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Masters of Venice @ de Young Museum

Andrea Mantegna, "Saint Sebastian", 1457-1459, tempera on panel
 
 Do you ever get that feeling that the world of contemporary art is nothing more than an endless blizzard of pretense and triviality? If you don’t, then you are probably not paying attention, but if you do, then you might want to fortify yourself with a vivid reminder of better things made in a better place at a better time. The time and place is the Venetian Republic of the late 15th and early-to-middle 16th century, and the better things are the collection of 50 Venetian paintings from that period that are included in Masters of Venice: Renaissance Paintings of Passion and Power at the de Young Museum until February 12. All of the works are on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and most came into that collection from the holdings of the Hapsburg Emperor Leopold II (1747-1792), an avid and judicious collector of Venetian art.
 
The late 15th and 16th centuries are often called the Venetian Golden Age, and were analogous to earlier developments in Florence during the 14th century. Both eras could be called renaissances (that being the French word for “rebirth”), but for somewhat different reasons on account of the fact that Venice was much more devastated by the Black Plague of 1348-51 than any other city in Europe. In the case of Florence, what was reborn was the conquest of pictorial space enacted under the terms of a precise perspectival system that allowed Aristotelian flesh to be placed on the Christian/Platonic ideal of a universal theocentric order. In Venice, what was reborn was the classical idea of the autonomous secular subject, this owing much to the fact that Venice was the first modern principality in Europe to adapt a systematic political separation of church and state, and also to that city’s status as a cosmopolitan crossroads between southern Italy, northern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. While Spain, Portugal, England and France sought colonial possession in Africa and the Americas, Venetian war fleets extended their influence eastward, focusing on profitable trade rather than territorial acquisition, enriching their city in the bargain. Indeed, during its golden era, Venice was both a mercantile and maritime empire that perfectly balanced the seemingly contradictory demands of church and state. Even though its political decision-making apparatus was more-or-less free of priestly interference, it also had and continues to have more churches per square mile than any other city in the world.
 
Of the 50 works in this exhibition, only 13 address ecclesiastical themes, and only one of these rises to the status of a showstopper. That painting is Andrea Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian (1459), and despite its tiny size, it is a breathtaking gem of high renaissance figuration that beautifully inflects a martyr’s suffering with a noble pathos. Truth be told, Mantegna lived most of his life in Mantua and not Venice, but since he was born near Padua and related to the family of Giovanni Bellini by marriage, the welcome addition of his work to this exhibition is given some thematic legitimacy. It also offers a valuable point of contrast, in that its crisp classical composure is so distinctly different from the sumptuous atmospherics and rich painterly luster of the latter Venetian painters.
 
Titian, “Danaë”, ca. 1560, oil on canvas
On the subject of painterly luster, this show features two reclining female nudes by Titian, each of which draws out the psychological equation of oil paint with flesh that has always lurked amidst the history of painting. They are Danäe (1554) and Nymph and Shepherd painted in 1575 near the end of the master’s long life.  Both feature figures with alabaster skin tones that are almost incandescent in their inner illumination, made up of translucent layers of multiple colors. The figures portrayed are comfortable with their own incarnation, at once confident of their status as objects contained within the space of their pictorial compositions and also as subjects that neither resist nor plead with the viewer.  All bespeak a uniquely Venetian ideal of beauty that was luxuriant, carnal and worldly, celebrated at a time when the tensions between the protestant north and counter-reformation south of Europe had started to create ideological imperatives that would soon poison most of the art of made in other parts of Europe.  No painter would come close to painting the female nude with as much elegance and conviction as did Titian for the next 100 years, and even then, when Rubens arrived on the scene, the results were relatively clownish.
 
