intimacy, and their enraptured expressions. The females display an idealized nudity, while the male in the Venice example is garlanded in ivy, thus evoking the classical world; but they also frustrate that reading by their possession of the hairstyles and accessories typical of Venice around 1500. We might be inclined to assign them to another category, and to see them as portraits of contemporary Venetians, but there is nothing portrait-like about these expressions: each pair is shown with lips parted, the piercing gaze of the eyes directed heavenward in an evocation—as many have thought—of the act of singing.

The reliefs were displayed together in Vienna in 1992 and were recently reunited at the National Gallery in Washington as the core of an exquisite small exhibition devoted to Tullio. The size of the show reflects the availability of portable works: much of Tullio’s sculpture takes the form of monumental sculptural ensembles produced in association with his family workshop for churches in Venice, Padua, and Treviso. The emotively charged quality of the works displayed in DC acquired an extra pathos given the damage sustained by Tullio’s most important work in North America—the Adam (ca. 1495) in the Metropolitan Museum, broken when its pedestal collapsed in October 2002. That work is still undergoing restoration, and it was hard not to re-imagine the Washington exhibition with the Adam included. Around the Vienna and Venice reliefs were presented two additional reliefs of male figures with a claim to be by Tullio (an exceptional example from Sibiu in Romania and another from the Venetian church of Santo Stefano1), a warrior from the Metropolitan Museum with a provenance from an unknown tomb that appears to be a workshop piece, and an enigmatic half-length relief of St. Sebastian from SS. Apostoli, Venice, reasonably presented as the work of a Tullio follower. Also included were three small reliefs of classical subjects connected with Tullio’s brother Antonio, two expressive female busts by Simone Bianco and Antonio di Giovanni Minello, and an angel now given to Giambattista Bregno but once attributed to Pietro Lombardo, the father of Tullio and Antonio.

What did all this amount to? It provided a sense of Tullio’s centrality in a rising domestic market for collectable objects with secular themes, a market Tullio might be seen to manipulate by creating new kinds of work. The exhibition also managed to convey Tullio’s technical brilliance and intelligence as an artist: the self-consciousness revealed in a letter of 1526 to Marco Casalini is fully apparent, above all his assertion of the power of sculpture to assimilate and even claim to exceed the capacity of other media, such as painting and perhaps even poetry. Luchs and her collaborators rightly underscore the degree to which the rectangular reliefs throw down the gauntlet to painting. It should be underscored that such an insinuation of sculpture as a higher, more evolved form of painting was already forcibly announced by Tullio and his brother Antonio in their tour-de-force façade reliefs of the Scuola di San Marco of ca. 1490, with their perspective illusions of depth combined with narrative scenes (and stately lions) in high relief.

Tullio’s work should be central to any account of the relationship of the early Renaissance to the art of antiquity, but he is seldom given his due in that respect. That is more than likely because he manifests above all the complexity of that relation: received ideas just won’t apply. Direct borrowings from classical antiquity have largely eluded the source hunters: antiquity in his case signals rather a license to invent, most evident in the marvelous marine creatures that form a marginal but assertive counterpoint to the gravitas of the state funerary monuments and in the architectural sculpture of S. Maria dei Miracoli.

Tullio’s tendency to combine patent allusion to classical form with anachronistic elements is a clear affront to a certain vein of post-Warburgian thinking, most familiar from Erwin Panofsky’s assertion that what qualifies a “Renaissance” work of art is a union of classical form with classical content. Renaissance artists needless to say were less teleological in their thinking and artistic behavior. The blending of antique and modern elements seems programmatic and deliberate: it is clearly not a symptom of a general indifference to the distinction of ancient and modern, where modern works could simply stand in for ancient ones. Certainly, sculptors like Riccio in Padua and Antico in Mantua produced works in bronze that could pass for antiquities; in Venice, however, a city with no classical past, the relation to antiquity appears more self-consciously eclectic, even ironically distant. Tullio was producing a cultural hybrid, in acts of artistic imitation designed precisely to register the difference between ancient and modern; in this respect, he was like his contemporary Francesco Colonna, who produced a comparable cultural hybrid in his Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), written in an amalgamation of Greek, Latin, and Trevisan vernacular (the unknown artist of the famous woodcut illustrations modeled one of them, showing a cenotaph for two lovers, on Tullio’s Ca’d’Oro relief).

