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New thoughts about the Renaissance in Venice.

The notion of revisionist art history raises eyebrows. All too often it means resurrecting figures forgotten for very good reasons or forcing well-established notions through a wringer of modish theory. But when art historical revisionism--or any other kind --is driven by a quest for expanded understanding rather than by a desire for novelty, it can usefully disrupt entrenched habits of thought. It can make us consider, instead of the obvious, predictable aspects of an artist's work or a period, fascinating zones of untidy, overlapping slippage and cross-fertilization. Intelligent revisionism can correct inaccuracies and make us see the celebrated and the familiar in fresh ways. Witness this Fall's ambitious exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi--a persuasive argument for reexamining even the most well-studied evidence. "Il Rinascimento a Venezia e la pittura del Nord ai tempi di Bellini, Durer, Tiziano" (oddly translated by the organizers as "Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Bellini, Durer, Titian") should change forever the way we look at both Italian and Northern Renaissance art.(1)

The thesis, briefly, is that between 1450 and 1600 artists working in Venice, the Netherlands, and parts of Germany were engaged in a complex conversation that had profound ramifications for art on both sides of the Alps. It's a view that discredits the idea that the Italians single-handedly invented Renaissance art, except for oil paint, which was invented by the van Eycks and brought to Italy by Antonello da Messina, an Italian, or rather a Sicilian as his name tells us. This is roughly Vasari's version of events, born of a Firenze-centrism so profound that it led him to omit all reference to northerners in the 1550 edition of Lives of the Artists and to disparage them collectively as "various Flemish imitators" in a later edition. Vasari probably got this from his idol, Michelangelo, who is reported to have dismissed the fiamminghi as concerned primarily with "external exactness ... done without reason or art, without symmetry or proportion."

Pace Vasari and Michelangelo, over the past three decades or so art historians (including Italians) searching archives, deciphering extant documentation, and scrutinizing surviving objects have made it increasingly clear that the relationship of north and south is best described not as a one-way flow from Italy, but as a turbulent eddy of international proposals and counter-proposals, echoes and challenges, assimilations and innovations. This current scholarship has informed many exhibitions in recent years. In 1997, for example, the catalogue of the absorbing Lorenzo Lotto retrospective at the National Gallery, Washington, maintained that some of the eccentricity of this hard-to-classify painter's work was evidence of his affinity and admiration for artists from "north of the Alps." Similarly, in 1998, the catalogue of the Metropolitan's wonderful celebration of its holdings of Netherlandish Renaissance art included fascinating information about Italian collections of Netherlandish painters in the quattrocento and cinquecento, charted evidence of the influence of these artists, and discussed the efforts of some Netherlandish painters to satisfy the taste of their expatriate Florentine cloth merchant and banker patrons.

Yet despite the growing currency of such notions, the Palazzo Grassi exhibition, surprisingly, is the first devoted exclusively to the relationship of the art of Venice, the Netherlands, and Germany during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The show is accompanied by seven pounds of thoroughly annotated catalogue: a massive artifact even by present standards of catalogue bulk. Exhaustive contributions from more than a dozen international scholars, illustrations of everything in the show, a wealth of supporting images, informative entries on the history and technical details of each picture, and a slightly overwhelming bibliography will undoubtedly make this hefty volume the definitive work on the subject for years to come--despite the poor quality of its color reproductions and its dauntingly small type.

The catalogue is an impressive, compelling, and useful compendium of the latest scholarship, but the real excitement of the Palazzo Grassi show is its staggering selection of more than two hundred works by ninety or so artists assembled from museums and private collections from all over Europe and the United States. The only artist missing from the stellar roster surveyed by the exhibition is Giorgione, represented by but a single evanescent red chalk drawing because, we are told, the Palazzo Grassi is planning a major Giorgione event in the near future.

"Renaissance Venice and the North" is a vast, exhausting, riveting, exhilarating exhibition that demands close attention from its viewers and rewards repeat visits, given the richness of the material--the show is installed in twenty-eight rooms--and the subtlety and complexities of the links between the exhibited pieces. It is really two exhibitions, since in the middle is the "Drawing Cabinet," a superb "show within a show" of drawings and prints. This cabinet provides vivid evidence of the important role of woodcuts and engravings in establishing connections, diffusing images, and making artists (and collectors) aware of what their peers elsewhere were up to. Because of conservation requirements, these works are isolated from the paintings that either served as their models or responded to their example. It's enlightening to check these relationships--helpfully underscored by the labels--by returning to the first sections of the show, but taking it all in thoroughly is almost impossible in a single visit, especially during peak hours when avid crowds make it difficult to backtrack. (Note to visitors: the last two hours of the day, from five P.M. until closing at seven P.M, are usually uncrowded and peaceful; weekends are to be avoided.)

