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Renaissance In Venice
We have devoted so much attention to the painting of Florence because the roots of all painting to greater or lesser degree may be traced to that illustrious city. Painters sprang up elsewhere who were more consummate craftsmen and technicians; but the theories and principles they employed were borrowed from such masters as Michelangelo and Leonardo. It is a curious fact that European art began by developing the theories of the last Florentines (realism, dramatic use of light and shade, etc.), and gradually worked back to an imitation of the early mediaeval Florentines such as Fra Angelico. Most modern painting, as will be shown, is a complete denial of realism, striving instead to capture the subjective. Not the sweet and sentimental, but the realm of philosophy and poetic fantasy: ultimate truth, not the surface.
If we jump blithely from Florentine painting to Modernism, however, we can carry little understanding to our destination. As in the study of man, the evolutionary process is important. (But unlike man, whose history is one of constant outward refinement, painting does not improve even superficially-it changes as the ideals of peoples change. Criticism of a particular era of art is therefore criticism of a particular people.) We shall see in Modernism vestiges of the methods of sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century painters. So to avoid confusion we shall continue to follow painting somewhat chronologically.
Critics regard Venetian painting as the fulfilment of Renaissance effort. The truth is that it is an entirely different set of concepts. Whereas the principal characteristics of the Florentines are a lofty poetic sentiment, an imaginative lyricism expressed in grace of line and pattern, Venetian art reveals the preciousness of luxury to extroverts and materialists. Art was not the preoccupation of these Northern Italians. Their time was taken up rather by business and conquest, with occasional feasts, pageants, banquets, etc., for diversion. In Venice's heyday there was little painting of importance. It was only after a series of catastrophes overtook the State, reducing its potentates to figureheads and its merchant princes to retired gentlemen of leisure, that time and energy could be spared for the production of art. It was then that the need was felt for the preservation in painted documents of the vanished glory of the Republic and its leaders.
Instead of illustrating the Scriptures, then, the art of painting in Venice became an art of portraiture. The painters assigned to the tasks of representing important public men in their most sumptuous robes and in their most impressive manner bent their talents to these tasks. Whereas the Florentines painted drapery with the intention of revealing its beauty of line, or the sculptural form under it, the Venetians employed their skill in catching its texture, the sheen of its rich material. And where the Florentines painted a man or woman for the grace of his spirit, and the charm of hers, the Venetians wished to express the sitters' physical well-being, the fresh color of their complexions, the warm softness of the flesh. To them the painting of a beautiful nude was worth all the Martyrdoms of Saint Sebastians.
So we see that it is impossible to weigh the achievements of one school and those of the other on the same scale. Those of us who dwell in the world of the spirit will prefer the Florentines, the Primitives more than the accomplished masters such as Raphael; and those of us who find the illusion of soft, warm, scintillating flesh, and the representation of the glory of pomp and ceremony the greatest achievements of the artist, will most certainly rate the Venetians superior.
In any case we must realize that it was Venetian painting, and not Florentine, which exerted the greatest influence over painting throughout the rest of Europe for the next three centuries.
When Giovanni Bellini showed his talents as a portraitist the trend of Venetian painting was definitely established. Bellini abandoned the hardness and rigidity of Florentine painting. He practically eliminated line, depending entirely upon his color-values, his light and shade and his softness of change from one color to another, to obtain form. His figures are bathed in atmosphere and light. There is a tonal reality that has remained the aim of conventional portraiture to this day.
In his portraits the ideals of the Venetian portraitists are already evident. We see the rich texture of robes, the soft diffused lighting which obliterates outlines, the deep darks of the shadows, the individual character of the face, the dignity and well-being of the important personage. The background is simplified to a flat hanging, made interesting by the variations of light upon it. There is no involved, decorative view of a distant town, of rocks, of busy people-nothing to disturb the dignity of the subject. No Florentine except Leonardo visualized the possibilities of this kind of painting, and he was too far gone in the traditions of his masters to do more than indicate them. It is curious that Bellini should have as a pupil a poetic painter who in spirit was more a Florentine than a Venetian. Giorgione has much of the feeling of Botticelli, yet no two artists produced work more outwardly dissimilar. Bellini trained the young lyricist in the use of rich warm color, of light and atmosphere. Giorgione showed himself a faithful as well as an apt pupil. Not only was he able to put into practice the lessons of his master, but so much richer was he in qualities of heart and mind that he endowed his naturalism with a poetic conception unique among his contemporaries.