Titian, "Portrait of Johann Frederich Elector of Saxony", ca.1548-1551
There are 25 portraits in this exhibition, and their sitters comprise a remarkable cast of characters that seem much larger than life. For example, in Tintoretto’s 1571 picture titled Portrait of Sebastiano Vernier (and the Battle of Lepanto), we see a no-nonsense military commander posed against a battle scene commemorating the decisive defeat of the Turkish navy in that fateful year, while Titian gives us the telling image of the avaricious merchant in his Portrait of Jacopo Strada (1568). There are several paintings that portray dignified ladies wearing fine and elaborate garments, the most amazing of which is Titian’s Portrait of Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (1536). As a display of virtuoso painting skill, this work is beyond stunning, especially in the areas where Titian lingers on the details of lace and fabric, making a seemingly impossible task of descriptive representation look easy and graceful. In his Portrait of of Johann Fredrich, Elector of Saxony (1551), we are given evidence of German-speaking political emissaries in elite Venetian social circles, this one a corpulent and suspicious looking character who actually did some hard time in the ducal dungeon. And, as a reminder that several works by Veronese are also included here, I’d recommend you look closely at his portrait of Lucretia (1582), a sumptuous feast of undulating surfaces that fold in and out of the garments worn by the legendary woman of suicidal virtue.
 
Again, what comes into view is the perfect pictorial synthesis of an actual person with the type that he or she is supposed to represent. None of them face the void of mortality in the way that Rembrandt did in his late self-portraits, but then again, none of them are the passive and placid objects of blithe adoration that we see in Florentine portraits from the late 15th and 16th century. Instead, they meet and blend both of these portrait traditions at an ideal half-way point that reveal complex human purposes that have much to say about the emerging social dynamics of a changing world. Make no mistake, in this collection of Venetian portraits, we see representations of people who are very much actors in their world of vastly expanded horizons. They gained their identity from their participation in marketplace of social positions rather than from any divine mandate, giving them fascinating backstories that make them rich and vivid in appearance and personality.
 
Giorgione, "Youth with an Arrow", ca. 1508-1510, oil on panel
It is worth noting that this exhibition contains at least four (and possibly five) paintings by the artist known as Giorgione of Castelfranco (as he was proclaimed by Giorgio Vassari) or just Giorgione, that being the first of many Venetian stage names for painters who at that time were as adored as movie stars are in our own day. Given that there was a major exhibition including several works by Giorgione in 2006 at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., I would say that the odds of seeing this many of his works in one room of any museum in North America in the foreseeable future are almost nil, so this fact alone confirms this exhibition as an art historical landmark. 
 
Giorgione is an historical enigma, and as befits such a mystery-shrouded figure, he was and still is well known for painting enigmatic pictures.  There is much speculation about the extent to which he and his master Giovanni Bellini might have been influenced by Leonardo Di Vinci’s use of layered atmospheric colorations, and, given the facts that Leonardo was in Milan from 1482 to 1499, and that Bellini competed with Leonardo for commissions during those years, and finally, that Leonardo had in fact visited Venice in 1500, the case for influence is certainly very plausible. This exhibition contains one painting by Giorgione that seems to confirm that influence: the stunning Portrait of a Youth with an Arrow (1505), a work that seems a very close cousin to the older artist’s works titled Bacchus and St. John the Baptist. But pay heed (!)—both the Leonardo Bacchus and St. John were painted after 1512, well after the completion of the aforementioned Giorgione portrait—suggesting that, in the case of these two artists, the anxiety of influence might have been a two-way street. The fact that Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa and the famous Virgin with St. Anne of Freudian monograph fame after his visit to Venice also prompts one of those moments of head scratching in the face of a thickening art historical plot.

Even more enigmatic is the best work in the entire exhibition. It was painted by Giorgione from 1506 to 1508, just after the completion of his most famous work titled The Tempest. It is titled The Three Philosophers, and it is a treasure trove of painterly subtly and pictorial sophistication. It shows three male figures standing in a landscape next to a dark embankment of earth that might be taken as a shallow cave. The youngest of the trio sits closest to the cave and stares upward with a fool’s amazement, while the oldest stands furthest from the cave, clutching a parchment that seems to be covered with astrological inscriptions. Between the two of them is a man of middle age clothed in red and blue, wearing a turban. He seems to be reaching behind the older figure, but look closely, and you can see that he is also taking a step in the opposite direction, toward the cave. Behind them is a twilit landscape that surrounds a small monastery comfortably nestled in a distant valley.
 
