The Paintings of Venice
Venice Tuesday. There is a vivid contrast in the two masterworks, both in Santa Maria dei Frari, a gothic church of the Franciscans a short walk from the Rialto. There is Giovanni Bellini’s triptych on the sacristy altar displaying Virgin and Child with saints.Painted in 1488 it is a poetic work, a description of heavenly sublimity that Saint Benedict, looking us in the eye, invites us to join. As the art historian Hugh Honour writes, it is “static, calm and ineloquent” but lives more than Bellini’s even more iconographic works in the Accademia – the city’s major art museum – because of that saint’s invitation to us – and his hands, totally real, holding his staff and the giant Bible.
Then there is the huge Titian, The Assumption, above the high altar painted 30 years later in 1518, “dynamic, turbulent and rhetorical”. Honour also writes of its opulent color, the commanding figure of the Virgin, the astonishing realism of the shadow her ascending figure casts on the crowded Apostles and the picture’s dynamic line. Surely no piece of Catholic doctrine – in this case, the notion of the Virgin being “assumed ” into heaven – has ever been so beautifully propagandised in art.
The Bellini represents the tradition from which Titian broke away,the contrast between the two symbolising the visual revolution coming out of Venice in the quattrocento. And this vast ecclesiastical space gives us another Titian, the Madonna of Ca’ Pesaro. And around the corner in the Scuola di San Rocco there are two grand assembly halls decorated by Tintoretto, a child of the Counter Reformation as Titian was a child of the humanist Renaissance.
This is just our first day.
I think of references to Italian art in some literature. Of the supporter of the imprisoned Mary Stuart in Schiller’s drama who tells the Scottish queen how he converted to Catholicism in Rome after being amazed and inspired by the grand and profligate religious art. Hearing that in a Donmar Theatre performance in London I was persuaded of the evangelizing effect of Italian painting, especially as the Counter Reformation gathered force after the Council of Trent and of what a galvanizing effect that extravagant art must have had of any visitor in that age. Then there is the narrator in Proust who longs to go to Venice for the Carpaccios. The same sprawling novel gives us Charlus who knew and loved all the saints of his Catholic religion – and saints and martyrology is what the Western artistic tradition is about, unarguably in Italy. Oh, one other element: worship of Mary. Every church is dedicated to her, most paintings extoll her. She figures bigger than her son. Bloom is right. This faith – at least as reflected in its art – is not remotely monotheistic. The governing councils of heaven are packed tight, giving us a raft of personnel to pray to, a crowded pantheon, not a boring single god.
It makes for terrific art and we are off to see more of it.