Antiquity questions The Golden Age

The Oath of the Horatii.  Jacques-Louis David.  Included in "Antiquity Revived", Museum of Fine Arts Houston. 
Image by the Toledo Museum of Art.

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is having a wonderful summer.  First came "Antiquity Revived", and now "Titian and The Golden Age of Venetian Painting".  Titian, who from now on I will call by his proper name Tiziano, and his friends had been eagerly awaited (if not by anyone else at least by me). 

The paintings were superb, having never been to Scotland (where this collection is permanently kept) it was a joy to be able to see these particular pieces.  The selection of works was small but very representative of each individual artist and of the quality of work produced during the period, and in that sense I can agree that I was looking at "The Golden Age".  But the exhibit left me wanting more...The descriptions of each painting provided little else than date, location and a short story; sometimes there was an explanation about the patron who commissioned it, and sometimes the description dwelled on a mundane fact such as a certain figure that was added later; but why was that important!?  In a curated, special exhibit I expect a narrative that links all the works and tells me why they have been chosen and placed together in a room, besides the obvious reason that they belong to artists of the same period and location.

Pompeo Batoni.  Academy Nude.  "Antiquity Revived".  Image by The Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

Take for example "Antiquity Revived" (above), which takes you on a myriad of journeys, from the Grand Tour, to the allure of the ruins, to the work of the different academies and its entrance requirements, to the propaganda, the "Romanticism" and the "Baroque Revival".  One can say "Antiquity Revived" can do so because it is a much larger exhibit; but the beauty of this exhibit (and the reason why I visited it three times already) is because all these narratives can work independently of each other, so its size doesn't matter. "The Golden Age" on the other hand presents the public with two (among others) of Tiziano's most famous mythological paintings: "Diana and Acteon" and "Diana and Callisto", and misses the opportunity to elaborate on Venice's own urban mythology.  

Every painting in the "Golden Age" exhibit represented one of the many "myths of Venice", but the curators completely failed to make any sort of connections; instead we are given works that stand in a vacuum and we are asked to admire them simply on their painterly merits (which is easy to do because they are beautiful).  It is amusing however, to hear the comments of the passerby when they see the painting of the half-naked courtesans hanging next to the one of the Virgin Mary.  There is a place for these women in the same city, and it is right for the two paintings to hang next to each other because in Venice's collective imagination the city is both virgin goddess and goddess rising from the sea.

To put it in contemporary terms, I'm talking about how a city sees itself, or in Kevin Lynch's words "The Image of the City".  Over time every city develops a narrative that includes certain images, symbols, characters, places, etc.  All of this then becomes the iconography of a city and her artists use it, manipulate it, to convey ideas and messages.  Renaissance artists were very good at that, and Venice and her artists were not just good, they were relentless.  

According to legend Venice was founded on March 25th 491 AD, on the feast of the Annunciation.  Venetians, unlike all other city-states on the Italian peninsula, did not claim ancestry from Rome; they considered themselves to be La Serenissima, a "most serene", sovereign and independent republic, never conquered, never violated by any foreign ruler (until Napoleon).  All these images of impregnability coupled with their legendary foundation date, led the Venetians to associate themselves with the Virgin Mary.  Images of Mary, the Annunciation, the Angel of the Annunciation (like at the Rialto bridge), and its immediate consequence, the Nativity, abound in Venice like this painting currently on view at "The Golden Age":

Jacopo Bassano.  Adoration of the Kings.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting". 
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.

Another piece of famous Venetian imagery is the lion, who watched over Piazza San Marco and welcomed vessels into the logetta.  In christian imagery the lion is associated with Mark the Evangelist, and the Venetians had a legend that told of Mark spending the night in the Venetian lagoon, held by a storm on his way to the Adriatic Sea.  As Mark slept an angel appeared and told him "Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus", which can both mean "do not be afraid, Mark my evangelist", or the meaning that Venice took "rest here, Mark my Evangelist".  With this motto Venice entitled herself to go steal the body of saint Mark from its burial place in Alexandria in 828 AD, and the lion has protected the city ever since. 