Giorgione, "The Three Philosophers", ca. 1508-1509, oil on canvas
 
The scholarly debate about this painting is almost as fascinating as that pertaining to The Tempest, and is equally inconclusive. At one point, it was believed to be a portrayal of the Holy Magi on their way to Bethlehem, a rather silly interpretation that read way too much into the fact that the central figure is capped by a turban, a common non-denominational headgear at the turn of the 16th century. If this was true, why is there no baby Jesus in the cave? What theological misadventure could possibly account for this pointed absence?
 
The more recent view of the painting seems much more plausible, but is still problematic. It assumes that the three figures are representations of three pre-Socratic philosophers, the seated figure being Pythagoras (he clings to a small framing square as if it were a magical talisman), the central figure being Pherecydes of Syros and the older figure, cloaked in what might seem to be a Franciscan frock covered by a shimmering yellow blanket, being a representation of Thales. Together, they are said to be the founding fathers of ancient philosophy, a pictorial theme that would have appealed to the widespread thirst for Classical knowledge that was felt throughout Italy during those years leading up to the tumultuous schism between protestant reformers and the mother church. The only problem with this theory is that Giorgione would never have been so obviously literal, especially when deeper and more subtle purposes could be achieved.
 
Veronese, "Lucretia"., ca. 1580-1583, oil on canvas
 A better way to approach the painting is to view the trio of figures not as a representation of actual philosophers, but rather, as allegorical representations of the three foundational questions of philosophy: 1) What is the world made of? (i.e. natural science, represented by the seated figure); 2) What is the nature of consciousness of the world? (psychology, represented by the wise old man standing at the right side of the composition); and 3) What should be done with the knowledge gained from the pursuit of the first two questions? (ethics, represented by the central figure).  The puzzle grows more complex when we read the monastery and the shallow cave as philosophical figures that complete the story of the painting. For complex reasons, the figures have departed from the comfortable monastery (representing the medieval order) and have come to face the cave of ultimate unknowability.  Its depth is uncertain, but it serves as an ominous specter of womb and tomb, looking much like the traditional Renaissance representation of the site of Christ’s entombment and subsequent resurrection. The framing square held by the seated figure is clearly a feeble and paltry instrument for gaining the knowledge required by the painting (geometry being a cowardly alternative to geomancy), and the figure holding the parchment seems obviously fearful of what lurks within, as no amount of self-knowledge can overcome the terror of the void. Only the man of ethical action seems up to the challenge of confronting the dark space of non-differentiation, and even he proceeds with judicious care, reaching back to the older figure for the self-knowledge necessary for courageous forward motion.
 
But, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a cave is just a cave (or not even a cave) and Giorgione brilliantly plays that angle as well, by portraying it as a shallow embankment that for a brief moment might have looked like a cave. But before we start laughing too hard at the subtle philosophical trick that Giorgione has played on his trio of wise men, I would direct your attention to a small pile of rocks situated at the lower left corner of the composition. Do they not look just a little bit like a formidable hump-backed serpent? It may not be a dragon worthy of Saint George, but is a clever reminder of the specter of peril that lurks in the shadows of the philosophical enterprise, especially when that enterprise contemplates a void that is not really a void. As to the perils of the artistic enterprise, Giorgione gives us a very different answer: radiance and range of color, rich variation of soft and crisp edge and an intoxicating dose of dreamy atmospherics, all stirred with a stunning masterly touch.
–MARK VAN PROYEN
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"Masters of Venice: Renaissance Paintings of Passion and Power " @ the de Young Museum through February. 12, 2012.
 
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen is Chair of the Painting Department of the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a corresponding editor for Art in America, and his critical writings have appeared in many publications, including Art Criticism, Artweek and Art Issues. He is currently working on a novel titled Theda’s Island, the story of which is set in the art world.

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