WE wonder how many of those sightseers who pass through the Ante-Collegio in the Ducal Palace, and stare for a few moments at Tintoretto’s famous quartet and at Veronese’s ” Rape of Europa,” turn to give even such fleeting attention to the long, dark canvas which hangs beside them, ” Jacob’s Journey into Canaan,” by Jacopo da Ponte, called Bassano.
Yet from the position in which it is placed the visitor might guess that it is considered to be a gem, and it gains something in interest when we learn from Zanetti that it was ordered by Jacopo Contarini at the same time as the ” Rape of Europa,” as if the great connoisseur enjoyed contrasting Veronese’s light, gay style with the vigorous brush of da Ponte.
If attention is arrested by the beauty of the painting, and the visitor should be inspired to seek the painter in his native city, he will be well repaid. Bassano once held an important position on the main road between Italy and Germany, but since the railroad was made across the Brenner Pass, few people ever see the little town which lies cradled on the spurs of the Italian Alps, where the gorge of Valsugana opens. It is surrounded by chestnut woods, which sweep up to the blue mountains, the wide Brenta flows through the town, and the houses cluster high on either side, and have gardens and balconies overhanging the water. The façades of many of the houses are covered with fading frescoes, relics of da Ponte’s school of fresco-painters, which, though they are fast perishing, still give a wonderful effect of warmth and colour.
Jacopo da Ponte was the son and pupil of his father, Francesco, who in his day had been a pupil of the Vicentine, Bartolommeo Montagna. Francesco da Ponte’s best work is to be found at Bassano, in the cathedral and the church of San Giovanni, and has many of the characteristics, such as the raised pedestal and vaulted cupola, which we have noticed that Montagna owed to the Vivarini. Francesco’s son went when very young to Venice, and was there thrown at once among the artists of the lagoons, and attached himself in particular to Bonifazio. In Jacopo’s earliest work, now in the Museum at Bassano, a ” Flight into Egypt,” Bonifazio’s tuition is markedly discernible in the build of the figures and, above all, in the form of the heads. A comparison of the very peculiarly shaped head of the Virgin in this picture with that of the Venetian lady in Bonifazio’s ” Rich Man’s Feast,” in the Venetian Academy, leaves us in no doubt on this score. Jacopo’s ” Adulteress before Christ ” and the ” Three in the Fiery Furnace ” have Bonifazio’s manner in the architecture and the staging of the figures. Only five examples are known of this early work of da Ponte, and it is all in Bonifazio’s lighter style, not unlike his ” Holy Family ” in the National Gallery.
The house in which the painter lived when he returned to his native town, still stands in the little Piazza Monte Vecchio, and its whole façade retains the frescoes, mouldy and decaying, with which he decorated it. The design is in four horizontal bands. First comes a frieze of children in every attitude of fun and frolic. Then follows a long range of animalshorses, oxen, and deer. Musical instruments and flowers make a border, with allegorical representations of the arts and crafts filling the spaces between the windows. The principal band is decorated with Scriptural subjects, most of which are now hardly discernible, but which represent ” Samson slaying the Philistines,” ” The Drunkenness of Noah,” ” Cain and Abel,” ” Lot and his Daughters,” and ” Judith with the Head of Holofernes.” Between the. two last there formerly appeared a drawing of a dead child, with the motto, ” Mors omnia aequat,” which was removed to the Museum in 1883, in comparatively good preservation.
Jacopo da Ponte lived a busy life at Bassano, where, with the help of his four sons, who were all painters, he poured out an inexhaustible stream of works, which, it is said, were put up to auction at the neighbouring fairs, if no other market was forthcoming. From time to time he and his sons went down to Venice, and with the help of the eldest, Francesco, Bassano (as he is generally known) painted the “Siege of Padua” and five other works in the Ducal Palace. His mature style was founded mainly upon that of Titian, and it is to this second manner that he owes his fame. He makes use of fewer colours, and enhances his lights by deepening and consolidating his shadows, so that they come into strong contrast, and his technique gains a richer impasto. He has a marvellous faculty for keeping his colour pure, and his greens shine like a beetle’s wing. A nature-lover in the highest degree, his painting of animals and plants evinces a mind which is steeped in the magic of outdoor life. A subject of which he was particularly fond, and which he seems to have undertaken for half the collectors of Europe, was the ” Four Seasons.” Here was found united everything that Bassano most loved to paint : beasts of the farmyard and countryside, agriculturists with their implements, scenes of harvest-time and vintage, rough peasants leading the plough, cutting the grass, harvesting the grain, young girls making hay, driving home the cattle, taking dinner to the reapers. When he was obliged to paint for churches he chose such subjects as the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Sacrifice of Noah, the Expulsion from the Temple, into which he could introduce animals, painting them with such vigour and such forcible colour that Titian himself is said to have had a copy hanging in his studio. He loved to paint his daughters engaged in household tasks, and perhaps placed his figures with rather too obvious a reference to light and shade, and to the sun striking full on sunburnt cheeks and buxom shoulders. A friend, not a rival, of Veronese and Tintoretto, Gianbattista Volpado, records that when he was one day discussing con-temporary painters with the latter, Tintoretto exclaimed, ” Ah, Jacopo, if you had my drawing and I had your colour I would defy the devil himself to enable Titian, Raphael, and the rest to make any show beside us.”
