Venice Academy – Room I – Sala Dei Maestri Primitivi

THE room of the early masters, numbered I on the plan, the room into which the entrance stairs lead, was the so-called Great Hall of the old Scuola. It still has the richly carved and decorated Gothic ceiling which was executed for the Brotherhood in the latter half of the fifteenth century. For many years it was supposed that the eight-winged cherubs, which, interlocking and interlacing as they do, form the principal part of the decorative scheme, made a sort of rebus of the name of the brother who paid for the ornamentation of this room of his Scuola. But authorities now state that Cherubino Aliotti was never a member of the confraternity, and that Thomas Cavazzo was the brother who gave most of the funds for the work. Marco Cozzi of Vicenza was the artist chosen for the task, and the beauty, quaintness, and originality of his design are as apparent to-day as they must have been five hundred years ago. This elaborate carving makes both background and framing for a central painted medallion and four corner medallions, as well as for the sixty-eight portraits in the arches below. The old central medallion, which was a carving representing the Madonna sheltering a number of friars under her wide mantle, is replaced by a panel painted by Alvise Vivarini, showing God the Father surrounded by cherubim. The panel was originally part of a ceiling in the Scuola of S. Girolamo. In the corners of the ceiling are the prophets Isaiah, Obadiah, Micah, and Habakkuk, brought here from the Scuola of the Madonna del Parto, at Padua. They were painted by Domenico Campagnola. The sixty-eight portraits making the cornice are the work of pupils of the Academy during the years 1849-55, and are supposed to be truthful portrayals of the most celebrated painters of all times. All these paintings, though of minor importance as paintings, fit admirably into the general scheme of decoration, and with the elaborately carved woodwork make an extraordinarily rich and glowing interior in which the very spirit of the early Venetian Renaissance seems to live again.

Although the room does not contain all the ex-amples the Academy owns of the works of the earliest painters of Northern Italy, most of the Primitives are to be found here. From one point of view these magnificently framed anconas and votive pictures are singularly uninteresting. Compared with works by Florentine painters of the same epoch, they show an amazing lack of knowledge of drawing, of construction, of perspective, and indeed of most of the fundamental rules that govern the art of painting. The figures are angular and ugly, the faces immobile, vacuous in expression, and deficient in cranium construction, there is little or no idea of composition, and what there is is generally so involved and disconnected that an attempt at straightening out the unbalanced parts into a coherent whole is mostly fruitless. Only in colouring does the school show at this early stage any of the attributes that were to make it so famous a century later.

It is curious that Venice, who led the world in industrial, commercial, mechanical, and political fields, should have been so far behind the rest of Italy in art. Not till the first half of the fifteenth century, nearly a hundred years behind Florence, does Venetian art evince an inclination to depart from its strict Byzantine traditions and principles. Gradually, then, the rigidity and angularity of the Byzantine draperies began to fall into longer, easier, simpler folds, the colouring becoming more trans-parent and the flesh-tones growing softer and warmer. It is not definitely decided what it was that gave this late impetus to Venetian art. The critics do not find the school of Giotto responsible for the gradual change, but they do discern signs of the influence of the Gothic style, particularly, of course, in sculpture. The more strictly Venetian peculiarities of the school seem indigenous to the city itself. It has been compared to the Flemish school in certain ways. For instance, the Flemings, like the Venetians, preferred their pictures for the domestic altar or as votive pictures, and therefore they were generally made on much smaller lines than the huge altar-pieces of Central Italy, where a ” whole world of events and thoughts find expression.” Whatever it was that finally woke the paint-ers of North Italy into a life that had vitality, power, originality, and beauty it is only the student of art who can find much indication of this awakening in most of these gorgeously framed altar-pieces. But, as has been said, in even the crudest, most archaic of these pictures of Madonna and saint, there is almost always the charm of pure, vibrant colour, and there is something more. Later Venetian art has often been accused of lacking the religious feeling, of showing, even in its pictures for church and convent, little of the piety so essential a part of the art of the other schools of Italy. In the beginning, however, there was no such lack. In the most hope-less of these early panels, from an artistic or technical point of view, there is always a very real and living religious sentiment. Fra Angelico himself, though he had infinitely more skill, had hardly deeper or more ecstatic vision than some of these first painters of the Venetian Renaissance. Along with this feeling for colour and this devout spirit, they had another attribute that, later, was to be one of the dominant notes of the North Italian painters. This was their sense of reality. In these first attempts it is mainly shown, to be sure, in the pains-taking and exact delineation of gilded ornament and embroidered borders and figured brocade, but it is none the less apparent, and must be considered an integral part of the art of every Venetian.

