Despite ommissions, the sheer diversity of Venetian approaches to landscape painting is illuminated in this show, writes Peter Humfrey
Peter Humfrey, Tuesday, 1st May 2012
Tiziano e la Nascita del Paesaggio Moderno
16 February–20 May 2012
Palazzo Reale, Milan
Catalogue by Mauro Lucco
ISBN 9788809776173 (paperback) €42 (Giunti)
This exhibition celebrates the central contribution made by Venetian artists to the history of European landscape painting in the 16th century. The display and very well-illustrated catalogue are intended to trace the chronological development of Venetian landscape, but in his introductory essay and in the wall texts the organiser, Mauro Lucco, has also illuminatingly identified a number of distinct, although overlapping, themes. Inevitably, many key masterpieces are absent; Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in the Desert (c. 1480; the Frick Collection), Giorgione’s The Tempest (c. 1505; Gallerie dell’Accademia) and Titian’s Concert Champêtre (c. 1511; Musée du Louvre) are just a few of the desiderata that are impossible to borrow. Present nonetheless in the exhibition are other important works by all these painters, as well as works by only slightly lesser contemporaries such as Cima, Cariani, Palma Vecchio, Bonifacio, Lorenzo Lotto and Lambert Sustris. The exhibition also offers the opportunity to see interesting and relevant paintings borrowed from as far afield as the US cities of Minneapolis, Houston, Coral Gables and Norfolk. Altogether there are 45 works (including some landscape drawings) on display, five of which are by Titian, the dominant figure of the period in the depiction of landscape as in all other aspects of Venetian painting.
The show opens with Bellini’s exquisite and flawlessly preserved Crucifixion (c. 1480) from the Cassa di Risparmio di Prato. Characteristic of the painter is the way in which the already extensive landscape background is both rendered with a quasi-Flemish meticulousness of finish and attention to detail and used as a poetic complement to the religious message of the foreground. The world of nature is combined with references to human activity and a townscape that includes a number of identifiable buildings from the Italian cities of Vicenza, Venice and Ancona. Background topography then becomes even more precise in the work of Bellini’s younger contemporary Cima, who in different pictures provides accurate views of the citadel of his native Conegliano from different vantage points. In another work in the Bellinesque tradition, Marco Basaiti’s jewel-like St Catherine of Alexandria (c. 1495–97; Fig. 1), the vignette from everyday life beyond the saint shows a farm with neatly fenced-in plots of ground and a washing-line laden with clothes.
Among the next generation of artists the landscape becomes both more secular and more idealised, with figures often smaller and more fully absorbed into it. In the first two decades of the 16th century Venetian painting is pervaded with the spirit of Arcadia, in which nature remains benign, but is also tinged with a mood of melancholy nostalgia. This is a world of nymphs, satyrs and shepherds, in which the emotionally touching but transient art of music serves as a metaphor for erotic longing. In the absence of the Concert Champêtre, this phase is represented by Cariani’s Musicians (c. 1517; Accademia Carrara), a Giorgionesque Allegory (c. 1510; Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation), and by a very important loan from Dresden, Palma’s Nymph in a Landscape (c. 1518–20; Fig. 4). In his entry on the latter, Michele Danieli persuasively identifies the subject as the ‘Nymph of the Fountain’, a figure that had previously appeared in the widely read antiquarian fantasy, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499). But pastoral landscapes could, of course, accompany religious subjects with equal appropriateness, especially if they involved shepherds, as in the case of the Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1510–11) from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. This altarpiece, originally from Belluno, has traditionally been attributed to Titian’s much less talented brother Francesco Vecellio; but as Lucco points out, it is notably superior to Francesco’s other efforts, and
there is a strong argument for regarding the composition as by Titian himself, and for seeing his hand in the more fluent passages.
If in recent years Titian rather than Giorgione has often come to be seen as the guiding spirit behind the Arcadian mode, Giorgione was certainly a pioneer in introducing ‘special effects’ into landscape painting, such as thunderstorms, moonlight and conflagration. The ‘large canvas in oil of Hell with Aeneas and Anchises’ by Giorgione, recorded by Marcantonio Michiel in the house of Taddeo Contarini in 1525, almost certainly showed a dark landscape dramatically illuminated by flames and smoke, as is reflected here in Titian’s Orpheus and Euridice (c. 1510–15; Accademia Carrara) and in the scenes of Lot and His Daughters by Bonifacio (c. 1520) and Cariani (c. 1525), both of which show the cataclysmic destruction by fire of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the background. In another work by Cariani, the Woman in a Landscape (c. 1510; Staatliche Museen), the reclining semi-nude anticipates Palma’s Nymph, but behind her, instead of an idyllic pastoral landscape, unfold scenes of thunder and lightning, flooding, and a city on fire, made even more terrifying by the arrival in the right background of a troop of Turkish invaders. Less hostile, but equally spectacular, are the glowing red sunsets introduced by Titian into his Orpheus and Euridice and Tobias and the Angel (c. 1512–14; Fig. 3) and the evocative sunrise by Palma in his Resurrection (c. 1520–22) from the Bergamask village of Serina.
The contrasting theme of nature in tamed form, as a garden, is represented by Lotto’s sparklingly luminous Susanna and the Elders (1517; Uffizi) and Sustris’ Noli me Tangere (c. 1552; Palais des Beaux-Arts), in which Gethsemene is shown as a fashionably formal parterre, with geometrical box hedges, alleys, statues and fountains. The exhibition also offers an informative photographic display of an actual Venetian villa and its garden, the Villa dei Vescovi at Luvigliano, and of its frescoes by Sustris depicting panoramic landscapes, including one with another ‘Nymph of the Fountain’ in the foreground.
A native of Amsterdam, Sustris was a specialist in the ‘world landscape’, a type previously developed by Joachim Patinir and other Flemish painters, and he made an imp-
ortant contribution to popularising it in Venice. A particularly impressive example in this exhibition is his Baptism (c. 1545–50; Fig. 2), in which the foreground figures, seen from bird’s-eye view, are dwarfed by a broad valley that leads the eye past luxuriant trees, water meadows and a shimmering city towards distant mountains with fantastic peaks. A scarcely less impressive example of the type is the Good Samaritan (c. 1550; Lowe Art Museum) by Domenico Campagnola, a painter whose innovative work as a landscape draughtsman is illustrated by a drawing from the Uffizi in which nature is complemented by a distant town – but not a single human figure.
Transplanted northern Europeans continued to inspire new developments in Venetian landscape painting in the last decades of the 16th century, as can be seen in the Landscape with Nymphs and Satyrs Fishing (c. 1592) by Pauwels Franck, known in his adoptive city of Venice as Paolo Fiammingo. Here the mythological figures are placed in a highly original manner in dense woodland, under towering trees and lush foliage. Fiammingo seems to have previously worked for a time in the studio of Jacopo Tintoretto, but neither Tintoretto nor his great contemp-orary Veronese are particularly well represen-ted in this exhibition, on omission which, considering everything else on display, causes it to end in something of an anticlimax.
Peter Humfrey is Professor of Art History at the University of St Andrews.
LATEST NEWS & COMMMENT
Brussels plays host to a trio of outstanding fairs at the Place du Grand Sablon in early June, and the ever popular Carré Rive Gauche – now in its 36th year – returns to the Left Bank in Paris.
The work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.
Apollo is published in London, one of the world’s great art capitals and home to extraordinary, thrilling exhibitions such as last year’s ‘Bronze’ at the Royal Academy