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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Venetian Painting

When we think of Venice, Italy, we conjure up images of grand palaces on a Grand Canal with gondolas bobbing up and down in a romantic haze of watery loveliness. The second association with Venice however is painting, particularly from the sixteenth century from whence came what art historians have come to call the Venetian Style. Although four artist are closely associated with this school (Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese) the seeds for it's ascendancy were planted a generation before by the Bellini family, Jacopo, who painted from 1423 until his death in 1470, but most particularly through the work of his sons, Gentile and Giovanni.  Building on a family trait of placing a single perspective vanishing point in the lower third of a composition, they influenced the art of this prosperous mercantile city for the next hundred years.   
In the sixteenth century, as the Bellini seeds matured, two names in Venetian painting are so inextricably linked they must be discussed as if they were one--Giorgio da Castelfranco (known as Giorgione), and Tiziano Vecelli (known as Titian).  Both men were born within a year of each other around 1478.  Giorgione died from the black plague in 1510.  He was 32.  Titian, however, went on to a long and illustrious career, living to the ripe old age of 98.  Both had studied under Giovanni Bellini and by the time Giorgione died, their style was so identical Titian was able to complete one of his friend's commissions. So brief was Giorgione's life, only four or five paintings are attributed to him, while Titian's number in the hundreds.

Venus with a Mirror, 1555, Titian
One of Titian's most interesting works is Venus with a Mirror painted around 1555. The painting depicts a rather voluptuous semi-nude Venus attended by two cupids supporting a mirror in which is seen an oblique reflection of the goddess of love. Although the work is typical of the rich, glazing effects that make Venetian oil painting so distinctively beautiful, what's most interesting about this work is what you don't see.

The painting, rendered on a vertical plane, was originally a double portrait painted using a horizontal format. Apparently Titian was quite fond of a male hand and forearm grasping a velvet coat that swept up over the man's shoulder in the earlier work. He kept this section as the appendage of his Venus holding the same velvet garment used to cover her lower extremities while painting out the rest of the double portrait. This has been confirmed by x-rays which, in fact, show that an even older painting exists (perhaps a still earlier, unsatisfactory effort) beneath the partially obscured double portrait.
The similarities and differences
can easily be seen in this vertical
format of the x-ray.

This horizontal x-ray image of Venus with a Mirror,
demonstrates the radical restructuring Titian
imposed upon his composition in switching to a
vertical format and eliminating the male figure.
The horizontal 5:4 ratio canvas was cropped on
both the left and right (top and bottom above)
to create the vertical 2:3 ratio of the final painting.

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