Feature Archive

Venetian Rivals
   Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese...

      Recently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

      Currently on view at the Musée du Louvre, Paris through January 4, 2010
By Joseph Phelan

Titian: DanaŽ

(Click "learn more" to access an enormous scan of this painting)
The 16th century - the Cinquecento - marks the golden age of Venetian painting. Today the canvases of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese may seem like the ultimate Old Master art, yet this exciting exhibit (subtitled "Rivals in Renaissance Venice") aims to show how contemporary these works once were: experimental, bold, and even shocking.

Titian (c.1488-1576) was the supreme figure in Venetian art from 1515 on. His extremely long life meant that the younger painters Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Veronese (1528-1588) overlapped creatively and professionally with him for nearly 40 years.

By significantly grouping two or three canvases, curator Frederick Ilchman has lovingly re-created, through carefully chosen juxtapositions, the heated atmosphere of artistic creation in the 16th-century republic, showing how these younger men forged their own distinct painterly styles by responding to Titian and each other, and demonstrating in the process how competition inspires the achievements of even the greatest artists.

At the start of the show we see two religious pictures, one by the young Titian and the other by his teacher Bellini. These are examples of a popular Venetian genre, known as a Sacra Conversazione, a "sacred conversation" among the Virgin, Child, and assorted saints. Bellini's panel (see Metropolitan Museum of Art collection) has a ravishingly beautiful palette, but the holy protagonists gaze left or out at us rather than at each other and seem frozen, aloof, disconnected.

Titian, by contrast, invites us into a silent narrative (see reproduction from a previous exhibition). On the right, St. Dominic and the donor seem to have just arrived, drawing the gazes of the Virgin and Child toward the fervent supplicants. We see Titian building on the broad and firm foundation of his teacher while developing a highly original way of conceiving and dramatizing his subject. We are especially taken by the handsome, idealized Saint Dominic, and the sensitive face of the donor qualifies as an early Titian portrait of distinction.

For it was in the field of portraiture that Titian marked out his claim to fame. With his magical ability to paint men and women of high rank not as they were but as they wished to be, Titian endowed his sitters with the nobility, power, and dignity that a ruler must have but that may have eluded many of them in real life. He thereby established the conventions of aristocratic and kingly portraiture.

Tintoretto: Esther before Ahasuerus

(Click the 3rd thumbnail)
A prime example of Titian's portraiture is the closeup of the 74-year-old Paul III (see mini-site, thumbnail 2), the last of the Renaissance popes, the reluctant reformer of the church, and the patron of Michelangelo's Last Judgment. Sitting on his throne, he seems to have just turned to look at us from atop a mountain of crushed velvet, his dark, arresting eyes full of reason and the will to power.

After confronting Titian's portrayal, one cannot conceive a more monumental, direct, or forceful image of this paragon of spiritual and worldly power. With this work, the artist won international fame the sort of which had never before been conferred on an artist. Other great portrait painters such as El Greco and Velázquez learned a great deal from him, but it is arguable if any later painter ever surpassed this portrait.

Titian's mid-career success around 1645 with the international elite opened up opportunities in Venice for younger men. First among these was Tintoretto, whose smoldering self-portrait (see mini-site, thumbnail 4) announces his arrival as an ambitious, confident risk-taker. While Titian brooded over his compositions for months and even years, Tintoretto marketed himself as a kind of anti-Titian, painting large canvases at great speed while cutting prices and even giving his work away to the various Venetian confraternities that were so much a part of the Serene Republic's social network.

One of the important patrons he sought out was the brilliant satirist, writer, and publicist Aretino, offering this close friend of Titian a painting for his ceiling with the self-referential Flaying of Marsyas, a learned and cheeky calling card that announced his challenge to the older master.

As a way of further differentiating himself, Tintoretto began a long study of Florentine design, going so far as to display in his studio the motto "the draftsmanship of Michelangelo, the coloring of Titian." Tintoretto's Baptism of Christ (see Prado Museum collection), with the towering, muscular bodies of Christ and the Baptist, is a brilliant example of this synthesis.

The arrival of Veronese 10 years later further turned up the thermostat of the already hothouse atmosphere of the Venice art scene. The younger man modeled himself on Titian, while the wily Titian used Veronese to undercut the hated Tintoretto. From his youth, Veronese made his name as an opulent colorist and he was to grow into the master of enormous feast scenes painted on canvas for the walls of refectories.

Veronese: Alessandro Vittoria

(Click the 4th thumbnail)
If visitors still need an added incentive to attend a show filled with the constant parleys of painterly rivalry, they should be more than satisfied with the mythological nudes. Venice in this period was famous for its courtesans and prostitutes who numbered in the thousands, making it the "brothel of Europe." It is no surprise that highly sophisticated depictions of female sensuality were first developed there. While it was a Florentine painter, Botticelli, who first monumentalized the Renaissance female nude in the 15th century with his Birth of Venus, it was Titian and his short-lived colleague Giorgione who reimagined her as reclining, voluptuous, and earthly.

With his Danae (see mini-site), Titian's magic ability to turn paint into living flesh is astonishing. The artist breathes new life into the ancient myth of the young princess and beloved of Zeus who is shut up in a high tower by her fearful father. We apprehend the umber, soft gold, deep red, and cream tones of painting as an invitation to sexual desire, yet still are attracted to the individuality of the woman anticipating her lover's arrival in the form of soft golden rain. Even his archrival Michelangelo had praise for this work's life-giving vitality when he saw it in Rome.

Responding to Titian, Tintoretto produced his Susannah and the Elders (see mini-site, thumbnail 2). The biblical story of the virtuous wife slandered by two prurient old men offered the artist an opportunity to create his own luminous female nude in a paradisal setting. We notice the bald heads of the men hidden away in the left hand corner only with some effort, but once we do, we appreciate the dramatic bite of this calm-before-the-storm composition even more.

The show ends with homage to the late painting styles of our trio. Titian once again sets the highest possible standard for his younger rivals. In his Tarquin and Lucretia (see mini-site), the aged master returns to his great theme of eros to show its darkest dimensions. In what is undoubtedly the most brutal rape scene in all large-scale paintings of the Renaissance, he demonstrates how this medium can rise to the heights of tragic utterance previously reserved for dramatic poetry.

Tintoretto offers an even more shocking composition (see mini-site, thumbnail 2), with the already-nude Tarquin ripping the necklace off his victim's neck. As Lucretia's pearls fall onto the floor they become a metaphor for her impending loss of virtue, just as her tears will be transmuted into jewels of honor.

Tintoretto outlasted both his rivals by a decade and has the last word in this show. His Florentine contemporary, the painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, called him the most extraordinary brain in the history of painting. His aged self-portrait (see mini-site, thumbnail 3) is an uncompromising picture of an exhausted old man whose mind continues to rage.

The rivalry of the Venetian golden age constitutes one of the richest chapters in the history of art. Together, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese created an unparalleled body of work, opened up new avenues of aesthetic expression, and forged a golden chain of influence that runs from El Greco, Rembrandt, and Velázquez to Willem de Kooning and Lucian Freud.


Artists mentioned in the article:
  • Titian
  • Tintoretto
  • Paolo Veronese
  • Giovanni Bellini
  • Michelangelo
  • Botticelli
  • Giorgione
  • Giorgio Vasari
  • El Greco
  • Rembrandt
  • Diego Velázquez
  • Willem de Kooning
  • Lucian Freud

  • External links:
  • Louvre Museum mini-site for Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese...


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