Titian and the Renaissance in Venice

A little sadness seems to lie in that look

The dark eyes testify to the absence, the short moment in which the thoughts determine the expression, in which the whole concentration on the feelings expresses itself in a blurred look into an unknown distance and in the lips that are just a little too tightly pressed together, the moment in which the corners of the mouth relax the face into a mask of emotion without any work. Where might he look, the ‘young man’ that Titian portrayed around 1510, what might he think?

The small oil painting, only 20 x 17 cm, keeps these secrets even after more than 500 years. It does not reveal who we see, it does not reveal what he sees. And it doesn’t reveal any more of the literal circumstances in which it may have been thought of and finally looked at.

With all the large-format ‘Gentiluomini’ here, the doge and courtiers, with their precious robes, in ermine and silk, their splendid traditional costumes and shiny armour, their self-confident stand and gaze, I perhaps remain attached to this one, and come back here again and again in the course of my visit to the exhibition ‘Titian and the Renaissance in Venice’ in the Städel Museum.

Only later, in the exhibition catalogue, do I come across the painting ‘Man with Red Cap’, which Titian made in the same year. The gaze, the mouth, the hair, the cap, the shirt… So much resemblance and yet nowhere an indication of a similarity, except this: it also bears no name.

Tiziano Vecellio (1488/90 – 1576) is about twenty years old when he paints the unknown, and thus at the beginning of an artistic career that makes him the central figure of the Venetian art scene and ‘its’ Renaissance in his long life and far beyond.

Here, at the centre of the colour business, Renaissance means ‘Colorito alla Veneziana’, the art of colour. The textile and glass industries demand the best pigments for their products, and painters benefit from this quality for their art as well. The paint merchants, here in Venice their own profession, became important confidants and business partners, whose importance can be seen in the impressive ‘Portrait of the paint merchant Alvise Gradignan della Scala’, which Titian made of the same, as it were in homage to his work, around 1561/62.

The effect of light and colour, the effects of a skilful interplay of staging

Venetian painting could draw on a high-quality and extensive palette of colours, and painters such as Titian could develop such a skill in dealing with light and colour. Already during his lifetime, his art was regarded as a benchmark for competitors and admirers, as exhibition curator Bastian Eclercy emphasizes:

Hardly any area of art history has experienced such a continuous reception. Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese have been admired like Michelangelo and Raphael. In Frankfurt one can now trace this admiration and experience it for the present. More than 100 masterpieces of the Venetian Renaissance – more than 20 of them by Titian – open up a view of a fascinating epoch, its themes and a group of artists whose works still fascinate us today.

In the exhibition ‘Titian and the Renaissance in Venice’ one does not follow them and their pictorial stories chronologically, but over eight thematically arranged chapters (from which I would like to present a few examples), and thus gets to know in each of them the peculiarities that constitute the Venetian influence of Renaissance art. I have already mentioned one of them above, because it was, as it were, the basis for the artistry, the ‘Colorito alla Veneziana’.

The broad spectrum of colours, the pastiness of the commission, drama and contrast

This is not the least of the differences with the more drawing-based painting in Rome or Florence in those years when artists could still acquire their pigments exclusively through pharmacists.

In the chapter ‘Gentiluomini’, in the rooms in which one encounters the ‘Portrait of a Young Man’, one also encounters impressive examples of this masterful handling of light and colour, as it could only develop here, perhaps owed above all to the new circumstances and possibilities.

Alfonso d’Avola, for example, stands in a harness with a determined view into the distance, whose richness of detail, ornamentation and metallic brilliance can still overwhelm her to this day in the perfection of her depiction. All elements of this armour and even the small bellhop, which still reaches the helmet, bear witness to the status and influence of the portrayed person. And yet, his face, this gaze, the fine details of his beard and hair, the determination in his eyes and mouth, all this, which takes up so little space in the overall picture, stands so wonderfully contrasted, so bright and clear against the dark background, is precisely the perfection of the play with light and colour that the gaze of the observer is always looking for support there.

This staging, this ‘gaze guidance’ over background and foreground, from the overall impression into the details and back, can be admired in other places. Noli me tangere (Christ appears to Mary Magdalene)’, an undisputed masterly early work (around 1514) by Titian, for example, combines the inner narrative of a biblical motif with a comprehensible and equal landscape of nature and architecture.

