On the days that we discuss painting, each group will first visit the Accademia museum. This world famous museum contains the best overview of the Venetian school of painting. We will go there on foot. Via the districts of S. Croce and S. Polo we arrive in the district of Dorsoduro where the museum is located. Its doors open at 9 am. The current museum, officially called the Gallerie dell’Accademia was founded in 1750. The complex comprises several buildings: the original church, Santa Maria della Carità from 1444, the monastery that belongs to it and the Scuola di Santa Maria della Carità from the 15th century. These buildings were merged into one museum in the 19th century.
The enormous collection of paintings in this museum is for the most part arranged in chronological order and starts with the Byzantine and late Gothic periods in the 14th and 15th century in room no. 1, followed by the early Renaissance rooms (room 2 up to and including room 8), the high Renaissance (room 10) and then Baroque and Rococo (room 11 up to and including room 18. The old church, room 23, usually hosts high quality temporary exhibitions. Rooms 20 and 21 are home to cycles of paintings by, among others, Giovanni, Gentile Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio. As we enter the building and walk up the stairs, we see the beautifully decorated old hall, the Sala del Capitolo, of the Scuola’s lay brothers (room 1). Its lavishly decorated ceiling, which features gilded cherubs each of which has a different face, dates from 1484 and is still in good condition. Fourteenth century Venetian art was still completely under the spell of Byzantine art. The Sala del Capitolo has many triptychs from the 14th and 15th century.
This tour is intended to give you insight in the typical characteristics of Venetian painters. In addition, you will see the development of Venetian painting, which so clearly differs from the rest of Italy and primarily from Florence, which played such a dominant role during the Renaissance. We will, of course, limit ourselves to just a limited number of art works, because the sheer quantity is overwhelming. A famous polyptych, ‘The Coronation of Mary‘ was painted by the founder of the Venetian school of painting Paolo Veneziano in 1350. This work was strongly influenced by Byzantine art. When we are there, we will be able to see and discuss why this work does not only show clear Byzantine traits, but on the other hand also a number of typically Western characteristics. Paolo Veneziano became the official painter of La Serenissima; he also painted Doge Francesco Dandolo, a painting that we will see later in the Frari church. Paolo and his sons Luca and Giovanni ran a studio where many painters were trained in a tradition, which, in addition to strong Byzantine influences and the use of Byzantine techniques, was also influenced by Giotto’s frescos 30 kilometres north of Venice.
Typical of Byzantine art, but also of Gothic art is, among others:
1. Non-naturalistic. It was not important to create an accurate representation of reality, but rather to show a higher, divine world.
2. A strong emphasis on precious materials. Gold leaf and the even more costly blue colour known as Ultramarine that was made from lapis lazuli can be found on many of the altarpieces in the Sala del Capitolo.
3. Panels (wood) as a medium.
Ultramarine was primarily used in painting important figures such as the Virgin Mary. An example of which is a painting by Paolo Veneziano (room 1 first floor of the Accademia).
And here’s a recipe from ‘The Artist’s Manual’ by Cennino Cennini for a very expensive colour, the shade of blue called ultramarine. Cennini wrote a book entitled ‘The Artist’s Manual’ which includes a recipe for making ultramarine, more specifically in chapter LXII entitled ‘On the Nature of Ultramarine Blue and how to make it.’
“Ultramarine is a noble colour, beautiful and the most perfect of all colours” Translated from Cennino Cennini, ‘The Artist’s Manual’, Contact, Amsterdam/ Antwerp, 2001 (originally published late 14th century), pp. 94-97.
Ultramarine is a deep blue pigment that was traditionally made from a mineral called lazurite. The process of making ultramarine pigments was a complicated and time-consuming one, but typically involved the following steps:
1. Mining and preparation of the raw materials: Lazurite (Wikipedia) was mined from deposits in Afghanistan and other parts of Asia, and was then crushed into a fine powder.
