Feature Archive

Anyone For Venice?

Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting
National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., June 18–Sept. 17, 2006
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, October 17, 2006–January 7, 2007
By Joseph Phelan

Giorgione: Three Philosophers Anyone for Venice this summer? Don't have time to stay for a whole week, or even a long weekend? Don't want to do it all anyway? Only into paintings? Just the high points? What would you say to a morning or afternoon in the company of some of the best work?

That's the idea behind Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, the smart new blockbuster exhibit at Washington's National Gallery. It assembles a few, well really sixty, luminous works from the early decades of the 16th century, when Venetian painters developed the ability to render the wonderful textures of flesh and fabric, to capture the magical effects of light and atmosphere over the landscape, and to create the luminous colors of human life which would forever be associated with Venice's contribution to the history of art.

This is a new kind of blockbuster, without the kind of "backbreaking" coverage that exhausts the viewer's enthusiasm or patience before he or she is half-finished. The show consists entirely of paintings, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see displayed in one place some of the most resonant masterpieces of Western art -- such as Titian's Pastoral Concert, Noli Me Tangere and The Man With the Glove, Giorgione's Laura and Three Philosophers, and Bellini's Virgin with the Blessing Child.

The early years of the 16th century were a grave and fateful period for the Venetian empire as it battled the Ottoman Turks for supremacy of the Mediterranean, suffered repeated outbreaks of the plague, and fought a disastrous war with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy for dominance in the Italian peninsula. Despite their loss of important trading posts and the checking of their ambitions on the mainland, the city's great wealth, public spirited citizens, and republican constitution allowed it to rebound.

During these troubled times, the demand for large altarpieces and small devotional paintings was so strong that the old master Giovanni Bellini, who was considered even by foreigners such as the German Albrecht Dürer to be the best of the Venetian painters, kept a workshop which served as the training ground for a number of major painters: Sebastiano del Piombo, Palma Vecchio, Lorenzo Lotto, the mysterious Giorgione and the greatest Venetian painter of them all, Titian.

Not only did the fine arts flourish during this period, but artists responded in innovative ways. Bellini changed the format of his altarpieces on the theme of the Virgin and Infant from vertical to horizontal, permitting an unprecedented landscape view behind the Holy Figures. Moreover, Bellini made the landscape a full participant in the spirit of the narrative, expressive and capable of mirroring the world in subtle ways.

Curators David Allan Brown and his associates have wisely decided to focus on the intensely human side of these artists' endeavors. The old master Bellini soon found himself rivaled by the younger men Giorgione and Titian, who began to contest his title as the foremost painter of the Venetian republic.

Giorgione transformed what he learned from Bellini about using the landscape as a reflection of human feeling. In The Adoration of the Shepherds, he pushes his Holy Figures to one side, allowing his viewers unprecedented vistas of surpassing beauty. For the Venetian painters were nostalgic for the landscape of the mainland, investing it with an evocative power which was unique in the history of art.

The poetic beauty and serenity that Giorgione put into in his landscapes were further developed by Titian in his Pastoral Concert (Concert Champêtre), in which a gentleman poet and a rustic relax with two muses in a woodland setting filled with light and color. The meaning of this informal concert is by no means clear. The Venetian called such works poésies for the subtle, unspecific associations they evoked.

Another innovation, and a more daring one in the intensely religious context of the early 16th century, is the erotic nude. For it emerges from the exhibit that while few portraits of specific Venetian women survive from this era, artists introduced a new kind of imaginary poetic image of the "beautiful young woman". Giorgione's Laura or Titian's Flora embodied the erotic dreams of the Venetians, and forever after have taken their place in the Western imagination.

There is another kind of portrait that emerges during this period, through the agency of Titian. If you look at a painting like The Man with a Glove, you notice both the dreamy quality of the man's stare as well as the greater realism. He seems simultaneously both real and ideal.

One of the fruits of this show, and one of its delights, is discovering through x-ray analyses the extent to which Titian worked out his compositions directly on canvas. Especially revealing in this respect is the Noli Me Tangere. The Latin title (literally "Do not touch me") refers to Christ's first miraculous appearance after his resurrection, when he reveals himself to Mary Magdalene. As she recognizes him and reaches out saying "Master" He replies "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father" [John 20:17]. No artist before Titian had developed the dynamic (and erotic) potential of this dramatic moment

The show is accompanied by a sumptuously illustrated exhibition catalogue that offers a full range of scholarly essays on the rise of secular subjects and the transformation of religious ones, as well as detailed entries on some of the most renowned pictures of sixteenth-century Italy, including revealing technical information. A 12-page preview of the catalogue in PDF format is available.

As usual the National Gallery's has developed a complete exhibition website, including a Flash presentation, the exhibition brochure and many other features.

During the run of the exhibit at the National Gallery, visitors will have a refreshingly exotic (at least for Washington D.C.) option. The Garden Café on the ground floor is offering a special "Summer in Venice" buffet menu, which includes Zucchini Frittata, Grilled Calamari, Arugula Salad, Grilled Polenta, and Liver Pate on Crostini, Roasted Guinea Hens and Strawberries with Mascarpone Cheese.

Artists mentioned in the text:
   Giovanni Bellini
   Giorgio da Castelfranco (Giorgione)
   Tiziano Vecellio (Titian)
   Albrecht Dürer
   Sebastiano del Piombo
   Jacopo Negretti the elder (Palma Vecchio)
   Lorenzo Lotto

Image credit: Three Philosophers by Giorgione, courtesy National Gallery of Art


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      The Legends of Leonardo, by Joseph Phelan
      Hey, "Dada"-Dude, Where's the Rest of Me?, by K. Kimberly King
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      Notes on New York (NoNY), by Joseph Phelan
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      French Drawings and Their Passionate Collectors, by Joseph Phelan
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      Boston Marathon, by Joseph Phelan
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      The "Look" of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      The Importance of Being Odd: Nerdrum's Challenge to Modernism, by Paul A. Cantor

      Advent Calendar 2003, narrated by Joseph Phelan
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      Magnificenza! Titian and Michelangelo, Manet and Velazquez, by Joseph Phelan
      Masterful Leonardo and Graphic Dürer, by Joseph Phelan
      Favorite Online Art Museum Features, by Joseph Phelan
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      Portrait of the Artist as a Serial Killer, by Joseph Phelan
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      Software review: Le Louvre: The Virtual Visit on DVD-ROM, by Joseph Phelan
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      Henry Moore and the British Museum: The Great Conversation, by Joseph Phelan

      Notorious Portraits, Part II, by John Malyon
      Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
      The Other Michelangelo, by Joseph Phelan
      The Art of Drawing, by Joseph Phelan
      Poussin and the Heroic Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
      Great Art Museums Online, by Joseph Phelan
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      Web site review: Christus Rex
      Web site review: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., by Joseph Phelan
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      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)

      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)
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