But there is another Venetian lion.  Saint Jerome (ca. 350 - ca. 420 ) was born in Venice's mother city of Aquilea and he was the patron saint of learning, monastic life, and asceticism and his lion sometimes becomes one with saint Mark's.  As Garry Willis says in 'Venice Lion City' "if you came to Venice with a lion, they had to take you in."  "The Golden Age" inlcudes this painting by Lorenzo Lotto with the double iconography of the Virgin Mary and Saint Jerome:

Lorenzo Lotto.  The Virgin and Child with Saint Jerome, Saint Peter, Saint Francis, and female Saint.  "Titian and The Golden Age of Venetian Painting."  Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.

But there is another patron that stood higher in the city's devotions: the crucified Jesus.  The feast of Corpus Christi, known in Venice as Corpus Domini was one of the principal events of the republic, turning religious fervor into a political drama in which the Doge became the "protector of the body of Christ".  Central to these devotions was a relic brought to Venice from the fourth Crusade, a vessel said to contain blood shed by Christ in his agony in the Garden.  There is much imagery associated with the relic, the liturgy of Holy Thursday, Holy Friday, Corpus Domini, and that would fill pages...but some things are important:  1.  Tintoretto was a favorite painter of the Scuola del Sacramento (the Guild of the Sacrament) and was therefore commissioned to paint several works depicting themes of Christ and the crucifixion.  2. Venice had laws governing dress, there were garments only the Doge could wear.  3. On Holy Thursday and on Holy Friday the Doge would wear special garments, and on Holy Thursday he would wear a long deep red cassock in honor of Christ's blood.  

Jacopo Robusti detto Tintoretto.  Paradise.  Ducal Palace Council Chamber.

In Paradise (above) Tintoretto paints Jesus in a garment like the one the Doge would wear on Holy Thursday, the painting sits in the Council room of the Doge's Palace (above), and with that Tintoretto appropriates the blessings of Christ's blood for the Doge and for Venice, effectively turning Jesus into a divine Doge.  The ducal garments also make appearances in several other of his Christ paintings (Christ before Pilate, The Agony in the Garden) continuing the link between Venice and Christ.  The painting by Tintoretto included in "The Golden Age" shows Christ not wearing the red garment, but being carried in it; after all, the events depicted in the painting occur not on Holy Thursday but on Holy Friday:

Jacopo Robusti detto Tintoretto.  Christ carried to the Tomb.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting". 
 Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.

And now for something completely different...

Paris Bordon.  Venetian Women at their Toilet.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting". 
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.

Venice was famous for her courtesans.  They were beautiful, intelligent, they wrote poetry (Veronica Franco comes to mind), they enjoyed the freedom that was denied the reputable housewife and daughter.  The painting above by Paris Bordon is the one that in the "The Golden Age" hangs next to the Nativity scene by Bassano, and that generated such amusing comments from the audience.  It depicts two women preparing themselves; the adjacent plaque identifies them as courtesans and their procuress.  The mirror, says the plaque, represents the transience of human beauty.  The painting was probably commissioned by a private patron.  The plaque says no more.  In a city devoted to the Virgin Mary, a painting about prostitutes may seem incongruous.  Let's compare the painting above with one by the same artist hanging at the Hermitage State Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Paris Bordon.  Allegory of Venus, Flora, Mars, and Cupid. 
Image by The Hermitage State Museum. Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Similar hairstyles, similar clothes, similar women; one could even say that they are the same women! Except that the painting depicts two goddesses (Flora is identified with her leaves and blossoms, and Venus by her son Cupid), not two courtesans.  Let us now consider another feminine painting, this time by Tiziano:

Tiziano Vecellio.  Venus with a mirror/Venus at her Toilet.  Image by the National Gallery of Art.  Washington DC.
Tiziano revived a theme that was popular in Hellenistic times, Venus admiring her reflection in a mirror or Venus at her toilet.  The paintings have been copied and re-worked by many artists like Rubens and Velazquez.  The popularity of the theme was such that Venetian women, reputable and disreputable, would request to be painted in such a way, because to do so was to liken oneself to Venus, goddess of love and beauty; what a testament!  And by that light our dark, underground portrait of two prostitutes and their madam at "The Golden Age", becomes a painting of Venus and Flora with their handmaiden.  The mirror representing Venus's eternal beauty.

