Top Venetian painters and their secret painting technique
VENICE • VENETIAN PAINTERS
The Bellini family and their peers pioneered a typically Venetian style of painting that was characterised by deep, rich colours, an emphasis on patterns and surfaces, and a strong interest in the effects of light.
Painting in Early and High Renaissance Venice was focused primarily around the Bellini family: Jacopo, the father, Giovanni and Gentile, his sons, and Andrea Mantegna, a brother-in-law. It is thought that Giorgione trained in the Bellini workshop and Titian was an apprentice there in his childhood.
The Bellinis and their peers pioneered a typically Venetian style of painting that was characterised by deep, rich colours, an emphasis on patterns and surfaces, and a strong interest in the effects of light. Venetian painters were aware of linear perspective and indeed made use of it in their work, but they also frequently suggested depth through gradually shifting colours and the play of light and shadow.
Venetian trade links influenced and shaped local painting practices. Ships came over from the East bringing luxurious, exotic pigments, while traders from Northern Europe imported a new painting technique: oil painting. Gradually, traditional forms of paint and painting were abandoned for better-suited colours, and Giovanni Bellini in particular, in the 1460s-70s, took the innovative approach of combining oil painting from Northern Europe with exotic pigments from the East.
Over the following few decades, oil paint largely supplanted tempera, a quick-drying paint bound by egg yolk that created a flat, opaque surface.
To achieve deep tones, Venetian painters would prepare a panel with a smooth white ground and then slowly build up multiple layers of oil paint which would then dry very slowly, thus giving the artist an opportunity to blend colours and, in doing so, achieve subtle gradations. When dry, oil paint gives a translucent, shiny light effect, but studies have in fact found that Bellini, Giorgione and Titian took this further and added ground-up glass to their pigments to better reflect light, and thus evoke the shiny, humid atmosphere of Venice.
Born into a leading dynasty of Venetian painters, Giovanni Bellini spent the majority of his life, 65 years to be precise, working in Venice. He is believed to have spent a great deal of time in one particular area of the city, which meant that his vision was very much rooted in where he is and where he is from: Venice. Historians say that he was once asked by courtly patrons in Italy to paint a view of Jerusalem. Bellini strongly refused because he had not been to Jerusalem himself, and would only paint what he knew well.
Giovanni’s deep response to the natural environment is considered innovative by art historians, as naturalism did not take a major role in paintings before Bellini.
While he spent most of his life painting traditional religious subjects such as Madonnas, Pietàs and crucifixions, as the 1500s approached, that is 20 years later in his career, his chosen subject matter began to be enriched by the development of the mise-en-scène and physical setting of the picture. He became one of the greatest landscape painters, who used naturalism when depicting a sacred scene.
The Bellini family: Jacopo and His Sons, Giovanni and Gentile
Giovanni’s early artistic skills were shaped by his father, Jacopo Bellini, and inspired by his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna. Giovanni worked as an assistant at his father’s workshop, along with his brother Gentile, and the two brothers were very close. Indeed, they collaborated in later life.
Giovanni’s brother Gentile was also a great Venetian artist, chosen by the government to continue the painting of great historical scenes in the Doge’s Palace, decorating the Hall of the Great Council. In 1479, however, Giovanni took over from him when Gentile was sent on a mission to paint Sultan Mehmet in Constantinople. From then until 1480, Giovanni devoted a great deal of his time and energy to fulfilling his duties as conservator of the paintings in the hall. During this time, he also painted six or seven new canvases of his own. These were his greatest works but were sadly destroyed when the huge hall was gutted by fire in 1577.
His remaining artworks are displayed in different galleries, such as the Galleria d’ell Accademia of Venice, the National Gallery in London and the National Art Gallery of Washington. However, his work can still be seen in the Venetian churches, in the original places for which he painted. For example, the Frari holds on to one of his most serene triptychs ‘Madonna and Child’ and San Zaccaria has the ‘Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints’ altarpiece that remained one of his most famous works.
The only extant description of Giovanni’s personality is in the words of the great German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, in a letter he wrote from Venice in 1506: “Everyone tells me what an upright man he is, so that I am really fond of him. He is very old, and still he is the best painter of them all.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Giovanni continued the workshop that his father started in Venice, one of the most prestigious of its time. Today, Giovanni is also celebrated for his pioneering and indeed remarkable use of colour and his portrayal of natural light which is such that it almost depicts the exact time of day. Considered as one of the most influential Venetian artists, his work marked a turning point in Venetian art and his workshop is known for having welcomed world-famous students like Giorgione and Titian.
Giorgione is one of the most mysterious figures in European art. He has a great reputation as an artist, but only six of his paintings are known to have survived. Giorgione is thought to have disliked signing any of his artworks, making it harder to distinguish his work after his death.
