Each part of Italy has its own character, but Venice has always been something special and unique. While much of Italy was reduced to insignificant statelets, for much of the peninsula’s history Venice was quite the reverse. It projected power far across the Mediterranean and ran a large commercial empire that brought it into close contact both with northern Europe and parts of Asia.
Not surprisingly, this difference is reflected in its cultural and artistic traditions, something that can be seen at “Venetian Renaissance Painting: From the Galleria Dell’Accademia, Venice,” the exhibition now on at the National Art Center, Tokyo.
The exhibition focuses on the highpoint of power and artistic prowess — two things that, interestingly, so often seem to go together. For Venice, this occurred from the 15th to the 17th century. There is a total of 57 paintings, many of them large, including works by such Old Masters as Giovanni Bellini, Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Jacopo Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese.
While the Japanese art public is familiar with exhibitions focusing on Florence, Rome or occasionally another Italian city, an exhibition on this scale focusing on Venetian art is, according to the organizers, unprecedented here.
While there is much that may seem familiar to visitors of the “typical” Renaissance art exhibition — religious and mythological scenes, architectural backdrops, somber portraits — Venetian art is distinguished by its richer coloring, more dynamic brushwork and often wildly innovative approach.
In its early days, Venetian art looked to Florence for tutelage. This can be partly seen in the work of Bellini, whose clean lines, serene atmosphere and interest in perspective and architecture call to mind Florentine models.
Often considered the first great Venetian painter, Bellini famously once traveled to Constantinople to paint the portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, the Ottoman monarch who conquered that great city and in the process extinguished the ancient Byzantine Empire. He also played a key role in establishing oil painting as the dominant medium of painting, preferring it to the previously popular tempera because it gave artists greater scope in manipulating color.
In this exhibition, Bellini is represented by “The Virgin and the Child (The Madonna of the Red Cherubs)” (1485-90), a votive image, namely a painting commissioned by a patron to fulfil a religious vow. Such works were very common and often featured the same subject matter, with the Madonna and child being especially popular. Yet Bellini has managed to make this work stand out by coloring the small angelic cherubim a vivid red. These seem to draw the Christ Child’s gaze, so that, instead of being a mere child simply looking at his mother, he appears to be looking beyond to the celestial plane, hinting at an awareness of his divine role.
While Florentine art emphasized line, a technique known as disegno (design), Venetian art came to be increasingly identified with a focus on colorito (color). Some explanations of this difference have theorized the fact that Venice was surrounded by water and that the way this refracted light made artists more sensitive to the power of color. Others have cited the glittering Byzantine-style mosaics and atmospheric lighting in St. Mark’s Basilica, the great cathedral that still dominates the city. Whatever the reason, Venetian artists’ profound interest in light and color was so much so that painting conservers have even found that artists added ground-up glass to their pigments in order to better reflect light.
A key painter in establishing this primacy of color over line was Paolo Veronese. Famous for his rich but harmonious coloring, he is represented here by a few paintings, including “The Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto” (c. 1572-3), an innovative composition that implies a synergy between the will of heaven and the triumph of the Christian forces engaged in battle with the Ottoman navy.
Veronese’s paintings are strong on disegno, but other Venetian artists, such as Titian and Tintoretto, veered more heavily toward colorito, with the emphasis on color rather than design helping to liberate the artists in terms of composition, and leading to more dynamic works. Examples of this include Tintoretto’s “The Assumption of the Virgin” (1550), with its swirling, vertical composition, and his “Creation of the Animals” (1550-53), where we see God — a comparatively frequent presence in Venetian paintings — virtually throwing bird, fish, and other animal species into the new world.
The epitome of Venetian colorito was undoubtedly Titian, whose painting “The Annunciation” (c. 1563-65) shows a freedom in handling light and color effects that would seldom be seen again until the 19th century. The dynamism and energy in this work call to mind the energy and enterprise that lay at the heart of the Venetian state.
“Venetian Renaissance Painting: From the Galleria Dell’Accademia, Venice” at the National Art Center, Tokyo, runs until Oct. 10; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. and Aug. 10, 20 until 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Tue. except Aug. 16. www.nact.jp