Sixteenth-century Venetian Art: Giants of Painting in Renaissance Venice

Giorgione, The tempest

Early Renaissance Art may have started in Rome and Tuscany, but Venice was the leading center of art in Northern Italy.

In Venice a unique style of art flourished, led by master Giovanni Bellini and his pupils, Giorgione and Titian.

During the Renaissance, Venice was an empire that controlled land in Italy, a large amount of coastline of the Adriatic Sea, and many islands. Venice had a stable political climate and a strong economy, both of which survived outbreaks of the Plague and the fall of Constantinople (which had been a major trading partner).

Shortly before 1450, Andrea Mantegna emerged as a master painter in Venice. His work, influenced by Florentine styles, was hard-edged, sculptural, rough, and not so concerned with light or color.

His brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini, also emerged as a Venetian master in the Early Renaissance. The contours and lines of his paintings are not as brittle and sharp as those of Mantegna. His colors are softer and his paintings are more light-filled than Mantegna’s. Bellini shows a regard for every detail of nature. He was an established artist when the era of Venetian painting came into its own during what is known as the High Renaissance.

Two of Bellini’s pupils in Venice were Giorgione and Titian. Giorgione is considered one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. Unfortunately, he died young – in his early thirties – after contracting the plague, and didn’t fully develop his artistic potential. His most mature and mysterious painting is The Tempest. In fact, this painting began an important new tradition of landscape painting. His painting Adoration of the Shepherds also shows his keen interest in nature: Interestingly, the composition is divided into two parts, the dark cave on the right and a luminous Venetian landscape on the left. This was an unprecedented way to depict the Holy Family, with the figures off to one side of the canvas, showing the Renaissance tendency to experiment with new methods. In true Venetian manner, the colors and use of light show the tender emotions of the scene.

Titian dominated Venetian painting of this period. In the spirit of the Renaissance, he created scenes of the Greek and Roman classical myths in landscapes showing the figures as part of the natural world. His figure paintings and portraits show individual flesh-and-blood people in keeping with the new Renaissance interest in humanism.

Previously painting had been done on wood panels with egg tempera, a very quick-drying medium. Titian carried the possibilities of the new oil painting techniques to great heights: rich creamy highlights, deep dark tones, delicate modeling, with a translucent glow from within. His interest in portraying the human figures as real people is shown in his religious scenes as here, for example, he depicts the baby Jesus turning away from Mary to gaze upon Saint Catherine in Virgin and Child; he experiments with a new perspective on the scene as the figures interact with each other. The revival of interest in classical poetry led to his Pastoral Concert and a new form of pastoral landscape.

These masters of 16th-century Venetian painting – Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian – set the stage for and influenced European art for centuries to come.


  1. Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting. National Gallery of Art Exhibiions. 2006.
  2. Knight, Christopher. “Art Review: A colorful cast of Venetian masters.” Los Angeles Times. June 19, 2006.