Venetian Painting

Venice, the city of lagoons, was the capital of a prosperous mercantile republic and home of a distinctive school of painting known for its rich handling of color.  While Florentine art was known for its drawing and design, Venetian painters were renowned for their vividly rich and colors and radiant light — made possible by the use of oil painting technique:

“A search for luminous color and intuitive responses to nature—a pursuit, above all, of the sensuous—occupied painters in Venice for centuries. While artists in central Italy concentrated on the more intellectual aspects of form and structure, Venetian painters, beginning with Giovanni Bellini and his students, focused their attention on the surface of things, on color and texture, even on the paint itself.”
Giorgione and the High Renaissance in Venice, National Gallery of Art

Learn more about Venetian Color and Florentine Design (colorito and disegno):

Giovanni Bellini, San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505.
Oil on wood transferred to canvas, San Zaccaria, Venice

In the 1470’s Bellini learned Flemish oil technique, which allowed for a much wider range of color than was possible with the use of tempera and fresco,
 still the dominant medium in Florence.  This painting depicts the Virgin on a throne with the Christ child on her lap, and surrounded by saints. 
It is an example of a sacra conversazione, or “sacred conversation,” where individuals from different times in history are gathered together, as if in conversation.

The figures are remarkably lifelike, yet their serene expressions and graceful bearing creates an unmistakable aura of divinity.  Like the masters of the High Renaissance,
 Bellini united the human and divine.  What sets the picture apart, and makes it distinctively Venetian, is the rich, glowing colors, and the radiant light that bathes the 
figures and the architecture.

“To achieve deep tones, Venetian painters would prepare a panel with a smooth white ground and then slowly build up layer-upon-layer of oil paint. Since oil dries slowly, the colors could be blended together to achieve subtle gradations . . . Plus, when oil paint dries it stays somewhat translucent. As a result, all of those thin layers reflect light and the surface shines. Painting conservators have even found that Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian added ground-up glass to their pigments to better reflect light.”
Dr. Heather A. Horton, “Venetian Art, an Introduction” (Khan Academy)

Andrea Palladio, Villa Rotunda, c. 1566-70

The prosperity of the Venetian Republic can be seen in the magnificent villas that wealthy aristocrats built for their families in the suburbs of Venice.  The Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, who studied classical architecture and published an influential treatise on architecture, designed this villa.  The entrances are based on Greek temple architecture, while the central plan was modeled on the Roman Pantheon.  The central plan appealed to Renaissance architects because it corresponded to the proportions of the body (as seen in Leonardo’s drawing of The Vitruvian Man)

Painting and Poetry
As private patronage stimulated the exploration of secular themes, Venetian artists pioneered a new kind of subject matter where the narrative story played a less important role than the overall mood and visual pleasure of the picture:

“With the work of Giorgione, one of Bellini’s students, the Venetian High Renaissance truly began. Although he died very young, Giorgione’s influence was enormous. For the private enjoyment of cultivated patrons he introduced new subjects: mythological scenes and pastorals with elusive meaning. To an unprecedented extent, mood is the primary “subject” of his works. Like Italian poetry of the time, the lyricism of his paintings was designed to delight and refresh. Light and shadow move imperceptibly into one another, and a soft atmosphere unifies landscape and figures, giving both a kind of mystery. For Giorgione more than any artist before him, the landscape became an end in itself. It was no longer a mere backdrop to the action of the figures but an equal actor in creating his poesia.”
Giorgione and the High Renaissance in Venice, National Gallery of Art

Giorgione (or Titian), Pastoral Symphony, c, 1508 oil on canvas

Traditionally attributed to Giorgione, this painting is now thought to be an early work by Titian, and is a perfect example of a picture where mood seems to be the primary subject.  The subject matter remains unclear:  Two men in fancy dress relax in a lush landscape setting at sunset; one man plays a lute, while the other listens.  Two voluptuous nude women accompany them, one playing a flute, while the other draws water from a well.  The atmosphere is soft, sensual, and dreamy, but the pupose of the story remains a myster.

