VENETIAN painting in its prime differs altogether in character from that of every other part of Italy. The Venetian is the most marked and recognisable of all the schools ; its singularity is such that a novice in art can easily, in a miscellaneous collection, sort out the works belonging to it, and added to this unique character is the position it occupies in the domain of art. Venice alone of Italian States can boast an epoch of art comparable in originality and splendour to that of her great Florentine rival ; an epoch which is to be classed among the great art manifestations of the world, which has exerted, and continues to exert, incalculable power over painting, and which is the inspiration as well as the despair of those who try to master its secret.
The other schools of Italy, with all their superficial varieties of treatment and feeling, depended for their very life upon the extent to which they were able to imbibe the Florentine influence. Siena rejected that strength and perished ; Venice bided her time and suddenly struck out on independent lines, achieving a magnificent victory.
Art in Florence made a strictly logical progress. As civilisation awoke in the old Latin race, it went back in every domain of learning to the rich subsoil which still underlay the ruin and the alien structures left by the long barbaric dominion, for the Italian in his darkest hour had never been a barbarian ; and as the mind was once more roused to conscious life, Florence entered readily upon that great intellectual movement which she was destined to lead. Her cast of thought was, from the first, realistic and scientific. Its whole endeavour was to know the truth, to weigh evidences, to elaborate experiments, to see things as they really were ; and when she reached the point at which art was ready to speak, we find that the governing motive of her language was this same predilection for reality, and it was with this meaning that her typical artists found a voice. No artist ever sought for truth, both physical and spiritual, more resolutely than Giotto, and none ever spoke more distinctly the mind of his age and country ; and as one generation follows another, art in Tuscany becomes more and more closely allied to the intellectual movement. The scientific predilection for form, for the representation of things as they really are, characterises not Florentine painting alone, but the whole of Florentine art. It is an art of contributions and discoveries, marked, it is needless to say, at every step by dominating personalities, positively as well as relatively great, but with each member consciously absorbed in ” going one better ” than his predecessors, in solving problems and in mastering methods. Florentine art is the out-come of Florentine life and thought. It is part of the definite clear-cut view of thought and reason, of that exactitude of apprehension towards which the whole Florentine mind was bent, and the lesser tributaries, as they flowed towards her, formed themselves on her pattern and worked upon the same lines, so that they have a certain general resemblance, and their excellence is in proportion to the thoroughness with which they have learned their lesson.
The difference which separates Venetian from the rest of Italian painting is a fundamental one. Venice attains to an equally distinguished place, but the way in which she does it and the character of her contribution are both so absolutely distinct that her art seems to be the outcome of another race, with alien temperament and standards. Venice had, indeed, a history and a life of her own. Her entire isolation, from her foundation, gave her an independent government and customs peculiar to herself, but at the same time her people, even in their earliest and most precarious struggles, were no barbarians who had slowly to acquire the arts of civilised life. Among the refugees were persons of high birth and great traditions, and they brought with them to the first crazy settlement on the lagoons some political training and some idea of how to reconstruct their shattered social fabric. The Venetian Republic rose rapidly to a position of influence in Europe. Small and circumscribed as its area was, every feature and sentiment was concentrated and intensified. But one element above all permeates it and sets it apart from other European States. The Oriental element in Venice must never be lost sight of if we wish to understand her philosophy of art.
