Venice Academy – Room XX – Sala Della Presentazione

THE so-called Sala della Presentazione was the old Albergo, the reception-hall, of the Scuola della Carità, and has the same carved and painted ceiling which was redecorated and practically reconstructed as early as 1443. It is a magnificent sample of Renaissance ornamentation, the blue and gold of its colour scheme blending sympathetically and richly with the colouring of the medallions in which are represented Jesus in the centre, with the four Evangelists in surrounding framing. The pictures in this room are the ones which were originally painted for it, so that as far as may be the hall is now as it was in the days of the Brotherhood. It holds the finest picture by the founders of the Venetian school of the Renaissance as well as one of the most noted of the greatest master of that school.

The first of these is the Virgin Enthroned, by Antonio and Johannes da Murano, the first of the Vivarini, and is a far more important work than any in the Sala dei Maestri Primitivi. Like all the examples of the ” primitives,” it has an enormous amount of the raised gold stucco work and Gothic architectural background, the latter carried here to a finish of detail and elaboration of parts suggesting the German origin of at least one of its painters. It shows the Mother and Child sitting on a throne under a canopy supported by four tall, slender poles held by four little angels whose long wings break not unpleasingly against the Gothic court which makes the background. On the left of this group is St. Jerome, in cardinal’s robes, holding in his right hand the miniature model of his church, and in his left an open book. Next him is St. Gregory, in papal regalia. At the right are St. Ambrose with his crozier and knotted scourge and St. Augustine with crozier and book.

In spite of the manifold repainting to which this picture has been subjected, there is enough of the original work left to indicate the style of the Ger-man and Muranese. There is a dignity to the straight, somewhat stiff and conventionally placed doctors of the Church, and the four little angels, with their long robes falling into easy if rather too unbroken folds, have a grace and quiet charm, counterbalanced by the calm majesty and benignity that shine from out the absorbed, dreaming face of the Madonna and by the repose of her figure. In spite of archaism and convention there are here, unmistakably, real power and ability, and it is not hard to understand how, from such beginnings, the school of Venice could blossom out into a Titian or Tintoretto.

Titian’s Presentation, which gives its name to the hall, now hangs in exactly the place for which it was painted, at one end, with two doors cutting into it, one on each side of the centre. It is due to Signor Cantalamessa that it is back in its original position, for it was he who superintended its removal from another room, to which it had been transferred for many years. This transference had necessitated piecing up the square openings made by the doors and painting over the new surface, thus decidedly changing the composition. It appears now as Titian left it, except for the ills the restorer has brought upon it. In many places it has been retouched and cleaned, and the figure of Anna and the dress of the old egg woman, at least, are wholly modern rendering.

The picture was painted probably about 1542. It is stated that Titian made a sketch for it as early as when he was in Giovanni Bellini’s bottega, and it is further claimed that in Jacopo Bellini’s sketch-book can be found the same, or a very similar composition, showing that Titian apparently borrowed his idea from him. If he did, the borrowing was much like Shakespeare’s borrowing from whatever source was handiest, his genius of creation afterward making it all a thousandfold more truly his than it had ever been another’s, even in its rudimentary state.

At the right, on the upper step at the entrance to a temple with marble columns, stands the high priest, in Jewish priestly garments of yellow and blue over a white robe, his hands raised in greeting as he stands waiting for the little Mary who has mounted the great gray stone steps half-way toward him. At the foot of the flight stand the Mother of Mary and a woman attendant, and back of them, crowding about the steps and coming from the loggia of another building, are many other men, women, and children, all dressed in the Venetian fashion of Titian’s day. Back of the high priest is a bearded man in cardinal’s robes and a young acolyte in red and yellow suit, bearing the book of service. Stately buildings with Corinthian pillars and coloured marble façades, with people at windows and on balconies, extend back from the temple steps, and in the distance is a rocky mountainous region and a cloudless sky. In the immediate foreground, sitting on the ground beside the steps, is an old market-woman with her basket of eggs beside her, — a wonderful bit of realistic painting whose excellences all the vituperations of a Ruskin have not lessened.

