THE position occupied by Palma Vecchio in the history of the development of Venetian painting is a subject of controversy among critics. , Crowe and Cavalcaselle hold the opinion that he was a pioneer who “shared with Giorgione and Titian the honor of modernizing and regenerating Venetian art,” and that “from the borders of Piedmont on the west to the Gulf of Trieste on the east there was not a city of any pretensions that did not feel the influence of Palmesque art,” whereas Morelli, while acknowledging that “Palma was the most justly celebrated of all the Bergamask artists,” maintains that he was a follower rather than an initiator.
The theory of Crowe and Cavalcaselle regarding this painter, about whom so little is definitely known, seems to be based mainly upon the inscription on a picturea `Holy Conversation’formerly in a private collection in Paris and now in the Condé Museum, Chantilly, which bears the artist’s name and the letters “M D” (1500)-a date which in their opinion proves that Palma’s art, even at that early period, had taken an expanded form, and that his position as a master was then assured. This date, however, is believed by Morelli, and by all modern critics, to be a late forgery. If this be so, Palma has been accorded by Crowe and Cavalcaselle and their adherents too important a place in the development of Venetian painting; if, on the other hand, the date be authentic, then Crowe and Cavalcaselle may be right in claiming for him the position of a leader, an originator, “marching,” as Sir Walter Armstrong has said, “shoulder to shoulder with Giorgione in the sudden expansion of fifteenth-century into sixteenth-century art in Venice.”
In the opinion of this last-named critic, indeed, Palma’s message was al-most complete before Titian “had thrown off the last trammels of the fifteenth century, and created those things which have set him at the head of Italian painting.” “It seems,” he says, “that although the final cause of the stride taken by Venetian art at the beginning of the sixteenth century was the exceptional personality of Giorgione, the credit due for the wideness, the rapidity, and the completeness of the change belongs in the main to Palma…. That before him Giorgione was a finer spirit, and that, during his last years, Titian grew into a more commanding personality, does not affect the question, which is one not so much of rank as of chronology; and, seeing what Palma had done before the sixteenth century had completed its first quarter, it would be unjust to strip him of such honor as belongs to the successful popularizer, at least, of a new idea.”
By the majority of critics the position accorded to Palma Vecchio is less important, the general opinion being that, charming as he is in many of his works, even great as he shows himself to be in some few, he cannot claim to be a leader or an epoch-marking painter. “He cannot,” as Vasari’s recent editors have said, “be placed beside the giants of later Venetian art, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, but he stands in the forefront of the second rank, and he is so thoroughly a Venetian, though Bergamask by birth, that his pictures have been constantly, and still are, mistaken for the work of Titian.”
( Originally Published 1905 )
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