This hall contains what are considered by the authorities to be the chief masterpieces of the collection, arranged without reference to chronological order. It therefore comprises several works of various ages.
Before entering the room, sit on the last seat in Room I., facing Titian’s Assumption, No. 40, (within,) the effect of which is better seen from various parts of this room than from the further hall which actually contains it. This great picture is the masterpiece of the mighty Venetian artist of the High Renaissance ; it was painted as an altar-piece for the High Altar of the Franciscan Church of the Frari, whose official title is ” St. Mary in Glory,” (Santa Maria Gloriosa and therefore it appropriately represents the Assumption of the Virgin. The scheme of colour is so arranged that the spectator’s eye is irresistibly drawn towards the ecstatic figure of the ascending Madonna in the centre. She mounts as if of herself, impelled by inner impulse, but on clouds of glory borne by childish angels, the light on whose forms is admirably concentrated. But the spectator sees chiefly the rapt shape of Our Lady herself and the brilliant golden haze behind her. She holds out her arms to the Lord in heaven. Above, the Almighty Father descends to receive her, floating in a vague halo of luminous cherubim. The lower and darker portion of the picture, in relatively earthly gloom, has the figures of the Apostles, in somewhat theatrical attitudes of surprise and agitation, looking up with awe towards the ascending Madonna. This lower half is best seen from much nearer : indeed, you must view the work from several positions in order fully to understand it. The youthful Apostle in red, on the R., with outstretched hands, is obviously a last reminiscence of the figure of St. Thomas receiving the Holy Girdle, with which visitors to Florence and Prato will be already familiar. This great picture, usually considered the finest triumph of the collection, marks the high water-mark in composition and colour of the Venetian Renaissance. It has suffered much from over-cleaning and over-painting by ” restorers.” Wonderful in science and technique, it strikes one still as unreal and exaggerated.
Enter the room. L. of the door, 36. Cima. Altar-piece for the church of this very Scuola, (the same whose upper portion is now occupied by the St. Ursula series and the Holy Cross pictures.) In the centre sits Our Lady, enthroned, under a high-arched Renaissance canopy, with a group of cherubs ; at her feet are the graceful little angels playing musical instruments so frequent in Venetian pictures. (Note how, as time goes on, the angels, once male and adults, grow gradually more feminine and more infantile.) To the L. are St. Nicholas, with his three golden balls, and the two protector saints of the Venetian territorySt. George, in armour, and St. Catharine, bearing the palm of her martyrdom. To the R. are St. Antony the Abbot, the youthful figure of St. Sebastian, wounded with arrows, and St. Lucy, bearing the palm of her martyrdom. In the distance rises one of Cima’s favourite mountain backgrounds. Compare the early simplicity and grace of this beautiful and delicate work with the theatrical arrangement of 37. Paolo Veronese. Madonna and Saints, an altar-piece for the Franciscan church of San Giobbe. Here, Our Lady sits in an affected attitude on an elevated throne, backed by a gold brocade or mosaic, (texture ill represented.) By her side is St. Paul with the sword ; beneath are St. Jerome, in cardinal’s dress, and St. Francis with the stigmata; behind him appears St. Justina of Padua. The infant St. John the Baptist stands on a pedestal at Our Lady’s feet.
Splendid as a piece of colouring, and considered one of Paolo’s masterpieces, this gorgeous work is yet a typical example of the later faults of the Santa Conversazione. The personages have no rational connection with one another, and the attempt to combine them into a speaking scene results only in strained affectation.
