At the east side near the central entrance, which is only open in the afternoon, we find a monument made by Canova’s students after a clay model that can be seen in the Correr Museum in Venice. This monument for 1827 contains the heart of the famous French sculptor. It has been sculptured with unrivalled perfection, the proportions of the weeping figures are typical for the notions about art back then.
The pyramid-shaped monument was designed by him [Antonio Canova] in 1794… for Titian. However, because of the Fall of the Republic and a lack of funds, it was never executed. […] Canova included the weeping lion of San Marco, the heraldic animal of Venice, in his design as a symbol of the city’s sorrow after Titian’s passing, one of Serenissima’s most valuable sons. Canova’s heart is preserved in a porphyritic urn inside the pyramid. […] The cloaked figure who wants to enter the pyramid through the inviting, half-open door depicts the mourning art of sculpting, the two others are allegories of painting and architecture. The nude angel to the left embodies the genius of Canova. He is leaning on a reversed and doused torch because Canova is dead. The names of the artists who created the groups of two figures to the right of the door are chiselled on the front of the steps. As said, they were all Canova’s pupils. One of them is Luigi Zandomeneghi, who also crafted the monument for Titian on the other side. Someone else crafted the bass-relief above the door, another person crafted the lion and yet another crafted the angel. The Latin text at the bottom of the monument says: “For Antonio Canova, prince of sculptors in his time. From the Academy of Fine Arts of the Veneto and the whole of Europe, 1827′. The influential art historian Roberto Longhi considered Canova’s work to be too bleak and lacklustre, called him lo scultore nato morto (the sculptor who was born dead), but that does not do him justice.” Translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘Venezia Anekdotische reisgids voor Venetië’ Athenaeum-Polak & van Gennep, Amsterdam 2011 pp. 378 – 379
After the sculptures we will also look at a number of important paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Vivarini and others.
In the Chapter house (plan 68) is a painting shaped like a lunette (click here for the painting in the recess with the embossing) by the founder of the Venetian painting school Paolo Veneziano from 1339.
The inclusion of the Doge and his wife in the painting is significant because it was common for wealthy patrons to commission religious works and have themselves depicted in the artwork as a sign of their piety and devotion. In this case, the Doge and his wife are shown as humble supplicants to the Virgin Mary, seeking her mercy and protection.
A measly one-hundred-fifty years apart, but it seems more like centuries if you compare these two works Bellini’s Frari-triptych in the Sacristy. Once we arrive, I will explain why these artworks differ so greatly and why Paolo Veneziano’s painting is considered ‘traditional’ art while Giovanni’s work is considered ‘modern’. Vasari used these terms and describes it in his ‘Lives’ – where he referred to Giotto- – as follows:
“[…] that clumsy Greek style [meaning the Byzantine style] and revived the good, modern way of painting, being the first to accurately depict existing people by basing his art on observation, something that had been forsaken for two hundred years […]’ Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten’ [The Lives of the Artists], Amsterdam, Contact, dl I [oorspronkelijk uitgave 1568] 1992, p. 69
Vasari’s comments are evident when you look at the paintings in the sacristy and chapter house. A Renaissance painter had to display reality, ‘imitatore della natura’. The painter has but very limited means: paint and a flat surface to create the illusion of ‘natura’. While sculptors in the 16th and 17th century produced near-lifelike sculptures, painters did not succeed in this until the 19th century. They had to solve all kinds of problems, like perspective, atmospheric perspective, the suggestion of a rotating wheel (Rembrandt still struggled with this), shadow, storytelling with a timeline, the right movements of a horse, etc. Displaying reality was something that was completely alien to medieval painters like Paolo Veneziano. His task was more to convey a divine message. What was depicted was a sign of a higher reality and the demands of the Renaissance to make it resemble Earth’s reality was not at all a concern to medieval persons.
Still, Paolo Veneziano’s painting needs a bit of nuance. Influenced by the west, his ‘Greek style’ is already influenced by international gothicism. The posture of baby Jesus is something no Byzantine painter would ever consider: it is too human.
‘The Frari Triptych or Pesaro Triptych is a 1488 triptych painting by Giovanni Bellini. It is signed and dated 1488 on the centre of the Virgin Mary’s throne, though it may have taken several years to produce, meaning he started it in 1485. On the reverse is a label dating its completion more precisely, to 15 February 1488.’ Source: Wikipedia
“(Benedetto son of Pietro Pesaro, was the captain of the fleet in the war against the Turks. His grave […] frames the access to the sacristy.) The Bible that Saint Benedict holds shows the first page of the book Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Jesus Sirach. One of its texts, namely chapter 24, is based on the immaculate conception. The Catholic church only proclaimed the above dogma in 1854, which the Franciscans strongly propagated, through pope Pius IX. The valuable frame was designed by Bellini, but crafted by Jacopo da Faenza, which can be read at the back of the panel.” Translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘Venezia Anekdotische reisgids voor Venetië’ Athenaeum-Polak & van Gennep, Amsterdam 2011 p. 376
The triptych, which was dedicated in 1478 by the sons of Pietro Pesaro and Franceschina Tron as a tribute to their mother who passed away that same year, still retains its original carved and gilded wooden frame and is currently displayed on the altar of the Frari sacristy chapel. The altarpiece serves also as a tribute to Pietro Pesaro and his sons Benedetto, Nicolò and Marco, who are commemorated through the representation of their onomastic saints. While an inscription on her grave, positioned on the pavement in front of the altar, serves as a commemoration for Franceschina, it is noteworthy that her descendants have also come to rest in the same grave. See Rona Goffen, ‘Giovanni Bellini’, Yale University 1989 p. 161
In the conga above Mary of Bellini’s Frari triptych the following text can be read:
IANUA CERTA POLI DUC MENTEM DIRIGE VITAM: QUAE PERAGAM COMMISSA TUAE SINT OMNIA CURAE
Sure gate of Heaven, lead my mind, direct my life, may all that I do be committed to thy care.