Bassano was invited to take up his residence at the Court of the Emperor Rudolph, but he refused to leave his mountain city, where he died in 1592. His funeral was attended by a crowd of the poorest inhabitants, for whom his charity had been boundless.
The ” Journey of Jacob,” to which we have already alluded, is among his most beautiful works. The brilliant array of figures is subordinated to the charm of the landscape. The evening dusk draws all objects into its embrace.
The long, low, deep-blue distance stands out against a gleam of sunset sky. The tree-trunks and light play of leafy branches, which break up the composition, are from da Ponte’s own country round Bassano. The pony upon which the boy scrambles, the cows, the dog among the quiet sheep, are given with all the loving truth of the born animal-painter. It is no wonder that Teniers borrowed ideas from him, and has more than once imitated his whole design.
The ” Baptism of St. Lucilla” (in the Museum at Bassano) is one of his most Titianesque creations. The personages in it are grouped upon a flight of steps, in front of a long Renaissance palace with cypresses against a sky of evening-red barred with purple clouds. The drawing and modelling of the figures are almost faultless, and the colour is dazzling. The bending figure of S. Lucilla, with the light falling on her silvery satin dress, as she kneels before the young bishop, St. Valentine, is one of the most graceful things in art, and Titian himself need not have disowned the little angels, bearing palm branches and frolicking in the stream of radiance overhead.
Bassano has a Concert,” which is interesting as a family piece. It was painted in the year in which his son Leandro’s marriage took place, and is probably a bridal painting to celebrate the event. The ” Magistrates in Adoration ” (Vicenza) again gives a brilliant effect of light, and its stately ceremonial is founded on Tintoretto’s numerous pictures of kneeling doges and procurators in fur-trimmed velvet robes.
Madonnas and saints are usually built into close-packed pyramids, but in the ” Repose in Egypt,” now in the Ambrosiana, Milan, his arrangement comes very close to Palma and Lotto. The beautiful Mother and Child, the attendants, above all the St. Joseph, resting, head on hand, at the Virgin’s feet and gazing in rapt adoration on the Child, are examples of the true Venetian manner, while the exquisite landscape behind them, and the vigorously drawn tree under which they recline, show Bassano true to his passion for nature.
Hampton Court is rich in his pictures. “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” in which the pillars rise behind the sacred group, is an exercise in the manner of Titian’s Frari altar-piece. His portraits are fine and sympathetic, but hardly any of them are signed or can be dated. His own is in the Uffizi, and there is a splendid ” Old Man ” at Buda Pesth. Ariosto and Tasso, Sebastian Venier, and many other distinguished men were among his sitters ; most of them are in half-length with three-quarter heads. The National Gallery possesses a singularly attractive one of a young man with a sensitive, acute countenance, robed in dignified, picturesque black, relieved by an embroidered linen collar. He stands by the sort of square window, opening on a distant landscape, of which Tintoretto and Lotto so often made use, in front of which a golden vase, holding a branch of olive, catches the rays of light.
Bassano has no great power of design, and his knowledge of the nude seems to have been small, but his brushwork is facile, and his colour leaps out with a vivid beauty which obliterates other shortcomings.
Augsburg. Madonna and Saints.
Bassano. Susanna and Elders (E.) ; Christ and Adulteress (E.) The Three Holy Children (E.) ; Madonna, Saints, and Donor (E.) ; Flight into Egypt (E.) ; Paradise Baptism of S. Lucilla ; Adoration of Shepherds St. Martin and the Beggar; St. Roch recommending Donor to Virgin ; St. John the Evangelist adored by a Warrior ; Descent of Holy Spirit ; Madonna in Glory, with Saints (L.).
Duomo : S. Lucia in Glory ; Martyrdom of S. Stephen (L.) ; Nativity.
S. Giovanni : Madonna and Saints.
Bergamo. Carrara : Portrait.
Lochis : Portraits.
Cittadella. Duomo : Christ at Emmaus.
Dresden. Israelites in Desert; Moses striking Rock; Conversion of S. Paul.
Hampton Court. Portraits ; Jacob’s Journey ; Boaz and Ruth Shepherds (E.) ; Christ in House of Pharisee ; Assumption of Virgin ; Men fighting Bears ; Tribute Money.
London. Portrait of Man ; Christ and the Money-Changers ; Good Samaritan.
Milan. Ambrosiana : Adoration of Shepherds (E.) ; Annunciation to Shepherds (L.).
Munich. Portraits ; S. Jerome ; Deposition.
Padua. S. Maria in Vanzo : Entombment.
Paris. Christ bearing Cross ; Vintage (L.).
Rome. Villa Borghese : Last Supper ; The Trinity.
Venice. Academy : Christ in Garden ; A Venetian Noble ; S. Elenterino blessing the Faithful.
Ducal Palace, Anti-Collegio : Jacob’s Journey. S. Giacomo dell’ Orio : Madonna and Saints.
Vicenza. Madonna and Saints ; Madonna ; St. Mark and > Senators.
Vienna. The Good Samaritan ; Thomas led to the Stake ; Adoration of Magi ; Rich Man and Lazarus ; The Lord shows Abraham the Promised Land ; The Sower ; A Hunt ; Way to Golgotha ; Noah entering the Ark ; Christ and the Money-Changers ; After the Flood ; Saints ; Adoration of Magi ; Portraits ; Christ bearing Cross.
Academy : Deposition ; Portrait.