In his Concert, reproduced in Chapter 3, all the benefits of Bellini's training are evident. The heads are subtly painted, the character of each is definitely established, the atmosphere of the dark room is well conveyed. But in addition there is a composition of geometric pattern, a quiet orderliness and serenity reminiscent of Perugino, an expressiveness of pose which recalls Leonardo, and a feeling of human warmth or gemutlich7ceit that reveals the gentleness of his own fine nature. He had many points in common with Raphael as well as with Botticelli. The gentleness expressed by each links them in spirit. Each left his mark upon the world in a short span of years, Giorgione dying at thirty-four, Raphael at the youthful age of twenty-seven. But their differences as artists are as sharp as the disparity in the ideals of their native republics. The Florentine, true to the traditions of his culture, idealized his figures and faces in order to convey to us his poetic outlook, while the Venetian found in every person and type some human good worth recording. Giorgione's was perhaps the finer spirit, since it was more critical and less prolific. He left only a dozen paintings, whereas the brief span of Raphael's career is dotted with his prodigious work, much of which was in part accomplished by his retinue of helpers and students.
Giorgione's precepts did not completely dominate the art of Venice. The beauty of his paintings is not an obvious beauty; its appeal is naturally restricted to a cultured minority. Bidding for the approbation of the people was Carpaccio, a painter of a different stamp, trained by the brother of Giorgione's own master. This pupil of Gentile Bellini had acquired from the latter his primitive point of view. Carpaccio held fast to the crowded compositions teeming with life, the sharp outline, the minute detail, the architectural setting. To these he added his own naive, humorous way of looking at life and its simple preoccupations. His pictures generally have dogs in the streets, birds in the trees, and all the homely little touches that appeal to ordinary people. This urge to tell in the plainest language the story of daily, ordinary life, revealing its charm as well as its meaninglessness, launched a new art in the history of painting-the art of genre. While Giorgione thrilled the cultured, Carpaccio delighted the multitude.
The tendency toward genre painting did not affect the best painters. Giorgione remained their mentor and inspirer. His young friend Titian, like himself a pupil of Bellini, became his closest follower. Titian acquired from Giorgione all his technical skill and innovations and added to them his less serene, but lustier spirit. He was, after Leonardo, the first romanticist with paint. It is possible that he was influenced in his choice of subject, and even more in his dramatic manner of expression, by the many poets and writers who took refuge in Venice from the Inquisition in Spain. But whether it was this influence, the demands of his own nature, the incomplete experiments of Leonardo, or all three which acted upon him, it was he who carried Venetian painting to its destiny.
His exact contributions can be outlined. They were not so much the subtle qualities of the spirit which makes Giorgione difficult to explain. First he desired to express dramatic action. While Giotto accomplished this by a certain formal reserve, and Leonardo by a psychological understanding of types, and their habits, Raphael by grouping in fluid pattern, Titian sought to express the same thing by extravagance of gesture, which his knowledge of anatomy made interesting and convincing. To these means he added the striking atmospheric realism of Giorgione, attained by eliminating line entirely and diffusing the contours of his figures in the light which bathed them.
To add to the dramatic effect he improved upon Leonardo's use of landscape to reflect the mood of his subject. A somber subject such as the Burial of Christ was aided in achieving its mood by somber sky and earth and trees in the background. A joyous, high-spirited event was supplied with joyous clouds and sunny earth as accompaniment.
This was a notable contribution to pictorial art, as we have seen. But it was not until the Venetians undertook realistic settings that the art of landscape painting was born. The observation of the artist was no longer confined to the human figure. The painter found it necessary to go outdoors to study the different aspects of nature, to sketch the accidental changes of color and tone. The romantic moods of sky and earth were found to be the surest support to a romantic composition. Only Leonardo had known this.
Titian is as famous for his innovations in regard to color as he is for his dramatic figures and romantic, atmospheric landscapes. The richness and warmth of his color were derived from Giorgione, but his work possesses nuances which his friend had never attained. The subtlety of refinement in his painting of flesh has been the inspiration to many other masters, notably Rubens, Watteau and Renoir. His ability to reveal the texture of rich materials went far beyond that of Bellini and of Giorgione. As a colorist he was the most accomplished painter of the Renaissance.
His nudes remain among the finest examples of the art of figure painting extant; the warm color, the fresh hue of the flesh, the subtlety of modeling, the natural grace of the pose, the sureness of the form, all are evident. The reality which Titian has achieved in his nudes expresses fully the aims of Venetian art; this is especially clear when we see his women in contrast to the imaginative figures of Botticelli. Botticelli's nudes are symbols, of hope, charity, Spring, etc. Titian, on the other hand, was interested only in portraying a beautiful woman in a charming pose, and as real as possible, without making his picture literal or banal. The aspirations of the two Renaissance schools are best expressed by the nudes of these two painters.
