Titian’s Altarpieces: Colorito, innovation and invention

The unique qualities in Venetian painting of the Renaissance are due to the focus on colorito, or color. The Venetian painter’s interest in the way light and shadow could be used to mimic form, and their controlled use of color, by layering and glazing paint, is championed by Lodovico Dolce, an Italian theorist of painting, as being superior to the Florentine style with its emphasis on disegno or drawing. Titian was a master of painting and colorito; his influence on Western art is enormous and far reaching. Through careful examination of Titian’s altarpiece paintings, it is possible to glimpse not only the unusual, yet inherently Venetian, way Titian approached painting, but also the decisions that led to the final artworks and to his unique contributions to Renaissance painting.

1. Art in Italy 14-1500’s What’s going on/what’s the norm Who are the artists Who are the patrons Discuss both Northern Italy and Venice with the emphasis on Venice2. Venetian painting early cinquecento What is typical of Venetian painting Who are the artists Who are the patrons What changes are taking place, what is driving these changes

One of the principle factors leading to the Venetian value of colorito over disegno is the invention of oil paints. Oil and canvas were a necessity for Venetian painters due to the high humidity and salt present in the air; frescos and tempera did not last long in such an atmosphere. “…Venetian painting in 1488 was still in a state of transition, [that] tempera was no longer a medium in which great masters consented to work, thought boys were still taught to paint in it” (Crowe 48). The masters however, were using oil paint in much the same manner as they had used tempera paint before. Younger painters like Titian, and his contemporaries, pushed and explored the new medium of oil paints. They experimented with oil paints and glazes and worked with dark colors over lights which give their paintings the effect of an inner glow. Oil paints allowed for a naturalism not yet achieved by the most talented painters. It is this naturalism, glow of color and experimentation, as well as his exploration of composition and narrative, that propelled Titian to become a master.

Extraordinary, brilliant use color is a hallmark of Venetian painting. Perhaps the early painters got their inspiration from the mosaics of San Marco. Figures composed of hundreds of tiny glass tesserae adorn the basilica; reflected light and the polished glow of gold infuse the atmosphere. Patricia Fortini Brown suggests, in Art and Life in Renaissance Venice, that “The chromatic approach to color of Giovanni Bellini, Titian, and other Venetian artists had its antecedents here” (28) in San Marco’s mosaic work. Many Venetian painters and artisans worked on restoration projects and thus became exceedingly familiar with the mosaics; Titian is among these.

Paolo da Venezia, (Coronation of Mary, mid-1300) the earliest Venetian painter historians know by name, found inspiration for his altarpieces at San Marco. It was Venezia who brought the polytych to Venice, in the fourteenth century, where it became a standard. Venezia’s altarpiece reflects the medieval style of decorative, linear painting; the figures and space are relatively flat and two-dimensional with a liberal use of gold leaf ornamentation. (http://www.wga.hu/tours/gothic/characte.html Pächt). Domeinco Veneziano (Saint Lucy Altarpiece, 1455) working with tempera on wood panel, is best known for his Saint Lucy altarpiece. The triple arch, reminiscent of a polytych, creates a nearly three-dimensional illusionistic space containing one of the earliest sacra conversazione, a conventional grouping of Madonna, Child and Saints. It was Giovanni Bellini, (Holy Conversation, 1505) in the fifteenth century, who reinterpreted the artistry of San Marco into a more naturalistic form; Giovanni sought to place natural looking figures into a more realistic, believable architectural setting. Brunelleschi’s linear perspective, mastered by Bellini, enabled him to bring illusionistic space into a two-dimensional picture plane. This turns a painting into a window from which the viewer can look into a fictitious space beyond. Bellini also extends the viewer’s space into the picture plane by uniting real and fictitious elements of the frame. His tonality, well modulated color and golden light are all reminiscent of the mosaics of San Marco. Bellini experimented with oil glazing techniques as a way of duplicating the effects of light on glass tesserae. Bellini is one of Titian’s early teachers and Titian will adopt his use of oil and glazes to create light effects with oils.

