Whereas most North Italian painters used the fresco technique for large-sized works, Veronese, Bellini and Carpaccio often used canvases of enormous dimensions. The climate in Venice proved unsuitable for this technique (click here for a Wikipedia page providing additional information on the fresco technique); particularly for the frescos painted on the facades of palazzi. Vasari wrote the following on the subject: ‘I know of nothing more damaging to frescos than the sirocco near the sea, where it is always laden with salt.’ Yet another reason why Venetian painters loved canvas. Frescoes by Titian, including Justitia, and Giorgione La Nuda on the facade of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, have been badly affected by the salty air (there is an engraving from Piccinino after Titian’s Justitia). Giorgione’s fresco can still be seen in room 8 (first floor)
The Venetians probably invented painting on canvas because of the unfavourable effect that the salty air had on frescos. Vasari describes this in 1568 as follows and enumerates the big advantages of canvas:
“[…] applied on canvas, as was almost always customary in that city [Venice], because in contrast with other cities people don’t often paint on panels made of the wood of the tree that many call poplar and some white poplar,[…] So it is quite normal in Venice to paint on canvas because it does not crack or become worm-eaten, or because this allows one to create a painting of any size one wants, or also because it is easier, as I have already stated elsewhere: one can easily ship them wherever one wants, at little cost and effort.”
Cited and translated from Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects’ Amsterdam, Contact, vol. 1 [original edition 1568] 1992, page 237.
Titian’s technique immediately stands out when you stand close to the painting. It goes against the then prevalent ideas on good taste. According to the great painters, particularly those from Florence, you were supposed to first make a drawing on the prepared canvas and only later apply the paint. Titian studied under Giorgione and was taught by him to paint directly on the canvas without first making an underdrawing. More about Titian’s painting technique? Click here.
Vasari, artist and author of “The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects” put it as follows:
“[…] he [Giorgione] was fully convinced that painting only in colour, without a previous line study on paper, was the correct and the best method, which resulted in the right design. However, Giorgione failed to understand that a painter, if he is to achieve a proper arrangement of the composite parts and want his inventions to come out right, needs a design, and that he, to see how the whole will work out, must begin with putting elements on paper in different ways […] and without having to hide his limited knowledge of drawing behind a beautiful use of colours, as the Venetian painters Giorgione, Palma, Pordenone and others did for many years because they had not seen Rome or any truly perfect work whatsoever.” Translated from Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects’ Amsterdam, Contact, volume II [original edition 1568] 1992, pp. 313-314
It should be obvious that Vasari in his description of the life of the painter Titian – from which the above quote was taken – had little sympathy for this direct technique. Michelangelo, who visited Titian in Rome just after the latter had completed his Danae, also said that he greatly admired the style and the coloration, but that unfortunately in Venice they had not learned to make proper drawings. Also, the paint was to be applied finely and smoothly so that you could not see the brushstrokes. The painted surface was supposed to shine like a polished mirror. Titian did not comply with these standards that were taught in every studio across Italy. He sometimes used thick layers of paint, roughly applied, so that the brushstrokes and rough surface remained clearly visible.
Titian finished the painting using his fingers to blend highlights and half-tones, added emphasis with dark smudges, and enlivened the surface with touches of red. In the final phase, he relied more on his fingers than a brush (More about Titian’s painting technique? Click here).
De Lairesse, a Dutch writer on painted art, spoke in this context anno 1707 of ‘dat het sap gelyk dreck langs het Stuk neer loope.’ De Lairesse added that a painter should ‘paint equally and tenderly’. Gerard de Lairesse, ‘Het Groot Schilderboek’, Amsterdam, 1707 book V, p. 324. So, that was not how to go about it. De Lairesse referred to Rembrandt and Lievens, but the very source of this painting style traces back to Titian. Titian did not use this more coarse manner of painting until a later age and the famous writer and artist Vasari spoke of ‘pittura della macchia’, the painting with stains where a ‘pentimento’, literally: a stroke of remorse, was not neatly painted over. An interesting letter by Titian, addressed to the King of Spain, Philip II, has been preserved in which he writes that he was clueless how to surpass the greats like Michelangelo, Correggio and Raphael. The surpassing, -aemulatio-, was the first commandment for all painters post-1400. One way for Titian to surpass the great painters was the rough painting style. Titian, who was the first to adopt a loose and rough painting technique, was of great influence to the likes of Velazquez and Rembrandt.
