Gateway to the Classics: Great Artists: Volume Three by Jennie Ellis Keysor
Great Artists: Volume Three by  Jennie Ellis Keysor

Early Venetian Art

In a complete study of the history of Roman and Florentine painting we are almost prepared for the appearance of such geniuses as Raphael and Angelo, for there was a most gradual development of the art in those cities until it culminated in these great men. When men began to paint in Venice they did their work, not like beginners in an unknown art, but like accomplished workmen.

Venice was so absorbed in her material progress that she was late in developing the arts. There are few or no Venetian poets, but a workman at Murano could shape a vase and color it from the molten mass of his furnace and it had all the appealing qualities of a great poem.

When bells were unknown in Europe Venetian founders shaped them and attuned them so well that they were worthy gifts for royalty. The mosaicist fitted together cunningly his little cubes of variously colored glass and bright stones. The work was that of the artisan and not of the artist.

Rumors, however, of the great things done with the brush at Florence and Rome and Milan reached Venice and great artists arose there, who seemed to have an instinct to do what other Italian painters had been able to do only after generations of workers in their art. The wonderful discovery of the Flemings—oil colors—moreover, tempted the Venetians to try the art of painting. The richness of these colors seemed the very proper medium through which to express the gorgeousness of Venice.

Fresco colors were pale and inadequate for their use, so, while the art of fresco painting was ruling at every great art centre of Italy, Venice gave it only a passing notice. The work of the mosaicist and the painter in oils was the proper field of her artists, and as such we must study them.

There had been the artist family of the Vivarini and the Flemish painter, Gentile Fabriano, and the elder Bellini, all artists in whom the spirit of color ruled. The real founders of painting in Venice were the two sons of this elder Bellini, Gentile and Giovanni, particularly the younger one, Giovanni. He paints us very realistic pictures—his Madonnas are real Venetian women and even his angels have a touch of the earthy which possibly brings them nearer to us.


Madonna and Child

Carpaccio, another of the immediate forerunners of Titian, is hardly known outside of Venice, but he has left some great work in his native city. His "Presentation in the Temple,"  with the three angels with musical instruments below the Virgin, is his masterpiece and certainly worthy of a better known master. This group of angel choristers is distinctly the mark of a Venetian picture. Of them all, the group below Carpaccio's picture is perhaps the most popular. This artist was fond of historical subjects—he liked to make pictures in which an entire series of incidents is depicted. One such, showing the history of St. Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins, is well known.


Presentation in the Temple

A contemporary and friend of Titian's was Giorgione, a man who even excelled Titian in the depth and richness of his coloring. At first the two were friends, but a rivalry arose between them later when both men were decorating the same building. Whether the strife to excel was good-natured or not we cannot tell. At all events, it was cut short by Giorgione's death at the early age of thirty-two.

There is considerable difference of opinion as to whether Giorgione painted many of the pictures attributed to him. Of one, however, a world's masterpiece, there seems to be no doubt. It is sometimes called "The Monk at the Clavichord"  but more frequently "The Concert."  A monk runs his fingers lightly over the keyboard as he turns to a companion just back of him holding a bass viol. On the other side is the figure of a young man gaily dressed in the fashion of the period. The soul of the monk flows from his face until we feel that an emotion is pictured and not a person. It hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence, one of the most precious gems of Venetian paintings.


The Concert

Palma Vecchio, that is "the elder," was probably two years Titian's senior, but this is not certainly known, some going so far as to claim that he was a pupil of Titian's. He has painted some of the loveliest women of any Venetian painter. "Violante"  is one of the most praised, but his greatest glory is "St. Barbara,"  the most reposeful figure in modern painting.

On one side is the hateful tower in which the saint was immured on account of her faith. Although such a doom is hanging over her, she stands there in her rich draperies as serene and immovable as the tower itself. In her hand is the palm of martyrdom and on her head she wears a crown which rests peacefully upon her lovely hair, in the abundant coils of which is interwoven a soft Venetian scarf. It is an inspiring figure to have come down to us from any age, or from any school of painting.


St. Barbara

In her formative period, hardly recognizable as such, Venetian painting had felt the strong scientific influence of Padua and Bologna, but ever her dreaminess dominated her science. "Light, color, air, space: those are the elemental conditions of Venetian art; of those the painters weaved their ideal world for beautiful and proud humanity."

We have considered very briefly a few of the names that add lustre to the earlier years of the Venetian school. One, however, towers above them all in grandeur of work and in variety of subject, and that is Tiziano Vecelli, commonly called Titian.

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