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Venice: Art and Religion

December 25, 2011

Giorgione's 'The Old Woman' and 'The Tempest'

There is one corner of the Accademia with two walls of painting by Giovanni Bellini, 1430 to 1516, master of the Venetian school. Entirely religious in content, adagio variations on Madonna, Bambino and Saints. Technically admirable, milestones in artistic history, abundant in color but lacking in other measures of the imagination. Where is subject matter other than the religious? Especially the quotidian life around Bellini in 15th century Venice. An interesting enough place surely. It is on another wall that we have our imaginations stretched. It features Giorgione’s two paintings: The Tempest and An Old Woman, paintings that embody the mystery of this life, not an imagined one in a different dimension.

On the other hand, stand in St Marks (when the space is illuminated – that is, between 11.30am and 12.30) – and look up at the unifying gold of the cupolas, decorated with insistent religious messages in mosaic. And your thought is likely to be that centuries of sincerely-held faith were required to produce such a wonder. What a celebration of Byzantine spirituality. Gold, as the color of God. A treasure house of art. Art in profusion. It is an interpretation reinforced by days of visiting churches and scuole in this city, a city which away from the concentrated glory of the famous square is still a working, functioning town, not just a bubble of a tourist economy.

The small San Sebastiano is fleshed out in Veronese, in the nave and the sacristy. A Renaissance church dedicated to the dual worship of the saint and the Virgin. Elegant painting, an intellectual exercise in linking messages of Hebrew scriptures and Mary’s message of salvation, and there is no doubting the piety of the artist. Or of the dynamic and modern vision of Tintoretto in the Scuola Grande Di San Rocco or on the walls of the churches he decorated. In the Accademia there are walls of his huge canvasses and two show St Mark descending from Heaven to sort things out on earth. I am reminded of the Gods of the Iliad with their differing capabilities and passions and think again that surely one reason that Catholic Christianity survived so well was that it could offer such a fully-fledged pantheon: not just a God but a supporting caste, each of whom can work miracles and to whom churches can be dedicated. The Carpaccios make this point. In the Scuola Di San Giorgio they tell of the miraculous deeds of St George, St Tryphon and St Jerome, associated with the Dalmatian community that resided here in the 15th century.

Approached through narrow alleyways we located Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a perfectly formed box-like gem of Renaissance architecture that we’d never seen before or heard of. This petite church was built to house a Byzantine Madonna and child that in the late 14th century was believed to produce miracles. Superstition, but it engendered this masterpiece. Religion produced this astonishing art. Only – my point with the Giorgiones – it can become so narrowly repetitive we end up veering towards something secular for relief. I found it in some Lorenzo Lotto’s in the museum, two on loan from The Hermitage,portraits that yield uncanny insight into personalities dead for centuries.

Practical advice. Now is the time to see Venice without the press of tourist numbers. I mean, to wander the Ducal Palace with only a few others around makes the point, and I’m told that happens no other time of year. A church to yourself and only one or two others is pretty special. But don’t contemplate a holiday here without embarking on this exploration of art and religion.

  1. Leo Schofield permalink
    December 25, 2011 6:14 am

    Glad you see you give an honorable mention to Lorenzo Lotto. He’s wildly underrated. In 1998 the city of Bergamo hosted a sensational show of his work with HM, Washington and the Hermitage all loaning great pictures. He did religious subjects well but his secular portraits, directly engaging with the viewer and so psychologically insightful) were the standouts. No point though in heading north to see them as the choicest images from the Accademia Carrara are currently in Canberra.

    And don’t overlook the Tiepolos, father and son, both well represented in the collection at the Ca’ Rezzonico.

    I must confess that although bowled over by the great Venetian masters (some of the best examples of which are in places other than Venice eg Veronese’s Marriage Feast at Cana in the Louvre) during my first visit in 1965, I have come to admire them less, wearying of the grandiosity, while being drawn to the lighter, more exuberant late 18th century.

    If you get a chance see if you can squeak in to see the amazing frescoes in the Palazzo Labia. It’s occupied by RAI but visitors are admitted by prior arrangement. Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra themed paintings are quite exceptional.

    Travel safe and continue to gorge on art.

    Allbest to you and Helena for 2012.


    PS check out S.Giorgio and the adjacent Fondazione Cini.

  2. December 25, 2011 11:11 am

    well I did think to post a previous comment but thankfully you have posted something new. I adore classical music and of course even earlier baroque music and I thought to return a present to you in the form of a music video filmed in St marks of the Monteverdi Vespers of the BVM!!

    As an agnostic I had the pleasure of completing a sub major in Medieval studies at ANU when I was studying chinese history as an adjunct and just for general interest.I took a course in Byzantine studies which was taught by Dr Ann Moffat of the much lamented ANU classics dept. The glories of Ravena, Constantinople, Smryna, Venice etc.

    So here is a clip of a recording from St mark’s.

  3. Dr Paul Williams permalink
    December 26, 2011 5:49 pm

    Dear Bob.

    I am an anonymous bulk billing doctor in the Fairfield Area.

    I was with my family at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice.

    I was leaving with my family as you were arriving.

    As you are twitting about Venice, I thought I’d ask your experience there.

    I am wondering how you rated Peggy’s Jackson Pollock paintings? I think Gough’s Blue Poles is right up there.

    I am also wondering if you have seen a recent History channel special on Gettysburg, where they ask the question…. what would have happened if Robert Lee could have put in a mobile phone call to J.E.B Stuart?

    • Bob Carr permalink
      December 27, 2011 12:33 am

      Ah yes, you must have tuned in when they’d run short of documentaries on UFOs,travelogues in the British marshlands and aliens in ancient Egypt. I’m waiting for screening of their big project for the new year: the four hour biography of Andrea Rieu illustrated with extracts from every one of his concert performances in the last 15 years.

  4. December 28, 2011 5:02 am

    The Tempest also has a “sacred” subject. See


  5. December 28, 2011 11:28 am

    Much vicarious fun travelling with you, thanks.

    While indeed ‘your thought is likely to be that centuries of sincerely-held faith were required to produce such a wonder”, I wonder less about sincere faith and more about the deeply-held fear (of being burnt at the stake let alone the eternal business) and the institutional oppression of thought and science. Great art nonetheless.

    Interestingly (Mr Booth), the Frari with that astonishing Assumption (of the previous post) is where Monteverdi is buried, as is Titian.

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