Sunday, March 15, 2009

THE IDES OF MARCH - Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice

(Venice, Italy) There was a time, about 500 years ago, when a pack of uber-talented individuals lived and worked in Venice. Here in Europe, the artists Titian (1488-1576), Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Veronese (1528-1588) are household names, but many Americans have never heard of them.

Thanks to Hollywood, most Americans know that Michelangelo (1475-1564) painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, in addition to sculpting a statue or two like David and La Pietà. Thanks to the Da Vinci Code, we know that Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) painted the Mona Lisa, now in the Louvre, and The Last Supper in Milano, as well as figuring out the Answer to Life in his spare time. Now, thanks to Frederick Ilchman, assistant curator of European painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Jean Habert and Vincent Delieuvin, curators at the Louvre, these three brilliant artists -- Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese -- who were centered in Venice, have arrived together in America for one spectacular show.

I will confess that I have a little bit of a crush on Frederick Ilchman, and now that he has dropped this magnificient bomb in Boston, my admiration has grown even greater. Opening today, the Ides of March, and running through August 16th is the exhibition Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice. I'm sure that Frederick's unique perspective helps to make the show the great success it appears to be. This is from Holland Cotter's article from the New York Times:

BOSTON — You can pretty much kiss goodbye, at least for now, the prospect of more exhibitions like “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice,” which opens Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts here. Transatlantic loans of the kind that make this show the breathtaker it is are a big drain on strapped museum budgets. Boston was lucky to partner with the Louvre on this project, but such masterpiece gatherings are likely to be rare in years to come. Catch them while they’re hot.

I have often wondered why Venetian history is not taught in the school system in America, yet we learn so much about Rome -- even Florence. I think we need to go back to the Italian Wars -- the League of Cambrai in particular -- to understand a bit about this critical moment in time. From Wikipdedia:

The Italian Wars, often referred to as the Great Italian Wars or the Great Wars of Italy in historical works, were a series of conflicts from 1494 to 1559 that involved, at various times, most of the city-states of Italy, the Papal States, most of the major states of Western Europe (France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and Scotland) as well as the Ottoman Empire. Originally arising from dynastic disputes over the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples, the wars rapidly became a general struggle for power and territory among their various participants, and were marked with an increasing degree of alliances, counter-alliances, and regular betrayals.

To read the entire article, click here:

The League of Cambrai itself, in 1509, could be titled The Entire World vs. Venice. This is from John Julius Norwich's superb book, A History of Venice, describing when Pope Julius issued a Bull on April 27, 1509:

Venice, he thundered, had become so puffed up with pride as to molest her neighbours and invade their territories, including those of the Holy See itself; she had given shelter to rebels against the Vicar of Christ; she had flouted the law of the Church and his own specific commands with regard to his bishops and clergy, imprisoning them and sending them into exile according to her whim; finally, at a time when he, the Pope, was striving to unite all Christian peoples against the Infidel, she had deliberately obstructed his efforts for her own profit and advancement. Accordingly he proposed to declare a solemn excommunication and interdict against her, permitting any other state or person to attack or despoil her or any of her subjects, to obstruct her traffic on land or sea and to do her all possible harm and hurt, if within twenty-four days she did not make full restitution.

Venice dealt with the new sentence as she had the last, refusing to accept it, forbidding its publication in her territory, and announcing -- by means of a proclamation nailed by two of her agents to the door of St. Peter's -- her intention of appealing to a Council.

Oh, those enterprising Venetians, always manuevering around the rules. There is confusion about Titian's actual age, but we can assume he would have been in his early 20s about this time. So, during the period these artists were working, there were often military battles being fought in the background releasing all kinds of energy, which many brilliant minds transformed into masterpieces of art, architecture and literature that still exist today.

For example, long before New York City came into existence, Venice was the center of the publishing industry. The deeply respected Aldus Manutius published the mysterious Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in 1499. The writer Pietro Archino (1492-1556), one of Titian's best buddies, caused all sorts of havoc with his erotic works. Architects such as Sansovino (1486-1570) and Palladio (1508-1580) trod the calli; Leonardo da Vinci himself was hired by Venice as a military engineer in 1500, inventing schemes to undermine the Turks. The Rialto Bridge as we know it today was only an idea in 1503, finally brought to fruition in 1591 -- I just walked out on the balcony and took a gander at it -- so, yup, it's still there:)

Plans were offered by famous architects such as Jacopo Sansovino, Palladio and Vignola, but all involved a Classical approach with several arches, which was judged inappropriate to the situation. Even the great Michelangelo was considered as designer of the bridge. The present stone bridge, a single span designed by Antonio da Ponte, was finally completed in 1591.

