The Gallerie dell’Accademia museum continuation 2/2

The fresco technique (painting on walls covered in plaster) was also in widespread use, but the climate in Venice proved unsuitable for this technique (click here for a Wikipedia page providing additional information on the fresco technique); particularly for the frescos painted on the facades of palazzi. Vasari wrote the following on the subject: ‘I know of nothing more damaging to frescos than the sirocco near the sea, where it is always laden with salt.’ Yet another reason why Venetian painters loved canvas.

1. Youtube Khan Academy: olieverf versus fresco (4. minutes)
2. Youtube tempera and oilpainting National Gallery (2.19 minutes)

fresco originally on the facade of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi
Titian fresco originally on the facade of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi Accademia museum

Whereas most North Italian painters used the fresco technique for large-sized works, Bellini, Carpaccio and Veronese often used canvases of enormous dimensions. Titian’s technique immediately stands out when you stand close to the painting. It goes against the then prevalent ideas on good taste. According to the great painters, particularly those from Florence, you were supposed to first make a drawing on the prepared canvas and only later apply the paint. Titian studied under Giorgione and was taught by him to paint directly on the canvas without first making an underdrawing. Vasari, artist and author of “The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects” put it as follows:

[“……] he [TG: meant here is Giorgione] was fully convinced that painting only in colour, without a previous line study on paper, was the correct and the best method, which resulted in the right design. However, Giorgione failed to understand that a painter, if he is to achieve a proper arrangement of the composite parts and want his inventions to come out right, needs a design, and that he, to see how the whole will work out, must begin with putting elements on paper in different ways [……] and without having to hide his limited knowledge of drawing behind a beautiful use of colours, as the Venetian painters Giorgione, Palma, Pordenone and others did for many years because they had not seen Rome or any truly perfect work whatsoever.”

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects’ Amsterdam, Contact, volume II [original edition 1568] 1992, page 313-314.

Titian ‘Pietà’      Large size       Detail   
Galleria dell’Accademia Titian Pietà sala 10 Venice Accademia museum

It should be obvious that Vasari in his description of the life of the painter Titian – from which the above quote was taken – had little sympathy for this direct technique. Michelangelo, who visited Titian in Rome just after the latter had completed his Danae, also said that he greatly admired the style and the coloration, but that unfortunately in Venice they had not learned to make proper drawings. Also, the paint was to be applied finely and smoothly so that you could not see the brushstrokes. The painted surface was supposed to shine like a polished mirror. Titian did not comply with these standards that were taught in every studio across Italy. He sometimes used thick layers of paint, roughly applied, so that the brushstrokes and rough surface remained clearly visible. One of his apprentices described his technique as follows:

For the final touches he [TG: Titian] created the transition from the highlights to the half tones with his fingers to blend one shade with the other, or applied a dark smudge in one corner or another for added emphasis, or enlivened the surface with a touch of red like a drop of blood […] In the final phase, he used his fingers more often than a brush.”

James H. Beck, ‘Italian Renaissance Painting’, Könemann, Cologne, 1999 page 393.

De Lairesse, a Dutch writer on painted art, spoke in this context anno 1707 of ‘dat het sap gelyk dreck langs het Stuk neer loope.’ De Lairesse added that a painter should ‘paint equally and tenderly’. Gerard de Laraisse, ‘Het Groot Schilderboek’, Amsterdam, 1707 book V, p. 324

So, that was not how to go about it. De Lairaisse referred to Rembrandt and Lievens, but the very source of this painting style traces back to Titian. Titian did not use this more coarse manner of painting until a later age and the famous writer and artist Vasari spoke of ‘pittura della macchia’, the painting with stains where a ‘pentimento’, literally: a stroke of remorse, was not neatly painted over. An interesting letter by Titian, addressed to the King of Spain, Philip II, has been preserved in which he writes that he was clueless how to surpass the greats like Michelangelo, Correggio and Rafael. The surpassing, -aemulatio-, was the first commandment for all painters post-1400. One way for Titian to surpass the great painters was the rough painting style. Titian, who was the first to adopt a loose and rough painting technique, was of great influence to the likes of Velazquez and Rembrandt.

Many Venetian painters can be recognised by how they applied paint to the canvas. The manner in which the brush was used, one’s personal handwriting, was no longer painted over. Tintoretto used his typical brush technique for his ‘Miracle of the Slave’. His strokes are rather elongated and often lightly bent. This Venetian painter was proud of his handwriting. Veronese’s strokes are of a more calligraphic quality. The strokes are not so much trotting as they are dancing. Their movements are fluid, something that fits perfectly with the brocade arabesques often painted by Veronese, like in his work: ‘Mystical Marriage of St Catherine’. The calligraphic strokes make the brocade fabric of the blue dress worn by the Saint very convincing indeed.

