The Venetian Portrait School: Early Group

WHEN we come to Venice, we begin our study of Italian portrait painting all over again. Everything about Venice is unique : the city, the history; the people and the art. The approach is by water ways, winding among the coloured marbles of palace fronts, with fairy bridges uniting one stately pile with another. Black keeled gondolas, with gleaming silver prows, glide over the canals, and the parti-coloured canvases of sailing craft move out into the open. The atmosphere is charged with colour, rich, variegated, harmonious, making the city a vast mosaic, like those filling the domes of the churches. Hither came the East and the West, the North and the South, to pour their diverse influences into the making of a perfect whole. The spirit of the Orient predominated. From Constantinople came the great church domes, hanging bell-like against the sky; from Constantinople, more literally, the marble pillars and treasures of gold and silver and precious stones filling the churches with beauty. The Oriental love of luxury came in with the spoils : the passion for rich stuffs and jewels, for pomp and display, for festival and pageantry. With such qualities in the ascendancy, religious worship became a magnificent ceremonial, patriotism expressed itself in noble public monuments, while private ambition sought gratification in costly palaces and lavish entertainments. In joy and pride of life, Venice was the personification of a splendid egotism. It naturally followed that Venice was the proper field for the development of a portrait school. It was the first state in Italy to make provision for official portraits of her rulers, and the first likewise to support a painter devoted exclusively to this one branch of art.

The Venetian portraits of the Renaissance exhibit that perfect colour sense which has set an unattainable standard for posterity: rich yet restrained, brilliant but tempered with sobriety. In the seventeenth century, Rubens and Van Dyck sought by careful copying to catch some inspiration from the Venetian manner. In the eighteenth century Reynolds tried to discover the Venetian ” secret ” by scraping and analysing the pigments of the old canvases. All in vain. Among their many imitators the Venetians still remain supreme. Never again can the same conditions of life he repeated which created such an art.

Colour and decorative quality being of so much moment, we cannot suppose that the Venetian portraits were as a class strong in point of likeness, though there are notable exceptions. The one essential which the painter could not help imparting to his subject was dignity. Ceremony was the business of life: the portrait had to show the immense con-sequence of the Venetian. It goes without saying that rich costumes were much in evidence in all the work of this school, and the painter was expected to be somewhat flattering. The anemic is practically unknown in such art ; every man, woman and child is well fed, and well kept.

The Bellini family, Jacopo, and his sons Gentile and Giovanni, were all painting portraits in Venice in the mid-fifteenth century. Jacopo had received his training from the Florentine Gentile da Fabriano, and was, we believe, an able craftsman, though few works remain by which to judge him. It is Giovanni who brought highest honour, both to the family and the school. He is the representative Venetian painter of his period, and in some respects the leader of all fifteenth century Italians. His continuous activity through the entire length of his nearly ninety years meant a large output of portraits as well as of religious and historical compositions. During his appointment as state painter of the Republic he must have painted a great number of prominent personages, including at least four doges. His portrait work was admired all over Italy, and Isabella d’Este was among his patrons. Could all his work have been preserved it would make a gallery as representative of Venetian political and social life in the fifteenth century, as does Titian’s that of the sixteenth century. An unfortunate fate has swept them away, leaving us only one of unquestionable authenticity, the Doge Loredano. As a scientist can deduce an entire organism from a single bone, so the critic can infer from this single portrait the distinguishing qualities of Bellini’s art. The pose is that of a sculptured bust, and the noble old man carries head and shoulders erect, with serene dignity. The face is austere but genial, firm but magnanimous, and altogether splendidly sane. The golden colour and decorative costume make a rich ensemble such as only Venice could produce.’ Such was the quality of the work which called forth the admiration of Dürer, when he visited Venice and made friends with the old man Bellini. Though the Nuremberger could never hope to emulate the Venetian richness of palette, there were points of contact between the two men in the sincerity and directness of their style.

Gentile Bellini, though far less gifted than his brother, was yet an excellent portrait painter. He was sent by the Venetian senate to Constantinople in place of Giovanni, who had received the invitation but was too busy to leave. Gentile painted the portrait of the Emperor Mahomet who, amazed and delighted at the likeness, asked if the painter dared portray his own features. In a few day’s time the Venetian brought him his answer in a portrait of himself, made with the help of a mirror. Such a marvel could only be explained on the hypothesis that some divine spirit had been pressed into the service. The Sultan apparently felt rather uneasy over such magic, especially as the Mohammedan law was as strict as the Mosaic about representations from nature. Gentile was not long after sent back to Venice, loaded with gifts and honours.

