Renaissance

What’s Special About the Venetian Renaissance?

Guest Profile 6 June 2024 min Read

The Italian Renaissance was driven by two key players: the Florentine school and the Venetian school. In the 15th century, while each cluster was fostering its distinctive artistic visions and practices, Bellini’s workshop in Venice was where artists like Giorgione brought the Venetian Renaissance into being.

Unlike the interest perspective, geometric precision, and anatomical exactitude shared among Florentine artists, the Venetian school had a taste for the sumptuous use of pigments. Venetian artists experimented with colors to promote emotional and dynamic expressions over formal constraints, which then resulted in a new approach to painting.

1. Chromatic Opulence

While Florentine art is known for the technique of disegno, or the linear portrayal of figures with extreme accuracy, Venice is celebrated for the approach of colorito, or the application of myriad pigments to achieve dramatism and evoke strong emotions, as demonstrated by Titian, whose career is characterized by a striking shift from clear and precise delineations of figures to a freer expression of colors and lights.

Venetian Renaissance: Filippo Lippi, Standing Youth with Hands Behind His Back, and a Seated Youth Reading (recto), 1457/58–1504, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA. A drawing representing the Florentine technique of disegno.

Filippo Lippi, Standing Youth with Hands Behind His Back, and a Seated Youth Reading (recto), 1457/58–1504, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA. A drawing representing the Florentine technique of disegno.

Venetian Renaissance: Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556–1559, The National Gallery, London, UK. A painting representing the Venetian technique of colorito.

Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556–1559, The National Gallery, London, UK. A painting representing the Venetian technique of colorito.

Titian’s “poesie,” intended to be a visual representation of poetry, reflects the increasingly vibrant color scheme and unconfined approach he adopted late in his career. One such example is Diana and Actaeon, the accidental and fatal encounter of the innocent young hunter Actaeon with Diana, the goddess of chastity and fertility.

A contrast is made between the bright pinkish flesh of Diana and her nymphs after the bath and the darker tone of Actaeon’s limbs. The glowing whiteness reflects the softness of the goddesses’ skin texture and symbolizes their virginity. On the other hand, Actaeon’s tan skin embodies much more masculinity than the place seems to allow.

The painting’s emotional appeal is also heightened by the vibrant blue sky and the mountainous landscape in bright green, as well as the addition of the cerise tapestry, the light blue cloth, the orange stripes, and the saffron bands. There is not a single dominant color. Instead, Titian lets the multifarious pigments clash, creating a set of glistening focal points.

Venetian Renaissance: Giovanni Bellini, San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505, San Zaccaria, Venice, Italy.

Giovanni Bellini, San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505, San Zaccaria, Venice, Italy.

This Venetian interest in a rich palette, however, can date back to the artworks of Giovanni Bellini, the leading Venetian artist. His San Zaccaria Altarpiece, for instance, is set in an indoor scene where the Virgin and child are surrounded by a group of saints, with the garments of the Virgin and the saints lavishly painted.

Saint Peter the Apostle is dressed in greyish-yellow and blue, Saint Jerome in scarlet, and the Virgin Mary is covered by a vibrant blue piece of fabric. Saint Catherine and Saint Lucy, standing beside the Virgin, wear green and light purple robes as a delightful touch added to the three primary colors.

Bellini also captured the rich colors of the architectural ornaments inside the church. The half-dome is glazed with golden mosaics and floral patterns. Great attention is paid to the reflecting light on individual tiles. Beneath the dome and the white marble curves are two Corinthian capitals glowing with their golden texture. The combination of the figures and the sumptuous architectural surroundings creates a mystifying and mesmerizing impression.

2. Dynamic Expressions

Another characteristic of Venetian art that differs from the Florentine tradition of disegno is the artists’ expression of dynamic scenes. These renditions often seek to evoke strong emotional responses from the viewers.

Take Diana and Actaeon again as an example. The tension between Diana and Actaeon is conveyed by the figures’ bodily movements. On the far left, Actaeon raises his hands in fright. He dropped his bow to the ground, flinching. The goddess on the far right covers her face with a piece of cloth as she stares at the intruder with terror and contempt. The rest of the nymphs twist their bodies, showing various degrees of astonishment. Titian painted all these subjects with coarse brushstrokes. This differs from the Florentine method, but putting less emphasis on a detailed sketch allows his figures to flow.

Venetian Renaissance: Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520–1523, The National Gallery, London, UK.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520–1523, The National Gallery, London, UK.

The sense of dynamism in Venetian art often burst with theatricality. The figures are not as restrained, tranquil, or stationary as in Florentine paintings. They tend to be exaggerated to intensify the emotional appeal, though without the loss of authenticity.