With or without the luxury of repeat visits, the thematically organized installation allows the visual evidence so painstakingly assembled by the curators to speak eloquently. We are first greeted by a period map itemizing the routes that travellers of the day followed between northern Europe and Italy, with the appropriate places to break a day's journey conveniently indicated. Next comes an enormous, charming 1446 triptych, borrowed from the Accademia, showing an enthroned, gorgeously crowned Madonna and child, flanked by a selection of church fathers, in an elaborate architectural setting featuring pointed arches, interlaces, and vaguely Byzantine flourishes. Stylistically, the triptych is one of those enigmatic transitional works in which wholly Gothic formality, elaboration, and hieratical size seem about to give way to a sense of naturalistic space, form, and characterization that can only be called Renaissance. Technically, it is the first known Venetian painting on canvas. But the real zinger is the triptych's signature. A collaborative work by two artists, it is proudly inscribed by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d'Alemagna--"John from Germany." Graphic evidence indeed of the thesis of the exhibit. And even more evidence follows.

Gallery after gallery present groups of works by artists from both sides of the Alps that bear witness to common ideals and (in some cases) common models and yet at the same time provide clear testimony to unbridgeable differences between the Venetians and their Flemish and German colleagues. The first grouping assembles luminous portraits in oil, executed between about 1450 and 1500 by Giovanni Bellini, Antonello da Messina, Lorenzo Lotto, and Hans Memling, plus one attributed to Petrus Christus and one by a follower of Jan van Eyck. Since the sitters, whether painted by Flemings or Venetians, are all Italian males and since many of the pictures can be traced to Venetian collections, the selection offers convincing evidence right from the start of an Italian appetite for Flemish art and possibly, for Flemish-type art given the similarities between the portraits painted by Netherlandish artists and those by Venetians. Whatever their origins, the authors of these portraits all share a fondness for the telling detail; they carefully itemize the clasp of a coat, the lift of an eyebrow, the expressive curve of a lip. They share, too, a keen eye for fashion, revelling in the precise line of a hairstyle, the angle of a hat, or the way a shirt peeks above a tunic. And they all delight in the delicate modulations permitted by oil paint, which if not invented by the northerners, as legend has it, certainly was perfected by them. (And yes, Antonello had something to do with its dissemination in Italy.)

At first glance, in fact, such similarities outweigh any differences between these elegant little pictures, apart from stylistic evidence that they were painted at various times over five decades of the quattrocento --the ease with which Bellini's and Lotto's figures turn and appear to amplify the space they occupy, as opposed to the tighter cropping and insistent frontality (despite the suggestion of angled shoulders) of the Petrus Christus and the Memlings. Yet longer acquaintance reveals other, more individual traits. The distant landscapes behind Memling's introspective sitters are distinctive, as is his conceit of making them appear to rest their hands on a fictive parapet congruent with the bottom edge of the panel. Distinctive, too, is Antonello's choice of a low viewpoint and the unflinching naturalism with which he presents the direct, skeptical gaze of his sardonic subject. Equally distinctive is the self-assured amplitude of Lotto's portrait of a patron and the serene elegance of Bellini's portrait of a very young man wearing the toga of a Venetian senator.

Periodically throughout the show, like a restated theme, this argument for the coexistence of common ideals and ingrained personal (and national) characteristics is made by such groupings of portraits. We encounter a trio of female portraits from the early 1500s by Durer and two obscure Italians, followed by a spectacular group of slightly later half-length portraits by Titian, Palma il Vecchio, Lotto, Paris Bordone, and their northern contemporaries. And toward the end of the exhibition, there is a room of half- and full-length male portraits that provide unignorable proof of a more singular kind of influence: of Titian's being the preeminent model for both Venetian and German painters during the years when he was the favorite artist of the widely dispersed Habsburgs. The cumulative effect of these repeated, circumscribed assemblies of identical subjects--perhaps the most straightforward demonstrations of the exhibition's thesis--is to suggest that while it would be hard to confuse the work of northerners and Italians, they obviously had more in common than Vasari would admit.

