Venetian Painting

THE Academy of Fine Arts contains a collection of the earliest painters. A large picture in compartments, of 1380, somewhat barbarously, shows their origin: here, as elsewhere, the new art is seen issuing from Byzantine traditions. It appeared late, much later than in precocious and intelligent Tuscany. We find, however, in the Fourteenth Century, a Semitecolo and a Guariento, weak disciples of the school that Giotto founded at Padua; but in order to find the first national painters, we must come down to the middle of the following century. At this time, there lived in Murano a family of artists, the Vivarini. The eldest, Antonio, exhibits the rudiments of Venetian taste, such as old men with venerable beards, and bald heads, beautiful rosy or greenish draperies with melting tones; little angels, quite plump ; and Madonnas with full cheeks. After him, his brother, Bartolomeo, undoubtedly instructed in the School of Padua, led painting for a short time towards hard relief and bony forms; but in him, as in the others, the feeling for rich colour is already visible. On leaving this antechamber of art we experienced a sensation that is not created by the similar rooms in Sienna and Florence; and this sensation is increased when we stand before the masters of this dim era, John Bellini and Carpaccio.

It is evident that, while following a path of its own, Venetian painting developed as in the rest of Italy. It issued here, as elsewhere, from missals and mosaics and was at first in sympathy with purely Christian emotion ; then, by degrees, the feeling for beautiful human life introduced vigorous and healthy bodies taken from contemporary types into the altar frames, and we wonder at the placid expressions and religious physiognomies on the blooming faces in which the youthful blood circulates and sustains innate temperament. This is the confluence of two spirits and two ages; one, the Christian which is fading away; the other, the Pagan, which is in the ascendant. In Venetian art special traits are distinguished. The people are more closely copied from life and are less transformed by classic or mystic sentiment, not so pure as at Perugia, not so noble as at Florence: they are addressed more to the senses than to the mind or the heart; they are more quickly recognised as men and give greater pleasure to the eye. Strong and lively tones colour their muscles and their faces; living flesh is soft on their shoulders and on the thighs of little children; clear landscapes open into the distance to make the deeper tints of the figure stand out; saints gather around the Virgin in a variety of attitudes unknown to the other primitive schools with their uniform processions. At the height of its fervour and faith, the national spirit, fond of diversity and joy, allows a smile to escape. Nothing is more striking in this respect than the eight pictures by Carpaccio of St. Ursula: all that we have spoken of is here and particularly the awkwardness of the mediaeval image-maker.

He ignores half of the landscape and the nude: his rocks, bristling with trees, seem to have come from a psalter; frequently his trees look as if they were cut out of varnished sheet-iron; his ten thousand martyrs crucified on a mountain are as grotesque as the figures of an old mystery-play; you perceive that he has never been to Florence, and that he has not studied natural objects with Paolo Uccello nor human members and muscles with Pollaiolo. On the other hand, we find in him the most chaste figures of the Middle Ages, and that extreme finish, that perfect sincerity, that flower of Christian conscientiousness which the following age, more sensual and rough, will trample upon in passion. The saint and her betrothed, with their flowing blonde hair, are grave and tender like legendary personages. At one time we see her asleep and hearing the announcement of her martyrdom from an angel; at another, kneeling with her husband to receive the benediction of the Pope; at another, lifted in glory above a crowded field of heads. In still another picture, she appears with Saint Anne and two old saints who are embracing each other. One cannot imagine more peaceful and pious figures. St. Ursula, pale and gentle, her head slightly bent, holds in her charming hands a banner and a green palm. Her silken hair falls over the virginal blue of her long robe, and a royal mantle bright with gold enfolds her. She is indeed a saint, for the candour, humility and delicacy of the Middle Ages are perfectly expressed in her gesture and glance. Such is the age and such the country. These paintings portray interesting customs and rich decorations. The artist, as his great successors did after him, displays architecture, textiles, vessels, lordly processions, magnificently ornamented and lustrous robes, all somewhat out of proportion, but whose brilliancy and variety anticipate the work of the future, as an illuminated manuscript anticipates a picture.