He and Titian worked very closely together, influencing each other so strongly that it is impossible to differentiate their separate works. The duo revolutionised the genre of portraiture and were recognised as the leaders of their new school of ‘arte moderna’, meaning ‘modern art’, which is characterised by paintings which are more flexible and free from symmetry and the remnants of hieratic conventions and which eschewed the skills gained from their master Giovanni Bellini.
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio)
Titian is known to be the first painter who was able to gain wide international recognition and to have a mainly international clientele. Titian first joined Gentile Bellini’s workshop for his artistic training, and later joined Giovanni Bellini’s upon Gentile’s death in 1507. During that time, Giovanni Bellini gained a reputation for having the most important workshop in Venice. Another world-famous student from the Bellini workshop, Giorgione, is said to have influenced Titian’s early work, which is characterised by a pastoral mood.
Early in 1516, Titian’s fame spread abroad, and he was already famous for his paintings of Venus and his painting style, characterised by clear textures of lush velvet and soft flesh, expressive brushwork, brilliant colour and atmospheric scenes.
Among the religious paintings Titian produced, ‘Assumption’ is one of his most revolutionary. This monumental masterpiece occupies the high altar of Santa Maria Dei Frari, in Venice. ‘Pesaro Madonna’, another masterpiece by the great Titian, served as inspiration for Baroque masters including Rubens and Van Dyck, and is also located in the Frari.
1530 was the defining year in which Titian’s international career began, when he met the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Bologna. Charles V had inherited a wide section of Europe by that time, extending from Spain and the Netherlands to Austria and the Kingdom of Naples and reaching to overseas Spanish America. In 1533, Titian painted the Emperor, who was extremely pleased with his work and granted him a knighthood. Thereafter, Titian became the principal painter to the imperial court, and also created portraits of leading aristocrats of Italy. Later, he also became the official painter of Philipp II of Spain, Charles V’s son, who took the throne after his father.
One of his last works, the ‘Pieta’, now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, was originally destined to go in the church of Frari where Titian was buried, as the artist initially designed it as his own tomb.
The National Gallery in London describes Titian as ‘the greatest painter of 16th-century Venice’.
Vittore Carpaccio was a Venetian painter who studied under Gentile Bellini, and his early work also suggests direct influences from his master.
In 1490, Carpaccio began his famous 'Legend of St. Ursula’, a series of large wall-paintings which are now located in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice. The paintings were commissioned by a noble Venetian family who had a confraternity under their patronage, named Saint Ursula. The subject of Carpaccio’s work came from her legendary medieval story. According to the Golden Legend, which is the closest record to an encyclopaedia of medieval saint lore that survives today, Saint Ursula was the beautiful daughter of the Christian King of Brittany. The King was betrothed a pagan prince to be married to his daughter in exchange for their conversion to Christianity. Thus, the King and his daughter Ursula, accompanied by 11,000 virgins, made a pilgrimage to Rome. On their return to Cologne, she was martyred by Atilla, King of the Huns, together with her following virgins, after she refused to marry the man.
Carpaccio’s paintings are notable for their wealth of realistic detail, sunny colour and dramatic narratives. He worked with Giovanni Bellini on the Doge’s Palace, to decorate the Hall of the Great Council, but like many other major works, the cycle was entirely lost in the disastrous fire of 1577. While much of his best work remains in Venice, his art has been rather neglected by comparison with his Venetian contemporaries such as Giovanni Bellini or Giorgione.
In fact, however, his artwork is as striking as theirs and is somewhat of a hidden gem. John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the Victorian era, described his paintings for their precise rendering of architecture and a luminous atmosphere.
Tintoretto (Jacopo Comin)
Born in Venice in 1518, Jacopo Comin was the eldest of 21 children. His father, Giovanni, was a cloth drier or ‘tintore’, and this was how his son got the nickname of ‘Tintoretto’, meaning little dyer or dryer’s boy.
Jacopo was a born with artistic flair, and his father decided to take him to Titian’s workshop when he was amazed with how Jacobo daubed the walls with dying pigments. Tintoretto, who is thought to have been aged around 12 at the time, had only been in the studio for ten days when Titian sent him home for good. People now speculate as to why Titian would reject a promising artist. Some believe that it might be due to Titian’s jealousy of a new talent that might overshadow his own. Others believe that it was because of Tintoretto’s highly spirited drawings that exhibited so much independence of artistic manner, which is something that Titian would most likely have judged.
What is the real reason?
We don’t know, but from that time onwards, the two always remained distant. Titian hindered Tintoretto for years, blocking commissions and admissions to organisations that could have offered Tintoretto work. There was an active disparagement of Tintoretto that lasted until Titian’s death in 1776. Irrespective of their bad chemistry, Tintoretto had always admired Titian’s works ever since he saw the ‘Assumption’ altarpiece in the Frari.
The inscription on his studio wall, “The Drawing of Michelangelo and the colouring of Titian”, proves his admiration of Titian, stating the artist’s ambition and inspiration for his paintings. Therefore, he would go on to combine masculine drawings of human figures inspired by Michelangelo with sensuous and colouring effects inspired by Titian.