In room 10 of the museum we see on the long back wall a few famous paintings by the Mannerist painter Tintoretto. Mannerism is a school that sprang up around 1530, after the High Renaissance. Tintoretto’s Mannerist paintings usually show people standing, lying or falling in rather difficult positions. The composition is often quite complex, only in the beginning of his career did Tintoretto use a frontal composition like the one that we will see later in the church of S. Marcuola. However, fairly soon, he starts positioning the tables in a painting of the Last Supper diagonally in the image plane. Tintoretto also often uses night lights or strange skies that evoke a specific atmosphere. For the painter this was a way of showing how good he was. Two works by Tintoretto, ‘The Translation of the body of St Mark’ and ‘The miracle of St Mark freeing a slave’ are good examples of these characteristics.

Tintoretto ‘The Miracle of St Mark freeing a Slave’ big size     Detail      Video Khan Academy (7.03 minutes)
Tintoretto 'The Miracle of St Mark freeing a Slave' Accademia museum

Tintoretto was profoundly influenced by Michelangelo, as we shall see when we are standing before these two canvases. I will use copies of Michelangelo’s drawings to show how this influence can be recognised in Tintoretto’s work, but to further clarify this point we will just quickly walk back to room two, where the difference between a 15th century painting and one from the 16th century, i.e. the Early Renaissance and High Renaissance, can clearly be seen.

Room 11 of this museum is home to works from the Baroque and Rococo periods by painters such as Bassano, Strozzi, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Pordenone and Veronese. Giambattista Tiepolo’s work, which is considered belonging to the Baroque and Rococo, is often quite dramatic, such as for instance ‘Discovery of the True Cross’. This ceiling painting in which St Helen discovers the true cross uses a ‘reversed’ perspective. Pordenone’s painting ‘The Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani and Saints’, clearly shows Michelangelo’s influence. This work from 1532 obviously no longer belongs to the Early Renaissance works that we saw in room 2, with a comparable subject such as the Sacra Conversazione.

Bellini ‘Madonna and Child St. John the Baptist and Saint around’  1478   Pordenone ‘St Lorenzo Giustiniani and Other Saints’
Bellini Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and a Saint around 1478 Accademia museum   Pordenone St Lorenzo Giustiniani and Other Saints 1532 Accademia museum

After a walk down the corridor and through a number of small rooms we arrive at room 17, which is home to works by Tiepolo, but also by Canaletto, Francesco Guardi and Pietro Longhi. City views by Canaletto are found all across the world. They were bought by 18th century tourists and taken home.  Venice, where Canaletto painted his works, is home to only two of his works. Canaletto’s, ‘Capriccio of a Colonnade’, from 1765, is a masterpiece. As a perspective and architecture professor, he had to take a test in order to be admitted to the academy as an artist. He submitted this painting which offers various complicated perspectival vistas. Where Canaletto was primarily interested in beautiful static architecture and clear light, Guardi was the painter of quick movements who did not take much of an interest in topographic precision.

Canaletto, Francesco Guardi, Pietro Longhi room 17
Accademia museum Venice room 17 Canaletto, Francesco Guardi , Pietro Longhi
Canaletto ‘Capriccio of a Colonnade’ detail 1765
Canaletto Capriccio of a Colonnade Accademia museum
Pietro Longhi ‘Pharmacist’ large size
Pietro Longhi Pharmacist Accademia museum

Room 20 is home to a big cycle of paintings on the miracles connected with the relics of the Holy Cross, including works by painters such as Carpaccio, Manueti and Gentile Bellini. The eight canvases, originally there were ten, provide an extensive view of Venice in the 15th and 16th century. The first painting shows the old wooden Rialto bridge. Wikipedia True Cross cycle

True Cross cycle Lazzaro Bastiani, Gentile Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Mansueti      Room 20
True Cross cycle Lazzaro Bastiani, Gentile Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Mansueti Accademia museum room 20 Galleria del Academia
Carpaccio ‘Miracle of the Holy Cross at Rialto’ large size
Carpaccio Miracle of the Holy Cross at Rialto Accademia museum Venice

Many details of the  Miracle of the Holy Cross at Rialto Wikipedia 

Vasari says the following about the cycle:

[……] Gentile then added [TG: Gentile Bellini, Jacopo’s son and brother to Giovanni] to this scene of the cross seven or eight other scenes, in which he depicted the miracle of the Cross of Christ, which is preserved as a relic in the Scuola. The miracle consisted of the following: after the cross had for some reason been thrown into the canal from the Paglia bridge, many had jumped into the water – out of reverence for the piece of wood from the cross of Jesus Christ that this contained – to retrieve it, but it was God’s will that only the friar superior of the Scuola [TG: the Scuola di Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista] was able to get hold of it.