Giorgione da Castelfranco (Castelfranco Altarpiece, 1505), a teacher or contemporary of Titian’s, eschewed the traditional smoothly-sanded wood panel for rough canvas supports, allowing the grain of the fabric to show through areas of paint. This becomes a characteristic of Venetian painting that Titian also embraces. Giorgione pushed Bellini’s interest in the imitation of nature even further. His work includes more landscape and greater naturalism.

Painters in Venice were members of a guild comprised of all artisans and craftsmen; painters, sculptors, guilders, and others alike enjoyed the benefits and made contributions of services through the guild. Guilds, in turn, provided protectionism to Venetian artists, but foreign artists are still welcome; they are required to pay taxes on commissions they earne. New ideas found their way to Venice through foreign artists and imported art works. Dürer came to work on an altarpiece for the Germans. Although Dürer was no colorist, Venetians recognize his genius and his work greatly impressed and influenced Titian (Crowe 104). The work of both Raphael (School of Athens and Transfiguration) and Michelangelo were well known to Venetian painters. While the Northern Italians insisted that disegno was of primary importance, the Venetians’ focused on colorito. Vasari, a biographer of artists, insists that disegno, the father of all arts, is the most important. Dolce, another theorist, sides with Titian’s focus on colorito, praising the artist’s achievements in that area.

3. Titian’s influences from that time A little of Titian’s background Who are Titian’s masters/teachers Who are Titian’s peers What is Titian exposed to that will influence his work

Titian came to Venice during a period of flux in painting; new materials, new ideas and a return to the classics were blooming in Northern Italy and finding their way to Venice. Titian’s teachers, Bellini, Giorgione, and his contemporaries, Raphael and Michelangelo, had a profound influence on the direction of Titian’s painting. Titian’s genius, in part, was his flexibility and capacity to synthesize the flow of idea, thought, and talent surrounding him into innovations in painting making him the premier painter in Venice.

4. Altarpieces in general and their uniqueness as a vehicle for Venetian Renaissance painting. What are altarpieces and why do they matter What style of church arethey in Who are the patrons Why were they made/painted- Purpose

Mendicant orders are credited with bringing the Gothic style church to Venice in the fourteenth century. With the high altar against the walls and windows of the main apse, as in the Frari, the pala d’altare was a natural development. The pala d’altare or pala, consists of a unified, vertical picture plane. Although the frame of the pala can be quite ornate, the pala itself does not include sculptural elements. Altarpieces served several functions. They reflect the altar and the sacrament of the Eucharist, serve as a visual reminder of not only the presence of Christ, but the idea of Transubstantiation, the real presence of the body and blood of Christ, they allow congregants to sit face to face with intercessors, and they serve as an representation of the altar’s titulus.

Although all altars were officially dedicated only to God, it was common practice in Venice to dedicate altars to a particular saint, Christological, or Marian mystery. (Humphrey 67). By convention an altarpiece reflected the dedication of that particular altar and thus was important in distinguishing one altar from another in writing or conversation. (Humphrey 57). Often it is possible to recognize the titulus by the iconography of an altarpiece but in many instances it is much more difficult. The Virgin and Child is a commonplace subject of altarpieces, but the titulus is more difficult to determine in these cases. Often it is the saint to the virgin’s right or at the center of the sacre converzione. (Humphrey 67).

The subject of the pala is iconic or narrative, although the delineation of the two can be imprecise. Many ecclesiastical accessories of the church were strictly regulated by church law in the fifteenth century; the altarpiece was not. This gave artists quite a large degree of freedom in subject, style and form. “…it could be argues that it was precisely this tension between convention of the type, and the freedom to experiment within it, that allowed the altarpiece to become one of the most important and expressive vehicles of Italian Renaissance art” (Humphrey p4). Titian took full advantage of the artistic freedom allowed and developed many innovations exemplified in the Assuanta (1516-18), Pesaro (1519-26), and Madonna and Child with Saints (1533-35) as well as his other altarpieces.

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