There are certain families of plants, the species of which are so closely allied that they resemble more than they differ from each other: such are the Venetian painters, not only the four celebrities Giorgione, Titian, Tintoret, and Veronese, but others less illustrious, Palma ” it Vecchio “; Bonifazio, Paris Bordone, Pordenone, and that host enumerated by Ridolfi in his Lives, contemporaries, relatives, and successors of the great men, Andrea Vicentino, Palma ” it Giovine,” Zelotti, Bazzaco, Padovinano, Bassano, Schiavone, Moretto, and many others. What first appeals to the eye is the general and common type; the individual and personal traits remain for a time in shadow. They have worked together and by turns in the Ducal Palace, but by the involuntary concord of their talents their pictures make an harmonious whole.

At first our eyes are astonished ; with the exception of three or four halls, the apartments are low and small. The Hall of the Council of the Ten and those surrounding it 1 are gilded habitations, insufficient for the figures that dwell therein; but after a moment one forgets the habitation and sees only the figures. Power and voluptuousness blaze there unbridled and superb. In the angles nude men, painted caryatides, jut out in such high relief that at the first glance one takes them for statues; a colossal breath swells their chests; their thighs and their shoulders writhe. On the ceiling, a Mercury, entirely nude, is almost a figure by Rubens, but of a more gross sensuality. A gigantic Neptune urges before him his sea-horses which plash through the waves; his foot presses the edge of his chariot; his enormous and ruddy body is turned backwards; he raises his conch with the joy of a bestial god; the salt wind blows through his scarf, his hair, and his beard; one could never imagine, without seeing it, such a furious elan, such an overflowing of animal spirits, such a joy of pagan flesh, such a triumph of free and shameless life in the open air and broad sunlight. What an injustice to limit the Venetians to the painting of merely happy scenes and to the art of simply pleasing the eye ! They have also painted grandeur and heroism; the mere energetic and active body has attracted them; like the Flemings, they have their colossi also. Their drawing, even without colour, is capable by itself of expressing all the solidity and all the vitality of the human structure. Look in this same hall at the four grisailles by Veronese—five or six women veiled or half-nude, all so strong and of such a frame that their thighs and arms would stifle a warrior in their embrace, and, nevertheless, their physiognomy is so simple or so proud that, despite their smile, they are virgins like Raphael’s Venuses and Psyches.

The more we consider the ideal figures of Venetian art, the more we feel the breath of an heroic age behind us. Those great draped old men with the bald foreheads are the patrician kings of the Archipelago, Barberesque sultans who, trailing their silken simars, received tribute and order executions. The superb women in sweeping robes, bedizened and creased, are empress daughters of the Republic, like that Catherina Cornaro from whom Venice received Cyprus. There are the muscles of fighters in the bronzed breasts of the sailors and captains; their bodies, reddened by the sun and wind, have dashed against the athletic bodies of janizaries; their turbans, their pelisses, their furs, their sword-hilts constellated with precious stones, all the magnificence of Asia is mingled on their bodies with the floating draperies of antiquity and with the nudities of Pagan tradition. Their straight gaze is still tranquil and savage, and the pride and the tragic grandeur of their expression announce the presence of a life in which man was concentrated in a few simple passions, having no other thought than that of being master so that he should not be a slave, and to kill so that he should not be killed. Such is the spirit of a picture by Veronese which, in the Hall of the Council of the Ten, represents an old warrior and a young woman; it is an allegory, but we do not trouble ourselves about the subject. The man is seated and leans forward, his chin upon his hand, with a savage air; his colossal shoulders, his arm, and his bare leg encircled with a knemis of lions’ heads start out of his ample drapery; with his turban, his white beard, his thoughtful brow, and his traits of a wearied lion, he has the appearance of a Pacha who is tired of everything. She, with downcast eyes, places her hands upon her soft breast; her magnificent hair is caught up with pearls; she seems a captive awaiting the will of her master, and her neck and bowed face are strongly enpurpled in the shadow that encircles them.

Nearly all the other halls are empty; the paintings have been taken into an interior room. We go to find the curator of the Museum; we tell him in bad Italian that we have no letters of introduction, nor titles, nor any rights whatsoever to be admitted to see them. Thereupon he has the kindness to conduct us into the reserved hall, to lift up the canvases, one after the other, and to lose two hours in showing them to us.

