I Grandi Veneti da Pisanello a Tiziano da Tintoretto a Tiepolo. Chiostro del Bramante (Rome) until January 30th. Curated by Carlo Valagussa, Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa.
The temporary closure of the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo for renovations has made it possible for Rome to host a portion of its prestigious collection in Bramante’s charming urban cloister. The exhibit spans more than two centuries of Venetian painting — from Bellini and Carpaccio to Tiepolo and the vedutisti — elegantly arranged by Giovanni Federico Villa and Giovanni Valagussa, with an ambitious catalogue.
A visit appropriately begins with Pisanello’s (1394-1455?) Portrait of Lionello d’Este (1441?), a revolutionary piece that ushered in a new era of portraiture without yet leaving behind the compositional scheme typical of late Gothicism. Pisanello’s fascination with Roman medallions is immediately detectable in the symmetry of his framing and the classicism of the subject’s profile. The lush roses in the background and the young man’s jewel studded jacket foretell the richness of color that will ultimately make Venice famous. This is even more apparent in Giovanni Bellini’s Cristo in pietà tra Maria e Giovanni (1455 circa) and the marvelous Madonna and Child (1476 circa). Mary’s gaze is more detached and less anxious in the latter as her corpulent child leans away, wanting to exercise his independence as soon as possible. This together with a more expansive and meticulously painted landscape indicates that the Venetians were increasingly embracing the idea of a rational harmony between mankind and nature.
Antonello da Messina’s arrival in Venice in 1474 was particularly instrumental in helping Giovanni Bellini to develop a technique that made this harmonious vision possible, the culmination of which we see in Cavazzola’s (1486-1522) Saints with Landscape (1510-1512 circa). The more proximate results are evident in the cool insouciance of Bellini’s Madonnas: a far cry from the palpable humanity of the northern European tradition. This exhibit offers a generous selection of Madonnas by Venetians including Jacobello di Antonello (1480), Marco Marziale (1504), and a dazzling version by Bartolomeo Veneto (1505). The “old” Venetian school promoted by the Vivarini family and their Murano workshop is evident in renditions by Carlo Crivelli (1482-1483 circa) and Bartolomeo Vivarini (1486).
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In the long run, it was the stability of the “Repubblica Serenissima” that allowed the newer style to endure in Venice, the principles of which were faithfully passed down to Titian, Palma Vecchio, Alvise, Cariani, Previtali, and Basaiti. All adopted the figurative scheme typical of the Renaissance, but rather than relying on the Florentine principles of design and perspective, each exploited the chromatic and luminary potential of fresh pigments and an unbounded re-imagination of classical themes. Such tendencies peak in the seventeenth century and are easily appreciated in Giulio Carpioni’s Baccanale (1665-1670 circa).
Three outstanding gems of the Carrara collection are found in a small room on the upper floor of the cloister: Jacopo Bassano’s (1510-1592) Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John (1542 circa), Domenico Brusasorci’s (1516-1567) Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1548 circa), and Paolo Veronese’s Saint Christine distributes fragments of the idols among the poor (1585-1588 circa). I could not help myself from returning to Saint Christine twice, the last time staying until the lights started flashing to signal closing time.
Here is why:
The reasons for which Titian changed his style around the time Veronese and Tintoretto came onto the scene (1540-1550) have been a source of vigorous discussion. We see a greater firmness and plasticity in Titian’s figures and less vibrancy in his coloring, mainly due to a broader, freer application of paint. Aging may partially account for these changes, but there is also the unmistakable influence of Michelangelo. Veronese too was aging by the time he finished the central subject in Saint Christine distributes fragments of the idols among the poor, but a sustained study of the painting helps us to understand that both he and Titian may have deliberately employed a sparseness of paint precisely to achieve a greater sense of mass and solidity. Veronese’s genius lies in his realization that such an effect could only have been achieved by a new type of illusionism and a varied palette of complementary and contrasting colors applied with broad, tight brush strokes that accentuate form and contour. Perhaps Titian realized this too. Saint Christine distributes fragments of the idols among the poor is relatively small in comparison with Veronese’s better known pieces, but it is the reduced scale and uncomplicated composition that allow us to appreciate more readily the stupendous results of his technique. The picture has a theatrical mood similar to the Wedding at Cana at the Louvre, but if we concentrate on the figure of the saint — which recent scholarship now attributes to the hand of the artist — we are left with the impression that Veronese resisted mannerism precisely in order to emphasize form and mass without distorting figure.
Surprisingly, this picture has not enjoyed critical acclaim across the centuries, partly because it was once thought to have been completely produced by Veronese’s son Carletto and his assistants. As the catalogue explains, however, a 1986 restoration confirmed that, although the surrounding figures are indeed the work of Carletto and his workshop, the central figure of Saint Christine is not. It rather seems to be one of the finest examples of the later work of Paolo himself and hence a testimony to the craftsmanship that so deeply influenced Delacroix and other artists.
Aside from the quality of the pictures, I Grandi Veneti boasts a carefully conceived arrangement that allows the visitor to understand the development of Venetian painting and its relation to other Italian styles. The explanations accompanying the pieces are exemplary. Equal respect is shown to older and newer scholarship, and the descriptions do not presume extensive knowledge of art history. If sufficient time is dedicated to each section, the visitor will surely come away with a better grasp of where the Venetian school was coming from and where it was headed. Its unprecedented use of oil has yet to be paralleled in the history of art, and it continues to set the mark for the fusion of tones and splendid luminosity that make (at least some of) painting what it ought to be today: a sheer joy.