2. Grinding and mixing: The powder was mixed with a binder, such as gum arabic, and then ground into a paste.
3. Calcination: The paste was dried and then calcined, or heated to high temperatures, to drive off impurities and improve the color.
4. Reduction: The calcined material was then mixed with a reducing agent, such as sulfur or charcoal, and heated until it turned blue.
5. Grinding and refinement: The blue material was then ground into a fine powder, which was washed and refined to remove impurities and produce a pure ultramarine pigment.
Ultramarine was one of the most expensive pigments available, and was reserved for use in the finest works of art, including illuminated manuscripts, paintings, and frescoes.
Paolo Veneziano ‘Madonna of the Poppy’ c. 1325, panel;
98 x 184 cm, Room I Accademia
We know from surviving contracts that patrons often demanded the artist use ultramarine, specifically demanding the blue had to come from ‘first extractions’. An example of which can be found on the internet with the founder of the Venetian school of painting, under the name Paolo Veneziano. This painter used the precious lapis lazuli for Mary’s robe. In the first room you will see several panels with much gold in the background and also much ultramarine blue, but the latter exclusively in Mary’s blue robe.
A comparison between the two Marys with child by Paolo c. 1325 and Lorenzo shows a human element creeping in. In this respect, Lorenzo was clearly influenced by Gioto.
In addition to works by Paolo Veneziano, this big room is also home to works by Jacobello del Fiore, Giovanni da Bologna, Michele Giambono and Antonio Vivarini, who we will later encounter in several churches, and Lorenzo Veneziano who was trained in Paolo Veneziano’s studio. In rooms 2 to 5 (first floor) we have arrived in the early Renaissance. Room 2 has three large works that depict a typically Venetian theme, the sacra conversazione, a conversation among saints. The work by Giovanni Bellini has been positioned between two other ‘sacred conversations’, on the right Giambattista Cima da Conegliano’s ‘Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints’ 1504 and on the left Vittore Carpaccio’s ‘Presentation of the Virgin’ 1510. Giovanni’s work in the centre made an enormous impression and the work, which originally hung in San Giobbe in Venice, became trendsetting for many later painters, as can be seen in this panel by Vittore.
Giambattista Cima da Conegliano ‘Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Catherine (?), George, Nicholas, Anthony Abbot, Sebastian, and Lucy (?) (Dragan Altarpiece)’ 1459/1460 – 1517/1518, wood panel, 414 x 209 cm
Rooms 4 and 5 (first floor) have famous works by Andrea Mantegna, Saint George, Piero della Francesca, Saint Jerome in penitence, and once again Bellini and the mysterious Giorgione. A painter we now next to nothing about, but who had a profound influence on the Venetian school of painting. His painting ‘La Tempesta’ The Storm, is unique in the history of painting. Even though many explanations, articles and books have been written about this painting with just as many interpretations, its meaning is still shrouded in mystery.
“On the right a woman sits, suckling a baby. he woman has been described as a gypsy since at least 1530, and in Italy, the painting is also known as La Zingara e il Soldato “The Gypsy Woman and the Soldier”), or as La Zingarella e il Soldato (“The Gypsy Girl and the Soldier”). Her pose is unusual – normally the baby would be held on the mother’s lap; but in this case the baby is positioned at the side of the mother, so as to expose her pubic area. A man, possibly a soldier, holding a long staff or pike, stands in contrapposto on the left. He smiles and glances to the left, but does not appear to be looking at the woman. […] X-rays of the painting have revealed that in the place of the man, Giorgione originally painted another female nude. One may also note the stork on the rooftop on the right. Storks sometimes represent the love of parents for their children.” Source Wikipedia
Room 4 (first floor) is home to a small portrait – 26 x 20 cm – by Hans Memling. The Flemish Primitives exerted a strong influence on Italian art, including Venice. The painters from Flanders, including Memling, and their painting techniques, the refined use of oil paint, the atmospheric perspective, the vista and the portrait in which the face is not represented frontally but slightly turned away, deeply impressed the Italian painters. The ravages of time have turned the young man’s red cloak black.
