Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1526) is not famous as other Venetian contemporaries, such as Giovanni Bellini or Giorgione, but I think his Due Dame Veneziane, shown at the Museo Correr, to be one of the most eloquent painting through which read some peculiar trait of Venetian life. The women in this painting have been identified by some art historians as courtesans and by others as noblewomen. They definitely are noblewoman. Their identity has been revealed by the discovery that this painting was originally the bottom half of a larger picture. The other half, known as Hunting in the Lagoon, is shown at the John Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
This painting is a sort of celebration of marriage and shows how a Venetian noblewomen had to be. Dogs symbolised fidelity, the lilium, attribute of Mary, is virginity, pearls indicate purity, the peacock is the symbol of Giunone, wife of Zeus and marriage goddess. They are waiting for their husbands and the delivery boy is bringing some news. So this is the portrait of a family environment, probably addressed to one of the women rooms, so that they could always see how a noblewomen had to be: patient, pure, faithful, beauty and also stylish as their clothes and hair follow the current fashion.
Venetians sorted themselves into several classes. patrician, citizen, artisans and various lower classes. Dress code, as housing and behaviour were a visible sign of status. Both nobleman and male citizens wore black long dresses, caps and hoods which made them very difficult to distinguish on sight. While in the rest of Italy and Europe, nobleman used a great variety of dresses, the Republic wanted their citizens to look like all the same. Also Marin Sanudo, a famous Venetian Renaissance scholar, wrote that in a democratic city all the men must wear the same rope because they were all equally important in the government decisions. Of course, there were more and less influent people, but the intent was to spread an image of freedom, and democracy.
On the other hand noblewomen wore a great variety of dresses, jewels and ornaments such as rings of precious stones, pearls and clothes of fine silk. Women’s dress code symbolized not only the social class but also marital status and reputation. They were living representation of the power of their family through precious dresses, and, as they were not involved in any political decision, they could be the perfect mirror of the family’s richness. Single, engaged or married women had to wore different kind of clothes. For example a single woman used to put a flower in to her hair because, like a flower, she was waiting to be picked. An engaged woman put a veil in front of her face because until the wedding just her fiancé and family could see her face and she wore with pearls, symbol of virginity. A married woman wore a double necklace that symbolised the union of two people and, of course, the ring. In Carpaccio’s painting you can see those differences. The youngest girl wore the pearls and the older one the double necklace.
They have the classical Venetian hairstyle called fungo (mushroom), that was the latest cutting edge in the late 15th Century and you also can see the famous calcagnini, very high wood made shoes, originally created because of the high water but then used as symbol of richness because the women that put on those shoes, could not walk a long time and never alone but with the help of maiden and servants.
Very different in style was Giorgione. He came from the small town of Castelfranco Veneto, near Treviso, but soon he moved to Venice. Contemporary documents record that his talent were recognized early and very young he was employed, with other artists of his generation such as Titian, to decorate with frescoes the exterior of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (or German Merchants’ Hall). Unfortunately his career was cut off by his death a little over his 30s and very few of this work survives today.
After the employment for the decoration at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the Republic started to consider him maybe too romantic, not practical enough, too spiritual unlike his younger colleague Titian that from the collaboration at the Fondaco begun a brilliant and long career. Looking at his few remaining works we can understand better Giorgione’s point of view. He was very introspective, interested in philosophy, music and astrology&astronomy (at that time the two disciplines were about the same thing).
The Old woman at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, painted about in 1507, is the portrait of an old woman. Everything here suggests that the model is a particular person, a real individual, closely observed. But despite this, it is not a portrait, in other words it’s not a picture of someone, painted for that someone. The poor old woman is a sort of ‘model’, so the purpose of this painting is not to depict her, but to illustrate what she represents. She carries a label with two words written on it in Latin. The words are “COL TEMPO” that means “With time”. She doesn’t hold the label in her hand, but it seems to be attached to her, behind her hand. And with this same hand she is pointing at herself. The gesture, the label and the old face together create a reflection that seems to say ‘With time I became, you’ll become, we will all become, like this body that you see. Old. It will happen. The woman wasn’t always like this. Once she was young and beautiful. Her wrinkled face is not just her appearance, but something that have happened to her. It’s the face of someone who has lived and the wrinkles are the symbol of time that changes everything. This painting is a reflection more then a description, but at that time the Republic of Venice was not very interest in this kind of works. Titian for example was smarter. For the Republic he painted religious or historical woks of art and for himself, for some fiends or for foreign clients he expressed himself through beautiful and touching mythological and philosophical paintings.
At the Gallerie dell’Accademia you also can see the mysterious Tempesta, dated about 1507. Even today nobody has understood the meaning of this painting. On the right a woman sits, breast feeding a baby. A man, possibly a soldier, holding a long pole, stands on the left. A lot has been reported about this painting, trying to give an interpretation. It could be a mythological representation, a philosophical speculation, or something else. We don’t know. Just one things is certain: the dominance and the beauty of the natural setting with the storm (tempesta in Italian) coming in the background.
Now I’d like to talk a little about Titian, Tiziano in Italian, and his paintings. Tiziano Vecellio was born around 1485 in a small alpine village called Pieve di Cadore, not far from the Austrian border, where his family lived for many years. At the age of nine or ten, Titian and his elder brother Francesco were sent to Venice to start their training as painters in the workshop of the mosaicist Sebastiano Zuccato. Soon Titian left the workshop and began studying painting with Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, and then he joined Giorgione’s studio until his death in 1510.
In 1516 Titian was commissioned to paint a new work for the high altar in the Franciscan church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the Assumption of the Virgin (1516-1518), a milestone in the history of Venetian Renaissance. We will see it at the Frari Church so we will spend some words about this painting later.