When painted allegorically, Venus is usually shown with specific companions who allude to the myths of her birth.  Frequent companions are the Hours, the Graces, and Flora as we have already seen in Bordon's Hermitage and "The Golden Age" paintings (Botticelli's Spring is an example that combines several of these figures, though a Florentine one of course).  And speaking of the birth of Venus:

Tiziano Vecellio.  Venus Anadyomene.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting". 
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.

Unlike other Italian city-states or even European nations, Venice did not rely on mercenaries (condottieri) to fight her wars.  Her ships were built in the lagoon and they were rowed and sailed by Venetians.  This contributed to the pride her citizens felt and the arrogance sensed by the rest of Europe, who in 1509 decided to teach her a lesson in the form of the League of Cambrai.  But after initial defeat, Venice managed to recover most of her Terra Ferma dominion, and with that launched an iconographic programme that would leave no doubt of her noble and superior status among all nations.  And so it happened that Venus rising from the sea had become Venetia triunfante et sempre libera, Venetia Anadyomene: Venice, triumphant and always free, rising from the Sea.  "The Golden Age"  focuses instead on Tiziano's use of a brown line to delineate the soft roundness of Venus's buttocks.

The painting by Bordon in the Hermitage also shows another figure:  Mars god of War.  Mars is a frequent companion of Venus in Venetian paintings, and not only because Ovid tells us of their love affair in his "Metamorphoses"; but because to say Venus and Mars is to Say Venice and Military Power.

Paolo Veronese.  Venus, Mars, and Cupid.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting".
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.
In this painting included in "The Golden Age" Venus sits in Mars's knee, who very lovingly embraces her, in a protective manner.  Whether Mars was painted by Veronese's assistant or not (as is the concern of the plaque) is immaterial to the Venetian audience because the message of the painting is clear:  The god of war takes care of Venice.

The assertion of Venice triumphant and always free that had throughout the Middle Ages been associated with the Virgin Mary, takes in the renaissance a pagan turn.  New virgin goddesses emerge to inspire the Venetian imagination; we see Astrea as the personification of justice, Minerva as the embodiment of wisdom, and Diana as the incarnation of vengeance:

Tiziano Vecellio.  Diana and Callisto.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting".
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.
In Ovid's "Metamorphoses", the virgin goddess Diana finds out that her nymph Callisto has been impregnated by Jupiter.  Furious with Callisto, who had sworn chastity to the goddess (we won't dwell on the fact that Jupiter seduced Callisto), Diana expels poor Callisto from her company for ever.

Tiziano Vecellio.  Diana and Acteon.  "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting".
Image by the National Galleries of Scotland.

Another story from Ovid:  The young hunter Acteon stumbles upon Diana as she bathes in the company of her nymphs.  No mortal man can touch, nay SEE the virgin goddess of the hunt.  Even more furious than with Callisto, Diana turns Acteon into a stag.  He is torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs.

It is interesting to think that of the several Poesie (mythological paintings executed by Tiziano for Philip II of Spain) four contained specific Venetian themes:  Venus and Adonis, Diana and Callisto, Diana and Acteon, and The Death of Acteon.  Two of those four paintings are included in "The Golden Age" exhibit (above).  I am inclined not to focus too much on the Adonis story because other than Venus being a protagonist, it does not have much importance for the Serene republic; I can't help but think however, that in the Diana paintings Tiziano was sending Spain (who not 50 years before had participated in the League of Cambrai) three beautiful cautionary tales.  Do not cross Venice.

The exhibit also includes a magnificent collection of drawings and has been accompanied by lectures.

*For excellent reading on Venetian iconography or iconography in general I recommend:

"Myths of Venice: The figuration of a State" by David Rosand.
"Venice Lion City: The Religion of the Empire" by Garry Wills
"Timeless Cities: An Architect's Reflection on Renaissance Italy" by David Mayernik.
"The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" by Roberto Calasso
"Iconologia" by Cesare Ripa and of course "The Metamorphoses" by Ovid.


1 comment:

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Nadia:
What a truly wonderful exhibition about which we had read a little as it was, in part, included on a recent post of another blog which we follow.

We are so very fortunate as to be able to visit Venice often, as we do, as there is a daily overnight train from Budapest. It is true to say that although it is always filled with tourists around St. Mark's Square and the Rialto, the galleries, museums and churches are often quite empty.

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