Antonello da Messina, though not a native of Venice, came to that city in 1473, when Giovanni Bellini was well advanced in his career. Under the influence of this master, and in Venetian surroundings, the stranger made a rapid advance, and devoted his later years almost exclusively to portrait painting. He is credited with introducing into Venice the use of oils, as practised in Flanders. In his earlier years he had imbibed much of the Flemish spirit, either from a visit in Flanders — a doubtful hypothesis — or from the study of Flemish works. The union of these two tendencies makes his pictures very interesting. His portrait faces are in three-quarters front, in the Flemish manner. Some of them suggest at once the works of Van Eyck. The ” Condottiere,” of the Louvre, is a kindred spirit of the ” Man with the Pinks,” in his aggressive ugliness.’ He has a large, coarse face, framed in bushy hair, and his lower lip is thrust out truculently. Such uncompromising realism is more Flemish than Venetian. Like the transalpine painters also, Antonello sought after an expressiveness which means more than mere outward beauty. Some of the homeliest and most unattractive of his subjects are strongly characterized. Sometimes, indeed, in his effort towards expression, he exaggerates his lines to produce an almost strained effect, but this is a fault which the much greater Dürer sometimes fell into. Ten existing portraits are listed as his, all men. Like Bellini, he apparently painted only the bust of his sitters. A contemporary of the Bellini and Antonello da Messina was Alvise Vivarini, whose portrait work has close affinity with these men, as well as with the younger man Lotto. Recent criticism attributes to Vivarini several excellent portraits.

With the advent of Giorgione a new spirit entered into Venetian art. The influence of his short life and slender output is incalculable. So fully did his contemporaries adopt his manner, that critics are for ever perplexed in settling the attributions in his group. Portraits long regarded as Titian’s, like the Doc-tor Parma of the Vienna gallery, and the Cobham Ariosto, as well as the Poet in the National Gallery, attributed to Palma, and the Three Ages of Man (Pitti), credited to Lotto, are now claimed for Giorgione. It is the part of wisdom to designate such inter-changeable works as ” Giorgionesque,” for all have in common the qualities which the Castelfrancan painter introduced.

Giorgione deepened and enriched the prevailing Venetian palette, and softened the outlines which with Bellini, Vivarini and Antonello, had been indicated in the hard Flemish manner. He had also extraordinary skill in rendering textures. Above all, he introduced the romantic element in place of the matter of fact and prosaic. The remote ex-pression, the meditative gaze, the air of pensive melancholy lend interest to the plainest subjects. The Knight of Malta ponders his pilgrimages, the youth of the Berlin Gallery dreams of his love, the young man of Buda-Pesth is lost in his memories. The lady of the Borghese smiles faintly, as if pleased with her thoughts. All these portraits show the hands, which add not a little to their expressiveness and individuality. It was not in the nature of Giorgione’s art to give great strength or virility to his sitters, but he imparted the essence of his own poetic temperament. His portrait work struck a graver note than his subject pieces, which are serene and joyous, while his sitters are in some instances quite serious.

Palma Vecchio is closely associated with Giorgione in the development of Venetian art in the qualities which are its distinctive glory. His colour, though not so rich and subtle as Giorgione’s, is brilliant and glowing, harmoniously blended to obliterate all hardness of line. Though largely occupied with altar-pieces, he was much sought after by the great Venetian families for his portrait work. He was especially popular for his women’s portraits. The fashionable beauty of the day must needs be a blonde. All grand ladies dyed their hair golden, and prided themselves on the whiteness of their skin. This is the type reproduced in so many of Palma’s beautiful canvases. Enhancing the charm of their beautiful hair and dazzling necks are the rich costumes of brocade and gorgeous stuffs which the Venetians loved. Palma’s women are not especially graceful, and are mostly too plump for elegance. Nor are the faces at all intellectual or expressive, but are simply placid and sweet. The painter was not a profound thinker or even a poet. He was somewhat deficient in the sense of distinction so marked in other Venetians. But he de-lighted in the beauty of flesh and blood, and painted them con amore.

The model known as Violante, once erroneously thought to be Palma’s daughter, figures very often in his pictures. Her portrait in the Vienna Gallery probably shows the young girl pretty nearly as she was in real life. The face is amiable, with small regular features, though without piquancy or charm, but the waving golden hair, and the full white bust and shoulders gleaming above her rich dress, make her a beautiful creature. She is grandly idealized in the majestic St. Barbara, and more delicately spiritualized in the lovely St. Lucy. In the ” Jacob and Rachel ” she is a buxom country girl, and again in the ” Sisters,” where she assumes three poses, she has developed an avoirdupois which no amount of finery can etherealize.