Such is the general scheme of this world-famous picture. But no mere words can half describe the masterly treatment of it from a compositional point of view. The massing and grouping of the crowd watching the progress of the child Mary, the way the lines of the buildings are utilized to connect this lower portion with the priest and temple en-trance, the management of the radiance that sur-rounds the child so that, although almost at one end of the canvas, it is she who becomes the focal centre of the composition, all this shows Titian’s mastery over the technicalities of his art. But these painter attributes and attainments, great as they are, are not, Mr. Ruskin to the contrary notwithstanding, nearly the greatest or most vital attributes of the work. It is the humanity, the reality, the life in it, which have given it a fame accorded only a few of the greatest pictures in the world. The beauty of the tonal relations, the richness of the colouring, the depth of the shadows, the brilliance of that mysterious light about the child, the enveloping atmosphere of the whole, these, again, are Titian at his highest expression. But even they do not explain the tender, pathetic beauty of that little girl in her sky-blue dress, going up those steps so bravely alone, her fearless little hand lifted to the mighty priest above her, her golden hair shimmering in the radiance that sweeps about her, flooding the steps, reaching to the priest above, and extending back to the watching friends and neighbours, but intensifying and concentrating all its bewildering brilliance only about her sturdy little figure. So marvellously does the painter express this golden glow, that there is no hint of artificiality about it, — it does not seem painted, nor is it forced; it belongs there, one feels, as much as the child herself, — is, indeed, an integral part of her, and her enduring charm.

In this same room is John the Baptist in the Desert, painted when Titian was not far from eighty years old. It is one of the finest single-figure compositions he ever accomplished, showing a vigour of construction, a depth of insight, and a creative power that fourscore years had apparently only strengthened.

Standing in front and slightly at one side of a high rocky ledge, which reaches to the top of the canvas, is the Baptist, unclothed except for the loin-cloth and the cape of skins that comes down over one shoulder and about his right thigh. He is in nearly full face, his weight resting on his right leg, his right arm raised as if beckoning to some one, his head turned, looking in the same direction. His left hand holds the end of his cloak of pelts and his reed cross. Behind him a brook flows through a mountainous rocky region, and heavy clouds fill the sky.

The red-brown flesh of the Man of the Wilderness shows the effect of wind and rain, sun and storm, and the black-bearded face, with its long, curling hair, its piercing black eyes, its absorbed, vigilant expression, is that of no anemic dreamer. The form is spare, but full of a tense vigour, the pose has a calmness that only a man of great activity and great restraint can command. The vigilance of the eyes, the firm lines of the mouth, do not negative too strongly the benevolent brow, the fine, delicate nose. It is a complex character here that Titian has portrayed, and no one else, one feels, has ever so nearly expressed what the Man Who Caine Before must have been. In anatomical construction, too, this figure is one of the best that Titian ever achieved.

The portrait of Jacopo Soranzo has been given by critics, including Mr. Berenson, to Tintoretto, but, though it is much spoiled by repainting, the balance of opinion seems inclined to regard it as a work of the older Venetian. The entire upper part of the background and the hands are new, and all of it is much injured by time, dampness, and the restorer.

Jacopo di Francesco Soranzo was elected procurator in 1522, obtaining the coveted honour, it is said, by the expenditure of fourteen thousand ducats. The picture is supposed to have been executed at the time of his election, when he was about fifty-six years old, but he appears far older than that, with his soft white beard and hair and rather sunken mouth. The large dark eyes still hold the penetrating fires of youth, however, and the straight, easy carriage is that of a man in middle age. The portrait is half-length, showing Soranzo sitting almost full face in an armchair, his head turned to the left, a black velvet skull-cap pulled down on to his forehead, a fur-bordered silk pelisse drawn close up to his neck and entirely covering his figure in its ample folds.