Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 23, 2010
Edgar Peters Bowron, ed. Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting Exh. cat. Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Houston: High Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2010. 108 pp.; 50 color ills. Cloth $29.95 (9780300166859)
Exhibition schedule: High Museum of Art, Atlanta, October 16, 2010–January 2, 2011; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, February 5–May 1, 2011; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, May 21–August 14, 2011
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio). Diana and Callisto (1556–59). Oil on canvas. 187.00 x 204.5 cm. Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland (Bridgewater Loan, 1945).

A small but impressive exhibition, Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting brought twelve drawings and thirteen paintings from the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh to the United States for a three-city tour in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Houston. Six of the paintings were from the Bridgewater Collection (on long-term loan to the National Gallery), of which four have been purchased by the museum. In Atlanta (where it was seen by this reviewer), the twenty-five works were well displayed in four galleries, the first devoted to Venetian drawings, the remainder exhibiting a concise history of sixteenth-century Venetian painting with works by Lorenzo Lotto, Giovanni Cariani, Titian, Jacopo Bassano, Paris Bordone, Paolo Veronese, and Jacopo Tintoretto. The highlight of the exhibition, and perhaps its reason for being, was the loan of Titian’s spectacular pair of canvases painted between 1556 and 1559 for King Philip II of Spain, the Diana and Actaeon (cat. 8), jointly purchased by the National Galleries of Scotland and London from the 7th Duke of Sutherland in 2009, and the Diana and Callisto (cat. 9), which the museums hope to acquire from him in the near future. These paintings, which had never before traveled to the United States, were shown alongside much earlier works painted by Titian between 1517 and 1520, The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and an Unidentified Male Saint (cat. 3) and his Venus Anadyomene (cat. 4), giving a succinct yet effective synopsis of the painter’s religious and mythological works.

The remainder of the paintings were organized thematically in two galleries. The first, entitled “Power and Piety,” provided a summation of Venetian religious painting, beginning with a small sacra conversazione of about 1504–6 by Lotto (cat. 1), which includes the Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome, Peter, Francis, and a female saint who could be Clare, though her violet hood raises doubts about this otherwise plausible identification. Typical of the horizontal-format devotional pictures made popular by Giovanni Bellini, Lotto’s painting reflects Bellini’s far-reaching impact in its function, composition, chiaroscuro, vibrant color, lush landscape, and “fervid intensity of the saints’ spiritual longing” (14). Venetian religious narrative was exemplified by Jacopo Bassano the Elder’s lively Adoration of the Magi of 1542 (cat. 5), Paris Bordone’s lush Rest on the Flight into Egypt of the 1540s (cat. 6), and Tintoretto’s haunting Christ Carried to the Tomb of around 1565 (cat. 11). The rest of the paintings were gathered under the heading “Patronage and Private Lives,” showing a mix of the portraiture and erotic pictures so favored by the Venetian elite. A Portrait of a Gentleman of around 1580 by a follower of Tintoretto (cat. 13) represented the more traditional end of Venetian portraiture while a curious St. Agatha painted around 1516 by Giovanni Cariani (cat. 2) may be an idealized portrait owing to her fashionable dress, hairstyle, and portrait-like features. A fragment of the grand altarpiece painted around 1563 by Veronese for San Francesco in Lendinara (now divided between Edinburgh, London, Ottawa, and Austin) shows the patron Antonio Petrobelli with his name saint (cat. 10). The sudden popularity of erotic subject matter is well represented by Paris Bordone’s “sensuously provocative” Venetian Women at their Toilet of about 1545 (p. 42, cat. 7) and Veronese’s humorous Venus, Mars, and Cupid painted around 1580–85 (cat. 12), both of which complemented the mythological nudes by Titian exhibited nearby.

