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The Artful Traveler: Venice, By Way of Boston

Flora, about 1516-1518, Titian, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Reviewed by Steve Jermanok

    All it takes is one step into the Gund Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to realize that this summer's blockbuster show is not another banal retrospective.  On a wall are two paintings of the Virgin and her child , one painted by Venice's leading painter in the early 1500s, Giovanni Bellini, the other by his talented student, Tiziano Vecellio, otherwise known as Titian.

    Bellini's oil on wood panel is an impressive piece with fine detail, yet it feels flat and two dimensional, especially compared with Titian's oil on canvas, a new medium at the time. Look closely at Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor (1513-1514) and it's hard not to be mesmerized by the far more natural flesh tones of the baby's skin, the long flowing blonde hair of Saint Catherine, and the intricate folds on her lavender dress.  It's like watching television in high def and would propel Titian to the forefront of the Venetian School.    

    16th-century Venice was a glamorous city of some 150,000 people, celebrated for its fashion, silks, glass, books, and, of course, art.  For the next 30 years, Titian would ride the surge of popularity, painting monumental altarpieces for the finest churches in Venice, and cultivating an influential clientele that included Popes and the King of Spain.

    He certainly had competition down south in the form of Michelangelo, but it wasn't until the late 1540s that a pair of painters in his own city would challenge him for those important commissions. This sets the stage for Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice, on view at the MFA through August 16th, before moving to the Louvre in Paris from September 14, 2009 to January 4, 2010.


    The dramatic transformation to oil on canvas served Titian particularly well when it came to painting the female figure.  In his depiction of the mythological goddess, Flora (1514), the soft buttery skin of her exposed shoulder and barely clothed breasts, rub against the silky white fabric of her robe, creating a highly erotic painting that must have caused quite a stir when it made its debut half a millennium ago. Holding fresh flower petals in her hand and glancing to the side with full red lips only add to the sensual allure.

    "The soft brushstroke and texture of his paintings are the reason Titian is referred to as the greatest painter of the female nude," says Frederick Ilchman, curator of the show at the MFA. 
    One of the earliest works by Tintoretto in the galleries is Esther before Ahasuerus (1547-1548), a large work on loan from none other than Queen Elizabeth II.  Esther, the Jewish Queen of Persia, faints in front of her husband, the King, in an effort to save her people.

    Tintoretto's long brushstrokes create an energetic feel proving that he was far more interested in the action of the scene. His works tend to be darker and more hastily made than the more celebrated Titian.

    Veronese, on the contrary, modeled himself after Titian and would soon gain the old man's friendship.  At the young age of 19, he painted Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood (1548) and already we see the artist's bright pastel palate and elegantly staged figures that would predominate his portraits seen later in the show.  In one curatorial coup, the family of Iseppo da Porto is back together again. For some reason, Veronese painted the silk merchant and his son separate from his wife and daughter, but now the two long paintings stand side-by-side, on loan from their respective museums, the Uffizi in Florence and the Walters Museum in Baltimore. 

    Ilchman notes that "an exhibition should have a theatrical aspect to it" and he takes particular delight in putting a Tintoretto work on the ceiling as the artist originally intended when he gave the mythological painting to the influential art critic of his time; also having viewers stroll through red velvet curtains into a darkened, intimate setting to see a room full of nudes.

    But all you have to do is look at one wall of the exhibition where the three artists paint a similar theme, the Supper at Emmaus, to realize that Titian had few rivals in his day or in the pantheon of art history.  His brilliantly detailed depiction of Jesus dining with two strangers after his crucifixion is far more realistic, accomplished, and ambitious than his two cohorts of 16th-century Venice, the reason why Titian has never fallen out of fashion with art lovers or art historians.

Supper at Emmaus, 1533-34, Musee du Louvre, Paris
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

    "Titian has always been in the top handful of painters since the middle of his career, whether your group includes Velasquez and Rembrandt, or Manet and Cezanne," says Ilchman, adding that "Veronese and Tintoretto share the silver medal, but Titian gets the gold."

    Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice runs through August 16, 2009 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

    In his former life when print was king, Steve Jermanok was a columnist on the arts for Boston Magazine, a contributing editor for Art & Antiques, and guest editor of the arts issue for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.  Now he's happy to share his passion with the readers of Everett Potter's Travel Report. Reach Steve at his blog, Active Travels.

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