Giorgione’s painting exemplifies what art historians call poesia – paintings that function like poetry.  According to the Louvre website, the painting may be an allegory of poetry:

“The theme of music in a serene landscape might evoke an allegory of Poetry – a poem or a legend. Titian gives great weight to the landscape; it is not used as simple décor, but as a reflection of a certain state of mind. The search for balance is shown through the integration of these figures in a setting where man and nature must coexist in perfect harmony. This thought evokes the myth of Arcadia recounted in Virgil’s Bucolics and reinterpreted by the Neapolitan poet Jacopo Sannazzaro. The myth tells of the happy life of the shepherds of Arcadia, whose existence is centered around music and song.”
Louvre Museum

Whatever the meaning may be, the mood, sensual atmosphere, and rich colors of the painting make it satisfying, even if we don’t understand the narrative content.

Giogione, The Tempest (Khan Academy)

Giovanni Bellini and Titian, Feast of the Gods, 1514/1529
National Gallery of Art

Pictures of “bacchanals” became popular in the 16th century, especially in Venice.  The subject was appealing to wealthy patrons who were knowledgeable about classical mythology. Bacchus was the Roman god of wine, and in Classical mythology he usually presided over wild parties involving wine, women, and song.  Pictures of the theme typically depict a pagan paradise of free love, perfect weather, and an endless supply of food and drink — the perfect kind of subject matter for a wealthy patron’s “man cave”!

This particular painting was one of a series commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, for his private apartments.  The private setting accounts for the erotic subject matter, and the Duke presumably derived great pleasure from sharing the pictures with a select group of friends.

Here is a description of the subject matter from a webexhibit devoted to the picture:

“The story shown in this picture would have been familiar to any educated person in 1500. (At that time, education emphasized an intimate knowledge of Latin and Greek literature.) This particular story is taken from Ovid . . . . In the forest, classical gods (Apollo, Jupiter, Neptune, etc.) dressed as Venetian gentlemen, are cavorting with satyrs and semi-clad nymphs. Bacchus is dispensing wine liberally from an enormous cask and everyone falls into a drunken stupor…except for Priapus who, raising the skirt of the beautiful nymph Lotis, is about to ravish her. At that point, Silenus’ donkey brays, waking everyone up. The startled nymph will push Priapus away and he will be laughed at by all. The story had just and unjust consequences, not shown here. Priapus was rightly banished but Lotis was turned into a locust tree.”
Investigating Bellini’s Feast of the Gods

Bellini’s and Titian’s The Feast of the Gods (Khan Academy) 

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1523-24
National Gallery, London

This painting was also created for the Duke’s “man cave.”  Bacchus can be seen in the center of the composition, leaping from a chariot drawn by leopards as he is overcome by the attractive sight of Ariadne (a student of mine once wrote, “you can almost hear him saying ‘hubba hubba’!).  Following Bacchus is a rowdy group of revelers, and in the distance we see a pastoral landscape glowing with light and color.

Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (Khan Academy) 

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538 Oil on canvas
Uffizi Gallery

This painting was commissioned for another “man cave” – the private apartments of the Duke of Urbino.  Sensual and overtly flirtatious, the painting depicts the Duke’s mistress reclining on a couch, with a lap dog (symbol of fidelity) at her feet.  Set in a richly furnished Venetian interior (complete with maids), the painting transforms the mythological goddess of love into a flesh and blood woman whose pose is both teasing and seductive, while she gazes invitingly at the viewer.

Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Khan Academy)


Web Resources:

Venetian Color and Florentine Design,  Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History 

Titian, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History 

Venetian Renaissance, Khan Academy

Giorgione and the High Renaissance in Venice, National Gallery of Art 

Investigating Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (Webexhibit) 

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