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Sacred and profane opulence and beauty

by
10 November 2009

Nicholas Cranfield sees four great artists’ work from the Renaissance

Sacrament: The Baptism of Christ, 1592, by Jacopo Bassano. On loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a promised gift from a private collection THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK

Sacrament: The Baptism of Christ, 1592, by Jacopo Bassano. On loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a promised gift from a private collecti...

SEVEN or eight years ago, Rona Goffen produced an influential book, Renaissance Rivals, that sought to show that rivalry between Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian characterised the development of 16th-century Italian art as much as patronage had.

This year’s summer show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston took this forward with 56 paintings showcasing Titian alongside the younger Venetian artists Tintoretto and Veronese. That exhibition was necessarily uneven, relying too much on Titian’s longevity (the Grand Old Man was well into his mid-80s when cut down by the plague in 1576) to make much of a case against the younger dyer’s son, Jacopo Robusti (1518-94), and Paolo Caliari from Verona (1528-88). All too often, differences were overstated in a starker light than the artists might themselves have recognised.

From the Boston presentation, the Louvre has brought 30 paintings. It has greatly expanded the exhibition into a substantial one that is one of the great Venice shows of our time. It takes its cue from the large painting by Veronese, The Wedding Feast at Cana in Galilee, commissioned in 1562-63 for the refectory of San Giorgio Maggiore.

As it is too large to be brought downstairs in the Louvre (28 life-size figures crowd the table, pushing the newlyweds to the far left, while 30 servants dash across the balcony terrace aloft), it is worth following the crowds towards the Mona Lisa to find it in Room 6 beforehand.

From the Boston presentation, the Louvre has brought 30 paintings. It has greatly expanded the exhibition into a substantial one that is one of the great Venice shows of our time. It takes its cue from the large painting by Veronese, The Wedding Feast at Cana in Galilee, commissioned in 1562-63 for the refectory of San Giorgio Maggiore.

As it is too large to be brought downstairs in the Louvre (28 life-size figures crowd the table, pushing the newlyweds to the far left, while 30 servants dash across the balcony terrace aloft), it is worth following the crowds towards the Mona Lisa to find it in Room 6 beforehand.

At its centre, four musicians continue to play, indifferent to the miracle taking place around them. With Titian on bass and Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano accompanying him on strings, Veronese depicts himself in this Palestinian string quartet, four alleged rivals brought together in the harmony of music-making. Quite an ensemble!

By including Bassano — Jacopo da Ponte (1510-92), who lived and died at Bassano del Grappa, near Venice — the organisers have given a richer background to the whole. The central argument about rivalry may or may not be tenable, but the integrity of the works on display powerfully underscores difference and distinc­tion as much as indicating similarity and emulation.

While there was never any doubt that Tiziano Veccellio would dominate, the others each produce show-stoppers and scene-stealers in the course of some 60 years of painting. Subtly staged in a fitting environment that recalls the darkened interiors of Venetian churches and palazzi, which will no doubt seem funereal and gloomy to those who like their art to be brash and overlit, this is a profoundly important exposition of art in a golden age.

While there was never any doubt that Tiziano Veccellio would dominate, the others each produce show-stoppers and scene-stealers in the course of some 60 years of painting. Subtly staged in a fitting environment that recalls the darkened interiors of Venetian churches and palazzi, which will no doubt seem funereal and gloomy to those who like their art to be brash and overlit, this is a profoundly important exposition of art in a golden age.

The exhibition opens somewhat unexpect­edly with two of Titian’s great works from the 1540s. Both the portrait of the Farnese pope Paul III and the Danäe, painted for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, usually hang in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, which must rank as the most undervisited of all Europe’s out­standing collections. The Farneses, we are being told, had taste and money.

