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Review: 'Rivals in Renaissance Venice' at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts

March 24, 2009 |  7:00 pm

Supper at Emmaus

Reporting from Boston — In the marvelous exhibition of 16th century Venetian painting at the Museum of Fine Arts here, a small passage in a Veronese tells a spellbinding tale. It’s not his greatest painting, nor even the best Veronese in this exceptionally rich exhibition, with its magnificent canvases by Titian and Tintoretto. Still, it makes your jaw drop.

Painted in the mid-1580s, a nearly life-size figure of Venus is seen from behind in a sumptuous boudoir. She displays herself — garment fallen below her waist, left hand adjusting an ornament woven into her golden hair, right arm extended toward an attending Cupid. He holds a mirror in which Venus regards herself, and the reflection frames her face like a portrait. The face contrasts with the radiant flesh of her nude back, while also recalling the pure marble of a classical Roman statue.

TitianNone of these, however, is the passage in question. In a few square feet of canvas just below Cupid’s feet and above a pair of lovebirds beneath the goddess’ chaise, here is an inventory of what you will see: lace, linen, silk, cotton, satin, metallic thread, fur and  velvet, all next to skin — a panoply of textures, arrayed in a sensuous rainbow of limpid hues.

The painting's action is visual — Venus looking at herself in a mirror, while Cupid helps her to see. But Veronese fuses vision with the sense of touch. See it, feel it. The combination is powerfully erotic.

And if that weren’t enough, the tactility gets doubled. An abundance of colored cloths abutting skin is depicted; and, luminous oil paint is daubed on canvas, underscoring that painting is also a skin of colored cloth. Image and object meld. The result is magic.

That, in a nutshell, is the dazzling glory of Venetian Renaissance painting. These epicurean artists didn’t invent the oil-on-canvas technique. It had been around since ancient Egypt, where it was sometimes used to render funerary masks. But the “Big Three” artists under the microscope in “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice” brought the technique to a fever pitch.

Before them, major paintings in Western art were more likely to have been executed on plaster or wooden panel, as in the Giovanni Bellini "Virgin and Child" hung at the entry for comparison. After, oil on canvas ruled for the next 400 years.

Touch also became an artist’s calling card. Distinctive brushwork meant that signing one’s name to a painting was superfluous. The uniqueness of the artist’s touch was signature enough.

VenusCurator Frederick Ilchman has pretty much built the exhibition around the language of paint-handling —  although traditional connoisseurship is not his aim. Rather than looking inward, in order to identify masterpieces, this connoisseurship is more modern. The rivalry pinpointed by the show’s title is played out as an active, engaged conversation among artists, spoken with brush and pigments and canvas. These paintings talk to one another, as well as talking to us.

Veronese’s unusual backside-Venus, for example, was partly painted to demonstrate the artist’s capacity to compete with the legacy of mighty Titian — 40 years his elder, darling of Europe’s royalty — who had painted for the king of Spain a famous twisting figure of the goddess of love with Adonis. (The version lent to this show is from the Getty Museum’s collection.) Titian had died at the ripe old age of 88, after an extraordinary career as the city’s most powerful artist, but that didn’t automatically leave the field to the prodigiously gifted Veronese. He had Tintoretto to contend with.

A decade younger than Veronese, Tintoretto was slower to mature as an artist than the slightly older prodigy. In order to illustrate the myriad ways in which these three very different painters went about their business — which included keeping an eye on one another — the Boston show is installed thematically, rather than chronologically. A fantastic map at the entry pinpoints their studios, making an almost perfect equilateral triangle around the city's central Rialto bridge.

There are 19 paintings by Titian (circa 1488-1576), 18 by Tintoretto (circa 1518-1594) and 17 by Veronese (1528-1588). Unlike the great 2006 Venetian show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which focused on how more than half a dozen artists took off as the 16th century got into full swing, this one follows the full sweep of the century through just the Big Three protagonists. The second half of the 16th century is emphasized, when all three worked simultaneously.

Needless to say, it’s restricted to portable pictures. Painting on canvas rather than wood meant that Veronese could roll up his enormous, 42-foot-long “Feast in the House of Levi” to get it into the basilica refectory it was originally made for; but that doesn’t mean the leviathan will ever be shipped across the Adriatic Sea, much less the Atlantic Ocean.

Still, impressive loans have come from the Uffizi in Florence, Naples' Capodimonte Museum, the national galleries of London and Edinburgh, the Louvre (after it closes on Aug. 16, the show travels to Paris, its only other venue), and elsewhere. With “Europa” (1560-62) — arguably the greatest Titian in America — housed just down the street at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there is no better moment than now to be in Boston for a full exposition of voluptuous Venetian art.

The show opens with a demonstration of Titian’s mastery. “Flora,” his idealized vision of feminine beauty famously in the midst of a wardrobe malfunction, is worth the price of admission alone.

Tintoretto — the freewheeling anti-Titian — is introduced next. Finally comes the young prodigy Veronese, Titian’s hopeful successor, who pledges artistic allegiance to the master while pointedly trying to ramp up the epic grandeur.

There are remarkable rooms, including a powerful group of 10 paintings on sacred themes. Another has eight mythological nudes — including “Danaë,” Titian’s molten puddle of Zeus-ravaged flesh — hung on steamy red walls.

A third features 10 portraits, nine of them male, representing the powerful sorts who might have owned those nudes for their own private delectation. A final room offers a dozen very late-16th century canvases that persuasively argue how strong Venetian painting remained.

Particular juxtapositions, however, make this show of artists-in-dialogue really work. Among the most compelling is a trio on the theme of the “Supper at Emmaus.” In the post-Resurrection story from St. Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ identity is revealed to two stupefied disciples at the moment he breaks bread. Each picture features Christ seated at a table before a column that splits the canvas down the middle, with disciples on either side; but the three couldn’t be more different.

Titian’s exquisite, 1533-34 version creates a profound echo. As narrative, Luke’s  Emmaus meal was meant to recall events of the Last Supper; so Titian composed his picture to recall Leonardo’s famous fresco of the subject. An artistic message is enfolded into a biblical one.

The late-blooming Tintoretto, just 24 when he painted his 1542 version, could hardly compete with Titian’s echt refinement. Instead, he stuffed his composition into a visual Mixmaster — turning the table on a sharp angle and spinning the players into a centrifugal whirlwind. Brushwork is shattered.

The painting almost looks unfinished — a brilliant way to make the surprise discovery of Christ’s identity by the disciples feel as if the event is happening right now. Titian’s cerebral genius elevates the mystery, but Tintoretto creates a visually explosive human drama that puts Jesus at its still, calm center.

Finally Veronese, 30 years on, pulls Tintoretto’s outbound explosion back together, focusing attention inward like a laser. His small picture is a concentrated, pastel-colored pageant. It acknowledges Tintoretto’s emphasis on the drama of the revelation while restoring the sense of sobriety that Titian evoked.

With the memory of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” hovering in the mind’s eye, seeing these three paintings together is like seeing masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian building on and rearranging Cézanne — all while carving out their own distinctive territory. The effect gets repeated throughout the exhibition, bringing a remote but pivotal era to vivid life.

-- Christopher Knight

Top: Titian's "Supper at Emmaus"; bottom: Veronese's "Venus With a Mirror (Venus at Her Toilette)"; credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston