Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 24, 2007
Diana Gisolfi "Rediscovering Venetian Painting"
Symposium. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. September 16–17, 2006
College Art Association.
Image: Giorgione. Portrait of a Woman (“Laura”). 1506. Canvas mounted on panel. 41 x 33.6 cm. (16 1/8 x 13 1/4 in.) © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Rediscovering Venetian Renaissance Painting was the closing event of several associated with the exhibition Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, June 18–September 17, 2006. Previous events included a Robert H. Smith Curatorial/Conservation Colloquy entitled Venetian Underdrawing at the National Gallery’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts. Among the participants were Paolo Spezzani, X-ray and infrared specialist from Venice; Jill Dunkerton, conservator from London National Gallery; Barbara Berrie and Elizabeth Walmsley of the Washington National Gallery; and Carmen Bambach, curator of the Metropolitan Museum Drawing Department. On September 10 Juergen Schulz and Deborah Howard delivered public lectures at the National Gallery on the Barbari map of Venice, and on September 15 the Italian Embassy held an all-day conference on Italian history.

Curator David Alan Brown opened the Rediscovering Venetian Renaissance Painting symposium Saturday morning, expressing the hope that it would build from and expand the material of the show itself. He articulated the guiding concept of the exhibition and its installation: to focus on a 30-year period, 1500–30, and to organize the material thematically in order to see relationships among contemporary artists and works. The talks that followed Brown’s introduction both used the exhibition and carried the discussion in various directions not addressed directly in the show.

Nicholas Penny’s presentation was incisive and provocative, noting the several unsettled attributions and various significant problems of condition. Among the latter is the state of Giorgione’s Tramonte, repainted and restored “in cunning ways” so that only the tail is original in the small figures of St. George and the Dragon, while the odd creature in the lower right was originally just a rock. Penny considers the frame of Giorgione’s La Vecchia not to be original, and he reminded listeners that Augusto Gentile had pointed out that the text was added. The scroll in this painting is not really held by the old woman, but is tucked behind her hand, indicating an early addition.

Monica Schmitter’s talk, “Quadro da Portego,” looked at the custom and significance of pictures hung in the main interior display space of the patrician palazzo. Inventories over the Cinquecento indicate increasing display of paintings in the Venetian palace portico. Giorgione’s Three Philosophers (which has been cropped by seven inches on the left and must represent three natural philosophers) was one of four paintings in the Contarini portico, 1525–56, where three large tables accommodated feasts. Subjects of pictures recorded as once hanging in porticos include: St. Christopher, maps, battle scenes, Supper at Emmaus, Prodigal Son, Christ and Samaritan Woman, Clemency of Scipio, Conversion of Paul, and St. Jerome. Portraits, the four seasons, and landscapes are increasingly recorded for this location.

Stanley Chojnacki’s paper, “Spheres of Women,” approached its topic mainly through the study of wills. In 1506 the Libro d’Oro listed births of male patricians within eight days and recorded the names of both parents, suggesting new emphasis on the female line. In 1505 dowries were limited to no more than 3,000 ducats and were required to be reported in marriage contracts. The mother of the bride often provided the dowry. Wives’ wills most commonly named a birth family member as executor, while most husbands (who typically were older) named their wives as executors. Both civil and church courts protected the honor and property of married women. Dowries were restituted to the widow upon the death of her husband; the wife also had the right to bequeath her dowry. Patrician women were, then, not without power, wealth, and rights.

David Rosand opened the Saturday afternoon session with an eloquent meditation on key Venetian paintings of ca. 1500–10, titled “The Moment of Giorgione.” Citing various previous scholars and early sources, he associated the mood of the Concert Champetre with the defeat of Venice by the League of Cambrai on May 9, 1509, and the sad sight of dispossessed peasants from the Veneto entering Venice as refuges.

Frank Fehrenbach, in “‘Calor/Color’: The Topos of the ‘Living Image,’” addressed Venetian painting in terms of color theory. Mentioning Vasari, Aretino, Lomazzo, and Pino, he focused on ideas concerning relationships of colors (unione de’ colori) as creating “tempered vivacità” and a play on the words calore and colore. Parallel ideas concerning human generation and artistic creation were connected with Francesco Sansovino’s L’Edificio del corpo umano (1550) and with the knowledge of Galen, Aristotle, and Vesalius in Padua and Venice.

