Vital, inspirational, enduring—it is almost impossible to overstate the impact of sixteenth-century Venetian painting on European art. An account of artists whose styles or approaches were literally transformed by the example of Titian or Veronese would comprise a veritable “who’s who” of the seventeenth century and beyond, from Rubens and Velázquez to Reynolds and Delacroix. This trend of influence began as early as the 1580s, when Annibale Carracci traversed northern and central Italy to view works by older artists that they believed were crucial to their own program of artistic reforms, ultimately the foundation of the Baroque style.
The Triumvirate: Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto
Of the three painters who dominated Venetian art in the sixteenth century, Titian was by far the oldest. Universally admired, even by Vasari, despite the latter’s bias against colore in favor of disegno (drawing), he was the first Italian artist to garner a truly international reputation, becoming the chosen painter of a papal family and two emperors. During his long working life, which began about 1508 and continued until his death in 1576, he helped establish possibilities for an artistic vocation that would have once been thought impossible. As his career came to an end, these particular shoes as a painter of international repute—and above all as the esteemed recipient of grand commissions from foreign princes—were filled in part by Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), that unique colorist whose works were by that time filling churches and villas throughout the Veneto. Leaving his native Verona between 1553 and 1555, Veronese had little trouble finding civic and ecclesiastical commissions in Venice. He was so successful that two decades later, when Rudolf II, the Habsburg emperor in Prague, wished to commission mythological paintings that could rival those by Titian in his uncle Philip’s collection in Madrid, Veronese was the natural choice.
The central features of Veronese’s style, a brilliant illusionism and grand, sensuous style, were considered his greatest strengths. Adept at all the principal genres of painting—religious and secular, in both fresco and oil—he reached the height of his illusionistic brilliance and inventiveness in his fresco decorations for the villas of the Veneto. In Boy with a Greyhound (29.100.105), we glimpse a similar feat of visual legerdemain, as the viewer is invited to step into the scene and walk by the boy’s side through to the river beyond. Veronese’s fondness for opulent detail is on full display in the breathtaking Mars and Venus United by Love (10.189) and Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Prison (1999.225), at once sumptuous and refined, which showcase his expert use of color in their dazzling luminosity. An equal affection for seemingly incidental detail attracted the wrath of the Inquisition, which demanded that the artist explain the presence of “drunken buffoons, armed Germans, dwarfs and similar scurrilities” in a Last Supper painted for the refectory of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. Claiming the same right to freedom of expression as “the poet and the madman,” Veronese tried to satisfy the Inquisitors by changing the title of his painting to Feast in the House of Levi.
Of the trio of supreme painters active in Venice in the sixteenth century, Jacopo Robusti (1519–1594), known as Tintoretto, inspired the most controversy and came in for the most criticism from his peers. His strikingly rapid, seemingly spontaneous brushwork and the occasional looseness of his compositions prompted Vasari’s stinging rebukes that his work was “done more by chance and vehemence than with judgment and design” and that he worked “haphazardly.” The latter accusation was particularly unjust; in fact, Tintoretto studied his compositions carefully by staging them in miniature, first making wax and clay figurines of the protagonists and then placing them in a box and lighting it to observe various effects of chiaroscuro. We know that Tintoretto wanted to combine Michelangelo’s disegno with Titian’s colore, but in the end it was the quality of prestezza, or quickness, in his work that was most admired by contemporaries who were receptive to his unique style.
Tintoretto, who never traveled, was tied to Venice and the types of commissions the city could offer him: altarpieces and other sacred subjects for churches and confraternity halls, portraits, civic projects, and mythologies. His finest portraits are gripping presentations of Venetian patricians and statesmen (41.100.12). Religious works such as The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (13.75) can be described as balletic, with their theatrical figure arrangements, exaggerated poses, and dynamic sense of movement. As Ruskin observed wryly, his figures were always “flying, falling, sinking, or biting.” In his epic orchestrations, Tintoretto attempted to capture the visionary itself.