38. Giovanni Bellini, perhaps his masterpiece. Magnificent altar-piece for the plague-church of San Giobbe. (If you have not yet visited it, refer to the account under the Four Great Plague-Churches.) In the centre sits Our Lady, enthroned, one of the most beautiful Madonnas ever painted by Bellini. Her hand is lifted as if in pity ; the Child in her arms raises its eyes as though supplicating the Father on behalf of the plague-stricken. On the steps sit three of Bellini’s sweetest *musical angels in exquisitely varied attitudes. The two most prominent saints are the two great plague-saints of the church for which the picture was painted, both almost nude ; to the L., St. Job, with his hands folded in prayer, and his loins girt with an exquisitely-painted shot silk scarf ; to the R., St. Sebastian, his hands bound behind his back, and pierced with the arrows of the pestilence : the painting of the nude and the anatomy in this figure are admirablethe left arm stands out boldly from the canvas. To the extreme L. and R., are two Franciscan saints, as becomes the Franciscan church of San Giobbe ; L., St. Francis; R., St. Louis of Toulouse as bishop; behind St. Job is St. John the Baptist, behind St. Sebastian is a monk, whom I take (doubtfully) to be St. Thomas Aquinas. Everything in this beautiful picture should be noticed, from the exquisite mosaic niche, like a chapel of St. Mark’s, above, to the old-fashioned musical instruments of the angels below. Do not neglect the Renaissance decoration, and the exquisite brocaded bodice worn by Our Lady. The feeling of the whole is tender and pitiful.
39. Marco Basaiti. The Calling of the Sons of Zebedee, a good dry picture, hardly worthy of a place in this room of masterpieces. Its chief interest lies in its rather gloomy landscape.
41. Tintoretto. The Death of Abel. One of its painter’s murky masterpieces, lighted by a lightning flash. Immenseiy admired by those who love Tintoretto. Vigorous in action ; sombre in colour.
42. Tintoretto. A Miracle of St. Mark, another picture painted for the Scuola di San Marco, which we shall afterwards visit. A pagan gentleman of Provence had a Christian slave, who persisted in worshipping at the shrine of St. Mark, and was therefore tortured for his faith, and ordered to be executed. St. Mark in a glory descended to dispel his persecutors. The centre of the picture, below, is occupied by the foreshortened figure of the tortured slave, unharmed : around stand pagans, (always thought of at Venice as Turks or Saracens,) one of whom shows the shattered hammer of torture to the master on an elevated seat to the R. Above is the boldly foreshortened figure of the descending saint, a powerful muscular frame, shot out of a cannon as it were, so swift is its descent. The figures to the L. are painted in strange and tortuous attitudes, simply for the sake of overcoming difficulties of drawing. Below, on the L., is probably the donor. This is a fine piece of rich colour, and a masterpiece of technical know-ledge, but it betrays itself too much as an effort after artistic execution. It is probably the most generally admired of Tintoretto’s paintings. (Other pictures of this series in the Royal Palace.)
43. Tintoretto. Adam and Eve. A fine study of the nude, in low tones of colour, scarcely more than chiaroscuro.
44. Carpaccio. Presentation in the Temple. A beautiful scene, which shows Carpaccio in a somewhat different character from the designer of the St. Ursulas, as a painter of set religious pictures. To the L., Our Lady, accompanied by two attendants, (one of them bearing the doves for the offering,) presents the Child to the adoring Simeon, who bows to the R. in an attitude of veneration, his robe being sustained by two dignified attendants. The summit of the picture is formed by one of the rich mosaic niches so common at this period, suggested by the side chapel of St. Mark’s. At the foot are three angels with musical instruments, dainty enough in their way, though suffering ill by comparison with the great Bellini, 38, which obviously suggested them. (But many good judges, I see, prefer these to those.) The comparison of these four pictures (44, 36, 38, 37) is extremely instructive. Do not overlook the marble decorations of the pedestal. Over the door,
45. Paolo Veronese. Panel from a ceiling in the Doge’s Palace. Venice on her throne ; Hercules by her side represents her military strength ; Ceres offers her sheaves of corn, which appropriately typify the wealth of the mainland. A fine example of those fantastic chequers of which we shall see many on the decorated ceilings of the Ducal Palace.
Pass up the steps into ROOM III.