Gentile Bellini ‘Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo’ large size
Gentile Bellini 'Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo' Accademia museum

In his representation of this story Gentile depicted in perspective a large number of houses facing the Canal Grande, the Paglia bridge, the San Marco Square and a long procession of men and women with the clergy in the lead, and also many who jumped into the water, others who are about to, many half under water, others differently and in beautiful positions, and finally he painted the superior who was able to get hold of the cross.

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects’ Amsterdam, Contact, volume I [original edition 1568] 1992, page 237

For many details of the Wonder Cross relic in the canal of S. Lorenzo see Wikipedia.

Carpaccio ‘The Life of St. Ursula cycle’ room 21
Carpaccio The Life of St. Ursula cycle Galleria dell ’Accademia museum Venice room 21

Room 21 has a cycle of paintings that Carpaccio made on the legend of St Ursula (can be seen here on the Web Gallery of Art site).

Her legend, probably not historical, is that she was a princess who, at the request of her father King Dionotus of Dumnonia in south-west Britain, set sail to join her future husband, the pagan governor Conan Meriadoc of Armorica, along with 11,000 virginal handmaidens. After a miraculous storm brought them over the sea in a single day to a Gaulish port, Ursula declared that before her marriage she would undertake a pan-European pilgrimage. She headed for Rome with her followers and persuaded the Pope, Cyriacus (unknown in the pontifical records, though from late 384 there was a Pope Siricius), and Sulpicius, bishop of Ravenna, to join them. After setting out for Cologne, which was being besieged by Huns, all the virgins were beheaded in a massacre. The Huns’ leader fatally shot Ursula with a bow and arrow in about 383 (the date varies).


 Carpaccio here shows that he is a born storyteller, which makes the subjects easy to understand. It is also clear that Carpaccio is a typical representative of the Venetian School; his preference for beautiful fabrics, beautiful architectonical details and numerous domestic details are proof of his love for the style of painting that we saw earlier in works by Bellini and others. Furthermore, the light – in addition to colour – plays an essential role in Carpaccio’s oeuvre. The light in Venice is special, you will notice that at many moments during the day the light will seem to partly blur the outlines of even Sansovino’s sharply defined buildings. Sharp outlines are blurred by the light. Carpaccio, but also Canaletto, were masters in painting the effect that the light in Venice has on buildings and objects.

Carpaccio ‘The Dream of St. Ursula’ and the study large size
Youtube John Ruskin about the dream of St. Ursula (6.34 minutes)
Carpaccio The Dream of St. Ursula Accademia Venice

As we walk toward the exit, we arrive at the Scuola di Santa Maria della Carità for which Titian painted a fresco.

Corridor towards room 24        Room  22 and 24
corridor towards room 24 Accademia museum Venice
Titian ‘Presentation of the Virgin Mary’ 1534-1538       Detail
Titian Presentation of the Virgin Mary Accademia museum

If you look closely, you can see that a second door was added to the wall later. Titian has portrayed himself in his ‘Presentation of the Virgin Mary’: he is looking at Mary from the window (mouseover).

In summation, the Venetian school of painting, which clearly differs from the rest of Italy, has the following characteristics:

  • A predilection for all kinds of beautiful objects, such as fabrics and glass, which are painted beautifully, but are not essential to the subject of the painting. This type of object is painted for the joy of depicting them.
  • The use of beautiful, warm colours. The colour sometimes seems more important than the shapes that are being used.
  • No underdrawing on the canvas, but spontaneous painting. Giorgione was the first to do this. His technique would gather a following in La Serenissima.
  • The way that the paint is applied is not hidden, on the contrary, the painters take pride in their handwriting.
  • Sometimes very crude painting techniques which occasionally involve a thick layer of paint. The wood of the brush or a knife is sometimes used for its application.
  • Byzantine art, which exerted great influence across Italy, was very dominant in La Serenissima and persisted for a very long time.
  • Venice which reached the pinnacle of its power during the Gothic, clung to the Gothic style for a very long time.

Click here for the continuation of day 2 Guggenheim