Whew. The last three weeks have been pretty busy, and while work’s not letting up for at least another few weeks, I’m allowing myself a bit of a breather here. And what better way to do that than by not changing tack at all and just writing some more about Venetian Renaissance art?

Thing is, I was in Boston about a month ago and there’s a fine show there, at the MFA, which compares and contrasts the interrelated careers of the three greatest masters of Venetian art in the 16th Century — Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. In the wake of the many Venetian shows across Europe these last few years, it must have been something of a challenge for the head curator, Frederick Ilchman, to secure high-quality loans, which makes the sterling assembly of works in display there all the more impressive.

The ambition of the show is twofold — firstly, it tells a story of the development of Venetian painting in the 16th Century through the work of its three most illustrious masters, and aims with this selection of artists to find a happy median between the exclusive focus of a monographic show and the sprawl of one showcasing an entire school or period. Secondly, it attempts to illuminate the creative relationships of its three protagonists — how they inspired, influenced and infuriated each other, and by extension elevated Venetian art in the second half of the century. Organized thematically, with one room each devoted to religious pictures, mythologies and nudes, portraits, and the late work of the three painters, the show manages to elucidate well relationships between the three painters that that everyone acknowledges, but few spend much time examining at the level of individual artworks.

It opens with a scene setter, introducing the remarkable development of Venetian painting in the first half of the century, with the introduction of oil painting and the animating influence it enabled Giorgione and his contemporaries — first and foremost Titian (c. 1488-1576) — to bring to both figure and landscape. One might argue that the Metropolitan Museum’s Virgin and Child with Saints by the Bellini workshop (c. 1505-8) does not do the importance and sheer painterly accomplishment of Titian’s teacher Giovanni Bellini justice, but it makes a good general point as the kind of painting on which Titian might have worked as an assistant of Bellini’s, and by demonstrating how much more liberated the younger painter’s work, as represented by the magnificent Magnani Rocca Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine, Dominic and a Donor (c. 1513-14), appears to modern eyes.

As is so often the case with fine dining, the hors d’oeuvre threaten to overpower the main course, outshining as the selection of works by Titian in this room do much of what follows in the exhibition, but one would be exceptionally bullheaded not just to appreciate the chance to see such great works as the Uffizi Flora (c. 1518), the Edinburgh Venus Anadyomene (c. 1520), and the great 1543 Portrait of Paul III from Naples (who by the way is one well-travelled gent, having appeared in at least three other major shows in the last couple of years. Let’s hope he will now be given a well-deserved rest…)

The following section concentrates on the challenge to Titian’s dominance posed by Tintoretto’s (1518-1594) emergence, and the subsequent arrival of Veronese and his navigation of this conflict — initially as Titian’s protégé, then as Tintoretto’s most serious competitor for Venetian commissions. A tradition dating at least to the 17th century puts the young Tintoretto in Titian’s studio in the mid-1530s and tells the story of how the precocious young firebrand fell out with the older master and was ejected, allegedly because Titian sensed the threat the younger painter might pose to his authority in the workshop.

By a combination of rare talent, astonishing efficiency, and aggressive business practice, Tintoretto established himself as an independent master. His breakthrough work was the daring Miracle of the Slave, painted in 1548 for the Scuola Grande di San Marco and now in the Accademia in Venice — a painting in which he simultaneously synthesises and exorcises the examples of Titian and Michelangelo, establishing his own larger-than-life approach to spiritual drama. The consummation of his art was his floor-to-ceiling decoration of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a commission he secured for himself in 1564 by outdoing and underbidding his competitors — including Veronese — by trumping their presentation drawings with a finished canvas, installed in its place, for free. He worked there for the rest of his life, creating one of the great monuments of European art, a Sistine Chapel to Venice.

Veronese (1528-1588) arrived in Venice from his native Verona in the early 1550s and immediately became embroiled in the competitive environment of the Venetian art scene, and must have felt acutely the rivalry between Titian and Tintoretto. In 1556 he and six other painters were selected to paint the ceiling of the newly constructed Marciana library — a commission for which Tintoretto was passed over by the competition’s judges: the library’s architect Jacopo Sansovino and… Titian. The older master appears to have regarded the highly talented Veronese as a useful tool for marginalising Tintoretto, and the young artist was subsequently awarded a special gold chain for his contribution to the ceiling, an Allegory of Music. Around the same time, in 1555, he was commissioned to execute the ceiling of the sacristy of the Church of San Sebastiano, which he turned into a breathtaking, personal artistic statement over the next twelve years, decorating the high altar, organ shutters, walls and ceiling.

Naturally, very little of this is possible to show directly in an exhibition such as this one, which faced the same challenge as the impressive Tintoretto retrospective in Madrid in 2006, namely representing adequately the achievements of masters most of whose greatest works are huge, unmovable canvases adorning the walls of Venice. The show, thus, cannot illuminate adequately one of the most interesting aspects of the competition between the three artists — their individual approaches to the kind of monumental commissions that became the specialty of the two younger painters. Titian, who had a network of prestigious international patrons — the most important of whom was the Spanish King Philip II — was by this point largely uninterested in public commissions in Venice, but one cannot help but wonder whether the fact that he more or less totally abandoned such large-scale works after the arrival on the scene of Tintoretto and Veronese was at least partly due to the fact that they were outdoing him so emphatically in that arena, both artistically and in terms of speedy delivery.