Sebastian del Piombo was a Venetian of the same generation as Palma and Giorgione, and though he spent the greater part of his life in Rome, he always retained some of the characteristic Venetian qualities which he imbibed in his early years. From Raphael and Michelangelo he derived other elements which made a unique combination. The story of his rivalry with Raphael makes one of the most gossipy pages of art history. It is said that one day when Raphael passed through the Vatican with his retinue of pupils, the Venetian exclaimed, ” You go by like the Bargello with his posse,” to which the popular favourite rejoined, ” And you go alone like the executioner.” After describing at length Sebastian’s religious compositions, Vasari goes on to say, ” To tell the truth, portrait painting was the proper vocation of Sebastiano.” Then follows an account of the distinguished sitters whose likenesses were ” so well done as to seem alive.” The beautiful Vittoria Colonna is in the list, the celebrated Andrea Doria, the Pope Adrian (four times), Aretino, the poet, and many other notables. As Vasari was on the whole unusually severe in his estimate of Sebastian, his encomiums are a bit more worth noting when he declares that in Florence no one had ever equalled the delicacy and excellence of his work. In some of his women’s portraits certainly, like the ” Fornarina,” and the Dorothea, Sebastian embodied with great charm, the type of a somewhat languishing beauty, rendering with much decorative effect rich mantles of velvet and fur to set off the beauty of a full white neck. His art has been aptly described as a happy mixture of the Giorgionesque, the Raphaelesque, and the Michelangelesque.”

Lorenzo Lotto was the psychologist of his day. He surpassed all other Venetians, as Leonardo surpassed the Florentines, in his power of insight. Like Giorgione, he was something of a poet, but with the difference that his poetic temperament was dramatic rather than lyric. Such qualities are almost as readily discerned in portraiture as in religious subjects. The life story of every sitter may be suggested by certain painters, whereas others represent only the impenetrable mask of the face. The unknown lady (Laura da Pola?), at her reading-desk, with her prayer book in her hand, is so completely alone with her thoughts that we seem to read them in her countenance. Though the rich dress betokens the aristocratic milieu in keeping with her air of distinction, the current of her thoughts is disturbed by doubts, perplexities and longings. The interpretation is noticeably in the minor key, as is apt to be the case with Lotto. The Prothonotary Julian, splendid in the ermine trimmed robe of his office, calm and dignified in the pursuits of scholarship, is yet serious almost to melancholy. This is a portrait superb with a decorative ensemble which reminds one of Holbein. The table with its Oriental covering, on which lies the open book, matches the setting of the Erasmus.’ Like Holbein, too, Lotto painted the sitters’ hands with wonderful expressiveness. By such occasional resemblances between the Venetian and Northern European schools we are reminded that Venice was a half-way house for trans-alpine travellers, where all interesting ideas were cordially welcomed. The characteristic Venetian element in the picture which we should not find in a Holbein is the window opening upon a landscape.

A strong sense of intimacy is conveyed in those of Lotto’s portraits where the eyes meet ours. This is the case with the Man with the Claw, who seems explaining to us the wonder of the organism. He is something of a mystic with his penetrating gaze, and the exaggerated impressiveness of his gesture. In direct contrast is the homely simplicity of Agostino and Niccolo della Torre, who look out at us frankly with entire absence of pose. They are plain and kindly souls, with genial faces un-troubled with anxieties. This picture belongs to the period immediately following Lotto’s sojourn in Rome, where he gained something from Raphael. It is like Raphael’s work in its unflattering realism, recalling the portrait of Castiglione.’ From these scattered examples we see the compass of Lotto’s work, and his own peculiar bent. Keenly sensitive and sympathetic in nature, he seemed to read the souls of men. None has ever understood better how to express in a portrait the inner life. His colour links him closely with his generation of Venetians and shows the influence of Giorgione.

Giorgione, Palma and Lotto were all nearly of an age, though Giorgione dropped out of the race so early in life that we are wont to think of him as of an earlier generation. Titian was born in the same year as the Castelfrancan (1477) , but was much later in maturing his art. His life rounded out nearly a hundred years, bringing his highest achievement so well into the sixteenth century that he is usually identified with the later group of Venetians.