MANY of the churches and palaces of Venice and the adjoining mainland, and almost every public and private gallery throughout Europe, contain pictures purporting to be painted by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and others of that famous company. Hardly a great English house but boasts of a round dozen at least of such specimens, acquired in the days when rich Englishmen made the ” grand tour ” and substantiated a reputation for taste and culture by collecting works of art. These pictures resemble the genuine article in a specious yet half-hearted way. Their owners themselves are not very tenacious as to their authenticity, and the visit of an expert, or the ordeal of a public exhibition tears their pretensions to tatters. In the Academia itself the Bonifazio and Tintoretto rooms are crowded with imitations. The Ducal Palace has ceilings and panels on which are reproduced the kind of compositions initiated by the great artists, which make an effort to capture their gamut of colour and to master their scheme of chiaroscuro, copying them, in short, in everything except in their inimitable touch and fire and spirit. It would have been impossible for any men, however industrious and prolific, to have carried out all the work which passes under their names, to say nothing of that which has perished ; but our surprise and curiosity diminish when we come to inquire systematically into the methods of that host of copyists which, even before the masters’ death, had begun to ply its lucrative trade.
We must bear in mind that every great man was surrounded by busy and attentive satellites, helping him to finish and, indeed, often painting a large part of important commissions, witnesses of the high prices received, and alive to all the gossip as to the relative popularity of the painters and the requests and orders which reached them from all quarters. The painters’ own sons were in many instances those who first traded upon their fathers’ fame. From Ridolfi, Zanetti, or Boschini we learn of the many paintings executed by Carlotto Caliari and the vast numbers painted by Domenico Robusti in the style of their respective fathers. Domenico seems to have particularly affected the subject of ” St. George and the Dragon,” and the picture at Dresden, which passes under Tintoretto’s name, is perhaps by his hand. Of Bassano’s four sons, Francesco “imitated his father perfectly,” conserving his warmth of tint, his relief and breadth. Zanetti enumerates a surprising number of Francesco’s works, seven of them being painted for the Ducal Palace. Leandro followed more particularly his father’s first manner, was a good portrait-painter, and possessed lightness and fancy. Girolamo copied and recopied the old Bassano till he even deceived connoisseurs, ” how much more,” says Zanetti, writing in 1771, “those of the present day, who behold them harmonised and accredited by time.” No school in Venice was so beloved, or lent itself so well to the efforts of the imitators, as that of Paolo Veronese. Even at an early date it was impossible not to confound the master with the disciples ; the weaker of the originals were held to be of imitators, the best imitations were assigned to the master himself. ” Oh how easy it is,” exclaims Zanetti again, ” to make mistakes about Veronese’s pictures, but I can point out sundry infallible characteristics to those who wish for light upon this doubtful path ; the fineness and lightness of the brushwork, the sublime intelligence and grace, shown particularly in the form of the heads, which is never found in any of his imitators.”
Few Venetians, however, followed the style of only one man ; the output was probably determined and varied by the demand. Too many attractive manners existed to dazzle them, and when once they began to imitate, they were tempted on all hands. It must also be re-membered that every master left behind him stacks of cartoons, sketches and suggestions, and half-finished pictures, which were eagerly seized upon, bought or stolen, and utilised to produce masterpieces masquerading under his name.
As the seventeenth century advanced the character of art and manners underwent a change. Men sought the beautiful in the novel and bizarre, and the complex was preferred to the simple. Venetian art, in all its branches, had passed from the stately and restrained to the pompous and artificial. Yet the barocco style was used by Venice in a way of its own ; whimsical, contorted, and overloaded with ornament as it is, it yet compels admiration by its vigorous life and movement. The art of the sei-cento in Venice was extravagant, but it was alive. It escaped the most deadly of all faults, a cold and academic mannerismand this at a time when the rest of Italy was given over to the inflated followers of Michelangelo and the calculated elaborations of the ecclectics.