Here the pictures welcome visitors to a world of opulence and beauty (Titian did much to define the paragons by which we recognise both), and of the sacred and the profane — a nice juxtaposition that was never lost in the 16th century, but which increasingly seems out of place in some church circles today. When Veronese was hauled up before the Inquisition in the 1570s for including non-biblical figures in his sacred scenes — dogs and dwarves parti­c­ularly angered his inquisitors — he laughed it off, claiming the same licence as poets and fools. Titian’s later painting of the seduced Danäe was commissioned by the future Philip I of England a decade later in 1553, and is the last painting in the show (the Prado, Madrid).

The display abounds in happy conjunctions rather than overt juxtapositions. Brought together from Washington, DC, and Berlin, two of Titian’s greatest portrayals of children (the 12-year-old Ranuccio Farnese and the toddler Clarice Strozzi, both 1542) look across at one another like coy children trying out being playmates when left to their own devices by their parents. As family groups go, the portraits of Iseppo da Porto of Vicenza and his wife Livia (Veronese, c.1551) evidence wealth, as their son and daughter are as well dressed as the parents.

In a room given over to collectors and artists, including the little-known Hans von Aachen portrait of Giambologna in 1588, the self-portrait of Tintoretto of the same year, and that of the elderly Titian (1562, the Prado), here seen as a working painter and not a patrician, two extraordinary works give the lie to the idea of intense rivalry.

Jacopo Strada was an agent and dealer for the emperor Maximilian II. He visited Venice in 1567-68, travelling with his teenage son, to buy antiquities and modern art for his Habsburg boss. While there, he sat to Titian, and the result­ing portrait (Vienna) is one of the most humane produced in the Renaissance. Intelligence rather than greed characterises the sitter as he looks out, gingerly replacing a statuette of Venus on a table strewn with coins.

Rarely seen with it is the Amsterdam portrait of his 17-year-old son, Ottavio, who is being brought a veritable cornucopia by an angel. We could have expected that father and son would go to the same portraitist, but in fact Tintoretto painted the young man (with some workshop assistance). Evidence of rivalry? I suspect not. Rather, on a limited timescale, Titian would probably not have been able to produce both portraits, and no doubt suggested the second commission to the local upcoming artist.

Rarely seen with it is the Amsterdam portrait of his 17-year-old son, Ottavio, who is being brought a veritable cornucopia by an angel. We could have expected that father and son would go to the same portraitist, but in fact Tintoretto painted the young man (with some workshop assistance). Evidence of rivalry? I suspect not. Rather, on a limited timescale, Titian would probably not have been able to produce both portraits, and no doubt suggested the second commission to the local upcoming artist.

The wealth and social cohesiveness of La Serenissima ensured that artistic diversity flourished. The many families constituting the oligarchy (not all of them noble), the trade visitors, the Church, and the confraternities (the Scuole) all offered very different programmes to artists. They were patrons adroit enough to maintain several leading artists at any one time. Although the sheer scope of their skills can be understood only by a trip to the Lagoon itself, this exhibition makes much manifest.

For the Church, all four artists (it makes sense to include Bassano) undertook numerous com­missions, many still in situ. Here the most striking occur in scenes of the Passion (The Deposition and The Entombment) and in The Baptism of the Lord, as well as how each treats of St Jerome, one of the Fathers of the Church.

To this should be added the popularity of depicting the Supper at Emmaus. For Veronese, this offered another biblical feast straight out of Hollywood, but it is Bassano’s study of it, or rather three virtually identical stagings of it based on a painting in a private collection in England, which bring the Resurrected Lord into the real world.

Bassano sets the scene upstage in a garden beneath trees, while the other half of the stage set is taken up with a cutaway view of the offstage kitchen staff at work. We are reminded that we inhabit the world of the foreground, while the mystery of our faith is played out at one remove.

Repeatedly, Bassano comes across as the more realistic of the painters, giving his works a hint of the sinister: emotionally charged scenes that unfold like forbidden narratives. His St Jerome (1560-65, now in the Accademia) has an inner holiness that comes partly from the soulful aspect of the saint’s gaze, which is at once both forlorn and resolute; below the crucifix on which he looks is an hour-glass. The sands of Time have scarcely begun to run out.

