Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 6, 2001
Patricia Meilman Titian and the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice Cambridge University Press, 2000. 260 pp.; some color ills.; many b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0521640954)

The subject of Titian and the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, notwithstanding its expansive title, is Titian’s celebrated Peter Martyr Altarpiece (1537-30). In spite of the painting’s fiery demise in 1867, Patricia Meilman successfully reconstructs the altarpiece and its environment in the reader’s mind, a project facilitated by her clarity of purpose to re-secure the work’s artistic importance. The author furnishes a close study of the religious context, sources, and subsequent critical and artistic significance of this unusual commission to a prestigious artist by the Scuola of San Pietro Martire for its altar in the nave of the Dominican church SS. Giovanni e Paolo. As Meilman demonstrates, the picture’s break with tradition—its unprecedented emotional and violent drama, shocking physical pose for a saint, and synthesis of form and theme—transformed Venetian painting.

Peter of Verona (ca. 1203-52), the subject of the altarpiece, was the son of Catharist heretics. He was converted by his uncle and was later admitted by Dominic himself to his new order in Bologna. Peter’s religious fervor contributed to his success as a preacher during his extensive travels throughout Northern Italy, including Venice. But his appointment as inquisitor, first in Milan in 1234 and then throughout Northern Italy in 1251, garnered enemies. Peter was murdered the next year by Cathars, thereby fulfilling his own prophecy that he “would die at the hands of heretics and…that he would do more against them in death than he had in life” (67). A peasant, joined by two Dominicans friars who were alerted to the plot, witnessed Peter extend his arms upward as he stated, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit” (71). For his canonization in 1253, it was also reported that “he died reciting the first words of the Credo” (70).

Meilman’s account of the Peter Martyr Altarpiece is divided into three parts, comprising eleven chapters, each of which is introduced by a lucid synopsis of the text to follow. In Part 1 she begins to lay out the artistic and religious concerns for the painting of altarpieces. The relation between the altar and the mass necessitated an iconic representation of the Virgin or Christ in the center, a convention that had bound saints to the wings of polyptychs. Rehearsing this history enables Meilman to show how Titian worked within this tradition in his Resurrection Polyptych of 1522, but also how he pressed against the constraints of the frame by linking the gazes of the figures and using new poses. The emergence of both new forms of altarpieces (the single field of sacre conversazioni) and content (the increasing use of narrative including that of St. Peter Martyr) are examined in relation to Dominican themes and spiritual issues such as the importance of contemporary devotion to the Virgin.

Meilman assesses the content of paintings of martyrs, their increasing proximity to the altar, and how this came to emphasize the martyr’s imitation of Christ. For example, St. Sebastian’’s surge to prominence in plague imagery propelled artists to capitalize on the narrative and physical resemblance of Sebastian’s martyrdom to that of Christ. Narrative and temporal elements of St. Peter Martyr’s death provided similar parallels to the life and death of Christ, and Peter’s relatively recent interactions with heretics provided a local saint toward whom religious anxieties could be directed.

In the last chapter of Part 1, the author addresses the historical context of the altarpiece, including the reform movements that found expression in Titian’s radical break with tradition. Production and access to a wide range of religious, heretical, and prophetic texts in Venice worked together with the Sack of Rome to foment religious tensions. Dominicans were quick to recognize the threat of Luther and acted to quell this by encouraging both public preaching and devotion to important Dominican saints, such as St. Peter Martyr, through devotional biographies. Moreover, it was in response to this environment that the altar of the Scuola of San Pietro Martire came to be redecorated.

In Part 2, Meilman turns to the sources and ideas behind Titian’s altarpiece. She begins with a detailed and fascinating account of the life and death of the crusading inquisitor Peter—"a gladiator against heretics" (131), as described by Saint Antoninus—to set the stage for her later assessment of how the altarpiece would have functioned in its religious setting. The author explains the importance of St. Peter Martyr’s cult to Venice—a city once under the Dominican saint’s jurisdiction—and to the expansion and organization of the order’s institutions.

The many unusual circumstances surrounding the commission are the focus here, not the least of which is the poor confraternity’s move to employ an artist of Titian’s stature. Meilman argues against the traditional notion that a competition was held between Titian, Palma Vecchio, and Pordenone for the commission, showing instead how this was more likely a rhetorical convention prompted by the fame of Titian’s work and initiated by Paolo Pino in his 1548 Dialogo di pittura. The painting’s break with tradition and its impact, as Meilman demonstrates, lay in Titian’s synthesis of ancient and modern sources, his transformation of horizontal narrative painting into the iconic vertical axis required for an altarpiece, and the work’s dramatic style and violence.

In Part 3, the author assesses the work’s meanings by showing how the gestures of St. Peter Martyr would have functioned in relation to the mass and the Dominican context. The depicted saint, perhaps preparing to inscribe the Credo with his finger (itself a relic in the church), points toward the altar below as his other arm propels the viewer’s gaze to heaven, a gesture that would have asserted the Dominican response to Luther’s negation of transubstantiation. Following an extensive description of the reconstructed work, Meilman asserts that “it perfectly synthesizes form and theme” (121-22), establishing the altarpiece as the apex of Venetian Renaissance painting.

Indeed, for Meilman, the Peter Martyr Altarpiece is an icon of modernity. If this story sounds familiar for studies in Renaissance art, it reflects, in part, the author’s approach: her extensive formal analysis and close attention to contemporary writers for whom Titian, and the Peter Martyr Altarpiece in particular, stood as signs of the mastery of Venetian painting. Praised even by Giorgio Vasari and celebrated by Lodovico Dolce in his Dialogo della pittura of 1557, Titian’s “conquest of nature by art” (134) exemplified the triumph of feminine colorito “in the service of male strength, violence, and probity” (135). But this heroic paradigm also propels the teleological trajectory of Meilman’s account; the absence of the object compels her to analyze the altarpiece through its many copies and textual accounts, and thus to interpret the missing painting through the lens of its afterlife.

The dramatic impact on painting wrought by Titian’s modernity is then underscored by historical events described in Chapter 9. The impact of the picture’s new synthesis of style and subject matter was put on hold by the convening of the Council of Trent. Even in his own altarpieces. Titian turned away from action as a means to inspire contemplation; the radical effects of his earlier transformation of painting were thereby reigned in until the publication of the decrees in 1563.

Although the author’s narrow focus and traditional approach to the book targets specialists in Italian Renaissance art, Meilman’s attention to the painting’s devotional setting and accompanying strategies of control over public orthodoxy, will surely be of interest to religious historians, as the author herself suggests. Furthermore, the text accommodates readers unfamiliar with the Venetian context. The solid scholarship, useful notes, and appendices in Titian and the Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice will prove of use to scholars and students of Renaissance culture in Venice for years, making the book an important addition to university libraries.

Bronwen Wilson
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia