Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 31, 2001
Paul Hills Venetian Colour: Marble, Mosaic, Painting and Glass 1250–1550 Yale University Press, 1998. 248 pp.; 239 color ills.; 15 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0300081359)

Paul Hills’s book deals with the aesthetics of color and its social history in Venice. These two ostensibly diverse agendas are interwoven through the author’s examination of the cognitive skills of the patronal classes (Hills owes a great deal to Michael Baxandall’s concept of the “period eye”), and the materials and processes involved in fashioning the visual environment of the city. As the title informs us, Hills deals with color in marble, mosaic, and glass in addition to painting. He also considers the role of color in architectural decoration, in textiles, and the significance of the restriction of color in printing and printmaking. These materials, objects (mostly luxury “goods”), and the environment of the city—both natural and constructed—are used by Hills to define a uniquely Venetian aesthetic. An intelligent consideration of the relationships between various media is most welcome, and will hopefully inspire more interdisciplinary treatments of the city’s artisanal, manufacturing, and mercantile culture. Make no mistake, however, that this is a book about painting, and about painting during what Hills, and most students of Venetian art history, consider to be its “golden age”: the later 15th and 16th centuries. Hills concentrates on the works of the two greatest definers of Venetian color in painting: Giovanni Bellini and Titian, with a well-deserved nod to Giorgione. That much is not new, but the author’s setting of paintings within a broader Venetian aesthetic and his perceptive analysis of how these painters painted, make for exceptional reading.

Chapter 1 sets the stage by examining Venice’s unique site: an intensely urban fabric rising out of the lagoon, enveloped by the capricious and insubstantial atmosphere of the sea, and causing, as Hills observes, “the blurring of the distinctions between art and nature” (21). Perhaps the universal truism of undergraduate art history courses about Venetian painting is that the environment “influenced” the painters. Hills transforms this truism into a profound series of observations, and he begins in this first chapter to draw connections with future developments in painting. His insightful eye and articulate, often poetic language, have rarely been matched in the voluminous literature aimed at catching the city’s “essence” that has been produced over the last two centuries.

A major contributor to the visual effect of the city’s environment is of course the church of San Marco, the subject of Chapter 2. Hills begins with two lengthy quotations from one of his most distinguished intellectual ancestors, the critic John Ruskin, and proceeds to confirm the central position of San Marco in his definition of a Venetian aesthetic. He discusses not only the famous mosaics, but also the floors and the marble revetment; the latter described felicitously as “great butterfly wings” (40) opening in symmetrical pairings along the walls. There is more to Hills’s consideration of the mosaics than the glittering, unreal light emanating from the gold settings. His analysis of color juxtapositions and the placement of the tesserae are ingenious and persuasive of his claim that the mosaics “set the tenor for the painterly achievements of Venetian colour in the sixteenth century.” Just as there is more to the mosaics than gold, so there is more to late medieval polychromy than gold and blue, as we discover in Chapter 3. Hills explores the implications of the use of saturated blue, and equally saturated reds, along with gold in architecture and sculpture, including novel ideas about such over-looked items as terrazzo flooring.

Hills moves easily, and sometimes without much warning, among social and intellectual history, the history of optics and visual perception (a subject about which he is especially well-versed thanks to his earlier book, The Light in Early Italian Painting), and the history of art—the latter broadly defined to include approaches as diverse as Theodor Hetzer, Julia Kristeva, and Svetlana Alpers (to name only a few). Chapter 4 begins with a discussion of northern Italian humanist ideas about form and color, providing an intellectual grounding very much, again, in the manner of Baxandall. Typically, the discussion becomes more interesting as Hills moves the reader from the humanists to their illuminated manuscripts (and printed books), where he undertakes a novel reevaluation of how manuscript painting during the later 15th century gave color a larger role in the expressive technique of painters.

One of the many strengths of this book is the author’s interest in the materials, techniques, and expressive potential of media other than paint. Two of his most stimulating and evocative chapters deal with glass and glass making, and textiles and dyeing (Chapters 5 and 8 respectively). The consideration of glass making rightly comes first—as the most innovative period for that industry begins ca. 1450—while changes in the production, consumption, and appearance of textiles continue to be relevant farther into the following century. At this point, the presentation has begun to move chronologically out of the later Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, although Hills wisely refrains from worrying about periodization. The parallels between glass and paint are striking at every level: the experimentation and innovation in the glass industry during the same period that Giovanni Bellini and the Vivarini are transforming the craft of painting; the manipulation of color and light through transparency, reflectivity, and opacity in glass just as Bellini and his peers are exploring the potentiality of the oil technique, especially through glazing; and the remarkable visual similarity between luxury glass objects and completed pictures. The juxtaposition of a late 15th-century Venetian glass beaker in chalcedony glass and Bellini’s Agony in the Garden (ca. 1464-65, National Gallery of Art, London), is a stunning tour de force in a book full of striking visual imagery. The Yale University Press is to be congratulated for surpassing even its usual high standard in the production of this volume.

Hills dedicates Chapters 6 and 7 to the works of Giovanni Bellini (early 1430s-1516). He considers Bellini’s exploration of color and light a major contribution to what he will conclude is the “relational,” “optical,” and “affective” color that characterizes Venetian painting in the 16th century. He has looked long and hard at Bellini’s paintings, and the reader is rewarded with many original and insightful observations. I know of no work on Bellini in English that defines so eloquently why Bellini is a Venetian. Hills makes intelligent use of recent conservation information as he discusses Bellini’s exploration of the oil technique and canvas supports. His discussion of Bellini’s avoidance of bright yellow is fascinating in itself, but even more so when he posits a connection between the painter’s use of substitute browns, tans (and muted purples) and the contemporary icons imported to Venice from Crete—the only type of painting, incidentally, that was specifically exempted from the guild’s protectionist import restrictions in the 15th century (a fact not mentioned by Hills). The rise of a new visual culture based on black and white—linked to a significant degree with the rapid establishment of the printing industry in Venice—and its intersection with a new taste for white in painting, glass, and luxury textiles is just one of many other suggestive points inspired by Hills’s wide-ranging inquiry into the visual environment of Bellini’s Venice.

Chapter 8 on textiles and dyeing completes the set of four that brings the reader into the early 16th century where the late career of Bellini overlaps with the younger Titian and Giorgione. In some of the most interesting passages of the book, Hills associates the colors and textures of luxury fabrics, the cognitive skills of the producers and consumers of fabrics, and the painters’ evolving exploration of the oil medium to render materiality in novel ways. Titian’s particular mastery of white, black, and grey—all colors that achieve unprecedented expressive value in the 16th century—is related to the importance of those colors in Venetian society, especially with regard to clothing. The social history of color is a fascinating subject that deserves a great deal more attention. Hills indeed makes a significant contribution, acknowledging along the way the importance of the work of John Gage, although, surprisingly, he seems not to have consulted the work of Michel Pastoureau.

The title of Hills’ last chapter, “The Triumph of Tone and Macchia,” places the apex of painterly achievement in the 16th century, and the discussion focuses even more specifically on Titian. For all of his interest in Titian’s painting technique, Hills is careful not to freight the oil medium with all of the responsibility for a tonal, “painterly” handling of color. Here again he turns to the previously-mentioned culture of black and white, especially to the contributions of printmaking. By 1550, the expression and perception of color has completed its transition from a medieval craft material to “an essential force of nature.” Hills insists throughout on the existence of a uniquely Venetian aesthetic and its difference from that of central Italy (although he is careful to make disclaimers in certain areas). Claims of difference from the rest of the Italian peninsula are well established in the historiography of Venice’s identity, and are easy to overstate. Hills comes closer to articulating a real sense of what makes painting in Venice unlike painting anywhere else, first because he makes a convincing case for the centrality of color, and second because he investigates the roles that color plays in Venetian society at once more broadly and more deeply than any scholar before him.

For all of its grounding in historical scholarship, this is a very personal and idiosyncratic book. This is an observation that is intended overwhelmingly as praise, although the reader should be prepared for chapters that read as independent essays and sometimes as meditations constructed according to the fancy of the author’s interest and imagination. Hills brings an unusual if not unique set of qualifications to his project, as a painter, art critic, long-time visitor to Venice, and an art historian who has consistently asked more interesting questions of the field than most of his peers. Venetian Colour is a feast for the eye and the intellect that should not be missed.

Louisa C. Matthew
Department of Visual Arts, Union College