The line of beauty
Jul 27th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting
By David Alan Brown
Yale University Press; 336 pages; $65 and ￡40
WHO was the first modern artist? How about Giorgione? A far-fetched notion, perhaps, but this Renaissance Venetian revolutionised painting—and his work, focusing on secular subjects such as nudes, landscapes and female beauty, was dubbed “modern” by the leading art commentator of the day, Vasari.
Giorgione was not alone, as illustrated by the excellent catalogue accompanying the exhibition “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting” now showing at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. What made him, and the generation of artists he inspired, so special was his ability to absorb the new currents of culture then flowing through Venice. A catalyst was Leonardo da Vinci, who briefly visited Venice in 1500. In Leonardo’s drawings, Giorgione, as well as the younger artist, Titian, and their master, Giovanni Bellini, glimpsed a new conception of the human form, based on observation and expressed in smoky contours and subtle shades of light and dark.
Over the subsequent 30 years, one of the most exciting periods in the history of art unfolded. In readable, engaging essays, David Brown and Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, the exhibition’s curators, together with a team of top scholars, tell its story. We learn how this triumvirate of Venetian painters devoured not only Leonardo’s ideas, but also those of Albrecht Dürer, the German artist whose realistic rendering of nature was known in Venice through prints, even before his sojourn there in 1506-7. Dürer’s work taught Venetian artists that landscape could be an independent element of a painting, rather than just a symbolic backdrop for religious subjects.
在其后的30年中，艺术史上最激动人心的时代画卷逐渐展开。展览的主办人大卫布朗和西尔维亚与一群顶尖学者一起用流畅易懂、引人入胜的文字向你讲述其中的故事。从中我们可以得知威尼斯画坛的3巨头不仅吸收了达芬奇的理念，同时还有丢勒的。这个德国艺术家在他1506到1507年到威尼斯短暂逗留之前，他对自然界的现实主义表现手法就已经在这里通过印刷技术广为流传。丢勒的作品让威尼斯的艺术家们知道风景可以独立成为绘画题材，而不仅是作为宗教故事的象征性的背景。 The result was a new style full of natural movement, sensuality and poetic atmosphere. Venetian painting had long been characterised by its jewel-like colour—obtained by grinding coloured glass and minerals such as lapis lazuli into the pigments—but now it was applied in a way that gave art the kiss of life.
其结果是一个全新的充满自然活动，感性和诗意的氛围。威尼斯的绘画因其珠光宝气的色彩而长期以来独树一帜，这些色彩的颜料中添加了碾碎的玻璃和诸如青金石的矿石。但现在它们被以全新的方式运用，给艺术一个生命之吻。Giorgione blazed the trail. A top student of Bellini, he later forged his own style, inspired by the current vogue for pastoral love poetry based on recently discovered ancient texts, then the bestsellers of Venice’s flourishing printing industry. He excelled at what was known among the educated elite as the paragone: a competition between painting and poetry in which painters sought to prove that they could rival poets in conveying beauty by appealing to the eyes, as well as to the mind. This was revolutionary because it implied that painting originated in the imagination of the artist, rather than being a simple recording of the great and the good, history and religion. It proved painters were creators and not just craftsmen.
乔尔乔内是这条道路上的披荆斩棘者。作为贝里尼最好的学生，他随后发展出自己的风格。他的灵感来自于其时风行的田园诗，从最近发现的古代文本来看，这得益于那个时代威尼斯欣欣向荣的出版业的畅销书。他的卓尔不群在于一项闻名于知识精英中的对比：就是诗歌与绘画的竞争，画家们致力于证明他们可以在表现美感上与诗人媲美——既可悦目亦能赏心。这是革命性的。因为它暗示了绘画产生于艺术家的想象而不是对美好事物、历史、宗教的简单记录。它证明了画家是创造者而非工匠。His most enigmatic paintings, such as “The Tempest” and “The Three Philosophers”, have no obvious subject. Instead they evoke a series of allegorical meanings that would have mystified all but his coterie of young, aristocratic patrons. Giorgione’s work displays an unprecedented feeling for landscape as a poetic and erotic space, where mortals and muses play. Even in religious paintings, such as his famous “Adoration of the Shepherds”, he emphasises the pastoral nature of the scene by placing the shepherds centre-stage and shifting the Christ Child to the side, something never before seen in art.
Giorgione gained an almost cult status after his tragically early death of the plague in 1510, aged 33. Hot on his heels came the ambitious Titian, who had graduated from Bellini’s workshop around 1506 and become a student of Giorgione’s. He finished Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus”, now in Dresden, by painting the pastoral landscape in which the recumbent nude rests. But Titian realised that he needed to diversify his market and combine elite patronage with a broad studio practice like that of Bellini, whose altarpieces catered to wealthy Venetians keen to secure their salvation by donating art to churches.
The real prize for Titian, as for Michelangelo before him, was an aristocratic patron. So when Alfonso d’Este asked him to complete the camerino, the private exhibition hall in his palace in Ferrara, he jumped at the chance. Bellini had begun the job by painting “The Feast of the Gods” for the libertine duke, who wanted the best artists in Italy to paint canvases on themes of classical drunken revels. After Bellini’s death in 1516, Titian painted three mythological scenes to complement his work, repainting the background of his teacher’s painting so that it matched his own. The current exhibition, like the recent Titian show in London and Madrid, brings together paintings from this legendary, now destroyed, pleasure chamber.
Even the aged Bellini, patriarch of Venetian painting, was not too old to learn from the new energy around him. A sense of reverie had always pervaded his painting, but his late art, such as the altarpiece for the church of San Zaccaria (1505), possessed what Mr Brown calls a “restraint and refinement” unmatched by any of his pupils. In 1515, when he was 85, he painted a piece of silent poetry that many consider his masterpiece: “Lady with a Mirror” (a detail from which is shown above). This famous nude, at once erotic and chaste, is possibly a response to the work of his star pupils and their fashion for portraying female beauties and poetical landscapes.
“Lady with a Mirror” was called “an apotheosis of seeing” by the late art historian, Otto Pacht. The phrase could also describe Venetian art of the first decades of the 16th century. It was as though artists’ eyes had been opened to the myriad possibilities of seeing and creating beauty.
The past five years have seen a flowering of scholarship on this period and the current catalogue builds on this. Anyone within travelling distance of Washington or Vienna should rush to see the new exhibition. But if you can’t, don’t despair. As the next best thing, the exhibition’s scholarly catalogue opens minds and eyes to the poetry and passion of Venetian art, just as its creators would have wished.