Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 15, 2006
David Alan Brown and Sylvia Ferino-Pagden Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2006. 352 pp.; 162 color ills.; 31 b/w ills. Cloth (0300116772)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, June 18–September 17, 2006; Kunsthistoriches Museum Wein, Vienna, October 17, 2006–January 7, 2007
Giorgione. Portrait of a Woman (“Laura”). 1506. Canvas mounted on panel. 41 x 33.6 cm. (16 1/8 x 13 1/4 in.) © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The National Gallery’s beautifully installed exhibition of Venetian painting from the first three decades of the Cinquecento has now come down, though it is soon to reappear—with a few works replaced by others of equal magnitude—at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In both Washington and Vienna the show is comprised of fifty-one paintings, of which at least a third could be described as famous masterworks from one of the richest eras of European art. Many of the works have been cleaned in recent years, and several works appear for the first time after their return from the conservator’s lab. The collective effect is positively radiant, with plenty of glowing flesh and shimmering fabric. For this viewer the most striking combination of those two elements was to be found in Giovanni Bellini’s Woman with a Mirror. It is curious that Bellini’s painting, with its restrained brushwork, should produce such a startling effect even in the company of pictures by Titian and other members of the younger generation, but new technical information presented here on Bellini’s use of a stippled texture in the underpainting of all areas except the woman’s smooth skin helps to resolve this puzzle.

Indeed, the technical sections of both the exhibition and the catalogue are fascinating, and much new information is conveyed. The catalogue includes many unpublished infrared images. (The sponsor of the show is a digital-imaging firm.) The technical portions of the installation are unusually clear and well integrated into the exhibition as a whole, while the interpretive claims on the basis of new scientific data are appropriately cautious.

One of this exhibition’s strongest points was the conjoined hanging of Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Gods and Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians. Much more than the sum of its two powerful parts, this juxtaposition instantly clarified Titian’s later alterations to the landscape in Bellini’s work. These alterations no longer seem gratuitous or condescending, but rather part of a largely successful effort to integrate the earlier painting into the ensemble. Though not as comprehensive as the attempts in the recent Titian exhibitions in London and Madrid to reconstruct the display of all the surviving components of the mythological cycle in Alfonso d’Este’s Ferrara camerino, the pairing of Feast and Bacchanal did provide a U.S. audience with an unfamiliar and valuable experience. (In Vienna, the Feast will appear with Titian’s Worship of Venus instead.)

Despite the relative roughness of the surface of the Bacchanal as compared with the Feast, another consequence of their juxtaposition was to encourage the viewer to notice more of the details of Titian’s painting, rather than simply be caught up in its dynamic rhythms. (Though the reproductions in the National Gallery catalogue are relatively good, that of the Bacchanal in the 2003 Prado Tiziano catalogue is much better, especially for foreground details.) Among the still-life objects near the famous sheet music at the lower center are a roasted fowl, an overturned chalice, a stemmed wine glass, and several glass tumblers. These tumblers are actually in the flowing stream of purplish wine that is conspicuously receiving some of its volume from the urine pouring forth from a toddler who raises his shift just to the right. This urine merges into the wine scooped up at the left and poured into the revelers’ cups, but one supposes the revelers are past caring about this contamination.

In addition to Giovanni Bellini and Titian, the third of the exhibition’s “title” artists is Giorgione, well represented here by La Vecchia, Laura, and the Three Philosophers; but in fact Lorenzo Lotto and Palma Vecchio each occupy about as much display space as Bellini or Giorgione. Palma’s work seems a bit overexposed in this company, but the two pairs of Lotto portraits with their allegorical covers hold up nicely. The portraits (from Dijon and Naples) and allegories (both National Gallery) are fascinating to compare within and between the pairs, and the wall-montages of how portrait and sliding cover fit together are useful. It is odd, however, that the montage of Lotto’s female portrait fails to indicate that its cover is significantly larger than the portrait itself.

This is not the first time in recent years that the four related Lotto panels have been reunited at the National Gallery; and of the eleven works by Titian appearing this year in Washington and Vienna, all but two were on display in the linked 2003 Titian shows in London and Madrid. The Concert Champêtre, the stunning centerpiece of the current show, was not one of these, but I must admit to some confusion while I was preparing this review, as the back of the National Gallery catalogue, which features a detail of that painting, kept getting mixed up with the front of the Louvre’s 1993 Le Siècle de Titien catalogue (which has the same image). Can there be too much of a good thing as far as Venetian High Renaissance painting is concerned? With regard to the National Gallery exhibition itself, I think the answer is no: neither specialists nor the general public are likely to tire of seeing these paintings, especially when they are so handsomely displayed. But with respect to the catalogue, the answer is more complicated.

The catalogue begins with an image of Jacopo de’ Barbari’s 1500 woodcut view of Venice. (The exhibition also starts out with an excellent impression of this majestic work, cleverly set out in a nearly horizontal position so that its absorbing details can be closely studied.) This would seem to set the stage for an intense examination of the ways in which Venetian painting interacted with the physical, economic, social, and political conditions of Venice itself, and Deborah Howard’s essay effectively pursues this approach. The thematic premise of both show and catalogue, which divide the paintings not by artist but by genre—images of the Madonna and other saints, sacred narratives, allegories and mythologies, images of women and the erotic, and male portraits—also suggests that the function and social connotations of these works will be a primary focus. The decision to entrust each thematic group to a single contributor, who produced both a brief essay as well as the catalogue entries, should also have encouraged a historically informed approach.

