Monday, November 27, 2023

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Venice City of Pictures by Martin Gayford


Venice, City of Pictures

By Martin Gayford
Thames & Hudson/463 pages/$39.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The earliest of the art treasures of Venice is the bronze statue of a winged lion which has served for centuries as the emblem of the maritime city and its bygone republic. Much battered by time, weather and history, the Lion of Venice was created in antiquity, ca. 300 B.C., and brought from Greece or the Middle East by Venetian seafarers. 

Striding atop its column in the Piazzetta San Marco, the Lion of Venice strikes a commanding pose. It would be natural if an author, seeking to relate the fascinating cultural history of Venice, would utilize the leonine symbol of St. Mark to set the theme of his tale.  

Venice, despite the importance of its old, indomitable bronze lion, is not known for its statues. Venice is a "city of pictures" as Martin Gayford affirms. The evidence to prove Gayford's case is his tour de force saga of the lives of Venetian painters and of visiting artists to "La Serenissma", recently published by Thames and Hudson. 

Gayford is a marvelous writer, and, as his insightful conversations on art - and life - with Anthony Gormley and David Hockney prove, a delightful colleague. But in the case of the present book, we should think of Gayford as a worthy successor of the intelligent, urbane diplomats sent abroad by the Republic of Venice during the 1600's and 1700's. 

If you wanted to get to the truth of political matters back then, the "man-in-the-know" was invariably the Venetian ambassador. In terms of art "matters" today, it is Martin Gayford.

In 400-plus pages of scintillating prose (complemented by superlative, full-color illustrations), Gayford tells the story of the "wedding" of Venice with painting - rather than with the sea as celebrated by the annual ceremony officiated by the ruler of Venice, the Doge.

                               Canaletto, The Rialto Bridge from the North, 1725                                   (Pinacoteca Agnelli, Turin)

From the Bellini Dynasty of the fifteenth century to Canalleto in the eighteenth and on to the Biennale of today, Venetian art has emphasized painting in oils. This involved Venetian painters in aesthetic competition with other schools of Italian art, chiefly of Florence. Usually, the paragone, as the dispute is formally termed, is represented as disegno vs. colore, drawing vs. painting, Florence vs. Venice. 

This is much too simplistic, of course. The great Venetian masters of the early Renaissance, however, really did embrace painting in oils, much faster than their Florentine rivals.

Geography and topography are destiny - in politics, trade and art. Just as the coastal marshes on which Venice was created impelled Venetians to take to the sea to earn their fortune, so the humid climate of the city and its surrounding region dictated what genres of art would be be suitable in Venice.

A key painting in understanding Venice's early history and art is Domenico Tintoretto's Saint Mark Blessing the Islands of Venice, painted 1587-90. 

St. Mark, one of the disciples of Jesus and author of the first gospel, was reputedly martyred and buried in Egypt. In 828, Mark's "body" was smuggled out of Alexandria and brought to Venice. As Tintoretto's painting shows, Venice was far from a great city at that point. The citizens of Venice are shown living in huts constructed from reeds. These primitive dwellings had been built on the shores of  the Lagoon to which the first Venetians fled to escape Germanic invaders, especially the Lombards, who swarmed over the passes leading through the Alps.

Domenico Tintoretto,
Saint Mark Blessing the Islands of Venice, 1587–90
 (Scuola Grande di San Marco, Venice)

Tintoretto shows St. Mark, accompanied by the Winged Lion, invoking God's grace on the rustic settlements. These, in due course, would rise on the support of hundreds of thousands of tree trunks driven into the marshy soil to form the foundations of a great metropolis. 

St. Mark's blessing could not change the climate. Painting on wet plaster, buon fresco, the chosen art form of ancient and medieval Italy, flourished in Florence and points south. In the moist, salty air of Venice, fresco paintings often would not properly set. Those that did stick to the walls soon faded or flaked. Venetian painting was left hanging, high but not "dry."

Mosaics in the Byzantine tradition featured prominently in the decoration of Venice's medieval churches, including its great cathedral of San Marco. This sacred art would, over the centuries form the setting for countless religious processions, troops of gawking tourists and painters, both native-born and Romantic-era foreigners, drawn by architecture which often seems more celestial than made by the hand of man.