A suite of, say, Last Suppers from the three of them is thus the kind of pipe dream a Venetian art enthusiast would have for a show comparing the three artists, but alas completely impossible. In any case, a greater elucidation of the relationship between Titian’s treatments of the subject — the earliest of which dates back to the 1530s, but is sadly lost without any visual record — and some of those painted by Tintoretto would surely make for a fascinating study. But back in the real world, Ilchman gives us a good substitute in the form of three Suppers at Emmaus — the Titian from the Louvre (1533-34), the Tintoretto from Budapest (c. 1542), and the small version by Veronese from Rotterdam (mid-1570s) — illustrating well some fundamental differences between the three artists, even if it does the latter two something of a disservice.

Titian lushly evokes fabric, food and fair weather, presenting a scene of quiet contemplation only momentarily disrupted by the shock of recognition experienced by the apostle on the left. The texture of the tablecloth, for which Titian uses the tooth of the canvas itself, is palpably tactile and the still life placed upon it exquisitely rendered. Although the setting is more rustic in its beauty, there is something almost Belliniesque about the feeling of wellbeing conveyed, with Christ as its serene centre.

Tintoretto, by contrast — and characteristically — arranges his figures as if thrown about by the centrifugal force of Christ, situated directly under the column that Titian placed off-centre. It is a demonstrative piece of work, with everything presented in a state of disarray, walking sticks at insistent diagonals, which goes beyond the call of the story itself, as if the artist is trying to prove a point to his older colleague a little too emphatically. A smaller and less ambitious picture, Veronese’s version is nevertheless typical for its luxurious colouring and interest in making the different areas of the painting — notably the background elements, sky, column, curtained aperture, column base — cohere and make for an interesting and appealing formal arrangement.

Amongst the other highlights of the religious section is Veronese’s Temptation of St. Anthony from Caen (1552-53), which depicts the saint tested by God in the form of devilish torment. It is a virtuoso arrangement of surprising visceral power, with tactile details — such as the woman’s claws scratching the left palm of the saint, whose right hand clutches frantically the pages of his Bible — added with Veronese’s signature understated elegance. This is in many ways an uncharacteristically savage painting for this otherwise so decorous master, and a compelling example of him working in Tintoretto’s territory, bringing to it a sense of refinement in the immaculate arrangement of the composition and the lush rendering of the surface.

The revelation of the show for this visitor, however, is a gigantic Deposition of Christ by Tintoretto (mid-1550s). It belongs to the Accademia in Venice, but has been in restoration and therefore out of sight for years. Larger than life-size, it is clearly a canvas painted to be seen from a distance, dramatically lit and dynamically arranged — the Madonna from Michelangelo’s famous Pietà has fainted and slipped backward, leaving Joseph of Arimethea to support the weight of her son. It is a painting that transmits its theme of emotional and spiritual anguish with beacon-like force. Up close, it is a somewhat dry but incredibly vigorous piece, rendered with an almost Michelangelesque terribilità of stroke that eliminates painterly flourish in favour of enunciation.

The room devoted to the interrelated genres of mythologies and nudes — pictures intended for private delectation, often combining sensual appeal with moral themes and emotional resonance — displays a number of fine Titians. First and foremost is the Naples Danaë, which is probably the highest-profile painting in the whole show. It was painted in Rome in 1545 for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese and was famously the object of Michelangelo’s admiring scorn — ‘Titian is great and all, but a shame he can’t draw!’ A sensitive balancing act between sacred and profane, it glows with its own life and puts almost everything else in the room to shame, including Tintoretto’s elegant Vienna Susannah and the Elders (mid-1580s). This latter is one of the few paintings in the genre where the painter transcends his otherwise dry and sometimes ironic detachment from this kind of subject matter to deliver an explicitly voyeuristic picture of sensuous beauty.

The most instructive juxtaposition in the room, however, is between Titian’s voluptuous Washington Venus with a Mirror (c. 1555) and Veronese’s bizarrely wonderful version of the same subject from the Joslyn Art Museum (mid-1580s). Ostentatiously and not entirely successfully posed, it is clearly an emulation of Titian, but also an attempt to outdo him. Veronese’s open brushwork is usually kept under control, as seen here in the confident suggestion of Venus’ veil, but in other parts he unusually lets loose with a fatty, loaded brush in imitation of the older master, to create such areas of glorious impasto as the blue-green silk brocade of the coat sliding off Venus’ back.

The portrait section is even more asymmetrical. Surely, few would dispute Titian’s mastery in this genre and with pictures such as the Pitti ‘Tommaso Mosti’ (c. 1520) and the Washington Ranuccio Farnese (1542) to remind us, Tintoretto and Veronese are put at a distinct disadvantage. And indeed, the show demonstrates that especially Tintoretto, who would otherwise consistently work in divergence from Titian, pretty much adopted the older master’s formula when it came to portraiture. In terms of posture, arrangement, technique and the rest, to be sure, but also in ethos—the often larger than life sympathetic depiction that tempers its idealisation with psychological insight.