One of the earliest painters represented in this first room is Antonio Veneziano, the date of whose birth Vasari gives as 1312. By Vasari, too, as well as other authorities, he is called a pupil of Agnolo Gaddi, but this is now considered a doubtful claim. He was at least a contemporary of Agnolo, and his works at Pisa show strongly the influence of Giotto. Indeed, he has been assigned a place as one of the most important links in the chain that reaches from Giotto to Masaccio. Any great ability at composition he had not; and the flatness of his tones precluded any effective modelling in flesh or costume. His colour was very pure, rosy, with much transparence, but his greatest forte lay in depicting emotion and feeling. His figures are generally full of expression, an expression, as Vasari indicates, true to the character they are supposed to possess. His most noted works are his frescoes in the Campa Santo at Pisa.

Antonio, though credited with being a Venetian, must have been educated far from Venice, probably in Tuscany. For it was not till after Gentile da Fabriano’s visit to Venice that Venetian artists began to throw off the Byzantine traditions, — traditions which influenced Antonio as little as they influenced Giotto himself. He was a Florentine in manner, training, and expression. Vasari says that the envy of other artists in Venice caused him to be so badly treated that, after working in his native city a short time, he left it never to return.

His little triptych here recalls but slightly either his style or his ability. It is a painting on wood, representing Christ on the Cross, with the Madonna and St. John. Below, the Madonna is again shown holding the baby Jesus to her breast. On one of the wings of the triptych is painted the Annunciation, on the other Sts. Jerome and John the Baptist. The traces of signature have been made to read ” Antonius Ven 1358,” but the marking is not definite enough for one to be sure that this is its real reading. And, like many of the other early paintings, this may one day be assigned to some other artist.

How little the Venetians of even the commenceent of the fifteenth century had advanced beyond the rigidity and hard and fast rules of the Greek style of painting, is vividly apparent in many of the altar-pieces in this room, In none, perhaps, is it more evident than in the huge ancona, said to be by Lorenzo of Venice, or Lorenzo Veneziano, as he is called. It is a huge Gothic framed affair of eighteen compartments, three stories, so to speak, in height, and with the many divisions separated by pilasters and heavy stucco work of gold. The central portion represents the Annunciation, with a tiny figure of the donor, Domenico Lion, at the Virgin’s feet. It was originally in the Church of S. Antonio di Castello, and was painted by order of Domenico, at a cost, it is said, of three hundred gold ducats. A large part of the sum, it is supposable, must have gone into the expansive gold framing. Over the Annunciation, in the upper division, is the figure of the Almighty, with a cherub above each outraised hand. This portion has been, assigned to Benedetto Diana, and also to Bissolo. Below the Annunciation are small half-length figures of the five Hermit Saints, as they are called. The sixteen other compartments, all holding saints, are arranged two by two on each side of the Annunciation and the panel of the Blessing Father. Between each of these pairs, painted on the separating pillars, are thirty-six more little full-length figures.

Of the two other panels ascribed to Lorenzo in this room, one is a tempera painting on wood of Sts. Peter and Mark. This is signed ” MCCCLXXI. Mense Novemb. Laurent, pinxit.” It was brought to the Academy from the Ufficio della Seta, Rialto. St. Peter is at the left in a blue robe and yellow mantle lined with red, turning three-quarters to the right, and carrying the keys of his office in his right hand, a roll of paper in his left. St. Mark is at the right, in a blue mantle lined with green, his right hand lifted, holding a book in his left. The background, as in all these earliest paintings, is gold.

The third Lorenzo is also an Annunciation. Above this central compartment is a representation of the symbols of the Trinity, and at the sides are Sts. John the Baptist and Nicholas, Sts. James and Stephen. It once made the central part of an altar-piece in the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista. It also is in tempera; and is on wood. The Virgin in the central division is at the right, her hands crossed on her breast. She is seated, turning to the left toward the kneeling, golden-winged angel who, in a blue robe and rose-coloured mantle lined with green, is holding a sceptre in one hand. Layard says of this that, though it is painted in the usual severe style, it shows in the heads a softness of expression, and that the draperies fall in easy and rounding folds.

If Antonio’s art is mostly Florentine in style, Lorenzo’s is intensely Venetian. He painted in tempera, showing little ease in treatment or manner, with a solidity and opaqueness that emphasize the awkward construction of his figures and the heaviness of their garments. Like all the men of his time, Fabriano not excepted, he seemed more careful in the rendering of architectural details, in the framing of his scenes, so to speak, than in the scenes themselves. Most of his figures are outlined with rigidity, with no flow of curve or form to counterbalance the unbroken edges. The exact dates of his birth and death are not known, but he was working at about the same time as Niccolo Semitecolo.

