Going for gold: Venice in the 16th century

Published 7 March 2016

The first decade of the 16th century saw Venice become a creative cauldron, as a glittering array of painters put the city on the cusp of an artistic golden age. Sarah Dunant celebrates some of the most influential figures.

  • From the Spring 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Giovanni Bellini

    The elder statesman of Venetian art was painting some of his most powerful portraits in the first decade of the 16th century.

    By the early 1500s Giovanni Bellini, whose workshop was home to some of the brightest new talent, was already in his seventies. Yet according to Albrecht Dürer, himself an eager visitor to Venice, though “very old” Bellini was “still the best in painting”.

    A palpable sense of serenity and compassion lights up Bellini’s religious work; tender Madonnas and dead Christs to make your heart bleed. But he was also a magnificent portrait painter, bestowing a kind of immortality onto mere mortals. This luminous figure (pictured) may be Pietro Bembo, the Venetian humanist scholar and poet. Certainly those patrician good looks and dreamy air (he feels both intimately close and distant at the same time) are a perfect fit with Bembo, who would have been 35 years old in 1505 when the picture was painted and a rising literary star, thanks to his acclaimed edition of Petrarch’s sonnets and his epic poem, Gli Asolani, on the wonders and dangers of love. It’s a subject Bembo knew a lot about, having recently seduced a young Venetian widow and having had an intense (platonic?) affair with Pope Alexander’s daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara. On closer study, is there perhaps a hint of a cool lothario inside the studious gaze?

    Bellini would be creatively active right up to his death in 1516, his energy surely piqued by the challenge of young bloods like Giorgione and Titian. One of his last works – painted at the age of 85 – was of a beautiful naked woman at her toilette. It was a clear nod to both of the younger artists, who had already undressed lovely ladies in paint, the erotic charge of the images heightened by the fact that the women appear unaware they are being looked at. In the rich story of Renaissance art, another kind of Venus was being born. What more fitting place than Venice?

  • Giovanni Cariani

    Although overshadowed by his peers, Cariani had rare skills for both realistic portraiture and luminous religious work.

    At a time when lovely unclothed women were finding their way into Venetian art, this plain Jane figure (pictured), by Giovanni Cariani, might at first seem underwhelming. The power, however, is as much in the detail as the face. The martyr’s palm leads the eye down to the glass dish where the sitter’s right hand cups one of a pair of lovely – and it must be said, rather perky – women’s breasts.

    The iconography of Catholic saints is the key. Any contemporary Venetian would have immediately recognised the story of Agatha, the third-century Roman saint who serenely withstood the most horrendous tortures, including the slicing off of her breasts. It is likely that Cariani’s painting had a double function, working as a devotional aid in the contemplation of suffering and steadfastness at the same time as offering a portrait of a young woman rich in virtue and spiritual aspiration, if not in looks.

    Cariani, who was probably born in Bergamo but lived and worked in Venice, is an unexpected discovery of the Royal Academy show. His reputation has been somewhat trampled in the historical stampede of famous names to come out the first decades of 1500s and, like Lorenzo Lotto (pictured, below), he earned much of his living outside the city. But based on the eight paintings by (or attributed to him) on show, he deserves to be better known. His portraits have a sombre, one might say unflattering, realism; he can paint the most affecting visions of Christ (a debt to Dürer); and, like many Venetian-trained artists of his time, his sense of colour lights up the material richness of the age. To misquote Milton mischievously: :They also serve who only stand and absorb the influences…“

  • Giovanni Cariani, Saint Agatha

    Giovanni Cariani, Saint Agatha, c.1510-15.

    Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, inv. NG 2494/Photo © Scottish National Gallery.

  • Titian

    The young Titian was at the heart of the creative tumult in Venetian painting – first rivalling, then outliving and surpassing Giorgione.

    At the most cursory glance, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter (pictured) is an impressive painting, its exquisite colour palette and dynamic composition going hand in hand with a clear commercial nous: the patron/donor may be the one kneeling but there is no doubt who is footing the bill.

    How much more impressive then to discover it is a relatively early work of the young Tiziano Vecelli. When he painted it in c.1508-11, Titian would have been only around 20 years old and his accomplishment vividly reflects the tumult of creativity and talent of this decade in Venetian art. Both he and Giorgione (born about ten years earlier) had already taken everything they needed from the work of great Giovanni Bellini and the battle of the young Turks was on.

    Titian would become a master of this type of devotional art whereby, under the excuse of encouraging prayer, wealthy patrons got near equal billing with the saints. His fluency in oil and his innate sense of drama allowed him to create visual feasts out of essentially static moments, balancing spiritual gravitas with earthly eminence – a fitting celebration for a city, which according to contemporary diarist and Venetian senator Martin Sanudo “was built more by divine than human will”.

    His effortless brilliance in so many genres meant that Titian was hailed as an artistic colossus in his own lifetime. But fortune as well as talent had a hand here. Had one been placing bets in the early 1500s, the clever money might have gone to Giorgione, who at the same time was showing at least as much range and originality. By 1510 it was all over. What-ifs don’t come more enticing that this one: had Giorgione survived the plague, that battle of the young Turks could well have gone into middle or old age. What further artistic wonders might that have produced?

  • Titian, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter

    Titian, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter, 1508–11.

    Oil on canvas. 147.8 x 188.7 cm. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp Photo © Royal Museum for Fine Arts Antwerp / www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens.

  • Lorenzo Lotto

    A deeply religious man, Lotto created moving devotional paintings, and would have known of Giorgione’s works that set small figures in sumptuous landscapes.

    A saint dwarfed by the majesty of nature: Saint Jerome (pictured) is a bold interpretation by Lorenzo Lotto of the saint at prayer (prizes for anyone who can make out the lion in the darkness on the left) and a powerful example of how the most fecund periods of art are as much a relay race as any spontaneous combustion of genius.

    Jerome’s sojourn in the desert was a popular subject in Venetian art, and when the young Lotto painted it in around 1506 he would have been drawing on many influences. He would have known Bellini’s paintings of both St Jerome and St Francis and may have been familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s passionate ideas on the importance for artists in studying nature. Venice was rediscovering the classical tradition of the pastoral and he would certainly have witnessed the brilliance of Giorgione’s haunting compositions, which placed small, often inconsequential, figures inside lush poetic landscapes and blazing skies. But if Lotto’s Jerome is partly conscious quotation – the rock, the naked stark tree, the moody sky – that doesn’t distract from its daring; his dramatic colliding planes of rock poetically emphasise the humility and vulnerability of man inside God’s uncompromising handiwork.

    Given the hothouse of emerging competition at the time (Lotto was working alongside Giorgione, Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo), it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to leave Venice early, making his name in the cities of Treviso, Bergamo and Rome. He shared some of Bellini’s tranquil acuity in the art of portraiture, which assured him no shortage of commissions. And his evident skills along with his own deep religiosity marked him out as a fine creator of devotional paintings and altarpieces. He ended his life as a lay brother in the sanctuary of Loreto, but his years of training in the creative furnace of Venice never left his brush.

  • Lorenzo Lotto , Saint Jerome

    Lorenzo Lotto, Saint Jerome, 1506?.

    Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, inv. MI 164/Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Gérard Blot.

  • Sarah Dunant is a writer and broadcaster, whose novels include Blood and Beauty (Virago).

    In the Age of Giorgione is in the Sackler Galleries from 12 March until 5 June.


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