John Wharlton Bunney, Facade of San Marco, 1876-82
(Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield)

Venetian paintings on wood, small in scale, incorporated gold leaf backgrounds, another carryover from Byzantine art. But when news of the oil painting innovations taking place in the Netherlands reached Venice during the last decades of the 1400's, the leading artists in the city, the Bellini brothers, Giovanni and Gentile, quickly embraced the new medium.

For all of the innovative skill of the Bellini brothers, oil painting in Venice really came into its own with the emergence of the long-lived Titian (ca. 1490-1576). Gayford devotes three chapters to Titian. This is only fitting. Titian - Tiziano Vecellio - was the perfect artist for Venice. The ruling class paid well for art, but demanded masterpieces for their money and timely completion as stipulated by contract. Titian delivered on both counts.

"Your Servant from Cadore", as Titian called himself, referring to the small Alpine town of his birth, was a savvy businessman and supreme master of painting in oils. 

Titian's early altarpiece, the Assunta, painted 1516-18, for the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, established his career as the preeminent painter of Venice. Gayford devotes considerable attention to this masterful work.

Titian, Assunta, c.1516–18 
(The Yorck Project, 2002) 

Gayford's analysis of the Assunta is based on many visits to the church where it still hangs, an astonishing backdrop to the glittering main altar. Gayford's thoughtful analysis enables readers, who have never had an opportunity to view this depiction of the heaven-bound Mary, mother of Jesus, to experience this compelling painting as if they had seen it at first hand.

Brilliantly dissecting the composition of the Assunta, Gayford also conveys the sense of ineffable mystery surrounding the Assumption, the event in Christian history which the painting records. As a result, we are enabled to see Titian's Assunta for what it is: a "moving" picture. It is an absorbing narrative work, truly cinematic in scope and effect, even if the Virgin Mary and the band of Apostles never flex a muscle.

Titian's "your servant from Cadore" statement was partly a pose and a bit of a ploy. He was certainly no sycophant, content with his wages and anonymity, as had been the case with artists during the Middle Ages. Titian was adept at making the ruling elite of Venice feel completely in charge, while he steered his own artistic course. Interestingly, God the Father in the Assunta looks a Venetian doge and later, during the 1540's, Titian painted Doge Andrea Gritti looking like God.

Titian, Portrait of Andrea Gritti, c.1546–50 
(Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Titian was wise to flatter Gritti. Doge from 1525-1538, Gritti was ruthless and resolute during years when Venice faced seemingly impossible odds in the endless Italian wars of the 1500s. Gayford mercifully spares his readers details of these interminable conflicts. But he relates, with relish and the elan of a born story-teller, just how "no-nonsense" Venetian leaders could be when they did not get what they paid for.

In 1545, the Florentine-born architect, Jacopo Sansovino, was thrown into prison. His crime?  Part of the roof collapsed of the library he designed to house a collection of rare manuscripts, brought from Constantinople to Venice. An early ice storm struck before the concrete could set and a protective coat of lead laid down. Sansovino was released from jail but he was held personally accountable for the reconstruction costs. The result was a masterpiece, the Biblioteca Marciana, but it it took Sansovino twenty years to pay-off the bill.

The Biblioteca Marciana, with one of the two columns in the 
Piazzetta San Marco on the left. (Photo rudiernst/

Venice survived the perils of the Italian Wars and collapsing library roofs. However, over the course of the long and tormented sixteenth century, a new threat appeared, which no artist or writer in Venice could ignore: the Inquisition.

Venice, though it had many economic ties with Northern Europe, did not renounce Papal authority during the Protestant Reformation. While successful in preserving its political independence, the Venetian Republic reluctantly formed a local branch of the heresy-hunting Inquisition in 1547. Skillfully limiting Papal interference in local affairs, the Venetian Inquisition dealt with Protestants, free-thinkers and other troublemakers on its own initiative. It was nothing to be trifled with.

