Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 6, 2017
Tom Nichols Renaissance Art in Venice: From Tradition to Individualism London: Laurence King, 2016. 224 pp.; 135 color ills. Cloth $35.00 (9781780678511)

In his introduction to Renaissance Art in Venice: From Tradition to Individualism, Tom Nichols takes careful aim at some overused concepts in the discussion of Venetian art, namely the characterization of it as distinguished by colore as opposed to disegno, and qualities of venezianità and mediocritas. He cautions his readers that these narratives do “little to explain the more dynamic dimensions of art and architecture in this period, and fail to account for the radical changes in their appearance” (8). This is a judicious beginning. Without rejecting past insights, Nichols offers a history of Venetian art that is complex, and he presents a range of explanations for the developments that occur in the arts of Venice during the Renaissance. The first half of the book insists on the simultaneity and diversity of practice, imagery, and stylistic sources in Venice throughout the period. While this may not seem especially radical, it is a valuable departure from histories that usually describe a straight development of art without the variety of competing and complementary styles that exist at the same time. Similarly Venice is often defined in opposition to the mainland, frequently to Florence, and in terms that are exotic and romantic—all of which this book avoids. Far from concentrating only on “innovations,” Nichols studies continuity as much as novelty, and complexity more than a continuous narrative, and he refrains from simple characterizations of a city that consisted of hundreds of thousands of people.

The first chapter begins with the origin myths and legends of saintly interventions in the foundation and early history of the city. This helps to set up many of the historic references made later in the book and provides an engaging account of a pious history and the construction of civic identity through pageantry, history, and art. However, the focus of the narrative begins in chapter 2, which commences in 1440. Unusually for books about Venice, Nichols starts with architecture. He also gives more attention to sculpture than is conventionally the case in books about Venetian art; however, painting remains the medium that is discussed most frequently.

Like most books about the Venetian Renaissance, this one commences in the 1440s, which means that the early quattrocento works of artists like Jacobello del Fiore and Michele Giambono are not discussed. The Renaissance presented in this book is thus essentially a stylistic one, beginning with the introduction of all’antica imagery in architecture and painting in the mid-fifteenth century. In fact it is fair to say that the book is generally a stylistic history. The study of patronage, function, collecting and markets, workshops and media, theology, institutional or cultural history, and other matters, while occasionally brought up, are generally peripheral. With a few notable exceptions (lateral paintings made for chapels, the Pesaro altarpiece, some examples at the Scuola di San Rocco), the architectural contexts of artworks are rarely mentioned. Similarly, art in the domestic sphere is more or less ignored. Even when it is clear that the artworks belong in a religious, political, or domestic setting, their function for patrons and viewers, and their roles as necessary components of religious, social, or state ritual, are not central themes of the book.

The complexity of competing styles in the early Renaissance and the arrival of a succession of influential outsiders are the topics of chapters 2 and 3, while chapter 4 examines the emergence of a number of individual styles (as opposed to an assumed uniform city-wide style) among the metropolis’s foremost artists. The “Romanism” of the mid-century’s renovatio urbis becomes the central theme of chapter 5, in which Mannerism is also presented as a rejection of Titian. Alongside these topics Renaissance Art in Venice also follows the development of important formats, such as the altarpiece, and new genres, such as nudes, portraits, and mythologies.

The last chapter laments the failure of members of the generation following Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto to develop their own styles, and presents them as floundering in a retardataire struggle to maintain or reclaim the glories of previous generations. The assessment would probably be broadly accepted among art historians, but is also a little unfair. Some of the generosity of chapter 2, which discussed the persistence of traditional modes, might have been beneficial here.

The book itself is well designed, with the chapters divided by large and clear sub-headings for easy navigation. For a relatively short book there are numerous beautiful color reproductions and no black-and-white illustrations. Usefully, the majority of the artworks mentioned are reproduced alongside the text, and while some items, especially those outside Venice, are not reproduced, nothing discussed at length is without a photograph. For readers unfamiliar with the art of Renaissance Venice, this will no doubt be extremely welcome, and it certainly makes the text more engaging and attractive. All the images have full captions, including the artwork’s vital statistics, and often a sentence or two of further information about the work.

Nichols always provides the dates for the people and projects under discussion, making Renaissance Art in Venice a handy reference, especially when combined with the healthy-sized index. An indication that some dates and authorship remain disputable would have been a benefit, especially in areas where there is much disagreement. For example, the dating of Jacopo Bellini’s drawing books has never achieved a consensus among historians, but here the text would have the reader believe it was an established fact. Similarly, new scholarship such as that on the relationship of Jacopo, Gentile, and Giovanni Bellini could be mentioned to ensure that the reader is aware that there is an ongoing field of debate in these areas. It is helpful for a book aimed at students and general readers that the bibliography is almost entirely in English should they wish to follow up on any of the artworks covered in the text.

Finally, there is one issue that must be mentioned. Figure 130 looks like a useful map of the key sites of Venice; however, there are a number of errors that probably infuriate the author and the book’s editors. There are thirty-five numbered sites on the map and only thirty-four items in the key to the right, and all the numbered sites from twenty onward are incorrect. Even the Ducal Palace is misplaced, having been transposed to the site of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. For a reader who is unfamiliar with the city, this obviously makes the map misleading. Anyone carefully reading the text who otherwise knew nothing of Venice should be able to spot the error of the Ducal Palace since it is represented in illustrations, and its location is described clearly in the text. Even an attentive reader would probably not realize that there are errors in the placement of the other sites.

Nevertheless, this is an accessible and well-illustrated introduction to Venetian Renaissance art. It is primarily concerned with style, but also discusses patronage and the development of emerging genres such as mythologies, and while concentrating on painting, also examines architecture, sculpture, and prints. Its analysis of multiple influences and modes operating in Venice simultaneously is a welcome addition to narratives that are conventionally more linear.

Joseph Hammond
Assistant Professor, Department of Fine Arts and Art History, American University of Beirut