In the end, however, the collective impression given by this volume is that Venetian High Renaissance painting was largely untethered to the various crises, opportunities, and challenges experienced by the Venetian state and its subjects in the early 1500s. This is hardly a novel point of view, as Venetian art has long been characterized (with both positive and negative inflections) as fundamentally escapist.

Most of the authors treat their assigned theme principally as an occasion to speculate on how individual painters adapted and critiqued the work of their predecessors and rivals, mostly in terms of style or mood. Only in Sylvia Ferino-Pagden’s section on images of women are there frequent references to important recent scholarship on social history. Jaynie Anderson’s discussion of the Concert Champêtre does introduce the idea that the more refined male figure in that work might be linked to the elite men’s clubs known as the compagnie della calza, but the costume evidence for this is ambiguous, and the consequences of such an identification are not pursued in depth.

The longest and most complex essay in the volume is by David Alan Brown. Brown argues that approaching the Venetian High Renaissance by following the paths either of connoisseurship or iconography has in recent years led to disappointingly uncertain results. There is undoubtedly a remarkable lack of consensus among scholars about such issues. This is especially surprising, with regard to connoisseurship, in light of the many exhibitions of Venetian painting of the last quarter-century, beginning with the London Genius of Venice (1983) and including the Vienna/Venice Giorgione shows of 2004. The situation is perhaps even more serious than Brown indicates: in the present catalogue, for example, the Concert Champêtre is said to be now securely a work of Titian’s, and Anderson’s catalogue entry so lists it—except that a footnote in Anderson’s entry asserts that she really thinks it is by Giorgione.

A turn away from obsession with authorship (and super-fine distinctions of dating) might well be therapeutic in treating this period, although many of the catalogue entries revert to this kind of analysis. A turn away from iconographic questions, as difficult as they are, is more problematic, unless one wants to argue that the considerable innovations of this era with respect to subject matter are ultimately beside the point. The catalogue tends to address questions of intended meaning either by briefly and noncommittally reviewing the range of scholarly interpretations (Ferino-Pagden), or by referring to a rather nebulous humanist literary context. Of the artists whose work is exhibited, only Vincenzo Catena can be shown to have undisputed links to Venetian humanist writers in this period. While Catena’s moving portrait of a man holding a book may well embody this connection, humanist affiliations seem harder to pin down for many of the more challenging paintings.

Ultimately, Brown believes that the great achievement of this period lies not in the transformation or invention of genres but in the collaborative construction by interacting artists of a new style. Both in this essay and throughout the volume there is a return to many of the seminal ideas of Johannes Wilde. Not only is Wilde’s grand narrative of the construction of the Venetian High Renaissance style (in his Venetian Art from Bellini to Titian, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974) largely retained, but his frequent use of some of the first efforts in art-historical radiography are called to mind by the numerous discussions of new infrared images in the present volume. (The inferences drawn, however, are often different from those drawn by Wilde.)

Brown’s essay is entitled “Venetian Painting and the Invention of Art,” and here and elsewhere in the catalogue it is assumed that Venetian High Renaissance painting marks a particular and quite self-conscious pinnacle in the visual arts, of a kind with which Vasari is conceptually associated. The term “revival” is used, but from what was Venetian painting after 1500 reviving? For many modern viewers the greatest Venetian paintings of the last third of the Quattrocento (by Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio, and Antonello, among others) are every bit as astonishing and innovative as what followed after 1500. The authors of the present catalogue scarcely mention Carpaccio, who was still producing major works until at least 1515, and they do not even bother to explain his exclusion from the exhibition. He has never, of course, been considered a significant contributor to the High Renaissance style, though even after 1500 he was an innovator in subject matter and was celebrated in humanist writings.

Carpaccio’s absence here inversely correlates to much emphasis on Leonardo, about whose brief stay in Venice in 1500 almost nothing is known. In some sense the choice of the year 1500 as the starting date for the show is emblematic of this emphasis, and Leonardo is generally characterized as a fundamental catalyst for what ensued in Venice over the next thirty years. (None of the paintings in the exhibition can be securely dated to before 1505, which might have made a good terminus post quem, and 1494 would have been another alternative.) It would be rash to deny that Leonardo may have spurred new thinking or eventually new practice in Venetian painting, but his impact is still a matter for speculation rather than assurance.

In the end, the catalogue seems a useful but tentative contribution to Venetian Renaissance studies. The entries often rehearse the same information covered in other recent volumes, and the introductory and thematic essays are mostly too brief to break new ground. The discussions of painting methods (by Oberthaler and Walmsley) and Venetian color and color-sellers (by Berrie and Matthew) are informative and intriguing, though the latter piece is a bit of tease, referring the reader to another, still forthcoming article. Finally, one should mention the magnificent array of Venetian drawings from all periods (with checklist, but no catalogue) that the National Gallery installed to coincide with the painting exhibition.

Paul H. D. Kaplan
Professor of Art History, School of Humanities, Purchase College, SUNY