Beyond the Triumvirate: The Genius of Venice
Throughout the sixteenth century, many gifted, even brilliant artists struggled to compete with these three giants and their prodigious workshops. None could avoid their influence entirely, but many devised strategies for distinguishing their own production, often by looking beyond Venice for new ideas. The Dalmatian artist Andrea Schiavone (ca. 1510?–1563), who settled in Venice early in his life, scrutinized paintings and prints from central and northern Italy for inspiration, particularly the fluent, unlabored etchings of the Emilian Mannerist Parmigianino. Schiavone’s contemporaries generally admired his compositions (1973.116), but opinions on their technique differed. Pietro Aretino lamented their lack of “finish,” while Tintoretto was demonstrably impressed by the painterliness of the somewhat older artist. Schiavone made no secret of his interests in art outside of Venice—he pointedly declared it. Nonetheless, he remained grounded throughout his career in the techniques and coloristic virtuosity of Venetian painting.
Bonifacio de’ Pitati (Bonifacio Veronese) (1487–1553), a contemporary of Titian and Palma il Vecchio, acquired a considerable reputation in Venice as a painter of compositions of the Madonna and Child—at once grand and informal (1995.536). Like Paolo Veronese, his brilliant younger contemporary, Bonifacio was born in Verona. He came to Venice between 1505 and 1515 and quickly familiarized himself with the work of the city’s principal painters, beginning with the elderly Giovanni Bellini and moving on to Giorgione, Titian, and especially Palma. Another artist of Bonifacio’s generation, Sebastiano del Piombo (1485/86–1547), left the city definitively for Rome in 1510, thus his Venetian oeuvre is fairly small. Nonetheless, the works he made there (1973.155.5), inspired by Giorgione, were widely admired and imitated.
Paris Bordon (1500–1571) was born in Treviso on the terraferma but moved to Venice with his mother when he was eight. According to Vasari, Bordon went into Titian’s workshop for a brief period, following earlier studies that included music and grammar. From Vasari we also know that Bordon traveled extensively, often outside Italy—another popular strategy for those artists trying to escape Titian’s immediate influence. He worked at Fontainebleau, for the Fugger family in Augsberg, was active in Lombardy as well as Venice, and spent part of the 1540s in Milan, where he may have painted the Museum’s Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages (1973.311.1). Although known primarily as a painter of mythologies and other subjects with beautiful young women, whose clothes and hair typically shine with metallic brilliance, Bordon could also make sensitively rendered altarpieces and portraits.
Lorenzo Lotto (ca. 1480–1556), one of the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, is the “missing link” in our discussion of Venetian painting. Like Bordon, Lotto chose, or perhaps resigned himself to, a peripatetic lifestyle (but within Italy), partly owing to difficulties securing commissions in Venice. Prodigiously gifted, thoughtful, and experimental, he enjoyed an extraordinary career that took him from Venice to Treviso and Bergamo in the Veneto, to Rome, and to various towns in the Marches. He ended his life in the pilgrimage town of Loreto. Although Lotto returned to Venice for several long stays, first from 1525 to 1533 and then sporadically during the following decade, the paintings he made there were received coolly by some critics, and he was never quite comfortable in the Venetian context.
As an artist, Lotto was highly attuned to the work of his contemporaries, including the older Giovanni Bellini and the German Albrecht Dürer; he was also acutely aware of painting in Milan and other Lombard cities. His own work encompasses a wide spectrum of subject matter and thematic interests—large-scale altarpieces and fresco cycles, intimate devotional pictures, a sizeable body of portraiture, and rare excursions into mythological and allegorical painting, including the glorious Venus and Cupid (1986.138). In his portraits, which demonstrate a penetrating grasp of his sitters’ psychology (65.117), he developed a complex iconography linked to the sitter’s vocation and interests.