Many Venetian painters can be recognised by how they applied paint to the canvas. The manner in which the brush was used, one’s personal handwriting, was no longer painted over. Tintoretto used his typical brush technique for his ‘Miracle of the Slave‘. His strokes are rather elongated and often lightly bent. This Venetian painter was proud of his handwriting. Veronese’s strokes are of a more calligraphic quality. The strokes are not so much trotting as they are dancing. Their movements are fluid, something that fits perfectly with the brocade arabesques often painted by Veronese, like in his work: ‘Mystical Marriage of St Catherine‘. The calligraphic strokes make the brocade fabric of the blue dress worn by the Saint very convincing indeed.
In room 1I (first floor) of the museum we see on the long back wall a few famous paintings by the Mannerist painter Tintoretto. Mannerism is a school that sprang up around 1530, after the High Renaissance. Tintoretto’s Mannerist paintings usually show people standing, lying or falling in rather difficult positions. The composition is often quite complex, only in the beginning of his career did Tintoretto use a frontal composition like the one that we will see later in the church of S. Marcuola (Last Supper). However, fairly soon, he starts positioning the tables in a painting of the Last Supper (San Giorgio Maggiore) diagonally in the image plane. Tintoretto also often uses night lights or strange skies that evoke a specific atmosphere. For the painter this was a way of showing how good he was. Two works by Tintoretto, ‘The Translation of the body of St Mark’ and ‘The miracle of St Mark freeing a slave’ are good examples of these characteristics. For many details see Wikipedia.
Vasari praised Tintoretto, but also criticized his working method:
“[…] n the matter of painting swift, resolute, fantastic, and extravagant, and the most extraordinary brain that the art of painting has ever produced, as may be seen from all his works and from the fantastic compositions of his scenes, executed by him in a fashion of his own and contrary to the use of other painters. Indeed, he has surpassed even the limits of extravagance [detail: ‘Removel of the body of St Mark’] with the new and fanciful inventions and the strange vagaries of his intellect, working at haphazard and without design, as if to prove that art is but a jest. This master at times has left as finished works sketches [detail: ‘Baptism of Christ’ Scuola Grande di San Rocco] still so rough that the brush-strokes may be seen, done more by chance and vehemence than with judgment and design. He has painted almost every kind of picture in fresco and in oils, with portraits from life, and at every price, insomuch that with these methods he has executed, as he still does, the greater part of the pictures painted in Venice. And since in his youth he proved himself by many beautiful works a man of great judgment, if only he had recognized how great an advantage he had from nature, and had improved it by reasonable study, as has been done by those who have followed the beautiful manners of his predecessors, and had not dashed his work off by mere skill of hand, he would have been one of the greatest painters that Venice has ever had.” Giorgio Vasari ‘Live of the Painter, Sculptors and Architects’ pdf p. 101 -102
Tintoretto depicts the moment when St. Mark frees a slave from his shackles, demonstrating the power of faith and the protection offered by the saints. Tintoretto was profoundly influenced by Michelangelo, as we shall see when we are standing before these two canvases. The following sentence was written on the wall in his own studio: Il disegno di Michelangelo e il colorito di Tiziano. I will use copies of Michelangelo’s drawings to show how this influence can be recognised in Tintoretto’s work, but to further clarify this point we will just quickly walk back to room two (first floor), where the difference between a 15th century painting and one from the 16th century, i.e. the Early Renaissance and High Renaissance, can clearly be seen.
Giovanni Bellini ‘Madonna and Child Enthroned, musical angels and the saints Francis, John the Baptist, Job, Dominic, Sebastian and Louis of Toulouse (St. Job Altarpiece), c. 1487, 471 x 259 cm, oil on paneel
Il Pordenone ‘The Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani between Two Monks and Saints Louis of Toulouse, Francis, Bernardino of Siena, and John the Baptist’, c. 1528 – 1532, 420 x 222 cm, oil on canvas.
Room 11 (first floor) of this museum is home to works from high Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo periods by painters such as Titian, Tiepolo, Tintoretto and Pordenone. Giambattista Tiepolo’s work, which is considered belonging to the Baroque and Rococo, is often quite dramatic, such as for instance ‘Discovery of the True Cross’. This ceiling painting in which St Helen discovers the true cross uses a ‘reversed’ perspective. Pordenone’s painting ‘The Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani and Saints’, clearly shows Michelangelo’s influence. This work from 1532 obviously no longer belongs to the Early Renaissance works that we saw in room 2, with a comparable subject such as the Sacra Conversazione.
