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Splendore a Venezia: Art and Music from the Renaissance to Baroque in Venice at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts included 120 works of art, music manuscripts, and musical instruments as a means to explore the connections between music and art in the Serenissima between 1488 and the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. Curator Hilliard T. Goldfarb states the premise of the exhibition in the catalogue: “the remarkable interface of these forms of artistic expression that rose to such extraordinary and influential creative heights during the period . . . have not been previously explored in a single exhibition” (20).
The show was divided into three major themes: Art and Music in the Public Sphere; Art and Music in the Private Realm; and Art, Music and Mythology. The organization of the eight rooms further subdivided these themes, which were designated by wall text: Processions and Music, Musicians, Concerts, Popular Music, Ospedali and Scuole, and Mythology and Opera.
The exhibition design was exceptionally beautiful with dramatic but ample lighting, piped in period music (and audio guides with specific musical pieces to go with a particular work of art or instrument), a gorgeous color scheme, and surprising visual treats, such as the cutout silhouette of San Marco and a Venetian palace with windows through which one could view an actual Venetian gondola. Guillaume Lord, who has designed sets for major ballet and theatrical productions across Canada, was the exhibition designer.
The first room included portraits of the doges, including wonderful likenesses of a member of the Foscari family by Tintoretto (ca. 1555–60) and of Francesco Venier by Titian (ca. 1554–56). The red brocade seen in the Tintoretto portrait was also visible in the procurator’s robe displayed in the center of the room with a corno ducale (doge’s crown). In the second room, Canaletto and Francesco Guardi’s Venetian vistas and Matteo Pagano’s Procession of the Doge of Venice series (ca. 1556–61) were displayed along the walls, while gorgeous eighteenth-century lanterns and musical instruments used in such ceremonies were placed in the middle of the room. These sorts of connections between performance, costume, art, musical instruments, and books were a repeated and delightful aspect of the exhibition.
In the third and fourth rooms, which focused on musicians and concerts, were Titian’s Interrupted Concert (1511–12) and an eighteenth-century copy of Veronese’s Marriage at Cana, as well as paintings of artists posing with musical instruments and manuscripts, like Marietta Robusti’s (called La Tintoretta) Self-Portrait with a Madrigal (ca. 1580). A virginal was placed in the middle of the third room along with examples of musical manuscripts, while an upper platform area filled with glass cases of various instruments appeared in the fourth gallery. In the Concerts section there was also Ottaviano dei Petrucci’s rare Odhecaton A (1501), the first musical score printed with movable type, and still-life paintings of instruments, such as Evaristo Baschenis’s Still Life with Musical Instruments (ca. 1665–70).
The fifth room dealt with popular music in Venice. Creatively conceived, the room had yellow walls with arched Venetian window cutouts and view of the gondola, evoking the city’s singing gondoliers. Further conjuring that image and experience were the gondoliers’ song books and prints and paintings such as Giacomo Franco’s Music on the Grand Canal (a print from the album Habiti d’huomini e donne venetiane [ca. 1610]) and Bernardo Strozzi’s Street Musicians (ca. 1634–37).
The sixth room focused on two Venetian institutions, the Scuole and the Ospedali. Performances in these spaces were a major element of musical culture of the period. Antonio Vivaldi composed many of the productions performed in them, and the first edition of the Four Seasons (1725) was shown in this room. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s oil sketch of the Coronation of the Virgin for the ceiling of the Ospedale della Pietà (ca. 1754) and Canaletto’s The Feast Day of Saint Roch (ca. 1735) were also on display.
The seventh room was dedicated to mythology and opera in Venice, with paintings inspired by some of the same themes as musical compositions of the period. A very practical and direct connection between painting and musical instruments was seen with Tintoretto’s The Concert of the Muses and other Goddesses (ca. 1545) and Sebastiano Ricci’s Venus Surrounded by Nymphs (1718), which both functioned as painted harpsichord covers. The final room of the exhibition was dedicated to opera. Here, a video of opera performances played, and ample wall text explained the birth of opera in Venice at the Teatro di San Cassian in 1637.