The full complexities of the relationship are gradually revealed by the exhibition's examination of a broad spectrum of themes: religious subjects; the changing role of landscape; myth and allegory; and genre. Early on, a group of interiors contrasts Antonello's ravishing little St. Jerome in his Study (c. 1475, National Gallery, London) --that exquisite demonstration of how to make a cozy, comfortable workplace in a big, drafty ecclesiastical hall--with a sharply focused image of Jerome in cramped quarters, albeit with a more attentive lion, attributed to Jan van Eyck (1442, Detroit Institute of the Arts). The Drawing Cabinet provides for comparison a sketch (c. 1503) by Vittore Carpaccio of St. Augustine in his up-to-date Renaissance study--preparatory to his celebrated painting in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. We are also offered a Carpaccio domestic interior, Birth of the Virgin (c. 1502-07, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo), so full of anecdotal details --a woman plucking a chicken, another drying cloths by a fire, another bringing a bowl of pappa to the new mother, a pair of rabbits--that it makes a Rogier van der Weyden-influenced Flemish Annunciation hung nearby look positively sparse, despite its catalogue of fifteenth-century bedroom furnishings.

Of course, Carpaccio's details are simply delightful fragments of the life of his times, unfreighted with the concealed symbolism that frequently lurks in northern images, but the pairing reminds us that Venetians and northerners alike took pleasure in sharply focused glimpses of the particulars of their surroundings. The Italians may have had a codified method for creating illusionistic space on a flat surface (once Brunelleschi got mathematical linear perspective down pat), but they also realized that there was something to be learned from the empirical observations of the fiamminghi. The northerners excelled at celebrating details of the quotidian, just as they excelled at painting complicated panoramic landscapes full of distant crags, miniature towns, castles, shepherds, and men on horseback. The dazzling selection of works in the Drawing Cabinet makes northern influence on Venetian landscape imagery especially clear. In the gallery of interiors, seeing the van der Weyden-wannabe beside Lotto's eccentric Annunciation (c. 1533-35, Pinacoteca Civica, Recanati)--the one with the diving God the Father, the rhetorical angel Gabriel, and one of the least convincing cats in the history of art--makes even these essentially disparate works' similarities of spirit unmistakable.

What exactly are those similarities? A taste for the irregular, the disjunctive, and the unexpected, as well as the meticulously detailed--characteristics markedly unlike the ample, harmonious forms and rational geometric structures bathed in detail-suppressing light that we associate with Venetian painting of the cinquecento: the maniera moderna of Giorgione and the artists, like Titian, Veronese, and their colleagues, who adopted this new approach. But any suspicion that this taste for the complicated and the intricate was limited to northerners is quickly dispelled in the first part of the Palazzo Grassi show not only by suggestive pairings like that of the Lotto and the van der Weyden-follower, but also by groupings of closely related works by the young Giovanni Bellini, Andrea Mantegna, and Durer that emphasize the persistence of this "un-Venetian" quality among Venetian artists. The dry, incisive line of Mantegna, the compression of his often aggressively cropped compositions, and the general tightness of his pictures look less idiosyncratic when they are seen beside a Durer, just as Lotto's pictures look less like oddball Italian pictures (or possibly not quite successful maniera moderna pictures) when they are seen in a northern context.

Yet in the end, even the most apparently crabbed Venetian picture proves less cranky, less gnarled than even the most "Italianate" Durer--suggesting, perhaps, that the Venetian maniera moderna was an inescapable regional "will to form." A unifying play of light and a subtle orchestration of color harmonize the complexities of the most densely packed, wiry compositions of Mantegna or Bellini while, conversely, even Durer's most geometrically organized pictures are fragmented by his abrupt light shifts and staccato disposition of hues. The point is neatly made by pairing Cima da Conegliano's Christ Among the Doctors (1504-05, National Gallery, Warsaw) and a Durer of the same subject from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, painted two years later, during one of the German painter's sojourns in Italy. The catalogue tracks the intricacies of the histories of these pictures, much of which is apparently debatable, but the visual evidence is unequivocal. There are strong compositional and conceptual similarities between the two images, but Cima's figures, while crowded, claim believable amounts of space for themselves, their simplified, dense forms made even more geometric by golden light. Everything in the harmoniously proportioned, horizontal canvas centers on a Leonardoesque Christ who calmly ticks off points on his subtly modelled, pale hands. For all its similarity to the Cima, the Durer, by contrast, is jammed with grotesque figures whose positions in space and in relation to one another are ambiguous, at best. The young Christ is all but smothered by this unlovely crowd, while the tension of the moment is made emblematic in a knot of gnarly hands, front and center of the tight, square panel.

Eloquent as these juxtapositions of paintings are, the most explicit evidence of influence and reaction is to be found in the Drawing Cabinet. Obviously, the entire exhibition documents northern artists who travelled to Italy and Italians who went elsewhere, as well as pictures that crossed borders via commissions and collections. We can examine directly some of Titian's portraits of his Habsburg patrons, painted when he travelled to Augsburg, and German portraits that aspire to Titian's manner. We are shown influential works by Hieronymus Bosch brought to Venice in the cinquecento (and still in the collection of the Palazzo Ducale) and some characteristically northern types of pictures eagerly collected by Italians--including a sexy little allegory of the power of love (or lust)--placed side by side with Venetian painters' responses to these examples. But important as these direct encounters were, woodcuts and engravings were the chief source of information for artists (and many collectors) and in the Drawing Cabinet, we can see, through a marvelous selection of works, just how particular images exerted their influence.

