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The Treasures of Venice: Some notes on the exhibition

Veronese. V's Venice shows Venice as a patrician woman, sitting on a large green globe. In the foreground of the picture is a cubical piece of stone. She is covered by a red cylindrical canopy. V enjoys this combination of geometrical forms. In addition, the painting is octagonal. Latitude and longitude lines are marked on the globe; they are echoed by similar grid of lines on the stone. V's portrait of a young man shows him draped in a fur mantle. The mantle is draped like a vest, but leaves his shoulder and arm free, a common pattern in how his men are dressed. There are a series of lines on the clothing on the man's shoulder; they mark his shoulder out as a spherical shape, like the globe in the Venice painting. In the background are some large classical ruins. The arch on the ruins precisely echoes the marks on the man's shoulder - another echoing effect. The men in both paintings have a similar sad, sweet expression. Another man in the Venice painting, representing Neptune, is shown from the rear; mainly we see a very strong, muscular back. this is similar to the painting of Mars in V's Venus and Mars. One suspects that such strong backs represented V's ideas on machismo.

The caption to the portrait says that V was the first to introduce classical ruins to portraiture, linking the sitter to antiquity, a very common effect in later paintings. Another painting is a striking crucifixion. St. Mary Magdelene is another of V's strong patrician women; she seems actually to be holding the cross upright in her hand. At the base is a landscape, showing not nature, but a large city. Its is a riot of classical buildings and Gothic churches, and shows V's strong interest in architecture. Most of these buildings are made up of the same sort of cubes, cylinders and spheres as in his Venice painting. It recalls the more restrained but larger and extremely forceful classical buildings in the background of the Feast in the House of Levi.

V's color schemes often seem to center around silver. It is an unusual color for a painting. In the Venice picture, there is a matching small portion of the sky. V's skies are very dramatic and emotional. You can loose yourself in the dream like, emotionally charged moods they convey.

Bernardo Strozzi. His paintings often show Biblical events in terms of Italian life. His Annunciation shows Mary as a typical young Italian woman, and his Tribute Money shows Jesus as a kindly, friendly looking young Italian man. These portraits are tasteful and respectful, but they are very different from conventional religious iconography. The scenes somehow look like everyday life.

Domenico Fetti. His works often center on the portraiture of some humble person, a monk or young girl. They are at the center of a simple composition, one that represents them in some ordinary activity.

Guilio Romano was a contemporary of Titian, and his portrait of a young man is in a style similar to Titian's. Even the beards are similar - perhaps just a reflection of men's fashions at the time. Similarly, Gentile Bellini's portrait of the Queen of Cypress shows her dressed in the same style as the courtesans in Carpaccio's famous picture. Bellini also did a portrait of a Turkish nobleman; both portraits have extra material in the background, and convey the effect of political events, as if they played a role in some sort of diplomatic mission or transaction. Many non-Venetian portraits seem to take place in some timeless, purely visual realm, as if to say: Here is the appearance of the sitter. By contrast, Venetian portraits seem to be one instant in a story, a momentary snapshot showing one set of emotions and one set of postures and actions, out of a series of many that make up some story or drama. Here Bellini helps convey such an effect through the Queen's veil. It is delicately poised, with a dangling pearl in the center, and such an unstable pose can only be a single instant out of a more complex movement. Venetian art has its roots in the cycles of large narrative paintings done by Bellini and Carpaccio for various guilds and organizations in Venice, and it never seems to entirely lose this narrative quality, even in portraiture.

Palma Vecchio. I am used to seeing Palma's pictures of young women, sweet, almost simpering, gentle, smiling, very pretty and delicate. Here is the first painting of a man I have ever seen by Palma, and am startled to see it is in the same style. The young man is the picture comes from the same planet of gentle sweet people as Palma's women. Even the young man's armor looks pretty and glamorous. In real life armor is very heavy, awkward, and clunky looking, but in paintings it is always glamorized: see especially Sir Frank Dicksee in the 19th Century. In the background is a brilliantly colored landscape, with a winding road that is crooked, jagged as a thunderbolt. Similar winding roads show up in other Palma landscapes.

Lorenzo Lotto. His painting of Apollo asleep in a small forest clearing is similar to the hemmed in quality of his St. Jerome in the Wilderness. Apollo's clearing is nearly circular, the same as St. Jerome's rock platform. The discarded garments nearby recall the cloth hanging behind the head of in the portrait - they have the same shape of slightly folded, curved fabric.

Polabro da Lanciano. Born c1515. He lived just before El Greco, and boy does his work suggest he influenced El Greco in style, as did his contemporary Tintoretto. The brilliant colors of the clothes of the people in the painting seem especially close to El Greco's. Who has ever seen a painting of a Roman Centurion in which the Centurion's breast plate is this brilliant shade of green?

Jacopo da Bassano. Bassano's contemporary Tintoretto has a cat in his painting of The Supper at Emaus; Bassano also had such cats in his compositions. The posture of the Sleeping Shepherd here is typical of the complex postures of people in Bassano's works.

Giulio Carpioni. Born 1613, the generation after Poussin, his work has the same sort of neoclassical quality as Poussin's. It is fairly different from the traditions of Venetian painting.

Sebastiano Ricci. Ricci's paintings often seem to focus on pools of water. In his Bathsheba at the Bath, there is a fountain bubbling on the right of the picture, and Bathsheba is delicately plunging one ankle into a pool. It is not surprising that the anonymous landscape in the show is tentatively attributed to Ricci; it has the pool of water in its center similar to the kind Ricci loved to paint. The style of this landscape vaguely recalls that of Salvatore Rosa, two generations before.

Canaletto. His pictures of Venetian exteriors often show buildings that form complex geometric patterns, such as cylinders and rectangles. They have a massive, solid look to them. There are also little glittering points of light all over Canaletto's paintings. Canaletto seems to be a major influence on the landscapes in the modern Dutch painter Maurice Escher.

Bellotto. Canaletto's nephew also did landscapes; they are airier and less purely geometric than his uncle's. His Vienna landscape is the first Germanic picture I recall seeing by an Italian artist of his era. The grounds of the Kaunitz-Esterházy palace in Vienna recall at once mazes in the 1990's books of children's puzzles by Rolf Heim; maybe Heim visited or lives near this palace in Vienna.