After a walk down the corridor and through a number of small rooms we arrive at room 6, 8 and 9 (ground floor), which is home to works by Pietro Longhi, Francesco Guardi and Canaletto. City views by Canaletto are found all across the world. They were bought by 18th century tourists and taken home. Venice, where Canaletto painted his works, is home to only two of his works. Canaletto’s, ‘Capriccio of a Colonnade’, from 1765, is a masterpiece.
As a perspective and architecture professor, he had to take a test in order to be admitted to the academy as an artist. He submitted this painting which offers various complicated perspectival vistas.
The painting by Canaletto is not a typical Venetian view, but rather a perspective study featuring a colonnade leading to a garden and another building. The artist arranged the uprights and diagonals to increase the picture’s depth and the vanishing point is in a corner of the image (See also: Dorothea Terpitz ‘Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto 1697 – 1768, Könemann, Köln 1998 p. 101)
Where Canaletto was primarily interested in beautiful static architecture and clear light, Guardi was the painter of quick movements who did not take much of an interest in topographic precision.
In ‘The Apothecary,’ Longhi portrays a busy pharmacy, with customers and servants coming and going, and the apothecary himself mixing remedies and medicines. The painting is notable for its fine attention to detail and its vivid, lively portrayal of the various characters and objects in the scene.
“Longhi painted for the picture-loving Venetians their own lives in all their ordinary domestic and fashionable phases. In the hair-dressing scenes, we hear the gossip of the periwigged barber; in the dressmaking scenes, the chatter of the maid; in the dancing-school, the pleasant music of the violin. There is no tragic note anywhere. Everybody dresses, dances, makes bows, takes coffee, as if there were nothing else in the world that wanted doing. A tone of high courtesy, of great refinement, coupled with an all-pervading cheerfulness, distinguishes Longhi’s pictures from the works of Hogarth [Marriage à-la-mode and Wikipedia], at once so brutal and so full of presage of change.” Source: Wikipedia
Room 20 (first floor) is home to a big cycle of paintings on the miracles connected with the relics of the Holy Cross, including works by painters such as Carpaccio, Manueti and Gentile Bellini. The eight canvases, originally there were ten, provide an extensive view of Venice in the 15th and 16th century. The first painting shows the old wooden Rialto bridge. Wikipedia True Cross cycle.
1. Carpaccio ‘Miracle of relic of the True Cross at the Ponte di Rialto c. 1494 – 1500
Carpaccio paints three important moments of the story: the procession by the bridge, the entry of the patriarch and the miracle by the loggia.
“[……] Gentile then added [Gentile Bellini, Jacopo’s son and brother to Giovanni] to this scene of the cross seven or eight other scenes, in which he depicted the miracle of the Cross of Christ, which is preserved as a relic in the Scuola. The miracle consisted of the following: after the cross had for some reason been thrown into the canal from the Paglia bridge, many had jumped into the water – out of reverence for the piece of wood from the cross of Jesus Christ that this contained – to retrieve it, but it was God’s will that only the friar superior of the Scuola [the Scuola di Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista] was able to get hold of it. In his representation of this story Gentile depicted in perspective a large number of houses facing the Canal Grande, the Paglia bridge, the San Marco Square and a long procession of men and women with the clergy in the lead, and also many who jumped into the water, others who are about to, many half under water, others differently and in beautiful positions, and finally he painted the superior who was able to get hold of the cross.” Translated from:? Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects’ Amsterdam, Contact, volume I [original edition 1568] 1992, page 237
“The canvas shows an event that took place about 50 years earlier, on 25 April 1444: while the members of the Scuola were processing the fragment through the Piazza San Marco (the square of St. Mark’s), Jacopo de’ Salis, a tradesman from Brescia, knelt before the relic in prayer that his dying son might recover. When he returned home, he discovered that the boy was completely well again.” Source Wikipedia
“In the foreground, Gentile has painted the confraternity in its white robes, processing at the head of the parade, the large golden reliquary suspended between them, carried beneath a canopy held by four more Scuola members. Although the subject of the picture is ostensibly the miracle itself, the Brescian merchant is hardly visible in the crowd: he kneels in sumptuous red robes, immediately to the right of the last two canopy-bearers. Rather, the subject of the picture might be more accurately described as the procession, with an especial focus on the space of St. Mark’s square and on St Mark’s Basilica itself, with its Byzantine domes and glittering mosaics.” Source Wikipedia
7. Lazzaro Bastiani ‘Offering of the Relic of the Cross to the Members Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista‘ canvas, 324 x 441 cm
