Italian Painting – The Early Masters in Venetian Art

Doge Dandolo and wife presented to the Virgin
Doge Dandolo and wife presented to the Virgin

The scope of my talk this evening will be limited to Venetian Renaissance painting, a field that is rich with masterpieces as well as six renowned artists of the Venetian School.  They include Paolo Veneziano (before 1300 – ca. 1360), Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1426 –1516), Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco known as Giorgione (ca. 1477 – 1510), Tiziano Vecelli known as Titian (c. 1487/90 – 1576), Paolo Veronese (1528 – 1588),  Jacopo Robusti known as Tintoretto (1519 – 1594).  Each of the artists offered unique abilities to the formation of what is known as the Venetian School.
There are a few circumstances, historical and geographic, that contributed to the formation of the Venetian School, quite separate from that of Florence or Rome.

Venice was a wealthy, seafaring, powerful city on the Adriatic Sea.  During the crusade of 1204, Venetians invaded Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, and acquired great Byzantine treasures including the four horses that originally adorned the exterior of St. Mark’s Cathedral.  They now reside in the treasury.  St. Mark’s was copied from the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople, that city being a great influence upon the arts produced in Venice.    Geographically speaking, Venice is a city of canals and man-made buildings.  Because of the damp circumstances, new techniques were developed by the artists working there.  Oil paint on canvas was the preferred medium.  Wooden panels, the usual support for paintings, rotted too easily.  The fresco technique, so common in Florence and Rome was inefficient here.  Pigment applied to wet plaster would not dry properly and thus the picture would be lost.  The lack of vegetation,  and perhaps a nostalgic feeling for it, caused Giorgione in particular to include abundant shrubs and trees in his paintings.
The first influential painter working in Venice was Veneziano.  He worked in the Byzantine style that promoted a sumptuous use of gold and intricate detail.  A good example of his work hangs in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Friari, Doge Francesco Dandolo and His Wife Presented to the Madonna, 1339.   The Virgin and Child reflect the ancient icon (devotional piece), first painted in the early 6th c. and believed to be a copy of a painting St. Luke made of the Virgin.

Our next major player, Giovanni Bellini, descended from a family of painters.  His father and brother both were admired in their time, although it was Giovanni who was considered to be the founder of the Venetian School.   He was a master of altarpieces and tended to combine the Byzantine use of gold with realistically depicted images of the Virgin, Child and saints as opposed to the flattened appearances favored by the Byzantines.  The San Giobbe Altarpiece,c. 1487, was the first of the major altarpieces.  It hangs in the Galleria dell’Accademia.

Other great Venetian artists, such as Giorgione, Tintoretto, Veronese… were to follow.  These will be discussed in a subsequent talk.

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