Stephen Campbell delivered a paper entitled “Myth, Science, and Philosophical Painting (1500–20).” Citing Lucretius as a source, he presented images of nature not just as landscape but as a Saturn based on a river god from an antique gem, a nude reclining in a landscape (prints by Campagnola), a nursing woman in a landscape, and drawings of figures in a landscape by young Titian. The Louvre Concert was seen as presenting the central male figures and the framing nude females as separate, with the women associated with nature.

On Sunday, Paul Joannides began the symposium with his presentation, “Titian, Giorgione, and the Mysteries of Paris.” Suggesting that a text on Paris and Oenone must have been available around 1500 in Venice, Joannides showed engravings of the pair, and he noted that Michiel says Contarini owned a Judgement of Paris and an Aeneas, both by Giorgione. These could have been pendants, as both subjects concerned Trojans. Other depictions from the time are known through mentions or copies: Andrea Vendramin owned a Favola di Parride. Finally, Joannides revived the earlier idea that Giorgione’s Tempesta represents the Nurture of Paris, thus making the background city Troy and the lightning impending doom.

Miguel Falomir of the Prado spoke on “Titian’s Virgin and Child with Saints Roch and Anthony of Padua” in Madrid. Falomir considered the history of attributions for this work and its provenance before addressing the technical evidence. The infrared image of the painting shows an underdrawing done with brush; this drawing is generally abbreviated, but with some parallel hatching (as in Giovanni Bellini’s underdrawings) in the fold of the mantle, suggesting a very early date. The painting appears to be unfinished in parts: the mantle (later overpainted) was executed in azurite over white, but the expected layer of ultramarine is lacking.

Jean Habert of the Louvre presented under the title “New Findings on Titian’s Concert Champetre.” Habert reviewed the debated attribution between Giorgione and Titian since 1802, the painting’s provenance, and various interpretations. X-rays known since 1949, and redone in 2005, show a change in the posture of the woman on the left. An infrared reflectograph of 1993 reveals that squaring was used in making this pentimento. Underdrawings revealed in infrared show a pentimento in the lutist: the lute originally rested on his left knee. Habert noted that the lutist’s hat resembles that of Titian’s portrait of a young man at the Frick. The canvas was enlarged at the top and was “slightly slanted” in relining.

The closing panel was composed of Peter Humphrey, Mauro Lucco, Jaynie Anderson, David Alan Brown, Silvia Ferino Pagden, and Salvator Settis. Humphrey discussed the choice of sacred images in the exhibition. Lucco observed that in Venice cycles of sacred narratives on large canvases begin around 1500 and that sacred histories merge with pastoral landscapes in Venetian painting. Anderson considered the allegories and mythologies. She maintains an attribution to Giorgione for the Concert Champetre, seeing the infrared-revealed underdrawings as similar to those of the Alendale Nativity. (The latter, now assigned to Giorgione, is also a disputed attribution: Sydney Freedberg saw it as by the young Titian.) Ferino Pagden, co-curator of the Rediscovering Venetian Renaissance Painting exhibition, offered a preview of the Vienna installation. Instead of the five rooms in Washington, the Vienna site will have three large rooms dedicated to, respectively, sacred images, mythologies/allegories, and portraits of men and women hung opposite each other. The Andreans will be replaced by the Worship of Venus, so again two paintings from the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este will hang together. The Alendale Nativity will hang near Giorgione’s Three Philosophers, along with infrared images of both. Instead of Giorgione’s La Vecchia, Titian’s La Schiavone will hang with the portraits. A seminar on drawing accompanies the opening of the exhibit in October.

Salvatore Settis provided a brilliant wrap-up to both the conference and the show. Due to travel risks to works and the danger of mostrismo (excess of shows), he holds that exhibitions must meet the standard of offering significant growth in knowledge and understanding both to scholars and to the public. Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting meets such criteria in its highly selective, focused, and thoughtful character. The thematic sequence may reflect the love of Cinquecento culture for confronti: Vecchia with belle; Andreans with Feast of the Gods, Three Philosophers with Concert Champetre. In noting these pairings, Settis posits conventions of rhetoric as an important part of the Venetian Renaissance cultural ambiance. The show’s arrangement reconfigures questions of attribution and iconography. Attributions and themes cross over. Pastoral themes include myth or sacred story. Titian completes a Giorgione and/or works in his manner. Finally, with Sebastiano del Piombo, these painters practice a “stile soprapersonale.”

Before and during the conference, attendees continued to return to the exhibition individually and in small groups to review and reconsider the works. The timing of the symposium during the last two days of the exhibition helped create an intensely interactive atmosphere.

Diana Gisolfi
Professor, Department of Art History, Pratt Institute