Heaven and earth, resurrection and ascension: starting from Magdalena’s skirt, the eyes follow her gaze and her hand, which seeks proof of the resurrection. Over Jesus’ right hand, with which he gently and firmly pulls his robe to protect himself, over his arm and along his body, the gaze leads up to his gaze, his head, the moment when the earthly and the heavenly finally divide. His gaze leads back to Magdalena, but the head, and thus the body, ‘unites’ itself with the tree striving over the horizon of the blue sea towards the sky, at the crown of which our gaze is again released into the surroundings, and over the courtyard in the background, the path that meanders from here into the landscape, and the wonderfully detailed, shimmering green bush in front of it, glides back into the action.

In the exhibition chapter ‘Nymphs in Arcadia – Saints in the Wilderness. The Invention of Landscape’, numerous other examples also deal with this experience of the independence of landscape in the motif. It becomes a consciously set, and with all the elements ‘speaking’ backdrop of the motif. From here it is not far to the independent subject of landscape painting.

The landscape also plays a not insignificant role in the representation of the ‘Sacra Conversazione’, the ‘sacred conversation’. The exhibition begins with this chapter, because the Venetian Renaissance in particular has taken up the motif of the Madonna with Child in addition to sacred figures. But it could also end with this, and thus, in a quasi summary, tell something about the means, technique and motifs of painting at that time. Here landscape and personnel meet on an equal footing, here the variety of colours and their conscious use overwhelm, here the art of storytelling and inventiveness become obvious, through the motif and history approach the world of experience of a real present, here the ‘sacred’ and the ‘earthly’ no longer exclude each other, everything comes together and becomes a means to an end.

It is not Titian’s work that stands at the beginning of the exhibition. With Paolo Veronese’s large-format painting ‘Ruhe auf der Flucht nach Ägypten’ (‘Silence on the Flight to Egypt’), it is even one of those paintings which, in terms of time (created around 1572), already marks the confirmation of a line of tradition which Titian followed around 1530 with the work ‘Madonna with Child, Saint Catherine and a Shepherd (The Madonna with the Rabbit)’ also exhibited here.

And yet, in its format and richness of motifs, in its colourfulness and all the wonderful details, in its combination of temporal and perspective levels, its reference and its freedom of staging, it is probably the best possible example to go into the extensive world of themes that can be experienced in the following rooms. And perhaps it is also deliberately chosen for the beginning, because it guides and accompanies our walk through the exhibition in the same way as many of the motifs here guide our gaze. You start at one point, but you also come back here.

With each round through the eight chapters, the impression of details increases, you discover more and more stories, but also more and more secrets.

The chapter ‘Poesia and Mythos’ is explicitly dedicated to the mystery, or rather to poetry, by presenting paintings, many of which are still puzzling today. Even though the staff is recognizable, and thus references to ancient poetry and mythology, for example, the picture’s invention can no longer be finally deciphered. Myth, history and anecdote exist side by side in an image with equal rights and also bear witness to the self-confidence of the artists of the time to establish their own genre in whose fictional poetry ancient motifs and their own poetry touch.

Cupid with two dogs

Despite the clarity of the motifs, there are numerous questions about the motivation to combine them in the same way. In the looks and temperaments one may recognize an allegory of love or marriage, as Sofia Magnaguagno states in the catalogue.

The exhibition ‘Titian and the Renaissance in Venice’ shows with a fascinating selection of masterpieces the power of innovation and inspiration of that time. Rarely enough can works by Bellini, il Vecchio, del Piombo, Lotto, Tintoretto, Bassano, Veronese and even Titian be experienced to such an extent and in such a place. Whatever influence this epoch had on art history can also be seen in the epilogue chapter on the European consequences of the Venetian Renaissance, from El Greco to Thomas Struth, with examples spanning centuries and national borders.

El Greco, Rubens, Guercino, Tiepolo, Rota, Géricault, and finally photographs by Thomas Struth: similar to the gaze that wanders over the motifs and sees stories and makes stories think, artists over the centuries repeatedly find their way back to the images of the time and carry their impressions, supplemented by their very individual expressive possibilities, into their present and finally into ours.