The story becomes more complex when we realize that while printmaking, like the printing of text itself, was at first a northern specialty, Venice's rapid ascent as one of Europe's great publishing centers meant that it also became a great center for producing images of works of art, both as book illustrations and as ways of spreading information about paintings. Much of the material in the Drawing Cabinet removes the exhibition's thesis from the realm of informed speculation and returns questions of sequence and influence to the domain of hard evidence. This salutary dose of the factual (and of brilliant drawings) at mid-point doesn't weaken the impact of the inspired assemblies of pictures that follow.

The last section of the show explores the idea that as the cinquecento progressed, Venetian painters, having assimilated everything they could learn from their northern colleagues and having mastered the technique of using oil, set the standard for what painting could and should be--or more accurately, Titian, having assimilated everything he found useful from elsewhere, by force of the sheer excellence and inventiveness of his work (and, the catalogue implies, a keen grasp of self-promotion) became the model to whom ambitious cinquecento artists, both Venetian and northern, looked; some of them even passed through his studio.

This section is rich in gloriously assured canvases that under ordinary circumstances we'd have to travel halfway across Europe to see: Titian's enchanting Virgin with a Rabbit, c. 1530, from the Louvre, his opulent Flora, c. 1514-16, from the Uffizi, and his poignant Ecce Homo, c. 1560, from Dublin's National Gallery of Ireland; Tintoretto's dizzying Origin of the Milky Way, c. 1580, from the National Gallery, London; and a pair of large pastoral delights by Jacopo and Francesco Bassano, from the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum; plus a respectable number of important pictures from Kansas City, Toledo, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere in the United States.

The most spectacular room of the final section of the show brings together a remarkable array of voluptuous nudes by a textbook cross-section of German, Flemish, Venetian, and expatriate painters--Lucas Cranach the Elder, Jan van Scorel, Palma il Vecchio, Titian, lo Schiavone, and Lambert Sustris. All the pictures are apparently responses to a lost Giorgione--some (to complicate things) responses to the lost Giorgione filtered through Titian's powerful influence. In the work of the northerners and the Venetians alike, we can follow the persistence of Giorgione's propped-on-one-elbow reclining pose--the pose of Titian's celebrated Venuses, which Manet adapted for Olympia and Titian himself recycled for his Danaes--personalized in more or less suggestive ways. (A Death of Cleopatra attributed to van Scorel might alarm the prudish; no, nothing to do with the snake.) The works in the Drawing Cabinet enlarge the argument, but the paintings themselves offer proof of the role of engravings in transmitting influential images. We can follow the trail of right-left reversals and reversals created by the process of making engraved images of paintings, drawings from those engravings, and so on.

Perhaps the flashiest item at the Palazzo Grassi is a Carpaccio, or rather, two Carpaccios, described as "reunited after five centuries." A long research project has concluded that the Getty Collection's enigmatic landscape of the Venetian lagoon with men hunting from boats, problematic because of its atypical subject and an inexplicable, overscaled lily in the foreground, is really the top half of the Museo Correr's equally enigmatic painting of two women seated on a terrace surrounded by birds and dogs--a favorite of d'Annunzio's that Ruskin also declared to be "the best picture in the world." The watery hunting scene is now believed to be the view from the women's terrace; the lily fits neatly onto a stalk projecting from a vase on the balustrade, the space is plausible, and the wood of the two panels is identical. It has long been known that the Correr picture is a fragment--the left half is missing, which is why the larger dog looks like an iguana. The latest word is not only that the two panels belong together and that the Getty's panel is the earliest illustration of cormorants on the lagoon, but also that the picture is to be interpreted as a mother and daughter waiting for the men to return from hunting. Maybe that's why they look so bored.

The only bad thing about the Palazzo Grassi show (apart from the long lines on weekends) is that it won't travel. But it's a wonderful excuse to go to Venice this fall.

(1) "Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Bellini, Durer, Titian" opened at Palazzo Grassi in Venice on September 5, 1999 and remains on view until January 9, 2000. A catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Bernard Aikema and Beverly Louise Brown, has been published by Rizzoli (702 pages, $75).

Karen Wilkin's latest book is Isaac Witkin (Hudson Hills Press).
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Author:Wilkin, Karen
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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