Bernhard Berenson ‘Venetian Painters Of The Renaissance’

THE Renaissance was a period in the history of modern Europe comparable to youth in the life of the individual. It had all youth’s love of finery and of play. The more people were imbued with the new spirit, the more they loved pageants. The pageant was an outlet for many of the dominant passions of the time, for there a man could display all the finery he pleased, satisfy his love of antiquity by masquerading as Cæsar or Hannibal, his love of knowledge by finding out how the Romans dressed and rode in triumph, his love of glory by the display of wealth and skill in the management of the ceremony, and, above all, his love of feeling himself alive. The earlier elements of the Renaissance, the passion for knowledge and glory, were not of the kind to give a new impulse to painting. Nor was the passion for antiquity at all so direct an inspiration to that art as it was to architecture and sculpture. The love of glory had, it is true, led such as could not afford to put up monumental buildings, to decorate chapels with frescos in which their portraits were timidly introduced. But it was only when the Renaissance had attained to a full consciousness of its interest in life and enjoyment of the world that it naturally turned, and indeed was forced to turn, to painting; for it is obvious that painting is peculiarly fitted for rendering the appearances of things with a glow of light and richness of color that correspond to and express warm human emotions.

When it once reached the point where its view of the world naturally sought expression in painting, as religious ideas had done before, the Renaissance found in Venice clearer utterance than elsewhere, and it is perhaps this fact which makes the most abiding interest of Venetian painting.

The growing delight in life, with the consequent love of health, beauty, and joy, was felt more powerfully in Venice than anywhere else in Italy. The explanation of this may be found in the character of the Venetian government, which was such that it gave little room for the satisfaction of the passion for personal glory, and kept its citizens so busy in duties of state that they had small leisure for learning. Some of the chief passions of the Renaissance thus finding no outlet in Venice, the other passions insisted all the more on being satisfied. Venice, moreover, was the only state in Italy which was enjoying, and for many generations had been enjoying, internal peace. This gave the Venetians a love of comfort, of ease, and of splendor, a refinement of manner, and humaneness of feeling, which made them the first really mod-ern people in Europe. . . .

Thus it came to pass that in the Venetian pictures of the end of the fifteenth century we find neither the contrition nor the devotion of earlier years, when the Church alone employed painting as the interpreter of emotion, nor the learning which characterized the Florentines. The Venetian masters of this time, although nominally continuing to paint the Madonna and saints, were in reality painting handsome, healthy, sane people like themselves, people who wore their splendid robes with dignity, who found life worth the mere living, and sought no metaphysical basis for it. In short, the Venetian pictures of the last decade of the fifteenth century seemed intended not for devotion, as they had been, nor for admiration, as they then were in Florence, but for enjoyment.

The Church itself had educated its children to understand painting as a language, but now that the passions men dared to avow were no longer connected with happiness in some future state only, but mainly with life in the present, painting was expected to give voice to these more human aspirations and to desert the outgrown ideals of the Church. In Florence, the painters seemed unable, or unwilling, to make their art really popular. . . . In Venice alone painting remained what it had been all over Italy in earlier times, the common tongue of the whole mass of the people. Venetian artists thus had the strongest inducements to perfect the processes which painters must em-ploy to make pictures look real to their own generation; and their generation had an altogether firmer hold on reality than any that had been known since the triumph of Christianity. . . .

Painting, in accommodating itself to the new idea, found that it could not attain to satisfactory representation merely by form and color, but that it required light and shadow and effects of space. Indeed, venial faults of drawing are perhaps the least disturbing, while faults of perspective, of spacing, and of color completely spoil a picture for people who have an every-day acquaintance with painting such as the Venetians had. We find the Venetian painters, therefore, more and more intent upon giving the space they paint its real depth, upon giving solid objects the full effects of the round, upon keeping the different parts of a figure within the same plane, and upon compelling things to hold their proper places one behind the other. As early as the beginning of the sixteenth century a few of the greater Venetian painters had succeeded in making distant objects less and less distinct, as well as smaller and smaller, and had succeeded also in giving some appearance of reality to the atmosphere. These are a few of the special problems of painting, as distinct from sculpture for instance, and they are problems which, among the Italians, only the Venetians and the painters closely connected with them solved with any success.

The painters of the end of the fifteenth century who met with the greatest success in solving these problems were Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, Cima da Conegliano, and Carpaccio, and we find each of them enjoyable to the degree that he was in touch with the life of his day. I have already spoken of the pageants, and of how characteristic they were of the Renaissance, forming as they did a sort of safety-valve for its chief passions. Venice, too, knew the love of glory, and the passion was perhaps only the more intense because it was all dedicated to the State. There was nothing the Venetians would not do to add to its greatness, glory, and splendor. It was this which led them to make of the city itself that wondrous monument to the love and awe they felt for their Republic, which still arouses more admiration and gives more pleasure than any other one achievement of the art-impulse in man. They were not content to make their city the most beautiful in the world; they performed ceremonies in its honor partaking of all the solemnity of religious rites. Processions and pageants by land and sea, free from that gross element of improvisation which characterized them elsewhere in Italy, formed no less a part of the functions of the Venetian State than the high mass in the Catholic Church. Such a function, with doge and senators arrayed in gorgeous costumes no less prescribed than the raiments of ecclesiastics, in the midst of the fairy-like architecture of the Piazza or canals, was the event most eagerly looked forward to, and the one that gave most satisfaction to the Venetian’s love of his State, and to his love of splendor, beauty, and gaiety. He would have had them every day if it had been possible, and to make up for their rarity, he loved to have representations of them. So most Venetian pictures of the beginning of the sixteenth century tended to take the form of magnificent processions, if they did not actually represent them. They are processions in the Piazza, as in Gentile Bellini’s `Corpus Christi’ picture, or on the water, as in Carpaccio’s picture where St. Ursula leaves her home; or they represent what was a gorgeous but common sight in Venice, the reception or dismissal of ambassadors, as in several pictures of Carpaccio’s St. Ursula series. Not only the pleasure-loving Carpaccio, but the austere Cima, as he grew older, turned every biblical and saintly legend into an occasion for the picture of a pageant.