This feature is typified by Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, an artwork centered on the classical mythology of the deserted and helpless Ariadne and the god Bacchus. On the left, Ariadne appears to have just arrived at the island of Naxos, while the god of wine and intoxication, along with his large company of followers, rushes into the scene. Her torso tends to tilt leftwards while she diffidently turns her head towards Bacchus, surprised and somehow terrified. On the right, Bacchus rides on his chariot with an elegant piece of red cloth drifting gracefully in the breeze. His left foot steps on the seat, yet his right leg is already moving midair, about to race towards Ariadne. The collective arrangement of the figures manages to convey complex and subtle emotions under the theme of enthrallment and love, contributing to Titian’s dramatic expression.

3. Emotional Aptitude

Venetian art is not limited to the expression of jubilance and vehemence. Venetian artists were equally skillful at exploring their subjects’ inner feelings. The result was a profound scene centered on mysticism and tranquility, such as Titian’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles V, commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1547 to celebrate his victory in the Battle of Mühlberg against the Protestants.

In the center of the scene, a victorious Charles V is resplendently dressed in his golden and silvery armor. Yet, instead of extravagantly displaying the emperor’s valor in battles, Titian accentuates the sternness and resolution of his subject.

Venetian Renaissance: Titian, Equestrian Portrait of Charles V, 1548, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Titian, Equestrian Portrait of Charles V, 1548, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Charles V’s steadfast yet unperturbed countenance reflects his confidence in religious victory, his dignity as the emperor, as well as his momentous mission to protect the entire Christendom from heresy. Alone under a horrendously cloudy sky, the emperor possesses both heroism and extraordinary calmness. The restrained and majestic victory is not without liveliness, though. Charles V is portrayed in full length and adheres to the principle of perspective but without loss of the flexibility of shape.

In comparison to Paolo Uccello’s Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood, which imitated the texture of a bronze sculpture, Titian’s equestrian portrait is truly a breakthrough. It is no surprise that the Equestrian Portrait of Charles V became the inspiration for later artists, including Anthony van Dyck and Francisco de Goya.

Venetian Renaissance: Paolo Uccello, Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood, 1436, Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy.

Paolo Uccello, Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood, 1436, Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy.

4. Exploration Beyond Established Genres

Driven by the pursuit of emotions and exhaustive expressions, Venetian paintings were no longer constrained by the existing models prevailing in Central Italy. Venetian artists developed new compositions that eventually led to the creation of new genres of oil paintings.

In particular, artists realized that human figures are not necessarily the sole subjects of a painting but that they could be incorporated into a larger natural landscape for stronger emotional attraction. Bellini’s Agony in the Garden, painted in the mid-15th century, was one of the first Venetian paintings to adopt such a scheme.

Set on the Mount of Olives, the painting shows Christ in prayer, kneeling on a rock, accompanied by three disciples. Bellini did not depict the figures as the painting’s focal point but paid more attention to their surroundings—the textures of rocks, the meandering pathways leading to the mountaintop, and small dwellings and castles sitting on top of the greenery. What contributes to the atmosphere of illusion and unearthliness is not so much the figures themselves as the boundless bucolic scenery illuminated by the warm, pinkish sunshine at dawn.

Venetian Renaissance: Giovanni Bellini, Agony in the Garden, 1458–1460, The National Gallery, London, UK.

Giovanni Bellini, Agony in the Garden, 1458–1460, The National Gallery, London, UK.

Perhaps influenced by Bellini’s approach to landscape painting, Giorgione pushed it further to establish landscape painting as a new genre as its own. His Tempest, finished in 1530, almost entirely focused on the landscape itself even though it includes human subjects.

Under the artist’s brushstrokes, the distant sky is dominated by tumultuous grey and blue, with murky clouds pierced through by glaring streaks of lightning. The groves and townhouses stand silently behind the figures as if anticipating the impending thunderstorm. A young man and a woman nursing a child exchange a long, steadfast gaze while cumulonimbus clouds form. They both stand near the margin of the composition, which ascribes a greater significance to the natural landscape. Giorgione thus made his transition from altarpieces and portraits to become the precursor of landscape painting as an independent genre.

Venetian Renaissance: Giorgione, The Tempest, 1506–1508, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy.

Giorgione, The Tempest, 1506–1508, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy.

Venetian artists mastered an artistic style influenced by but at the same time independent from the Florentine artistic model. The circle of Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian were not primarily concerned with the Florentine approach of disegno, nor did they try to depict their subjects with absolute precision. They were more interested in the wide possibilities granted by colors, or the technique called colorito.

Through experimentations with the diverse effects of colors, Venetian masters evoked rich sensations and heightened the visual effect of artistic expression. These attempts helped establish new paradigms of oil paintings that distinguished Venetian art from Florentine art.

 


Author’s bio:

Yi Xin grew up in Beijing and is currently a junior at Beijing Huijia Private School. As an art history student, he is enthralled by Classics, architecture, and philosophy. He’s also an earnest admirer of the Renaissance Republic of Florence and its beautiful coat of arms.

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