The inscription in the mosaic above the Madonna is a quotation from the commission that Pope Sixtus had approved in 1478 for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. (Rona Goffen, ‘Giovanni Bellini’, Yale University 1989 p. 161).
Finally, we look at two famous works – often depicted in your typical art books – by Titian: his ‘Assumption’ that was the source of quite some controversy when it was completed and Pesaro’s famous altarpiece. If you stand in front of Titian’s grave and compare his grave to the painting that you see up ahead near the main altar, you will see a clear link.
“Titian had wished to be buried in the Basilica of the Frari. He was buried at the monument dedicated to him on August 27, 1576. The monument is made of Carrara marble, it is due to the work of the brothers Luigi and Pietro Zandomeneghi, Canova disciples. The mausoleum is situated at the foot of the cross for which Titian made his last work, the Pietà, currently on display at the Academy. At the center of the monument: the statue crowned with laurels Titian is accompanied by the allegories of universal nature, the spirit of knowledge, in addition to painting, sculpture, graphic arts and architecture. At the base, the statue of Charles V and Ferdinand I of Austria, the two emperors for which he had worked. On the bottom five reliefs recall the most important religious works of the artist: the Assumption in the center, Peter of Verona to the left, the martyrdom of St. Lawrence on the right; The entablature above the right Visitation and the Descent from the Cross to the left. At the top of the monument stands the Lion of St.Marc with the coat of arms of the Habsburgs. The monument was restored in 1996.” Source: Wikipedia
A Latin inscription on the pedestal below reads “Titiano Ferdinandus I MDCCCLII”, which translates to “Dedicated to Titian by Ferdinand I in 1852”.
Two male figures holding stone tablets are depicted on the lower sides of the pedestal, serving as a reminder of the favors that Titian received from the Austrian emperors. These favors included the bestowment of the titles of Knight and Earl by Charles V, and the financing of Titian’s funeral monument by Ferdinand I.
Titian completed the altarpiece of 6.9 meters high and 3.6 meters wide (24.8 square meters) in two years’ time. He signed his work – below centre, slightly to the right of the seated Peter – which is something he rarely did.
The composition of the painting is complex and dynamic, with a dramatic sense of movement and energy. The Virgin Mary is shown rising towards heaven, surrounded by a halo of light, and she is flanked by a host of angels. The apostles are depicted below her, looking up in awe and wonder.
The actions of the figures are placed close to the image plane. This creates a narrow stage in which the viewer is directly involved. Each zone is connected to the other zones by visual gestures until it reaches Mary, who looks up to God the Father. Maria is glorified (gloriosa) by angels making music and singing.
As we have come to expect, Titian uses colour with a clear function. In his Assumption of the Virgin, the deep red and warm orange tones and the sunny skin tones with the underlying gold have the effect of a sparkly illuminated upward thrusting mass. A red triangle strongly contributes to the upward movement.
Lodovico Dolce (Wikipedia), writer (e.g. Dialogo della Pittura) and friend of Titian, was present at the unveiling of the canvas on 19 May 1518. Dolce describes that the public – and especially other Venetian artists – were shocked when they saw the painting. Such dynamic, more than life-size figures and drama were unprecedented in the tradition of painting in the Serenissima. Gradually, the general mood changed and finally the Assumption of the Virgin was widely praised and admired.
Prior to the creation of this painting, the norm was to portray the Madonna positioned at the center of an altarpiece. Titian’s revolutionary alteration of the traditional pictorial composition by moving the Madonna from the center to the edge of the picture was widely emulated (Paolo Veronese 1551), particularly during the Baroque period. The contemporaneous Venetians likely perceived the significant placement of the altarpiece’s donor in the painting as equally unconventional. Kneeling directly in front of the Madonna in the painting are the most prominent member of the Pesaro family, Jacopo, who was the bishop of Paphos, and opposite him are his brothers and their sons. Although depictions of donors were common in other regions, they were typically avoided on altars in Venice.
The cross held by two angels reveals the fate of the child on the lap of Mary.
Close to the Frari church lies the famous Scuola Grande di San Rocco.