With the best will in the world, Veronese’s later study (c.1580) of the same subject, seated in a rustic hut and painted, according to Ridolfi in 1648, for the nuns of Sant’ Andrea Zirada, does not draw us into reflection. Both artists had painted the flabbiness of old age with a sensitivity that is unnerving (and elsewhere we know Veronese’s models as portraits), but it is the details in the Bassano that absorb our prayerful attentiveness. There is something about the movement of the legs in Tintoretto’s own representation (Vienna) which has always struck me as if this is a retired dancer trying out another step from the latest manual. It might encourage liturgical dance, but not, I think, devotional prayer.

With Titian, we turn another corner. Two of his Jeromes are here, one painted in 1531 for the Gonzagas of Mantua in his Giorgionesque colourful style, with a small figure set in a rich landscape, whereas, 40 years later, we surely meet the artist himself, the penitent old man: the official painter to the Republic, and yet one who has seen through the vanities of this world (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid).

These nocturnal studies, a style initially drawn from Northern European artists and in­creasingly favoured in the Counter-Reformation to suggest piety and spirituality, are a far cry from the 15th-century Venetian light of Bellini and Giorgione. Contemporaries were baffled: even the Tuscan Vasari had to admit that he was amazed how much light he could see in the darkness.

It is perhaps, therefore, fitting that the Bassano’s great Baptism of Christ (a scene Titian seemingly attempted only once in 1513, for a panel now in Rome and not on display), which proved to be his last work (1592) and was left unfinished at his death, should be about initiation from Darkness into Light. In the painting (a promised gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the sacrament of baptism becomes the excuse to demonstrate the potency of the Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea to an age of renewed faith.

For Tintoretto (San Silvestro, Venice) and Veronese (The Getty), both painting in the early 1580s, the scene is rich in lyricism and move­ment. Christ emerges from the luminous waters of the Jordan with arms outstretched to pre­figure the ultimate sacrifice to which baptism calls all of us.

In literature, as in art — we are reminded of the poet Aretino by the inclusion of Tintoretto’s 1544 ceiling painting for him of Apollo and Marsyas (Hartford, Connecticut), here hung on a wall and therefore visible — the 16th century is, par excellence, the age of the paragon. Titian established the norms for beauty and recollec­tion in portraits and nude studies as much as in narrative and historical scenes.

In literature, as in art — we are reminded of the poet Aretino by the inclusion of Tintoretto’s 1544 ceiling painting for him of Apollo and Marsyas (Hartford, Connecticut), here hung on a wall and therefore visible — the 16th century is, par excellence, the age of the paragon. Titian established the norms for beauty and recollec­tion in portraits and nude studies as much as in narrative and historical scenes.

Other artists were not afraid of experiment­ing. In Tintoretto’s Susannah Bathing (1555-56), the elders play a game of hide-and-seek along a hedge that at first seems to be playful — much as Shakespeare has Beatrice tease Malvolio — until we remind ourselves of the prophetic Book of Daniel.

All such levity is banished from Tintoretto’s deeply shocking Rape of Lucrece (Chicago), in which Tarquin has savagely torn her pearl necklace from her throat. Already, six pearls litter the floor as another half-dozen cascade down her defenceless and painfully white body; one is caught in her lap in the flimsiest of veils which serves to cover her modesty.

Painted 25 years later (1580), this scene of a woman in peril is terrifying and out-Herods Herod as it even eclipses the two Titians next to no mean feat, since the Fitzwilliam’s painting of the same scene is one of the late, great Titians, and that from Bordeaux is violent enough.

If anything, I suspect, the real rivalry that will break out will be in the queues to see this outstanding show, which brings a Venetian light to a Northern city.

“Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice” is at the Musée du Louvre, Rue de Rivoli, Paris 1er, until 4 January 2010. Phone 00 33 1 40 20 57 60 — groups with own guides; 00 33 1 40 20 51 77 — for tours with an official museum guide. www.louvre.fr

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