The fourth gallery, which opened the show in Atlanta, displayed thirteen drawings, two double-sided (cat. 23, 25), to demonstrate the range of functions drawings served in Venetian workshops—from studies of tone, light, shadow, and composition (cat. 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 23), to drawings scaled for transfer (cat. 22, 24), to highly finished drawings intended for sale as finished works of art (cat. 15, 18). Like the selected paintings, the drawings offer an overview of Venetian draftsmanship with selections by Jacopo Palma il Vecchio, Pordenone, Lotto, Domenico Campagnola, Battista Franco, Jacopo Tintoretto, Veronese, and Jacopo Palma il Giovane. These works help counter the lingering perception, influenced by the claims of Michelangelo and Vasari that Venetians lacked disegno, that drawing was relatively unimportant to the Venetian artist. Though of varying quality, highlights included two sensitively rendered portrait drawings. The first, a vigorous sketch in black and white chalk on blue paper made by Palma Vecchio around 1510–15 (cat. 14), may be a self-portrait. It shares the “soft and scattered light on the skin and beard, the intelligent and probing eyes” of a second chalk drawing by Lotto of around 1535–40 (p. 16, cat. 17). Though slightly faded, this sheet shows a bearded man in three-quarter view, who may be his friend Bartolomeo Carpan, as “an intensely alert, and yet possibly idiosyncratic or difficult person” in “an attempt to capture the character of an individual” (16). A compositional sketch showing a seated nude facing right with legs outstretched and leaning back on a bent left arm while two others lean and bend toward him has been attributed to Titian in the early 1550s (cat. 19). Drawn in black and white chalk on faded blue paper, the drawing has also been given to Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano. Given the lack of consensus on Titian’s draftsmanship, the drawing’s attribution will remain debated, though the connection to Titian’s Adoration of the Trinity (“La Gloria”) painted for Emperor Charles V between 1551 and 1554 is persuasive (75–76, fig. 16).

The accompanying catalogue opens with an essay by Michael Clarke that provides a history of the Bridgewater Collection’s formation and partial display at Scotland’s National Gallery. Built by Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater and 6th Earl of Bridgewater (d. 1803), the collection began with his remarkable acquisition of slightly more than half of the group assembled by the Duc d’Orléans and sold in 1797–98. Upon Egerton’s death, the collection passed to his nephew Earl Gower (d. 1838), the 1st Duke of Sutherland, ultimately becoming the property of the 6th Duke of Sutherland (d. 2000), who was responsible for placing the collection’s major pictures on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland in 1945. Gower had renovated his uncle’s London home at Cleveland House (renamed Bridgewater House in 1847) to include a picture gallery, which Gustav Waagen described as taking “the first rank among all the collections of paintings in England” (7). The collection continued to grow over the middle decades of the nineteenth century under the watch of Gower’s second son, Lord Francis Leveson-Gower, 1st Earl of Ellesmere, remaining at Bridgewater House until its evacuation from London to Mertoun House in the Scottish Borders during the Second World War. At the war’s conclusion, the future 6th Duke of Sutherland requested that the collection’s most outstanding pictures be moved to the National Gallery of Scotland for safe-keeping, where they have remained on display and have continued to inspire acquisitions to round out the museum’s collection of Old Masters. Several of the Bridgewater pictures have been purchased by the Gallery, and the 7th Duke of Sutherland has agreed to lend the remainder of his collection until at least 2030.

Clarke’s history is followed by a longer essay by Andrew Butterfield that contextualizes the National Gallery of Scotland’s Venetian works in a well-written overview of Venetian painting. Butterfield begins by exploring the importance of Venice to the Renaissance and the “unique character” of the city’s art, with its advanced use of oil painting, free approach to compositional organization, deep understanding of classical subjects, and profound portrayal of emotion and character (11). After reviewing the major picture types explored by Venetian painters (religious, erotic, and commemorative), Butterfield focuses on Titian, beginning with an excursus on the six mythologies painted for Philip II, including the two Diana canvases on view in the exhibition (16–21), and closing with a discussion of Titian’s engagement with tragic drama and poetry (21–24). Concluded with a bibliographic note, Butterfield’s essay provides an excellent framework for Scotland’s Venetian works while concisely reviewing the history of Venetian Renaissance art. The catalogue entries and summary list of provenances and selected references for each displayed work are adapted from the 2004 publication The Age of Titian: Venetian Renaissance Art from Scottish Collections by Peter Humfrey and Aidan Weston-Lewis (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland), thus providing American audiences with a sense of the Venetian treasures to be found in Edinburgh.

Anne Leader
Editor, IASblog, Italian Art Society