Many of the things we most love in Venice, such as the Salute, the Clock-Tower, the Dogana, the Bridge of Sighs, the Rezzonico and Pesaro Palaces, are additions of the seventeenth century. The barocco intemperance in sculpture was carried on by disciples of Bernini ; and as the immediate influence of the great masters declined, painting acquired the same sort of character. The carelessness and rapidity of Tintoretto, which, in his case, proceeded from the lightning speed of his imagination and the unerring sureness of his brush, became a mechanical trick in the hands of superficial students. True art had migrated elsewhereto the homes of Velasquez, Rubens, and Rembrandt. As art grew more pompous it became less emotional. Painters like Palma Giovine spoilt their ready, lively fancy by the vice of hurry. The nickname of Fa Presto ” was deserved by others besides Luca Giordano, and Venice was overrun by a swarm of painters whose prime standard of excellence was the ability to make haste. Grandeur of conception was forgotten ; a grave, ample manner was no longer under-stood ; superficial sentiment and bombastic size carried the day. Yet a few painters, though their forms had become redundant and exaggerated, retained something of what had been the Venetian glorythe deep and moist colour of old. It still glowed with traces of its old lustre on the canvases of Giovanni Contarini, or Tiberio Tinelli, or Pietro Liberi ; and though there was a perfect fury of production, without order and without law, there can still be perceived the survival of that sense of the decorative which kept the thread of art. We discover it in the ceiling of the Church of San Pantaleone, where Gianbattista Fumiani paints the glorification of the martyred patron, and which, fantastic and extravagant as it is, with its stupendous, architectural setting, and its acutely, almost absurdly foreshortened throng, is not without a certain grandiose geniality, ample and picturesque, like the buildings of that date. In Alessandro Varotari (il Padovanino), whose ” Nozze di Cana ” in the Academia is a finely spaced scene, in which a charming use is made of cypresses, we seem to recognise the last ray of the Titianesque. The painting of the seventeenth century passed on towards the eighteenth, and, from ceilings and panels, rosy nymphs and Venuses smile at us, attitudinising and contorted upon their cloudy backgrounds. Lackadaisical Magdalens drop sentimental tears, and the Angel of the Annunciation capers above the head of an affected Virgin, while violent colours, intensified chiaroscuro, and black greasy impasto betray the neighbourhood of the tenebrosi. When, towards the end of the seventeenth century, Gregorio Lazzarini set himself to shake off these influences, he went to the opposite extreme. Although a beautiful designer, he becomes cold and flat in colour, with a coldness and insipidity, indeed, that take us by surprise, appearing in a country where the taste for luminous and brilliant tints was so strongly rooted. The student of Venetian painting, who wishes to fill up the hiatus which lies between the Golden Age and the revival of the eighteenth century, cannot do better than compare Fumiani’s vault in San Pantaleone with Lazzarini’s sober and earnest fresco, ” The Charity of San Lorenzo Giustiniani,” in San Pietro in Castello, and with Pietro Liberi’s ” Battle of the Dardanelles ” in the Ducal Palace. In all three we have examples of the varied and accomplished yet soulless art of this period. Not many of the scenes painted for the palaces of patricians in the seventeenth century have survived. They are to be found here and there by the curious who wander into old churches and palaces with a second-hand copy of Boschini in their hands ; but in the reaction from the florid which took place in the Empire period, many of them gave place to whitewash and stucco. In the Ducal Palace, side by side with the masterpieces of the Renaissance, are to be found the overcrowded canvases of Vicentino, Giovanni Contarini, Pietro Liberi, Celesti, and others like them. Some of the poor and meretricious mosaics in St. Mark’s are from designs by Palma Giovine and Fumiani. Carlo Ridolfi, who was a painter himself, as well as the painter’s chronicler, has an ” Adoration of the Magi ” in S. Giovanni Elemosinario, poor enough in invention and execution. Two pictures by obscure artists disfigure a corner of the Scuola di San Rocco. The Museo Civico has a large canvas by Vicentino, a ” Coronation of a Dogaressa,” which once adorned Palazzo Grimani. We hear of a school opened by Antonio Balestra, who was the master of Rosalba Carriera and Pietro Longhi, and the names of others have come down to us in numbers too numerous to be quoted. To-wards the end of the seventeenth century more light and novelty sparkles in the painting of the Bellunese, Battista Ricci, and assures us that he was no mere copyist ; and, as the eighteenth century opens, we become aware of the strong and daring brush of Gianbattista Piazetta. Piazetta studied the works of the Carracci for some time in Bologna, and especially those of Guercino, whose style, with its bold contrasts of light and shade, has served above all as his model. He paints very darkly, and his figures often blend with and disappear into the profound tones of his backgrounds. Charles Blanc calls him ” a Venetian Caravaggio ” ; and he has something of the strength and even the brutality of the Bolognese. A fine decorative and imaginative example of his work is the ” Madonna appearing to S. Philip Neri ” in the Church of S. Fava. The erect form of the Madonna is relieved in striking chiaroscuro against the mantle, upheld by putti. Radiant clouds light up the background and illumine the form of the old saint, a refined and spirited figure, gazing at the vision in an ecstasy of devotion. Piazetta is a bold realist, and many of his small pictures are strong and forcible. Sebastiano Ricci, Battista’s son, is described as ” a fine intelligence,” and attracts our notice as having forged special links with England. Hampton Court possesses a long array of his paintings. In the chapel of Chelsea Hospital the plaster semi-dome is painted by him, in oils, with very good effect. He is said to have worked in Thornhill’s studio, and his influence may be suspected in the Blenheim frescoes, and even in touches in Hogarth’s work.