This last, named painter was one of the earliest Venetians whose style shows some slight influence of the Gothic upon that which was in the main still strongly Byzantine. He has been likened to Duccio, but Duccio’s excellences are not generally accorded him. He was living as late as 1400, and it has been questioned whether he and Niccolo di Maestro Pietro are not one and the same. The three altar-pieces in the Academy, one ascribed to Semitecolo, one to Niccolo di Maestro Pietro, and the third catalogued as by an unknown Venetian of the fourteenth century, all have many of the characteristics generally given Semitecolo. They are in elaborate Gothic framework, in many divisions, with little idea of composition or even of coherence in the scenes, and with unconnected incidents in unrelated lives frequently introduced in the bordering or corner pictures. Like many of the pictures in this first Venetian room, the effect of the elaborate golden frame and the Byzantine insistence upon gorgeousness of robe and mantle, give them a certain uniform richness and splendour that, to the untrained eye, make them all seem extremely alike, so that it is only by careful attention to what appears mere detail that one comes to observe how different they all really are. Most of these altar-pieces are in many divisions, sur-rounded with one outer encircling framework.

In the Coronation of the Virgin, for instance, which, credited by the catalogue to an unknown Venetian, has before been ascribed to Semitecolo, are numberless divisions and openings of various shapes and sizes. The central one shows the figure of Jesus placing a crown on the head of his Mother, who is surrounded by angels playing on musical instruments. At their feet are two that might be the forerunners of the delightful putti of Bellini. This is perhaps, or probably, not by Semitecolo, but the minor panels are considered to be more in his style. These, on the right and left of this central division, are smaller, with trefoil-shaped tops. Here are the Nativity, the Baptism, the Last Sup-per, the Betrayal, the Road to Calvary, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. In the last, with strict adherence to Byzantine traditions, the figure of Jesus is placed within an oval-shaped glory made of golden rays on a blue ground.

Above, on each side of the central panel, are six more scenes, most of them subjects from the life of St. Francis. Between the principal ones are single figures, each placed in a regular niche, and perhaps meant to represent the four Evangelists. At the right corner above the central compartment is King David holding a scroll with the words, ” Adorabo te,” etc., and at the left Isaiah, with another Latin-inscribed scroll. This is the picture which Ruskin, praising excessively, calls the ” Vicar’s picture.”

The colour of the flesh-tones throughout is olive brown, and the folds of the garments are not indicated by light and shade, but by lines of gold, white, or local colour. Now and then. certain touches of naturalism occur, noticeably where, in the Crucifixion, the soldiers are depicted playing at ” Mora,” an old Italian game, instead of, as is usual in later pictures, casting lots for Christ’s garments.

A more interesting, if less elaborate, production in the same room is the one called the Virgin and Child Adored by the Donor. The Virgin sits with the baby on her lap, the words ” Ego sum via veritas et Vita ” on the leaves of the open book which he holds. The Mother is clad in a crimson robe overlaid with a golden flower pattern, and a blue mantle of greenish tone fastened at her breast with a cherub-headed brooch. The Child is dressed in yellow. Behind each head is a gold nimbus, a cross outlined in that of Jesus, a crown in Mary’s. Upon pedestals, serving as arms to the throne, are two angels playing upon mandolins, and above are five other little denizens of heaven also sounding their musical instruments and lifting a red drapery. At the left the donor, Vulciano Belgarzone, kneels, dressed in a crimson gown and white cap. The figures are about half life-size, except for Belgarzone, who is considerably smaller. The painting has a gold background, and the panel is arched at the top. Much of the work is rather crude, and the faces have little real expression.

The third example attributed to Semitecolo is another Coronation of the Virgin, and it has been given great praise for its devotional feeling. It is very archaic in its treatment of form and compssition, of course, like all of these, but it does evince an advance over the old Byzantine art. Mary and Jesus are shown sitting side by side on a sort of settle of Gothic build. Behind is a crimson curtain supported by angels, some of their heads indicating an appreciation of cranium anatomy rare with Semitecolo. There is the usual gold background, and the framing has a triple-arched top.

In this room are two pictures by the little known painter called Simone da Cusighe and Simone dal Peron, these both names of villages near Bergamo. He lived sometime in the latter half of the fourteenth century, dying before 1416. He was thus a Friulian, and his works show little beyond the archaic tendencies that seem to overwrap Friuli till the time came when, with one bound, she swept into a place made for her by such men as Pordenone and Pellegrino.