Considerable musical programming accompanied the exhibition. There were twenty concerts of period music performed at the museum’s Bourgie Hall by the Orchester Jakobsplatz München, the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, and other individual and ensemble performers. ATMA Classique also released an album entitled Splendore a Venezia to accompany the exhibition. The cross-disciplinary nature of the exhibition, its great visual beauty, and its innovative organization and display are to be commended. It was lovely to see so many visitors deeply engaged with an exhibition.
The exhibition catalogue, Art and Music in Venice, maintains the same tripartite organization as the show—Public Ceremonies, The Private Sphere, and Mythology and Opera—and contains essays by musicologists, book scholars, and art historians. It is a beautifully illustrated and handsomely bound volume with a mix of general essays and essays aimed at specialists. This unevenness is also true in terms of the quality of the essays and their engagement with the interdisciplinary aims of the exhibition. There are important lacunae: for example, an essay on art and public ceremony is missing from the Public Ceremonies section, which deals exclusively with music. Indeed, the illustrated works section at the end of this and every section is where the entries with information on the artworks are appended. But appended is exactly how it seems—a sort of afterthought to the essays with little connection or integration.
Significant exceptions to this observation are the essays by Francesco Del Torre Scheuch and Eugene Johnson. Del Torre Scheuch’s “Melodies in Images: Depictions of Musicians in Venice from the Cinquecento to the Settecento” offers a study of the phenomenon of music and the act of making music becoming an independent theme in painting in sixteenth-century Venice. Paintings of multiple or individual persons participating in musical performance often have evident subthemes of love and poetry. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the subjects and the approach to their depiction became increasingly populist, with representations of musicians being less of a statement regarding social stature and noble behavior and more about the widespread nature of musical performance in the homes of all social classes and performances in public theaters.
Eugene Johnson’s “Inventing the Opera House in Seventeenth-Century Venice” examines the seminal role of the architecture of the Venetian opera house. Sadly, all seicento theaters are gone, but Johnson is able to reconstruct their appearance and organization based on visual evidence and contemporary accounts. He gives a fascinating history of the boxes used for seating and for signaling social stature, the “moats” that separated the audience from the performers, and the increasingly deep stages that allowed for more complex scenery. Over the course of the century, when opera houses were built over preexisting theaters (or theaters were remodeled into opera houses), or entirely new constructions were erected, innovations like moveable scenery (and especially scenery that moved quietly) and lighting design transformed the performance. The Venetian opera house became the model for the great opera houses across Europe.
Johnson’s essay and Ellen Rosand’s “Opera in Venice from Monteverdi to Vivaldi” form the Mythology and Opera section. There is no essay on the relationship between mythology and opera; however, there are catalogue entries under the heading of mythology. This was similar to the way in which mythological paintings were included in the show. No greater point than the sharing of subject matter was made in the exhibition or in the catalogue.
Goldfarb’s essay, “Some Observations on The Interrupted Concert by Titian and Developments in His Art About 1511–12,” presents a new reading of the narrative of the painting and a date of 1512. Goldfarb’s suggestions are rather tentative, and the reader is left with the sense that much more information is needed before a clearer understanding of the sitters and the subject may be ascertained with greater security.
Sergio Guarino’s “Venice and Rome in the Time of Carlo Saraceni” discusses the reception of Renaissance Venetian painting in Baroque Rome via the career of “Carlo Veneziano,” or Saraceni. Guarino describes Saraceni’s mixing of Roman elements with his Venetian stylistic roots, though he offers little evidence. Except for a final paragraph that mentions two of Saraceni’s works, Lazarus and the Rich Man (1605) and Saint Cecilia and the Angel (1610), which happen to include musical instruments, this essay has little to do with the theme of the exhibition and catalogue.
Tiziana Bottecchia’s “The Most Serene Republic’s Better Half: The World of Women” surveys the varied roles of women in Venice, from nuns, wives, business managers, and owners. While Bottecchia mentions in passing the examples of some women who played instruments, a greater examination of the meaning and visual representations of their musical activities would have connected more clearly with the subject of the exhibition; as in the example of La Tintoretta’s self-portrait, there is much more of a history of this type of female representation in Venice that needs to be written.
While the exhibition more explicitly illustrated Goldfarb’s stated intention of exploring the broader “interface between music and art in this period,” both the exhibition and the catalogue, which were beautifully and admirably executed, should serve as important bases for future cross-disciplinary scholarship on this fascinating aspect of early modern Venetian culture.
Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Vermont
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