By the eighteenth century Venice had parted with her old nobility of soul, and enjoyment had become the only aim of life. Yet Venice, among the States of Italy, alone retained her freedom. The Doge reigned supreme as in the past. Beneath the ceiling of Veronese the dreaded Three still sat in secret council. Venice was still the city of subtle poisons and dangerous mysteries, but the days were gone when she had held the balance in European affairs, and she had become, in a superlative degree, the city of pleasure. Nowhere was life more varied and entertaining, more full of grace and enchantment.
A long period of peace had rocked the Venetian people into calm security. There was, indeed, a little spasmodic fighting in Corfù, Dalmatia, and Algiers, but no real share was retained in the struggles of Europe. The whole policy of the city’s life was one of self-indulgence. Holiday-makers filled her streets ; the whole population lived in piazza,” laughing, gossiping, seeing and being seen. The very churches had become a rendezvous for fashionable intrigues ; the convents boasted their salons, where nuns in low dresses, with pearls in their hair, received the advances of nobles and gallant abbés. People came to Venice to waste time ; trivialities, the last scandal, sensational stories, were the only subjects worth discussing. In an age of parodies and practical jokes, the more absurd any one could be, the more silly or witty stories he could tell, the more assured was his success in the joyous, frivolous circle, full of fun and laughter. The Carnival lasted for six months of the year, and was the occasion for masques and licence of every description. In the hot weather, the gay descendants of the Contarini, the Loredan, the Pisani, and other grand old houses, migrated to villas along the Brenta, where by day and night the same reckless, irresponsible life went gaily on. The power of such courtesans as Titian and Paris Bordone had painted was waning. Their place was adequately supplied by the easy dames of society, no longer secluded, proud and tranquil, but stirred by the wild blood of youth and stooping to the frolic.”
They are but faces and smiles, teasing and trumpery,” says one of their critics, yet they are declared to be wideawake, natural and charming, making the most of their smattering of letters. Love was the great game ; every woman had lovers, every married woman openly flaunted her cicisbeo or cavaliere servente.
The older portion of the middle class was still moderate and temperate, contented to live in the old fashion, eschewing all interest in politics, with which it was dangerous for the ordinary individual to meddle ; but the new leaven was creeping through every level of society. The sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie tried to rise in the social scale by aping the pleasant vices of the aristocracy. They deserted the shop and the counting-house to play cards and strut upon the piazza. They mimicked the fine gentleman and the gentildonna, and made fashionable love and carried on intrigues. The spirit of the whole people had lost its elevation ; there were no more proud patricians, full of noble ambitions and devoted zeal of public service ; it was hardly possible to get a sufficient number of persons to carry on public business. It is a contemptible indictment enough ; yet among all this degenerate life, we come upon something more real as we turn to the artists. They were very much alive. In music, in literature, and in painting, new and graceful forms of art were emerging. Painting was not the grand art of other days ; it might be small and trivial, but there grew up a real little Renaissance of the eighteenth century, full of originality and fire, and showing a reaction from the pompous and banale style of the imitators.
The influence of the lady ” was becoming increasingly felt by society. Confidential little boudoirs, small and cosy apartments were the mode, and needed decorating as well as vast salas. The dainty luxury of gilt furniture, designed by Andrea Brustolon and upholstered in delicate silks, was matched by small, attractive works of art. Venice had lost her Eastern trade, and as the East faded out of her scheme of life, the West, to which she now turned, was bringing her a different form of art. The great reception rooms were still suited by the grandiose compositions of Ricci, Piazetta, and Pittoni, but another genre of charming creations smiled from the brocaded alcoves and more intimate suites of rooms.
It is impossible to name more than a fraction of these artists of the eighteenth century. There is Amigoni, admirable as a portrait-painter ; Pittoni, one of the ablest figure-painters of the day ; Luca Calevaris, the forerunner of Canale ; Pellegrini, whose decorations in this country are mentioned by Horace Walpole and of which the most important are preserved in the cupola and spandrils of the Grand Hall at Castle Howard. Their work is still to be found in many a Venetian church or North Italian gallery. Some of it is almost fine, though too often vitiated by the affected, exaggerated spirit of their day. When originality asserts itself more decidedly, Rosalba Carriera stands out as an artist who acquired great popularity. In 1700, when she was a young woman of twenty-four, she was already a great favourite with the public. She began life as a lace-maker, but when trade was bad, Jean Stève, a Frenchman, taught her to paint miniatures. She imparted a wonderfully delicate feeling to her art, and, passing on to pastel, she brought to this branch of portraiture a brilliancy and freshness which it had not known before. Rosalba has perhaps preserved for us better than any one else, those women of Venice who floated so lightly on the dancing waves of that sparkling stream. There they are : La Cornaro ; La Maria Labia, who was surrounded by French lovers, ” very courteous and very beautiful” ; La Zenobio and La Pisani ; La Foscari, with her black plumes; La Mocenigo, ” the lady with the pearls.” She has pinned them all to the canvas ; lovely, frail, light-hearted butterflies, with velvet neck-ribbons round their snowy throats and coquettish patches on their delicate skin and bouquets of flowers in their high-dressed hair and sheeny bodices. They look at us with arch eyes and smile with melting mouths, more frivolous than depraved ; sweet, ephemeral, irresponsible in every relation of life. Older men and women there are, too, when those artificial years have produced a succession of rather dull, sodden personages, kindly, inoffensive, but stupid, and still trifling heavily with the world.
