Brief History of Religious Painting in Renaissance Venice

Paolo da Venezia, Coronation of Mary, mid-1300’s, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice Photograph source: The Yorck Project

Mendicant orders [i] are credited with bringing the Gothic style churches, with their high altars placed against the wall of the apse, to Venice in the fourteenth century. The pala d’altare, or altarpiece, was a natural development with the altar in this location. The pala d’altare or pala, consists of a unified, vertical picture plane. Although the frame of the pala can be quite ornate, the pala itself does not include sculptural elements. Altarpieces served several functions. They reflect the altar and the sacrament of the Eucharist, serve as a visual reminder not only of the presence of Christ, but also the idea of Transubstantiation (the presence of the body and blood of Christ), they allow congregants to sit face to face with intercessors, and they serve as a representation of the altar’s titulus, or subject of dedication.

Although church doctrine stated that all altars were dedicated only to God, in Venice it was common practice to dedicate altars to a particular saint, Christological, or Marian mystery. [1] By convention an altarpiece reflected the dedication of the altar and thus was important in distinguishing one altar from another. [2] Often it is possible to recognize the titulus by the iconography of an altarpiece. However, when the Virgin and Child are depicted, the titulus is more difficult to determine. Often it is the saint to the Virgin’s right or the saint in the center of the sacre converzione, a conventional grouping of Madonna, Child and Saints. [3]

The subject of the pala is iconic or narrative, although the delineation of the two can be imprecise. Although many ecclesiastical accessories of the church were strictly regulated by church law in the fifteenth century, the altarpiece was not. This gave artists and patrons a degree of freedom in subject, style and form, yet challenged their respect for longstanding tradition. Humphrey states that “…it could be argued that it was precisely this tension between convention of the type, and the freedom to experiment within it, that allowed the altarpiece to become one of the most important and expressive vehicles of Italian Renaissance art.”[4] Titian took full advantage of the artistic freedom allowed and developed many innovations exemplified both in the Assumption (1516-18), and in the Pesaro (1519-26) altarpieces.

Extraordinary, brilliant use color is a hallmark of Venetian painting. Perhaps the early painters got their inspiration from the mosaics of San Marco. Figures composed of hundreds of tiny glass tesserae adorn the basilica; reflected light and the polished glow of gold infuse the atmosphere. Patricia Fortini Brown suggests, in Art and Life in Renaissance Venice, that “The chromatic approach to color of Giovanni Bellini, Titian, and other Venetian artists had its antecedents here.” [5] in San Marco’s mosaic work. Many Venetian painters and artisans worked on restoration projects and thus became familiar with the mosaics; Titian is among these.

New ideas found their way to Venice through foreign artists and imported art works. Titian flourished during this period of flux in painting; new materials, new ideas and a return to the classics were blooming in Florence and Rome and finding their way to Venice. Titian’s teachers, Bellini, Giorgione, and his contemporaries, Raphael and Michelangelo, had a profound influence on the direction of Titian’s painting. Titian’s genius, in part, was his flexibility and capacity to synthesize the flow of ideas, thoughts,and talent surrounding him into innovations in painting making him the premier painter in Venice.

Domenico Veneziano , St. Lucy Altarpiece, 1455, Uffizi, Florence, Italy.  Photograph source: The Yorck Project

Until the High Renaissance, altarpieces, and painting in general, gradually shifted toward a greater naturalism. Slowly, the flat icon-like painted figures and spaces depicted gained volume and a degree of realism. Paolo da Venezia, the earliest Venetian painter historians know by name, found inspiration for his altarpieces at San Marco. It was Paolo who brought the polyptych to Venice in the fourteenth century, where it became a standard. Paolo’s Coronation of Mary, mid-1300, reflects the medieval style of decorative, linear painting; the figures and space are relatively flat and two-dimensional with a liberal use of gold leaf ornamentation.[6] Domeinco Veneziano, working with tempera on wood panel, is perhaps best known for his Saint Lucy altarpiece, 1455. The triple arch, reminiscent of a polyptych, creates a nearly three-dimensional illusionistic space containing one of the earliest extant sacra conversazione. Rosand states that Domenico was working to draw the viewer into the illusionistic space, playing with space, both fictive and illusionistic, while retaining the Virgin and Child as the “iconic core” of the work.[7] It was Giovanni Bellini, in the fifteenth century, who reinterpreted the artistry of San Marco into a more naturalistic form; Giovanni sought to place natural looking figures into a more realistic, believable architectural setting. Brunelleschi’s linear perspective, mastered by Bellini, enabled him to bring illusionistic space into a two-dimensional picture plane. This turned paintings into windows from which viewers could look into a fictitious space beyond. Bellini also extended the viewer’s space into the picture plane by uniting actual and painted elements of the frame. His tonality, well modulated color, and golden light are all reminiscent of the mosaics of San Marco. Bellini experimented with oil glazing techniques as a way of duplicating the effects of light on glass tesserae. Titian, a student of Bellini’s would have been very familiar with his paintings, style and methods. His use of oil and glazes to create light effects were adapted and perfected by Titian.