Religiously inclined painters like Lorenzo Lotto had to worry that their fervent depictions of sacred events accorded with the critical scrutiny of the Venetian Inquisitors. Other artists had to contend with charges of impiety. Paolo Veronese, a master of grandiose spectacle, was summoned to testify for including "buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities" in a painting featuring Jesus and his disciples. 

The Venetians carefully navigated their way through the dangers of the Reformation and ensuing Wars of Religion. But the political and economic power of the Republic was largely eclipsed by the early 1700's due to the shift of commerce to nations with ready access to the Atlantic trade routes. It was then that Venetian art emerged as an international force in its own right. Venice's navy no longer ruled the Mediterranean Sea but a Venetian "state of mind" intrigued and influenced artists from all over Europe and, ultimately, the world.  

Gayford writes of the visit of Johann Wolfgang Goethe to Venice in 1786. The lyrical, almost hypnotic, prose of the following quotation is indicative of Gayford's ability to summon the past to life:

After leaving the Palazzo Pisani Moretta, Goethe had an artistic epiphany. As he 'glided over the lagoons in the brilliant sunshine' he perceived everything in terms of light, shadow, and colour. He noticed gondoliers silhouetted against the blue sky as they rowed with easy strokes across the light-green surface of the water... 'Everything was painted clearly on a clear background. It only needed the sparkle of a white-crested wave to put the dot on the i.' 

Gayford continues his evocative commentary by noting that Goethe could well have been describing a scene painted a century later, by Claude Monet or John Singer Sargent during their sojourns in Venice. 

 Claude Monet, Palazzo da Mula, 1908 (National Gallery of Art, Wash., D.C.)

Gayford concludes this passage by noting that Venice "can seem outmoded, quaintly irrelevant to the modern world. Then, suddenly, you realize that it is not."

Art lovers, once they look beyond the rhetoric about the "inevitable" decay of Venice have been coming to the same conclusion as Gayford's for a long time. As a result, Venice, a city supposedly sinking back into the marshes, has played a major role in the rise of modern art. J.M.W. Turner, John Ruskin, Édouard Manet, Walter Sickert, Serge Diaghilev and Peggy Guggenheim have all been touched by "La Serenissma" and they, in turn, have shared their experience of Venice with the world.

The same is true for Martin Gayford. St. Mark's Winged Lion has reached down from his column to touch Gayford on the shoulder. Gayford has responded with a  book about Venice, of such perfection that it only needs the merest flight of fancy to imagine the sound of a gondolier's oar, the sight of the sun glinting on the facade of San Marco and "the sparkle of a white-crested wave" on the waters of the Venetian Lagoon.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. 

Cover art for Venice: City  of Picture, Courtesy of Thames & Hudson. Illustrations from the book were provided by Thames & Hudson, courtesy of the institutions or web sites, noted below. The image of Titian's Assunta, courtesy of the Yorck Project, 2002.                                                                                      

Introductory Image: Cover art of Venice: City of Pictures (2023), courtesy of Thames & Hudson.

Canaletto (Italian, 1697-1768) The Rialto Bridge from the North, 1725. Oil on canvas, 91.4 × 135.8 (36 × 53 1⁄2). Pinacoteca Agnelli, Turin.

Domenico Tintoretto (Italian, 1560-1635) St. Mark Blessing the Islands of Venice, 1587-90. Oil on canvas, 319 × 392 (125 5⁄8 × 154 3⁄8). Scuola Grande di San Marco, Venice

John Sharpton Bunny (British, 1828-1882) Facade of San Marco, 1876-1882. Oil on canvas, 144.7 × 226 (57 × 89). Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield.

Titian (Italian,  ca. 1490-1576) Assunta, 1516-1518. Oil on panel: 690 x 360 cm. (270 x 140 in.) Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice. The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei

Titian (Italian, ca. 1490-1576) Portrait of Andrea Gritti, 1546-1550. Oil on canvas, 133.6 × 103.2 (52 5⁄8 × 40 11/16). Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C

Photo of the  Biblioteca Marciana, with one of the two columns in the Piazzetta San Marco on the left. Photo rudiernst/

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Palazzo de Mula, 1908. Oil on canvas, 61.4 × 80.5 (24 3/16 × 31 11/16). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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