I have never had greater pleasure in Italy; these canvases are now before our eyes; we can look at them as near as we please, at our ease, and we are alone. There are some browned giants by Tintoret, with their skin wrinkled by the play of the muscles. Saint Andrew and Saint Mark, real colossi like those of Rubens. There is a Saint Christopher by Titian, a kind of bronzed and bowed Atlas with his four limbs straining to bear the weight of a world, and on his neck, by an extraordinary contrast, the tiny, soft, and laughing bambino, whose infantine flesh has the delicacy and grace of a flower. Above all there are a dozen mythological and allegorical paintings by Tintoret and Veronese, of such brilliancy and such intoxicating fascination that a veil seems to fall from our eyes and we discover an unknown world, a paradise of delights situated beyond all imagination and all dreams. When the Old Man of the Mountain transported into his harem his sleeping youths to render them capable of extreme devotion, doubtless it was such a spectacle that he furnished.

Upon a coast at the margin of the infinite sea, serious Ariadne receives the ring of Bacchus, and Venus, with a crown of gold, has come through the air to celebrate their marriage. Here is the sublime beauty of bare flesh, such as it appears coming out of the water vivified by the sun and touched with shadows. The goddess is floating in liquid light and her twisted back, her flanks and her curves are palpitating half enveloped in a white, diaphanous veil. With what words can we paint the beauty of an attitude, a tone, or an outline? Who will describe the healthy and roseate flesh under the amber transparency of gauze? How shall we represent the soft plenitude of a living form and the curves of limbs which flow into the leaning body? Truly she is swimming in the light like a fish in its lake, and the air, filled with vague reflections, embraces and caresses her.

Beside it are two young women, Peace and Plenty. With infinite delicacy Peace leans towards her sister; she is turning away and her head is in shadow, but she has the freshness of immortal youth. How luminous are their gathered tresses, yellow as the ripened wheat ! Their legs and bodies are slightly deflected. One of them seems to be falling, and the curve of her moving body is adorable. No painter has appreciated so fully the yielding roundness, or arrested action so wonderfully. They are going to take a posture, or walk away; the eye and mind involuntarily supply the action.

Still more animated and voluptuous is the coquetry of the group of Mercury and the Three Graces. All of them are leaning; for with Tintoret, a body is not living when its posture is motionless; the exhibition of a deflected figure adds a mobile grace to the general charm of beauty. One of the Graces, seated, extends her arms, and the light that falls on her thigh makes a part of her face, neck and breast glow against the indistinct purple shadow. Her sister, kneeling, with downcast eyes, clasps her hand; a long gauze scarf, fine as those silvery mists that illumine the fields at dawn, is twined about her waist and floats over her breast, the rosy tints of which are seen through it. In her other hand, she holds a blooming spray of flowers, the snowy whiteness of which contrasts with the purplish white of the rounded arm. The third, is lying at full length, in a tortuous pose, and the eye can embrace from neck to heel the superb framework of spine and hip. Wavy hair, tiny chin, rounded eyelids, slightly turned up nose, delicate ears like shells of mother-of-pearl,-her whole countenance expresses a joyous, half-malicious, archness; one would call her a bold courtesan.

These are the traits by which Tintoret is recognised : a certain roughness and violence, strong colours, unconstrained attitudes, and virile nudity. Veronese has more silvery and roseate tones, gentler figures, lighter shadows and more luxurious and restful decorations. Near a broken column a large and noble woman, Industry, seated by Innocence, is weaving an aerial tissue; her laughing eyes are turned towards the blue of the sky, her crimped blonde hair is full of light; her half-opened mouth is a pomegranate; a vague smile allows her pearly teeth to be seen; and the atmosphere that surrounds her has the roseate hue of a brilliant dawn. The other, in an unstudied attitude, leans over her little lamb; the silvery reflections of her silken drapery glisten around her; her head is in shadow; but the blushing dawn illumines her lips, her ear and her cheek.