There are some grounds, seriously accepted by the most recent historians, for believing that the first Venetian colonists were the descendants of emigrants who in prehistoric times had established themselves in Asia and who had returned from thence to Northern Italy. ” These colonists,” says Hazlitt, “were called Tyrrhenians, and from their settlements round the mouth of the Po the Venetian stock was ultimately derived.” If the tradition has any truth, we think with a deeper interest of that instinct for commerce which seems to have been in the very blood of the early Venetians. Did it, indeed, come down to them from the merchants of Tyre and Carthage ? From that wonderful trading race which stretched out its arms all over Europe and penetrated even to our own island ? From the first, Venice cut herself adrift, as far as possible, from Western ties, but she turned to Eastern people and to intercourse with the East with a natural affinity which savours of racial instinct. All her greatness was derived from her Asiatic trade, and her bazaars, heaped with Eastern riches, must have assumed a deeply Oriental aspect. Her customs long retained many details peculiar to the East. The people observed a custom for choosing and dowering brides, which was of Asia. The national treatment of women was akin to that of an Oriental State ; Venetian women lived in a retirement which recalled the life of the harem, only appearing on great occasions to display their brocades and jewels. Girls were closely veiled when they passed through the streets. The attachment of men to women had no intellectual bias, scarcely any sentiment, but went straight to the mark : the enjoyment of physical beauty.” The position of women in Venice was a great contrast to that attained by the Florentine lady of the Renaissance, who was highly educated, deeply versed in men and in affairs, the fine flower of culture, and the queen of a brilliant society. The love for colour and gorgeous pageantry was of Semitic intensity and seemed insatiable, and the gratification of the senses was a deliberate State policy. But passionate as was the spirit of patriotism, enthusiastic the love and loyalty of the people, the civic spirit was absent. The masses were contented to live under a despotic rule and to be little despots in their own houses. In the twelfth century the people saw power pass into the hands of the aristocracy, and as long as the despotism was a benevolent one, the event aroused no opposition. Like Orientals, the Venetians had wild outbursts, and like them they quieted down and nothing came of them. As Mr. Hazlitt remarks, ” their occasional resistance to tyranny, though marked by deeds of horrid and dark cruelty, left no deep or enduring traces behind it. It established no principle. It taught no lesson.” Venice was a Republic only in name. The whole aspect of her government is Eastern. Its system of espionage, its secret tribunals, its swift and silent blows,these are all Oriental traits, and the East entering into her whole life from without found a natural home awaiting it. We should be mistaken, however, in thinking that the Venetians in their great days were enervated and lapped in the sensuality which we are apt to associate with Eastern ideals. Sensuality did in the end drain the life out of her. ” It is the disease which attacks sensuousness, but it is not the same thing.” The Venetians were by nature men with a deep capacity for feeling, and it is this deep feeling which has so large a share in Venetian art.
The painters of Venice were of the people and had no wide intellectual outlook at its most splendid moment, such as was possessed by those men who in Florence were drawn into the company of the Medici and their court of scholars, and who all their lives were in the midst of a society of large aims and a free public spirit, in which men took their share of the responsibilities and honours of a citizen’s life. The merchant-patrons of Venice are quite uninterested in the solving of problems. They pay a price, and they want a good show of colour and gilding for their money. Presently they buy from outside, and a half-hearted imitation of foreigners is the best ambition of Venetian artists. Art, it has been said, does not declare itself with true spontaneity till it feels behind it the weight and unanimity of the whole body of the people. That true outburst was long in coming, but its seeds were fructifying deep in a congenial soil. They were fostered by the warmth and colour of Oriental intercourse, and at last the racial instinct speaks with no uncertain accent in the great domain of art, and speaks in a new and unexpected way ; as splendid as, yet utterly unlike, the grand intellectual declaration of Florence.
Let us bear in mind, then, that Venice in all her history, in all her character, is Eastern rather than Western. Hers is the kingdom of feeling rather than that of thought, of emotion as opposed to intellect. Her whole story tells of a profoundly emotional and sensuous apprehension of the nature of things ; and till the time comes when her artists are inspired to express that, their creations may be interesting enough, but they fail to reveal the true workings of her mind. When they do, they find a new medium and use it in a new way. Venetian colour, when it comes into its kingdom, speaks for a whole people, sensuous and of deep feeling, able for the first time to utter itself in art.
We have to divide the history of the Venetian School into three parts. The first extends from the primitives to the end of Giovanni Bellini’s life. He forms a link between the first and second periods. The second begins with Giorgione and ends with Tintoretto and Bassano, and is the Venetian School proper. Thirdly, we have the eighteenth-century revival, in which Tiepolo is the most conspicuous figure, and which is in an equal degree the expression of the life of its time.