Sixteenth-Century Art: Venetian Painting

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Miracle of the Slave (1548), one of a trio of Tintoretto works on St Mark, the patron saint of Venice.

Renaissance painters from Venice developed their own distinctive style using light and a rich color palette.

There were several schools, or regional traditions, of Italian Renaissance painting: Tuscan (or Florentine), Roman, Lombard, and Venetian. Just as Tuscan dialect became a standard for the Italian language, Tuscan and Roman painting, sculpture, and architecture were considered the highest Italian artistic expression. As a result, they marginalized and sometimes belittled the work of the northern artists from Venice.

In 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote the influential book on Italian art “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.” Vasari was a Tuscan artist and knew little of Venetian art. He treated the art of Venice minimally, believing the Venetians at a disadvantage because they were from a medieval city and not surrounded by the glories of ancient Roman art and architecture. He also believed that Venetian artists did not make extensive use of drawing compared to Central Italian artists. He wrote that Venetian painters often worked out compositions directly on the canvas, using layered patches of colored brushstrokes rather than line to define form.

But the Venetian school is quite distinctive from the Roman school. The painters from Venice were not as concerned with sculptural form and hard edges of lines as they were with brilliant color and the sensitive use of light. The process of layering and blending colored brushstrokes as noted by Vasari may be more to achieve the glowing richness that is so typically Venetian than a lack of drawing skills.

For instance, the term “Venetian palette” describes the rich colors used by these artists, especially deep intense orange. Their strong, clear, bright colors make objects and figures in their paintings appear to glow. In fact, British art historian Paul Hills claims that rich color may be the main contribution of Venetian painting. He believes their use of color is related to Venice’s visual environment itself: its decorated buildings, glassware, colored textiles and silks, mosaics, and flickering reflections off its canals and lagoon.

In fact, Venice was an important market for dye and color pigments. Evidently in Venice professional color-sellers, different from either grocers or apothecaries, sold painting supplies to artists a century before other areas of Italy did so.

To achieve the brilliant and luminous quality so integral to their art, Venetian painters may have borrowed a trick from an unlikely source: glassmaking. Barbara Berrie, a conservation scientist at the National Gallery of Art, discovered that Venetian artists used pigments mixed with minuscule bits of powdered glass. She found glass particles in yellow pigment in, for example, Tintoretto’s “Christ at the Sea of Galilee.” She also found bits of powdered glass in two paintings by Lorenzo Lotto – one in a red gown worn by St. Catherine, another in an orange-red coat worn by Joseph in a Nativity scene. The bits of glass particles make the colors in the paintings glow.

Sources:

  1. Hartman, Carl. Renaissance Artists Added Glass to Paint. 25 August 2005. Live Science.
  2. Morrall, Andrew. Venetian Colour: Marble, Mosaic, Painting and Glass, 1250-1550. (Book Review). Orig published in The Art Bulletin; 3/1/2002. High Beam Research.
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