Giovanni Bellini, Holy Conversation, 1510, San Zaccaria,Venice   Photograph source: Romanceor

The unique qualities of Venetian painting in the Renaissance are due to the focus on colorito, or color. By the early part of the sixteenth century Venetian painters were exposed to classical art and the science of perspective, but they chose to pursue color as opposed to the careful drawing favored by Florentine painters. [8] Crowe suggests that they simply found disegno too difficult to master and so chose to imitate color and form over careful draughtsmanship, contour and perspective. However, Dolce presents a more favorable view; he praises the controlled use of color to imitate nature. Colorito, as used by Venetians to describe painting, is a verb. It represents the very act of using carefully blended colors to describe form in a painting. Rosand, in Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice, calls this controversy a “stylistic distinction” [9] stating that drawing was ancillary in Venice. Venetian painters interest in the way light and shadow could be used to mimic form, and their controlled use of color, by layering and glazing paint, is championed by Lodovico Dolce, an Italian theorist of painting, as superior to the Florentine style with its emphasis on disegno or drawing.[10] The work of Raphael, School of Athens, 1505, and Transfiguration, 1516-20, and Michelangelo were well known to Venetian painters. While the Florentine painters insisted that disegno was of primary importance, the Venetians focused on colorito. Vasari, a biographer of artists, insists that disegno, the father of all arts, is the most important. However, it is colorito that gives Titian the ability to paint expressively.

One of the principle factors leading to the Venetian value of colorito over disegno is the invention of oil paints. Oil and canvas were a necessity for Venetian painters due to the high humidity and salt present in the air; frescos and tempera did not last long in such an atmosphere. “…Venetian painting in 1488 was still in a state of transition, [that] tempera was no longer a medium in which great masters consented to work, though boys were still taught to paint in it” [11] The masters however, were using oil in much the same manner as they had used tempera before. Younger painters, including Titian, and his contemporaries, pushed and explored the new medium of oil paints. They experimented with oil paints and glazes and worked with dark colors over lights which give their paintings the effect of an inner glow. Oil paints allowed for a naturalism not yet achieved by the most talented painters.[12] It is this naturalism, glow of color, and experimentation, as well as his exploration of composition and narrative, that propelled Titian to become a master.

Titian began his career as a painter in Renaissance Venice at a time when painting was in flux, oil and glaze were new, and altarpieces were a unique vehicle for artistic expression. He synthesized all that was happening around him and created expressively life-like paintings that took perspective, color, subject and composition all to a new level. “Throughout his long career, Titian respected tradition. Never can we think of him as an avant-garde artist…yet while his work always depended on the past, he subtly transformed what he took into something new.” [13] Although Titian did honor painting’s past, it is difficult not to believe that he was ahead of his time. His work influenced the history of Western art for centuries to come; his influence continues today.

[1]Peter Humphrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven: Yale University Press1993), 67.

[2] Peter Humphrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven: Yale University Press1993), 57

[3] Peter Humphrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, (New Haven: Yale University Press,1993), 67.

[4]Peter Humphrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 4.

[5] Patricia Fortini Brown, Art and Life in Renaissance Venice, ( New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997), 28.

[6] Patricia Fortini Brown, Art and Life in Renaissance Venice, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997), 31.

[7] David Rosand, Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Revised Edition.( New

Haven: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 28.

[8]J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle. The Life and Times of Titian. (London: 1881), 103.

[9]David Rosand, Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Revised Edition.( New

Haven: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 18.

[10]Mark Roskill, ed. Dolce’s Aretino and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento. (Toronto:

University of Toronto Press, 2000), 65.

[11] J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle. The Life and Times of Titian. (London: 1881), 48.

[12] J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle. The Life and Times of Titian. (London: 1881), 48-50.

[13]Bruce Cole, Titian and Venetian Painting 1450-1590. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), 67.

[i] Mendicant orders were religious communities whose vow of poverty made them reliant on the charity of others. This vow of poverty was both individual and corporate; their maxim was “not to live for themselves only, but to serve others”. Unlike other monks, such as the Benedictines who removed themselves from the world, the mendicants lived in towns and worked with communities evangelizing. Oliger, Livarius. “Mendicant Friars.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 2 Dec. 2008 <>.

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