8. Giovanni Mansueti ‘Miracle of the Relic of the Cross in Campo San Lio’ canvas, 322 x 463 cm
Her legend, probably not historical, is that she was a princess who, at the request of her father King Dionotus of Dumnonia in south-west Britain, set sail to join her future husband, the pagan governor Conan Meriadoc of Armorica, along with 11,000 virginal handmaidens. After a miraculous storm brought them over the sea in a single day to a Gaulish port, Ursula declared that before her marriage she would undertake a pan-European pilgrimage. She headed for Rome with her followers and persuaded the Pope, Cyriacus (unknown in the pontifical records, though from late 384 there was a Pope Siricius), and Sulpicius, bishop of Ravenna, to join them. After setting out for Cologne, which was being besieged by Huns, all the virgins were beheaded in a massacre. The Huns’ leader fatally shot Ursula with a bow and arrow in about 383 (the date varies). Wikipedia
1. ‘The Arrival of the Ambassadors’ canvas, 278 x 589 cm
2. ‘The Ambassadors Depart’ canvas, 281 x 252 cm
3. ‘The return of the Ambassadors’ canvas, 297 x 526 cm
4. ‘The meeting and Departure of Betrothed Couple’ 279 x 610 cm
“At the door of the room an angel enters (the little dog, though lying awake, vigilant, takes no notice). He is a very small angel; his head just rises a little above the shelf round the room, and would only reach as high as the princess’s chin, if she were standing up. He has soft grey wings, lustreless; and his dress, of subdued blue, has violet sleeves, open above the elbow, and showing white sleeves below. He comes in without haste, his body like a mortal one, casting shadow from the light through the door behind, his face perfectly quiet, a palm-branch in his right hand, a scroll in his left.” John Ruskin 28 – 29 Read more of Ruskin description of ‘The Dream of Ursula’ 25 – 31
6. ‘The Pilgrims meet with Pope Cyriacus’ canvas, 279 x 305 cm
7. ‘The arrival of the Pilgrims in Cologne’ canvas, 279 x 254 cm
8. ‘The martyrdom of the Pilgrims and Funeral of Saint Ursula’ canvas, 271 x 560 cm
9. ‘The apotheosis of Ursula and Her Companions’ canvas, 481 x 335 cm
Carpaccio here shows that he is a born storyteller, which makes the subjects easy to understand. It is also clear that Carpaccio is a typical representative of the Venetian School; his preference for beautiful fabrics, beautiful architectonical details and numerous domestic details are proof of his love for the style of painting that we saw earlier in works by Bellini and others. Furthermore, the light – in addition to colour – plays an essential role in Carpaccio’s oeuvre. The light in Venice is special, you will notice that at many moments during the day the light will seem to partly blur the outlines of even Sansovino’s sharply defined buildings. Sharp outlines are blurred by the light. Carpaccio, but also Canaletto, were masters in painting the effect that the light in Venice has on buildings and objects.
As we walk toward the exit, we arrive at the Scuola di Santa Maria della Carità for which Titian painted a fresco. You also have to look up.
If you look closely, you can see that a second door was added to the wall later. Titian has portrayed himself in his ‘Presentation of the Virgin Mary’: he is looking at Mary from the window Titian.
The painting was commissioned by the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità, and all its leading members were portrayed by Titian as spectators. The Scuole were unions of Venetian citizens initially created for funeral ceremonies, but the six wealthiest ones, including the Scuola della Carità, became important charitable and political institutions in the city. (see also Marion Kaminski ‘Tiziano Veccellio, know as Titian’ Könemann, Köln 1998 p. 69)
The painting depicts the moment when the young Virgin Mary is presented to the Temple by her parents, according to the story in the New Testament. Titian captures the solemnity of the moment with a restrained, dignified composition, using a soft and delicate palette of colors to create a sense of peace and tranquility.
In summation, the Venetian school of painting, which clearly differs from the rest of Italy, has the following characteristics:
- A predilection for all kinds of beautiful objects, such as fabrics and glass, which are painted beautifully, but are not essential to the subject of the painting. This type of object is painted for the joy of depicting them.
- The use of beautiful, warm colours. The colour sometimes seems more important than the shapes that are being used.
- No underdrawing on the canvas, but spontaneous painting. Giorgione was the first to do this. His technique would gather a following in La Serenissima.
- The way that the paint is applied is not hidden, on the contrary, the painters take pride in their handwriting.
- Sometimes very crude painting techniques which occasionally involve a thick layer of paint. The wood of the brush or a knife is sometimes used for its application.
- Byzantine art, which exerted great influence across Italy, was very dominant in La Serenissima and persisted for a very long time.
- Venice which reached the pinnacle of its power during the Gothic, clung to the Gothic style for a very long time.