His two pictures in this room are the altar-piece, the Virgin of Pity and the so-called Entombment, the latter consisting of four small panels, representing different scenes from the life of Christ.

The Virgin of Pity is an ancona divided into nine parts. In the central and much larger division is the Madonna, standing, holding out her robe on each side. The babe Jesus is painted enclosed within an oval framing placed directly over her breast, a background of golden rays behind him. Beneath the ample folds of her blue mantle with its green lining are the crowding penitents who give the name to the picture. In the side panels above and below are painted incidents from the life of St. Bartholomew.

In 1415 Jacobello del Fiore was ” gastaldo,” or chief officer of the guild of painters in Venice. His Coronation of the Virgin, once in the Cathedral of Ceneda, and now in this room of the Academy, is one of his most authentic works. Kugler says of it that ” it is a confused and scarcely intelligible composition, containing a large number of clumsily drawn figures, angels playing on musical instruments in architectural niches, the Evangelists and crowd of Prophets, Saints, and Martyrs, over-charged with gilding and gilt stucco in relief, — showing this painter to have been equally deficient in skill and imagination. It has, however, lost much of its original character by repainting.”

Other critics treat it even more harshly, and Jacobello’s absolute lack of knowledge of anatomy or any kind of human construction, his awkward, angular motions, his total disregard of any laws of composition or even ordinary sequence, all this is blazoned forth in pictures made of elaborate stucco and golden work, filled with glaring colours, crowded figures with neither rhyme nor reason in their placing, their surroundings, or their selection.

He was not the only painter of what Vasari calls the ” Greek style,” to introduce various-sized figures into the same composition, but he apparently never even heard of the desirability of keeping some sort of relationship between those supposed to be within the same picture plane. And yet, as has been pointed out, if careful study is given to this Coro-nation, or Paradise, as it is also called, it will be seen that he did make an attempt to vary his figures and to give some sort of life and animation to their movements and expressions. Though there is, as Crowe and Cavalcaselle justly remark, no shading or modelling, with the figures all in strict outline and with the spaces filled with rough and clumsy distemper, and though the drawing is absolutely hopeless, still, the student does find, if only by study, something beyond the art of the Byzantine painters whose works had for so long been Venice’s only pictorial expression.

The Coronation is nearly square in shape, with its top arched. The centre of the composition is occupied by a two-part throne, elaborately inlaid and overhung with two canopies. Beneath these hangings sits Jesus, placing a crown on Mary’s head. The lower part of the throne is separated into niches, the upper holding the four Evangelists, three of them with book and pen in hand, the fourth with book and knife. In the lower line are seven angels bearing musical instruments. Cherubim and seraphim stand right and left of the throne, their heads coming one above the other in regular order. Next are rows of saints and martyrs, all extravagantly robed. In the extreme foreground, near the lowest step of the throne, is the Bishop of Ceneda, his mitre on one side, holding his crozier and kneeling in adoration. The principal figures are perhaps one-third life-size, the rest smaller. The old frame of this picture, which was thrown away, is said to have been dated 1430.

The same room holds two more of Jacobello’s works. The one called Justice is a triptych, with the allegorical figure in the middle, Michael on the left, and Gabriel on the right. This he was commissioned to paint for the tribunal of the ” Proprio ” in 1421. Messrs. Crowe and Cavalcaselle say that in it he displays ” incorrectness of drawing, tastelessness of embossed ornament, and tawdriness of drapery.”

Justice is seated in full face on two lions. Her crown, and much of the simulated embroideries of her dress are all gold embossed. Her robe is gray, her mantle red; she holds in her right hand a sword, and in her left a pair of scales. A Latin-written scroll is behind her head. Michael, the angel, is seen in golden armour trampling on the dragon which he is about to pierce with his uplifted sword.

In his left hand he carries a pair of scales and a scroll with more Latin inscription. Toward the left comes the angel Gabriel, clad in a yellow robe and white mantle, bearing a lily and still another written scroll.

The third panel, the Virgin and Child, depicts a lot of tiny penitents huddled beneath the Madonna’s robe. It shows the Venetian’s faults in even stronger relief than these others display them.

Though in the works of these men can be discerned some slight advance over the petrified Byzantine art, till then ruling supreme in Venice, it is not with them that real progress is seen. Far ahead of any of their accomplishments rank the works of even the first of the Vivarini, a school of painters originating in the island of Murano, which was one of the islands within the Venetian borders. Under the title of the Vivarini are known a number of painters of different generations. They are called not alone by that name, however, but are frequently given their first name in conjunction with that of their home, Murano. This island of Venice, then, may be considered as the starting-point of Venetian art. It was the seat of the glass manufactories, and here were made many of the mosaics for which Venice was famous. Antonio and Giovanni da Murano may properly be called the founders of the school. They worked mostly together, and signed their names often as ” Johannes Alemannus et Antonius de Murano,” Johannes thus proudly blazoning his German origin. He is supposed to have derived his artistic inheritance from the school of Cologne, Antonius his from Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello. The two men worked together perhaps for ten years, probably till 1450.