The last of the great Venetians, and the one who combined all their attainments, as Raphael had those of the Florentines, was Tintoretto. Tintoretto's talent came to light at an early age and his father, unlike our more practical parents, did nothing to discourage him. On the contrary, he sent him to the atelier of the illustrious Titian. But the master was not long in recognizing budding genius of a rare order, and he did what was characteristic of his place and time-dismissed the prodigy from his class. This smallness of spirit seems incompatible with the attainments of the great painter, but having reached middle life, he could not bear to see himself decline in the esteem of his fellow citizens while a younger man, trained by him, supplanted him as the reigning painter.
Young Tintoretto did not bear his unkind master any malice. He continued to study Titian's pictures and search them for the secrets of their color. The motto on the wall of his studio read: The color of Titian and the drawing of Michelangelo. He acquired some pieces of sculpture done in the classical manner and made drawings of them in various positions, placing them in the sharp glare of a lantern in order to secure dramatic light and shade. It was not only the outline, the contour, the functional line of Michelangelo which interested him, it was the volume of the planes, the modeling of the muscles and the form of the surfaces. To further his own instruction in drawing he made careful anatomical studies of corpses; to learn the secret of Titian's color he copied the master's paintings.
His energy did not stop at these ordinary means of acquiring knowledge. To him a canvas was a stage and the people upon it the actors. To attain the most dramatic arrangement of his figures, he modeled miniatures out of wax or clay, giving them the proper pose and gesture, and draping them with robes. He placed them on a stage constructed of wood and cardboard and moved them about until he achieved a satisfactory tableau. In this way he was prepared to reproduce the scene in paint with no doubts as to the effectiveness of the composition.
If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, Tintoretto deserves the appellation. Like most geniuses, however, he was slow in winning recognition. His personality disturbed the comfortable officials who had, like their brethren everywhere, an aversion to change. When he finally received commissions all his powers were put to the test. Tremendous compositions were demanded. His experiments in stage settings were not wasted; his mastery of figure composition stood him in good stead. The study of perspective enabled him to handle vast crowded areas with conviction. The sharp light and shadow resulted in a new kind of composition of rhythms. Botticelli had achieved excellent composition by rhythms o f line. Tintoretto created a bolder, more dynamic effect by rhythms of light and dark. The colossal scenes surpassed in their turbulence and vehemence anything attempted in the same spirit.
It is a matter of psychology whether this kind of turbulent, writhing presentation is more effective as drama than the restrained poetic feeling of the Florentines. Many of Michelangelo's figures are in the simplest poses, yet the easy movement of their torsos and legs and arms and the spirituality of the faces convey far more dramatic force than the excited figures. It seems to us that Tintoretto's drama was successful not by virtue of his rhetorical gesturing and excited poses but because of the strong light and dark which, in its rhythmic movement and sharp contrast, has the power to awaken our emotions. It is the dramatic effect of lightning flashing in a dark sky.
In his method of composition Tintoretto has many points in common with Raphael. The pattern of each is so arranged that the darks circulate through each group. Both artists have striven for variety of pose and gesture. But while the movement of Raphael's pictures is easy and well ordered, Tintoretto's is turbulent. The patterns are uncertain, the poses are rhetorical and exaggerated, the lights strike against the darks sharply. Even the extravagant zigzag treatment of high lights and the use of an aura of light about dark figures and arms, serve to stress the drama of his scenes. This device is today one of the principal technical resources of Modernists.
With Tintoretto the aims and ideals of Bellini, Giorgione and Titian reached their end. The genre painting of Carpaccio found many followers; and Tintoretto's lessons in the technique of drawing and painting and composition became the equipment of artists who had little else than skill and aptitude for them. Veronese executed the most amazing feats in painting; but his pictures are devoid of spirit, whether poetic, religious, or dramatic. They are stupendous accomplishments, exhibitions of virtuosity. The virtuoso of the brush contributed nothing new to painting unless it was the casting off completely of classical traditions of costume, dressing his figures in the fashions of the day whether they belonged to his period or not. He was a naive man who wished to express in pictures his joyous worldliness. It is interesting to note that his tremendous paintings of feasts were commissioned for the most part by religious orders and monasteries, which found great pleasure in riotous and lavish display. We see from this how far from the Christianity of the Primitives the Venetians had traveled at the sunset of the Renaissance.