Such figures cannot be described; one could never have imagined that such poetry could exist in clothing and adornment. In another picture by Veronese, Venice, the Queen, is seated on a throne between Peace and Justice; her robe of white silk embroidered with golden lilies undulates over a mantle of ermine and scarlet; her arm, her delicate hand and her curving dimpled fingers rest their satin whiteness and their soft serpentine contours on the lustrous robe. The face is in shadow—a half shadow dewy with bluish, palpable atmosphere which enlivens the carmine lips; the lips are veritable cherries, and all this shadow is relieved by the high lights on the hair, by the soft gleams of the pearls on the neck and in the ears, and by the scintillations of the diadem whose jewels seem to be magical eyes. She smiles with an air of regal and beaming benignity, like a flower happy in the opening of its petals. Near her, Peace, is bowing so low that she is almost falling; her skirt of yellow silk embossed with red flowers is carelessly gathered into folds beneath the richest of violet mantles; strands of pearls are wound about her light tresses beneath her white veil; and what a divine little ear she has !

There is another picture, still more celebrated, The Rape of Europa. For brilliancy, fancy, refinement and extraordinary invention in colour, it has no equal. The reflection of the foliage overhead bathes the whole picture with an aqueous, greenish tone; it even tints Europa’s garment; she, arch and languishing, seems almost a figure of the Eighteenth Century. This is one of the works in which through the combination and subtlety of tones, a painter surpasses himself, forgets his audience and is lost in the unexplored regions of his art; for, forsaking all known rules, he finds, beyond the common everyday world, harmonies, contrasts and strange successes, beyond all verisimilitude. Rembrandt produced a similar work—with his Night Watch. You must look upon it and be silent.

In attempting to picture Titian, we imagine a happy man, ” the happiest and the healthiest of his species, Heaven having bestowed upon him nothing but favours and felicities,” the first among his rivals, visited in his house by the Kings of France and Poland, a favourite of the Emperor, of Philip II., of the Doges, of Pope Paul III., of all the Italian princes, created a knight and a count of the Empire, overwhelmed with orders, liberally paid, pensioned and worthily enjoying his good fortune. He kept house in great state, dressed himself splendidly, and entertained at his table cardinals, lords, the greatest artists and the ablest writers of his day. Around him, beauty, taste, cultivation and talent reflect back upon him, as if from a mirror, the brightness of his own genius. His brother, his son Orazio, his two cousins Cesare and Fabrizio, and his relative Marco di Titiano, are all excellent painters. His daughter, Lavinia, dressed as Flora, with a basket of fruit on her head, supplies him with a model of fresh complexion and ample form. His talent flows on like a great river in its bed; nothing disturbs its course and its own increase is sufficient; like Leonardo and Michelangelo, he sees nothing outside of his art.

We can see at the Academy the two extremes of his development, his last picture, a Descent from the Cross, finished by Palma the younger, and one of his early pictures, a Visitation, which he doubtless painted on leaving the school of John Bellini. An immense painting of his youth, The Presentation of the Virgin, shows with what boldness and ease he enters almost at the first expression of his genius upon the career which he is to pursue to the last.

In seeking for the principal trait which distinguishes him from his neighbours, we find that it is simplicity; by not refining on colour, action and types, he obtains powerful effects with colour, action and types. Such is the characteristic of his greatly celebrated Assumption. A reddish, purplish and intense tint envelops the entire picture; it is a most vigorous colour, and by its means a kind of healthful energy breathes through the whole painting. Below are the apostles leaning and seated, nearly all with their heads raised to Heaven and bronzed like the Adriatic sailors. Their hair and beards are black; an intense shadow hides their faces; the sombre ferruginous tint hardly indicates their flesh. One of them, in the centre, in a brown cloak, almost disappears in the darkness, which seems darker on account of the surrounding brightness. Two blood red draperies are contrasted with two large green cloaks. It is all a confused commotion of writhing arms, muscular shoulders, impassioned heads, and flowing draperies. Overhead, midway in air, the Virgin ascends in glory, brilliant as the vapour of a furnace. She is of their race, strong and healthy, without exaltation, without a mystic smile, and proudly enveloped in her red robe and blue mantle. The material assumes a thousand folds from the motion of her superb body; her attitude is athletic, her expression grave, and the flat tone of her face comes out in full relief against the flaming brilliancy of the aureole. At her feet, extending over the entire space, is displayed a dazzling ring of young angels, whose fair and rosy flesh traversed by purple shadows contributes the brightest bloom of humanity as a contrast to the energetic tones and forms. Two of them have left the others and come forward to sport in full light, their infantile forms revelling in the air with charming ease. Venetian art centres in this work and perhaps reaches its climax in it.