Every year, the Republic of Venice held a much anticipated public event. It was an amazing marriage ceremony at which the Republic’s leader, the Doge, officiated. The Doge’s ship, the Bucentaur, was rowed out into the Adriatic Sea. Tossing a gold wedding ring into the waves, the Doge married Venice to the sea.
The Doge pronounced the wedding vow in terms of religious faith, “We wed thee, sea, in the sign of the true and everlasting Lord.”
But what the Doge was really saying was that Venice – with a little help from God – was the marketplace of Renaissance Europe. This act symbolized the maritime trade that established the commercial fortunes of Venice and insured its political power and independence.
Venice was also a market place of ideas during the Renaissance. The vibrant art created by painters like Titian, the books produced by the city’s dynamic printing industry and the architectural innovations of Andrea Palladio testify to the central role of Venice in the cultural evolution of the Western world. Two small art exhibitions on display in New York City, each thoughtfully presented, combine to show the interplay of the new insights, artistic techniques and technologies that took place in Venice during the 1400’s and 1500’s.
The first of these exhibits, at the Morgan Library and Museum, showcases that institution’s rich collection of drawings by Venetian artists as well as rare, early examples of printed books.
The Morgan exhibit is particularly instructive as a counterpoint to Venice’s fabled role in the promotion of oil painting in Italy. Florence was the center for adherence to the discipline of drawing, disegno. Venetian artists, on the other hand, were masters in the use of rich, lustrous hues, colore.
Giorgio Vasari, painter and art historian, records the remark of his fellow Florentine, Michelangelo, after a courteous, if cool, meeting with Titian.
It “was a pity that design was not taught in Venice from the first,” Michelangelo said, “and that her painters did not have a better method of study.”
If Michelangelo had occasion to see Venetian drawings like those on display at the Morgan, he might have changed his mind. As these remarkable works show, the School of Venice did not lack in skilled masters of “disegno,” Titian included.
The Morgan exhibition is arranged thematically, with outstanding examples of drawings in all the genres esteemed by the ruling Venetian oligarchy: landscapes, historical and allegorical works, travel and geography and lavish illustrations for bibles and theological books. But portraits, if not occupying pride of place in Venice, certainly provide a key to comprehending the inner lives, the civic pride and cultural sophistication of the city’s merchant class.
In many respects, the key portrait sketch in the Morgan’s exhibit is the Portrait of a Woman with Hairnet. Unfortunately, we do not know identity of its creator. It was drawn with black and white chalk on paper by an unknown artist during the early 1500’s.
This arresting character study reflects the huge leap in psychological insight, as well as artistic skill, in portraiture that took place in the last decades of the 1400’s. Earlier portraits had been done in profile, influenced by the passion for collecting ancient Roman coins. This portrait shows the innovatory three-quarters viewpoint that became standard in Western art around this time. It is thought to have been influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of a Woman, popularly referred to as La Belle Ferronière. This work, which has a similar headdress, was painted in the 1490s and much studied in the years that followed.
Portrait of a Woman with Hairnet also testifies to the role in Venetian art of Antonello da Messina, the masterful, if short-lived portrait painter from Sicily (1430-1479), who briefly worked in Venice around 1470. Antonello’s acute ability to depict the character of his subjects influenced the work of the Bellini family, the great artistic dynasty who in turn shaped the conventions of Venetian art.
Antonello da Messina was but one of many foreign artists who came to work or study in Venice, including Albrecht Dürer and El Greco.
Durer visited Venice twice, in 1494 and for an extended period during a two year sojourn in Italy, 1505-07. A substantial German mercantile community resided in Venice with their own church, San Bartolomeo. A religious group, the German Confraternity of the Rosary, commissioned Durer to paint a work entitled The Feast of the Rose Garlands to hang in San Bartolomeo. A magnificent preparatory sketch for this painting is on view at the Morgan, Kneeling Donor, 1506.
Interestingly, Durer used a Venetian drawing technique to create this striking image of piety. The noted 15th century artist Vittore Carpaccio had pioneered the method of using a pointed brush as a drawing implement, applying ink onto a special light blue paper know as carta azzurra. Durer adopted the technique, using a wash of gray to create the shadows in the folds of the donor’s billowing gown. Then he added a judicious application of white body color to show the reflection of light on the donor’s face, hands and the front of his gown adjacent to the rosary beads which are being grasped in the act of prayer. With brilliant effect, Durer created an indelible image of religious faith, all the more remarkable for the fact that it was a preparatory sketch.
Among the German merchants and craftsmen living in Venice were a number of printers. After moveable type was invented in Germany around 1450, political instability throughout southern Germany caused an exodus of printers seeking a safe haven for their new industry. Venice was close by and the city’s merchants were receptive to this profitable new technology.
The books and maps that were printed in Venice during the late 1400’s and early 1500’s brilliantly illustrate the process by which innovation adapts established cultural traditions. That can be seen in the sumptuously illustrated bibles and religious books on display at the Morgan.
Early printed books were deliberately made to appear as if they had been entirely produced by hand. In the case of the illustrations in the Morgan’s copy of St. Augustine ‘s De civitate Dei (The City of God), this in fact was the case. The book, one of the landmark texts of Christianity, was printed by Nicolaus Jenson in Venice on October 2, 1475. The magnificent frontispiece depicting St. Augustine was a unique artistic creation, most likely by Girolamo da Cremona. Early printers like Jenson set their type but left blank spaces for pictures, chapter initials and decorative borders. These were done by hand, thus satisfying the continuing demand for one-of-a-kind volumes. The Morgan’s copy of The City of God bears the coat of arms of the Mocenigo family, Pietro Mocenigo being the Doge from 1474 to 1476.