The great altar-piece, called Paradise, which is in this first room, is now thought to be only a copy by Giambone of the one which the two painters executed for San Pantaleone in 1444. There is still some doubt, however, as to which is the original work. In any case, both are so tremendously repainted that it is impossible to form much idea of their first estate. It is generally conceded that the upper part of the one in the Academy was added by Basaiti.

The picture represents a great concourse of saints, angels, doctors of the Church, and the four Evangelists, variously grouped about the Almighty, Christ, and Mary, who are in the upper part of a double-tiered and high-domed throne. Mary bends toward her son, while he places a crown upon her head. Behind, and slightly over them, is the Lord Almighty, a hand on the shoulder of each, and between Him and the other two, the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove. This part of the throne rests on pillars with golden stuccoed capitals, and underneath it is a crowd of little angels, bearing the instruments of the Passion. They are standing upon the platform which makes the lower part of the throne, and are somewhat raised above the four disciples, who, two on each side, are within the curving armlike projections of the construction. Back of these arms, but on a level with the Evangelists, are St. Gregory, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Nicholas. Ranged tier over tier on each side, above these, are the ranks of the blessed, each with his or her halo, all robed in richest gold brocades. In composition, they make two winglike masses on the sides of the central throne.

Badly drawn as are most of the figures, crude as is the compositional construction, there is a certain dignity of conception, a careful accentuation of type, and an attempt at individual character, without, too, the forced action and sharp contrasts of colour, so characteristic of the early Venetian school. Though by no means one of the best ex-amples of the two Muranese, it unmistakably shows how these two workers can be called the founders of a new style.

Another of the Vivarini has been classed with these as also one of the real founders of the school of Murano. It is now pretty well demonstrated that Andrea da Murano was one of the latest members as well as one of the feeblest. He was, however, a follower, so far as he was able, of the Muranese style.

The earliest work positively known to be his is the one in this room which once was in the Sacristy of San Pietro Martire at Murano. It was broken up at some later date, and no trace has been discovered of the lunette which held the Virgin of Mercy. The central panel represents St. Roch and St. Vincent attended by a kneeling patroness and another small-sized figure. This part of the altar-piece was for long in the Magazine of the Brera at Milan. The sides show St. Sebastian and St. Peter Martyr, a male worshipper placed with each. They are on wood, painted in tempera, on a gold ground. In the centre, St. Vincent holds his hand in bene-diction over a nude woman. There is a distinct trace of Mantegna’s influence in all these figures, particularly in the heads. The draperies are long, straight, and angular, the flesh-tone is olive, the faces disagreeable in expression.

The Virgin Adoring the Child, in this room, may or may not be by Quirizio da Murano, certain at-tributes suggesting rather the work of Bartolommeo. The Child and the blue mantle of the Mother are both modern restorations. The baby Jesus lies on a white cushion on a parapet. The inscription on this parapet of ” uritus, Murano,” may also be a modern restoration, or a modern forgery. The figures are rather heavier than those usually as-signed to Quirizio.

In the same room is an Ecce Homo credited to him. It is on wood, and is less injured than the other. It, too, has much in common with the style of Bartolommeo.

Quirizio, or Quiricius, is supposed to have been a pupil of Antonio of Murano, though there have been many and varying conjectures made regarding him and his work by the critics. The probability is that he did little alone, but was one of the assistants in the Vivarini workshop. His use of tempera is like that of the school of Murano, being flat, light, and with little or no shade. His type of head is regular and well-shaped, fingers and neck long, waist very slender.

There is little to admire in the huge altar-piece by Lambertini. It is divided into fifteen parts, and has three lengthwise divisions. In the centre are the Madonna and Child and two angels between two panels of Mary Magdalen on the right, and St. Lucy and St. Helen at the left. Above are the Calvary and the four Evangelists. The predella contains scenes from the life of St. Helen. This is the best part of the work, showing some study of nature and some slight imagination. The draperies are crudely drawn, the figures even more so. The faces are apparently modelled on the same type, the mouths, particularly, being all alike.

Very little is known of Michele di Matteo Lambertini, except that he was a Bolognese painter, working as early as 1440, that being the date of his twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed in the Church of San Giovanni at Siena. His style is largely influenced by Byzantine traditions.