In his best portraits, however, the confident rapidity of his touch brings out these qualities almost as if building them from scratch. There’s a barebones feel to them, a sense of impatience, as the painter seems to put down just the marks that are necessary. And when it works, it works beautifully—the exhibition includes a recently discovered Portrait of a Man (c. 1548), in which the freedom of handling of face, hands, sleeve and column base all contribute a sense of controlled nonchalance, clothing the young, slightly vulnerable-seeming sitter in confidence.

And the show, of course, also includes Tintoretto’s two searing self-portraits, from Philadelphia (c. 1546-47) and the Louvre (c. 1588), which show the painter at his most intensely introspective (I’ve written more about them here). As for Veronese, it is great to see his charming twin full-length portraits of the Porto family at their best — hung next to each other in matching frames (one had to be reframed for this purpose), suitably high and on their own wall.

The last room, featuring the late work, is something of a mixed bag, but all high-quality and containing a handful of masterpieces. Chief amongst them is the Prado Entombment of Christ by Titian (1559), which to this writer is one of his supreme human statements. It makes use of the same Michelangelesque model, which Tintoretto used around the same time for the aforementioned Deposition, to describe a dead Christ that is both heavy — his hanging right arm ending in an almost skeletal hand close to the ground from whence he came — and light, his powerful left arm hovering in the hands of his mother, who is the very picture of loss, and of the loss of self in grief. Titian extends his empathy through the colouring, having the sombre mood elevated by the almost regal quality of the areas of red lake and ultramarine, and especially the subtle inner glow he gives the body of Christ itself.

And if one should wish for a more precise illustration of Titian’s pictorial intelligence and sensitivity, one need look no further than the figure of the Magdalen. The transparency brought to the paint layers over the centuries has revealed a telling instance of editing. If one looks to her right, it is apparent how she was originally given a more traditional and expressive gesture of grief, her hand outstretched. Then, Titian changed his mind and moved her hand back to its present, tentative gesture of comfort. Magdalen is almost touching Mary’s back, but hesitates insecurely, intent but impotent to help.

Neither Tintoretto nor Veronese ever attained this kind of subtlety, animated as they were by different concerns. Veronese speaks to our sense of order through his acute sense of composition and colour, creating images that comfort and enlighten us simply by their harmonious presence. Such a picture is his late Baptism of Christ from the Getty (early 1580s), in which the path of Christ is already staked out by his posture of the Crucified, and at the same timed affirmed by the verdant depiction of the setting, into which he has been put, along with us all.

Another coup for the show is the late Tintoretto altarpiece of the same subject (c. 1580), a painting that normally resides in the Church of San Silvestro in Venice, but which I believe has also been out of sight for years due to conservation. At this late stage in his career it is very rare indeed to encounter fully autograph works by the master — most of the late work was carried out by his son Domenico and their efficient family workshop — but this is the real deal: gloriously broad and varied in handling, almost abstract when seen up close. In contrast to Veronese, Tintoretto sets the scene in a darkening twilight landscape of unclear liquid definition. The figures are moved dramatically off-centre and backlit by the breach in the heavens caused by the appearance of the Holy Ghost. Tintoretto’s is a firmer, but also much more doubtful spiritualism than both Veronese’s and Titian’s, and in this picture, painted in old age, he affirms it.

Lastly, it should perhaps be mentioned that the show is light on new research and that the catalogue is mostly directed at a general audience, being more of an extended, multi-part essay on its subject than a traditional compendium of extensive information on the works included. The exhibition does, however, offer one compelling new discovery, which is featured in a special room devoted to technical examinations of three of the museum’s own pictures. It pertains to the large Tintoretto Nativity, which newly recorded x-radiographs show to have been adapted from two pieces of canvas that were originally intended for a Heavenly Crucifixion (basically what it says: a symbolic crucifixion in the Heavens, often attended by the remaining 2/3 of the Trinity). The lower parts of this original, presumably unfinished picture of the late 1550s, containing Mary, Saint Anne and two saints, were repainted in the 1570s for a Nativity, into which a new piece of canvas was inserted to include Joseph and the Child. A remarkable transformation, emblematic of the efficiency and resourcefulness of the Tintoretto studio.

All right, I’ve gone on for too long, but do go see this exhilarating show if you’re anywhere near Boston, or catch it at the Louvre in the autumn — it is finely conceived and congenially presented and features a great selection of paintings.

Titian — Tintoretto — Veronese: Renaissance Rivals at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, run until August 16, after which it will be shown at the Louvre, surely in a different form, from September 14 — January 4.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for that very interesting piece and for informing me about the show. i was unaware of it, but look forward to seeing it in Paris. I agree with you about ‘Pope Paul III’. How much movement can a painting of that age stand? And don’t the people of Naples want to see it?

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