By the turn of the sixteenth century, the demand for illustrated books propelled the use of woodcuts to supply the pictures and maps for large press runs of books aimed at broadly-based audiences. Few books of the period had a greater impact than Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura (Four Books on Architecture). Palladio (1508–1580) was a renowned builder of churches in Venice and of country estates surrounding the city. He distilled his knowledge into a work of great influence, published in 1570. The illustration shown here is for the Villa La Rotunda, a completely symmetrical building. Its proportions are perfectly balanced, being based on a square plan around a central circular hall with a dome.
The 1500’s would see at least one more, hand-crafted book, highly relevant to the maritime hegemony of Venice. This was the nautical or “portolan” atlas created by Battista Agnese. Seventy-one of these atlases survive, with a hand-drawn and painted oval map of the world in each.
Agnese was a cartographer from Genoa, who in 1543-44 distilled the latest geographic data brought back by the Spanish, Portuguese and other European voyagers into a remarkably accurate view of the continents. The route of the epic, circumnavigating voyage (1519-1522) by the squadron commanded by Ferdinand Magellan is clearly traced in now tarnished silver paint. Agnese used gold to mark the route by which the treasure from Peru was brought via the Isthmus of Panama and then transported in heavily-protected convoys across the Caribbean Sea and South Atlantic to the Spanish naval base at Cadiz. Ironically, most of this treasure was silver from the fabulously rich mines of Potosi in present-day Bolivia.
Agnese decorated his world map with charming depictions of twelve cherubs or “wind-heads” that in time would evolve into modern day compass directions. Here too, ancient conceptions confronted new discoveries. And that spelled bad news, ultimately, for Venice.
The great voyages of discovery like Magellan’s left Venice isolated from new trade routes and untapped sources of wealth. These global developments occurred as the Venetian colonies in the eastern Mediterranean were menaced by the growing naval power of the Ottoman Turks. The Venetians fought tenaciously to defend their trade zones, culminating in the naval victory at Lepanto in 1571. But the shrinking size of their maritime empire increasingly led the Venetian political elite to focus on their inland possessions, which they called the terraferma. And that, ironically, led seafaring Venice to take a pioneering role in developing landscape painting.
No account of Venetian art can ignore the contributions of Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian. Born about 1485, he began painting, most likely in the studio of Giovanni Bellini, around 1500. He began a partnership with the enigmatic landscape painter, Giorgione. In 1508, they worked on a fresco for the warehouse of the German merchants in Venice, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. This now lost painting is the first documented work of Titian and he did not stop working until his death in 1576.
Two important works by Titian are on display, one at the Morgan and the other at the parallel exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Both are landscapes, showing the way that the settings for religious and allegorical paintings set the stage for the rise of landscape as an independent genre.
In Landscape with St. Theodore Overcoming the Dragon, Titian used pen and brown ink, over traces of black chalk, to evoke a magical event in a realistic setting. According to Christian tradition, St. Theodore quelled a dragon guarding a spring with healing powers so that a mother could bathe her sick child. In Titian’s drawing, the dragon is not slain, but rolls over on its back in submission to St. Theodore’s spiritual power. Earlier in the Renaissance, artists like Benozzo Gozzoli would have located the drama in a fantastical landscape. But Titian asserts the plausibility of the miracle by placing St. Theodore and the chastened dragon in a naturalistic setting.
Earlier in his career, Titian painted a more menacing dragon in an oil painting, Orpheus and Eurydice, one of a spectacular group of masterpieces from the Accademia Carrara, located in Bergamo, Italy, which are on temporary display in the Metropolitan Museum. Collected during the 1800’s, these works were placed in a museum in the northern Italian city of Bergamo, once part of the Venetian Empire.
Titian’s Orpheus and Eurydice recounts two incidents from classical mythology placed in a realistic setting. In the right-hand scene, the doomed lovers are fleeing from Hades. The glowing, fiery entrance to the underworld looks like the doorway to a furnace or brick kiln. For the practical, worldly Venetians, the most appropriate locale for miracles and mythology alike was the landscape of reality.
The Venetians also wanted to be depicted as protagonists in the paintings that they commissioned. This can be seen in Madonna and Child with Saints Paul and Agnes, and Paolo and Agnese Cassotti. Painted about 1520 by Andrea Previtali, it shows a husband and wife, Paolo and Agnese Cassotti. They watch as their patron saints worship the Christ child. But instead of being crowded-off to the margins of the canvas, as would have been the case during the Middle Ages, the Cassottis flank the Virgin Mary and face the viewer. This is their picture.
The Venetians during the Renaissance were a confident and resilient people. Even as their dominions were threatened by the Turks and global trade routes shifted away from the Mediterranean Sea, they found the inner resources to cope with these challenges. You have only to look at the magnificent portraits from the Accademia Carrara at the Metropolitan Museum to understand why the Republic of Venice lasted until Napoleon’s invasion in 1798.
Look into the eyes of the radiant child in Giovanni Battista Moroni’s superbly rendered Portrait of a Little Girl of the Redetti Family. Any society that can foster such a degree of dignity and self-possession, even in a young child, is one that is motivated by a belief in its future. The Republic of Venice was such a society. And there is no better testament to the amazing degree of Venetian achievement than the art on display in the first-rate exhibits at the Morgan Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Renaissance Venice: Drawings from the Morgan May 18–September 23, 2012 The Morgan Library & Museum 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York, NY 10016
Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: North Italian Paintings May 15–September 3, 2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY 10028