After this work Titian’s career improve. He worked for very important families not just in Venice but also in other Italian courts. Then, in 1533 Titian was called to the court of Charles V, where he was appointed as court painter.
He had a great ability in express his personal opinion through painting without disobey to any order of his clients. For example, look at the Equestrian portrait of Charles V. He painted him as a Roman Emperor, strong, brave. He portrays Charles heroically, but he placed him in a calm dawn setting in which there are no signs of battle creating a balance between the two roles of an emperor: to be a good warrior that always defend his Country, and to be wise captain.
Then look at the Portrait of Philip II, Charles’ son. He is weaker than his father and the Prince himself didn’t like the portrait when he saw it. He was unable to explain why he didn’t like it because it was exactly what he asked for. But there is something in his eyes, in the body position that make him look a little effeminate, too young to be a commander, too delicate to be a warrior.
Titian painted for Philip II several mythological scenes and allegories with strong erotic elements. In his letters to Philip, Titian described these works as ‘poesie’, terms that can be translated as ‘poetic inventions’. The subjects of these works are drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Look at the Danaë shown at the Prado Museum. The painting represents the mythological princess Danaë. According to Ovid she was isolated by his father in a bronze tower following a prophecy that her firstborn would eventually kill her father. But Danaë, locked in that room, was seduced and became pregnant by Zeus who descended from Mount Olympus to seduce her as a shower of gold. Titian painted five version of this subject and I think the Prado’s one is the most beautiful. Here there is an old woman, whose ugliness contrasts with the beauty of Danaë. She is catching the money so her presence refers to greed and avarice and is used to emphasize the beauty and innocence of Danaë. Looking at the incoming coins, symbol of Zeus, Danaë gently lift up her neck and torso towards them, slightly opening her legs; she seems not surprise but welcoming and grateful for the descending rain. Danaë is extremely sensual but at the same time there is the dog, symbol of loyalty and devotion. So in some way she is the perfect wife for Zeus: she is beautiful, sensual, devoted ad the pearl earrings indicate purity.
During the last part of his life changed his style, as you already can see in the Danaë. Starting from the late 1550s, Titian developed a much freer use of the colour and light and a less descriptive representation of reality. I his later works Titian’s use of colour is suffused with spirituality; his youthful themes lose their serenity and in his images emerge feelings at times dramatic, at times full of emotion.
Titian remained active until his death in Venice at about age 91 and he continued to accept commissions until the very end of his life. He selected as the place for his burial the chapel of the Crucifix in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. In return for a grave, he offered the Franciscans a picture of the Pietà, now at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. He never finished this painting, so he never gave it to the Franciscans and so he was buried in his native Pieve di Cadore. The painting was completed by Palma il Giovane who added the torch-bearing cherub and other details. You can see the Madonna, in contemplation of her dead son, supporting the body of Christ, with the help of a kneeling man. This figure is probably a self-portrait of Titian, in the appearance of St. Jerome, represented as if he saw his also upcoming death in Jesus’s face. On the left, standing and forming an ideal triangle, is Mary Magdalene, screaming and crying. Another small self-portrait, together with his son Orazio, is shown in the base of one of the columns surrounding the niche. This is Titian’s final word and last testament, painted for himself only. It represents the emotions of a very old man at the end of his life and the difference between this and his early painting is huge.
An other very famous Venetian painter is Paolo Caliari, known as “Veronese” from his birthplace in Verona. He was not just a painter but an architect of images. He created great, grandiose pictures with beautiful and complex architectural settings meticulously designed and perfectly made.
To understand how magnificent are his works look at Wedding at Cana, now at the Louvre Museum. It is a massive painting, the largest painting of the collection, about 6m and a half high and almost 10 m long. The painting depicts the wedding feast at Cana, the miracle story from the New Testament. In the story, Jesus and his disciples were invited to a wedding celebration in Cana, in the Galilee. Towards the end of the feast, when the wine was running out, Jesus told some servants to fill jugs with water, which he turned into wine. The painting was commissioned in 1562 by the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. It hung in the refectory of the monastery for 235 years, until it was stolen by Napoléon in 1797 and transferred to Paris, where it is today. The scene depicts a mixture of contemporary and antique details. The architecture is classic, with Doric and Corinthian columns surrounding an open courtyard walled by a low balustrade. The feast is well attended, and over 130 figures crowd the painting. Not a single one is visibly speaking, because the painting was commissioned for a Benedictine Monastery, where silence during meals was strictly observed. In the foreground a group of musicians is playing late Renaissance instruments. Some art historian believe that the artist painted himself in this group, dressed in a white tunic and holding a viola da gamba, while Titian is seated opposite in red, and the man in violet could be Tintoretto. The vertical axis across the painting is highly symbolic. From the bottom to the top you can see a dog that nibble a bone, a hourglass, then Jesus, over him a flask of wine and a butcher with a knife that is going to hit a peace of meat on a white cloth. These elements refer to the passion of Jesus Chris and reveal in advance his future dead. For this reason the Virgin Mary is wearing a black dress and seems very sad.
Veronese also had lots of official commissions and worked for the Republic in the Ducal Palace. For example, in the Sala dell’Anticollegio, is the Rape of Europe. In Greek mythology Europa was a Phoenician woman from whom the name of the continent Europe comes from.The story tell that Zeus fell in love with Europa and decided to seduce her. To do so he transformed himself into a white bull. While Europa and her helpers were gathering flowers, she saw the bull, caressed him and got onto his back to play with him. Zeus took that opportunity, he ran to the sea and swam, with Europa on his back, to the island of Crete. He then revealed his true identity, and Europa became the first queen of Crete.