But there was a further reason for the popularity of such pictures. The decorations which were then being executed by the most reputed masters in the Hall of the Great Council in the Ducal Palace were, by the nature of the subject, required to represent pageants. The Venetian State encouraged painting as did the Church, in order to teach its subjects its own glory in a way that they could understand without being led on to critical inquiry; and although the paintings in the Ducal Palace doubtless gave a decided incentive to artists, their effect upon the public, for whom they were designed, was even greater. The councilors were not allowed to be the only people to en-joy fascinating pictures of gorgeous pageants and ceremonials. The mutual aid societies—the schools, as they were called—were not long in getting the masters who were employed in the Ducal Palace to execute for their own meeting-places pictures equally splendid. The schools of San Giorgio, Sant’ Ursula, and San Stefano employed Carpaccio, the schools of San Giovanni and San Marco, Gentile Bellini, and other schools employed minor painters. . . .

Just as the State chose subjects that glorified itself and taught its own history and policy, so the schools had pictures painted to glorify their patron saints, and to keep their deeds and example fresh. Many of these pictures—most, in fact—took the form of pageants; but even in such, intended as they were for almost domestic purposes, the style of high ceremonial was relaxed and elements taken directly from life were introduced, and found a sudden and assured popularity, for they play a more and more important part in the pictures executed for the schools, many of the subjects of which were readily turned into studies of ordinary Venetian life. This was particularly true of the works of Carpaccio. Much as he loved pageants, he loved homelier scenes as well. His `Dream of St. Ursula’ (Plate v) shows us a young girl asleep in a room filled with the quiet morning light. Indeed, it may be better described as a picture of a room with the light playing softly on the walls, upon the flower-pots in the window, and upon the writing-table and the cupboards. A young girl happens to be asleep in the bed, but the picture is far from being a merely economic illustration to this episode in the life of the saint. Or, again, take St. Jerome in his study, in the Church of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni Ix). He is nothing but a Venetian scholar, seated in his comfortable, bright library, in the midst of his books, with his little shelf of bric-à-brac running along the wall. There is nothing in his look or surroundings to speak of a life of self-denial or of arduous devotion to the problems of sin and redemption.

In other words, Carpaccio’s quality is the quality of a painter of the genre, of which he was the earliest Italian master. His genre differs from Dutch or French not in kind, but in degree. Dutch genre is much more democratic, and, as painting, it is of a far finer quality; but it deals with its subject, as Carpaccio does, for the sake of its own pictorial capacities, and for the sake of the effects of color and of light and shade. . . .

In the sixteenth century painting was not looked upon with the estranging reverence paid to it now. It was almost as cheap as printing has become since, and almost as much employed. When the Venetians had attained the point of culture where they were able to differentiate their sensations and distinguish pleasure from edification, they found that painting gave them decided pleasure. Why should they always have to go to the Ducal Palace or to some school to enjoy this pleasure? That would have been no less a hardship than for us never to hear music outside of a concert-room. This is no merely rhetorical comparison, for in the life of the Venetian of the sixteenth century painting took much the same place that music takes in ours. He no longer expected it to tell him stories or to teach him the catechism. Printed books, which were beginning to grow common, amply satisfied both these needs. He had as a rule very little personal religion, and consequently did not care for pictures that moved him to contrition or devotion. He preferred to have some pleasantly colored thing that would put him into a mood connected with the side of life he most enjoyed—with refined merrymaking, with country parties, or with the sweet dreams of youth. Venetian painting alone among Italian schools was ready to satisfy such a demand, and it thus became the first genuinely modern art; for the most vital difference that can be indicated between the arts in antiquity and modern times is this, that now the arts tend to address themselves more and more to the actual needs of men, while in olden times they were supposed to serve some more than human purpose.

CARPACCIO is, in the most vital and conclusive sense, a man of genius, who will not at all supply you, nor can in the least supply himself, with sublimity and pathos to order; but is sublime, or delightful, or sometimes dull, or frequently grotesque, as Heaven wills it; or—as profane persons will say—as the humor takes him.-JOHN RUSKIN

( Originally Published 1903 )

Masters In Art – Vittore Carpaccio:Vittore CarpaccioThe Art Of CarpaccioAndré Pératé ‘La Grande Encyclopédie’Bernhard Berenson ‘Venetian Painters Of The Renaissance’W. J. Stillman ‘Old Italian Masters’E. H. And E. W. Blashfield And A. A. Hopkins, Editors ‘Vasari’s Lives’The Works Of Carpaccio