Another vein of Warburg’s thought seems closer to the mark, however. As Luchs recognized in her 1995 monograph, Tullio Lombardo and Ideal Portrait Sculpture in Renaissance Venice, 1490–1530 (New York: Cambridge University Press), the core of Tullio’s investment in antiquity lay in a concern with pathos, and in his hands this principle self-referentially implicates the art of sculpture itself. Tullio’s work resembles no contemporary work of art, but appears saturated with literary topoi about sculpture as a making of living likenesses: that is, as an art of enlivening. This in large part explains the emphasis on figures in the grip of intense emotion or in absorbed mental states; the capacity to invest these beings with a sense that they are thinking and feeling is the ultimate defiance of the limits of a stony medium. Luchs in 1995 aptly linked Tullio’s experiments in the rendering of emotional states with the treatise De sculptura by his friend Pomponius Gauricus, although that productive direction is not followed up here.

The catalogue in several respects reprises themes from Luch’s 1995 publication; the focus is broadened with an essay by Matteo Ceriana on Tullio as architect. Adriana Augusti’s essay, “The Sculptor in his Cultural Milieu,” is a survey of Venetian art around 1500 and does not fully deliver on the promise of its title. “Cultural milieu” is clearly an area that could have received more attention: it would have been useful to have an account of Tullio’s relations to literary culture, as he leaves his mark in the work of figures like Matteo Colacio, Gauricus, Colonna, Cesare Cesariano, or the sculptor’s own letter to Casalini (since non-specialist readers won’t have ready access to the recent edition of the Tullio documents [see Anna Pizzati and Matteo Ceriana, eds., Tullio Lombardo: Documenti e testimonianze, Verona: Scripta, 2008], it would have been useful to have the text of the letter, mentioned on p. 21 but not in the index). Given Tullio’s connections to Padua, I would propose a link with a recent Petrarchan iconography from the circle of Bartolomeo Sanvito: two late fifteenth-century manuscript frontispieces for the Canzoniere and Trionfi (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, ms L.101–1947, 9 v; and Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, 611, 1v) depict the poet and his Laura half length on a marble stele. The point would not be that the Lombardo reliefs represent Petrarch and Laura, but it would locate them within the literary and social ideals of petrarchismo, itself so self-consciously classical and contemporary. The connection also reinforces the possibility that the two reliefs were designed to be read as fragments of tomb sculpture, transferred to a Venetian portego or studiolo.

Repeatedly in the catalogue, connections are made between Tullio’s reliefs and the art of Giorgione. This is a connection that is unavoidable but which seems at times to be doing too much work, especially when “Giorgione” is unhelpfully characterized in terms of a romantic indifference to meaning. For those of us who have labored to break this mold in Giorgione studies, this is frustrating: the point is that while Giorgione eludes the kind of paraphrase demanded in business-as-usual iconographic studies, which demands the production of a source-text, the artist’s images are no more elusive to interpretation than any other Renaissance artist’s work, including Tullio’s. Ambiguity—or rather polysemy—has a literary and social valence that can be plotted in historical terms. In any case, beyond the fact that both artists produced work that resist category or type—or that dramatically transform the categories “portrait” or “half-length figure,” they are visually quite dissimilar. Giorgione’s figures typically stare confrontationally, if enigmatically, at the viewer; Laura does not, but seems conscious of being looked at. Tullio’s figures, on the other hand—we might aptly describe them as his “characters”—are in the grip of emotions that render them utterly unaware of our presence.

Stephen J. Campbell
Professor, History of Art, Johns Hopkins University

1 The exhibition’s curator, Alison Luchs, has graciously communicated that the catalogue incorrectly describes the background of the Santo Stefano saint (cat. 6) as a modern addition, part of the restoration of 1990–1991. It is in fact original. Prior to the restoration it had been displayed as an isolated bust, fixed to the wall above a door in the sacristy of Santo Stefano with a small plinth below it; the slab had been embedded in the wall and the background covered with stucco.