The Tempest Rooms 8 to 10 (first floor) of this museum feature paintings from the high Renaissance and Mannerism. Room 9 (first floor) is home to a portrait by Lorenzo Lotto entitled: ‘Portrait of a Gentleman in his Study’ c. 1530. This portrait is considered his finest work. Lotto is known for not only beautifully representing the exterior, but also the subject’s state of mind: in this case a melancholy man ‘caught’ in a moment of introspection.
The large room, 10 (first floor) in particular contains well-known highlights from art history. The huge canvas – 560 x 1309 cm – painted by Paolo Veronese in 1573 covers a whole wall, on the right when you enter room 10. The original title, ‘The Last Supper’ was rejected by the inquisition, the ecclesiastic court that investigated heresy.
Veronese had to provide an explanation for all kinds of non-religious ‘fandangles’ he had painted. When we are standing before this enormous canvas, you will see what the monks of the inquisition took exception to. The inquisition interviewed Paolo Veronese on Saturday 18 July 1573. In the minutes of the session we read:
“Summoned to the Holy Office before the Holy Tribunal Mister Paulus Caliarus from Verona, resident of the parish of Sanctus Samuel was asked for his name and nickname […] When asked about his profession, he answered: I paint and make pictures. […] Answer: Yes, your lordships [the subject was indeed the Last Supper, but Veronese received a tip to change the subject to the Supper at the house of Levy.
They told him: Tell us how many servants and what they are doing.
Answer: The Innkeeper, Simon. And below that figure I also painted a carver, and I pretended he went there for his entertainment, to see what was happening at the table. […]
They told him: What is the meaning of the painting of that man with the blood coming out of his nose in the Supper you painted in the Sant Giovanni e Paolo basilica [now in the Accademia]? Continuation text below
“Answer: That is the servant, blood may come out his nose as the result of some accident or other.
They told him: What is the meaning of those men who are dressed like Germans [Lutherans] with halberds in their hands?
Answer: I would need at least 20 words for that!
They told him to use them.
Answer: We painters take liberties, the way poets and lunatics do, and of the two halberdiers I painted one who is drinking, and the other is eating, on a stair, and they are standing there as if they could do some work, which I thought was fitting, because the owner of the house, who was so great and so rich, so I was told, must have had such servants. […]
They told him: And that man in the clown’s suit with the parrot on his wrist, with what intent did you put him on the canvas?
Answer: For decoration, the way people often do. […]
They told him: And what can be said about the person sitting next to that one:
Answer: He is cleaning his teeth with a fork.
They told him: So what did your predecessors do? Did they do something comparable?
Answer: Michelangelo from Rome has painted our Lord Jesus Christ in the Papal chapel, and also his Mother, and St John, the Holy Peter, and the Heavenly Garden, and all nude, starting with the Holy Virgin, in various positions which are not very respectful.” Translated from: Rene van Stipriaan, De jacht op het meesterwerk Ooggetuigen van twintig eeuwen kunstgeschiedenis, Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2010 pp. 77-8
See Khan Academy for the Transcript of the trial
Veronese did not resolve his dispute with the ecclesiastic court by painting over his strange fandangles, but simply by giving it a new title: ‘Christ in the house of Levi’. He did this by referring to LVCA. CAP. V.; St Luke, chapter five. This changed the Last Supper to a feast at Levi’s house as can be read in the gospel according to Luke. The way in which Veronese depicted the meal at Levi’s house is typical of the Venetian school of painting. The Venetians loved to please the eye with beautifully elaborated details such as brocade, silk, satin, Murano glass, architecture, a lively audience, including a busily gesticulating young man who leans over a balustrade and a dog and a cat enjoying the leftovers under the table. In Bellini’s works and those of many other painters from La Serenissima you can see their preference for just simply painting beautiful things even when they add little to the story. ‘The Last Supper’ must have impressed the inquisition as a merry banquet in a Venetian palazzo where Jesus accidentally makes an appearance as an extra.