Of Rosalba we have another picture to compare with those of her sitters. She and the other artists of her circle lived the merry, busy life of the worker, and found in their art the antidote to the evil living and the dissipation of the gay world which provided sitters and patrons. Rosalba’s milieu is a type of others of its class. She lives with her mother and sisters, an honest, cheerful, industrious existence. They are fond of old friends and old books, and indulge in music and simple pleasures. Her sisters help Rosalba by preparing the groundwork of her paintings. She pays visits, and writes rhymes, and plays on the harpsichord. She receives great men without much ceremony, and the Elector Palatine, the Duke of Mecklenburg, Frederick, King of Norway, and Maximilian, King of Bavaria, come to her to order miniatures of their reigning beauties. Then she goes off to Paris where she has plenty of commissions, and the frequently occurring names of English patrons in her fragmentary diaries, tell how much her work was admired by English travellers. She did more than anybody else to promote the fashion for pastels, and her delightful art may be seen at its best in the pastel room of the Dresden Gallery.
Henrietta, Countess of Pomfret, has left us a charming description of a party of English travellers, which included Horace Walpole, arriving in Venice in 1741, strolling about in mask and bauta, and visiting the famous pastellist in her studio. It is in such guise that Rosalba has painted Walpole, and has left one of the most interesting examples of her art.
SOME EXAMPLES Francesco da Ponte.
Venice. Ducal Palace : Sala del Maggior Consiglio. Four pictures on ceiling (second from the four corners of the sala). On left as you face the Paradiso : 1. Pope Alexander III. giving the Stocco, or Sword, to the Doge as he enters a Galley to command the Army against Ferrara ; 2. Victory against the Milanese ; 3. Victory against Imperial Troops at Cadore ; 4. Victory under Carmagnola, over Visconti. These four are all very rich in colour.
Chiesetta : Circumcision ; Way to Calvary.
Sala dell’ Scrutino Padua taken by Night from the Carraresi.
Leandro da Ponte.
Venice. Sala del Maggior Consiglio : The Patriarch giving a Blessed Candle to the Doge.
Sala of Council of Ten : Meeting of Alexander III. and Doge Ziani. A fine decorative picture, running the whole of one side of the sala.
Sala of Archeological Museum : Virgin in Glory, with the Avogadori Family.
Dresden. Presentation of the Virgin.
Florence. Uffizi : S. Margaret.
Munich. Deposition ; Nativity ; Ecce Homo ; Flagellation. Venice. Academy : Scenes from the Apocalypse ; S. Francis. Ducal Palace : The Last Judgment.
Vienna. Cain and Abel ; Daughter of Herodias ; Pietà ; Immaculate Conception.
Florence. Uffizi : Lucretia.
London. Cornelia and her Children.
Paris. Venus and Cupid.
Rome. Villa Borghese : Toilet of Minerva.
Venice. Academy : The Marriage of Cana ; Madonna in Glory ; Vanity, Orpheus, and Eurydice ; Rape of Proserpine ; Virgin in Glory.
Verona. Man and Woman playing Chess ; Triumph of Bacchus.
Vienna. Woman taken in Adultery ; Holy Family.
Venice. Ducal Palace : Battle of the Dardanelles.
Venice. Museo Civico : The Marriage of a Dogaressa.
G. A. Fumiani.
Venice. San Pantaleone : Ceiling.
Church of the Carità : Christ disputing with the Doctors.
Verona. S. Tomaso : Annunciation. G. Lazzarini.
Venice. S. Pietro in Castello.
The Charity of S. Lorenzo Guistiniani.
Venice. S. Rocco : The Glorification of the Cross. Gesuati : Pope Pius V. and Saints. London. Royal Hospital, Chelsea : Half-dome.
G. B. Pittoni.
Vicenza. The Bath of Diana.
G. B. Piazetta.
Venice. Chiesa della Fava : Madonna and S. Philip Neri. Academy : Crucifixion ; The Fortune-Teller.
Venice. Academy : pastels. Dresden. Pastels.