Okay. Have you got your bearings in Time? 16th-century Venice may seem long, long ago to a country as young as America, but it is just yesterday here in a town where many creations from that point in time still exist today. In today's disposable world, perhaps we can learn something from these wise folks who created masterpieces that are still standing.

More from Holland Cotter:

In a gallery of female nudes with skin so incandescent as to barely need lighting, eroticism floats like a scent. For the first time in European art we see paint itself used as an impassioned material, the instrument of fervid hands and inflamed personalities.
The show is about three such personalities: Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian; Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto; and Paolo Caliari, called Veronese. All three shot off sparks as they reforged painting as a medium. And all three had feverishly competitive overlapping careers.
These masters of 16th-century Venetian painting were no Holy Trinity. They were a discordant ménage-a-trois bound together by envy, talent, circumstances and some strange version of love.

These three artists (and many others in various mediums) consumed the explosive energy surrounding them and spat it out onto the canvas. Unlike today, with so many people moving in a somnambulent stupor, Venice was teeming with life! Instead of crushing the creative spirit and mashing it into one giant void of sameness, the Powers that Be understood that by supporting these unique, eccentric and often difficult personalities, they encouraged the flame of life itself to brighten humanity's view.

Holland Cotter adds in another element as to why this creative explosion took place -- the Venetian's use of oil to paint:

Before the 16th century Italian art was dominated by two cities, Florence and Rome, and by two kinds of painting: fresco and egg tempera — water-based, fast-drying, smooth-surfaced — on wood. Venice lay outside this mainstream. Fresco wasn’t viable in the city’s humid atmosphere; tempera had problems too. Then, at the end of the 15th century, oil painting, still little known in the rest of Italy, was introduced, and Venetian art caught fire.

When I was writing Harley's Ninth, I asked Geoff Leckie, an American artist here in Venice, if I could observe his process, and he generously agreed. I watched in fascination as he ground the pigments with a mortar and pestol, combining minerals and clay such as Lapis lazuli and burnt umber together with linseed oil. The canvas, too, was alive, made from sheets of linen. As he worked, I realized that an oil painting was a living, breathing thing, alive with pigments and natural materials, together with the artist's soul.

Also, oil paint was physically different from other paint. Because it was slow drying, artists could rethink and revise as they went. (The show has a fascinating section on pictures buried under other pictures.) And its controllable density and weight allowed each stroke to leave a distinctive and volatile trace, like the ink line in handwriting.

To read all of Holland Cotter's excellent article, click here:

So, when you go to Boston to visit the exhibition, you will be seeing the actual souls of of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese there on the canvas. You will see their fervent swirls there in the paint. You will feel the Italian Wars in the background, and the Pope battling with the Doge. You will feel the fiery relationship the artists had with each other, and the passion for life that kept Venice alive while the entire world attempted to destroy her.

You will feel the soul of Venice herself.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - Venice Blog

(The three images of the ladies gazing into the mirror you see are Top: Titian's Venus with a Mirror, Center: Tintoretto's Suzannah and the Elders, Bottom: Veronese's Venus at her Toilette.)

To visit the exhibit's official website at the Museum of Fine Art, click here:


  1. I'm tempted to cash in some frequent flier miles and go to Boston. Thanks for the pics.

    Although Titian was the titan of these painters, my favorito e' Tintorretto. Perque he was so modern in style. I appreciate Titian, but relate to Jacopo. Check out the Fall of Man, Galleria Dell Accademia and I especially like his work, Paradiso, a large painting in a Swiss collection.

  2. ohh... wonderfull paintings...
    im crazy now... he he...
    im lucky can meet u in blogcatalog.. Keep in touch...


  3. venezia is my most favorite place to be and can't wait to return next june. when i saw the exhibit advertised in the ny times i decided to cash in on credit card points for a free shuttle to boston and to see this amazing exhibit!