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Feature Archive
June, 2000

Venetian Painting and the Rise of Landscape
By Joseph Phelan
Last month, I sketched out the crucial role which pagan mythology played in the development of Western painting at the time of the Renaissance. The rising popularity of the stories of the pagan gods and goddesses among the ruling elites of Italy can be seen as a deliberate attempt to counterbalance the dominant Biblical vision of the time. Surely, no two subjects could be further apart than the Passion of Christ and the loves of Zeus.

Venice played a crucial part in this development. Venetian art owed much of its greatness to several unique factors: Venice's geopolitical location, its republican institutions, its character as a great and wealthy trading empire, and its inheritance from the older Byzantine civilization. But most importantly, the natural atmosphere of Venice taught artists one of the essential lessons of painting: that light and air transform everything visible, dominating our moods and perceptions.

Venetian painting begins with Giovanni Bellini. No other great school of painting is to such an extent the creation of one man. In the course of his long and productive career, he introduced new modes and orders into painting, capturing a new vision which captivated his students, Giorgione and Titian, and influenced painting throughout Europe.

What was this new vision? Out of Bellini's workshop came endless variations on the most popular religious themes of the time: the Madonna and Child and the Crucified Christ. But these paintings were different from other Italian or Northern works with these subjects. Bellini was in love with light and the natural world, and found a way to introduce them into his paintings gradually, offering a glimpse of landscape and a suggestion of sky behind his sacred figures. In this way he encouraged a taste for these things in his audience, making them eager for further innovations.

Through his work we can trace the first steps in what was to be the distinctive Venetian achievement: the transformation of the purpose of painting from one in which the gestures, poses and expressions of the characters tell a story, to one in which the purpose is the expression of a mood, and in which the story itself becomes secondary or even disappears.

To see this, compare Bellini's The Agony in the Garden with the painting of the same title by his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna, of five years earlier. The latter is massive, claustrophobic, tough, spiky, and hard. This is a world of stony hearts which must be broken in order to be reached.

Bellini offers us an altogether gentler, more contemplative image. He has set the scene in early morning (an important change from the Gospel text and from Mantegna) and located it in the hills around northern Italy. The light from the rising sun gives the entire picture a glow at once naturalistic and symbolic. This moment, in which the shadows of night are dispelled with the promise of a new day, is so much a part of our everyday experience that it draws us into meditation both appropriate to the narrative and independent of it.

In this painting, it is mainly the landscape that conveys and arouses emotion - not the poses, expressions and gestures of the participants (necessary as they are as a guide to the story and our range of emotional responses). The details of the landscape are transformed by Bellini into something which touches the heart more deeply.

Bellini said he liked to "wander at will in his landscapes," and surely he expects his audience to join him. One could do no better than to wander through three of his masterpieces. In St. Francis in the Desert, the full sovereignty of the sun illuminates a world of details and fills us with a kind of ecstasy at being alive. The Madonna of the Meadow, set in a particularly bright afternoon in autumn, is pellucid with the symbols of the baby's bitter fate. And in his final work, The Feast of the Gods (completed by Titian), he makes us feel at home with these amoral and profane beings, portraying them as everyday people.

Giorgione and Titian, the two great students of Bellini, went on to give his ideas an even greater significance.

Giorgione's conception of art cast a potent and intimate spell on succeeding generations. He expressed more completely than anyone else that synthesis between Paganism and Christianity which lies at the root of our imaginative life.

Giorgione/The Tempest Christianity had in effect denied nature, but it was inevitable that those feelings which link us with nature should find expression. Giorgione accomplished this by expressing the profoundest overtones of our feeling toward Nature, by intimately relating the form of the human figure to the shape of landscape.

If we take a look at Giorgione's most celebrated work, The Tempest [right], we notice in the foreground a soldier standing at the left and a woman sitting on the right nursing an infant. In the center of the scene are ruins, a bridge over a river, some buildings and a city. As we look up we see lightning in the sky. For the first time in Western painting, the landscape itself is the center of the painting and the story is irrelevant.

Giorgione and Titian were men of the world, comfortable with pleasure, wealthy and urbane. Titian's The Rape of Europa is a classic example of this worldliness, as are his magnificent portraits of the popes and princes - great figures of their time made immortal through Titian's magic. In a sense these artists resolved the dichotomy between Christianity and paganism by denying that there was one. In their paintings, religion found a place but sensuality was not rejected.

Bellini and the Venetian school represented the happiness and freedom of the Renaissance, not its intellectual greatness (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael) or its Northern sturm und drang (Grünewald, Dürer, Hugo van der Goes). The Venetian artists demonstrated that painting is peculiarly suited for rendering the appearances of things with a glow of light and richness of color that satisfies our inalienable human need for life and pleasure. And in so doing, they pointed the way for all the great artists who followed.

Note: In writing this article I benefited greatly from a number of websites, and in particular the helpful commentary at the Web Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

This article is copyright 2000 by Joseph Phelan. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.

Joseph Phelan can be contacted at joe.phelan@verizon.net

Previous Features
  May, 2000
Mythology in Art
Article: Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art
  April, 2000
Art and Religion
Article: Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ
Exhibit: Christus Rex
  March, 2000
Inuit Art/The National Gallery of Art in Washington
Museum: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Exhibit: Inuit Art: The World Around Me
  February, 2000
Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)
  January, 2000
Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)
  December, 1999
Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)
  November, 1999
The Louvre Museum
Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Museum: The Louvre
Book: Paintings in the Louvre
Print: Study of a Horse's Head, by Pisanello
  October, 1999
Artist: Claude Monet
Museum: North Carolina Museum of Art
Exhibit: Monet: O Mestre do Impressionismo
Book: Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige
Print: Nympheas avec Effets de Nuage, by Claude Monet
  September, 1999
Optical Art
Artist: M.C. Escher
Museum: The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
Exhibit: Trompe l'oeil: The Art of Deception
Book: M.C. Escher: His Life and Complete Graphic Work
Print: Movement In Squares, by Bridget Riley
  August, 1999
Animals in Art
Artist: Antoine-Louis Barye
Museum: National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Exhibit: PBS: American Visions
Book: Natural Worlds, by Robert Bateman
Print: A la Bodiniere, by Théophile Steinlen
  July, 1999
Artist: Odd Nerdrum
Museum: Museum of Modern Art, New York
Exhibit: Virtuo Official Magritte Site
Book: Mystery of Magritte CD-ROM
Print: Santiago El Grande, by Salvador Dalí
  June, 1999
Artist: Audrey Flack
Museum: Carol Gerten's Fine Art
Exhibit: Michael Lucero: Sculpture 1976-1995
Book: Anish Kapoor
Print: Cupid And Psyche, by Antonio Canova
  May, 1999
Women in the Arts
Artist: Georgia O'Keeffe
Museum: National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.
Exhibit: Jenny Holzer: Please Change Beliefs
Book: Cindy Sherman: Retrospective
Print: Self-Portrait with Monkeys, by Frida Kahlo
  April, 1999
The Golden Age of Illustration
Artist: Maxfield Parrish
Museum: Fine Arts Museums Of San Francisco
Exhibit: Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe online
Books: Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe
Print: Cinderella (Enchantment), by Maxfield Parrish
  March, 1999
Vincent van Gogh
Artist: Vincent van Gogh
Museum: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Exhibit: The Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery
Book: Van Gogh's Van Goghs
Print: Terrasse de Cafe
  February, 1999
Great Art
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Museum: The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Exhibit: John Singleton Copley: Watson and the Shark
Book: The Sistine Chapel: A Glorious Restoration
Print: L'Astronomia, by Raphael