Venetian Color and Florentine Design

Artists from different parts of Italy approached the representation of nature differently and, as a result, produced works that differ not only in execution and appearance but in their very conception. In Florence, disegno, that is, "drawing" or "design," was viewed as the essential beginning of artistic endeavor, the primary means for making art approximate nature. In Venice, colorito, "coloring"—not only color but also its judicious application—was deemed fundamental to conceiving painted images charged with the look of life. Florentine color was frequently more vivid than the palette used in Venetian paintings; typically Venetian, however, was the process of layering and blending colors to achieve a glowing richness. A long-lived debate between the two positions involved theorists as well as artists and regional rivalries as well as aesthetic concerns.

According to Vasari, Tuscan artists revived disegno and art was reborn; according to Lodovico Dolce, Venetian artists gradually softened their coloring until their manner equaled nature. Rather than beginning with careful drawings, Venetian painters often worked out compositions directly on the canvas, using layered patches of colored brushstrokes rather than line to define form. Venetian drawings show an interest in how light will affect a body and how color will describe it in a painting. [For more info, go right to the source: MMA.] Other artists to be concerned with are Paolo Veronese, c. 1528-1588 and Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), 1518-1594.

GIOVANNI BELLINI, c. 1430-1516

Brother of Gentile and son of Jacopo, Giovanni Bellini was probably the greatest of the Bellini dynasty. He was the pre-eminent teacher of his generation, with a sizeable workshop staffed by pupils and assistants, among whom were Giorgione and Titian. Like his brother, he became chief painter to the State, although Titian tried desperately to usurp him. In 1506, when Giovanni was 76, Dürer wrote that he was 'very old but still the best in painting'. Bellini portrayed the elected ruler of Venice, the Doge Leonardo Loredan. In this style of portraiture he was strongly influenced by a characteristic Flemish attention to detail and texture, especially the play of light on the surface of the subject. The Doge is exquisitely protrayed in his ceremonial robes, made in an old-fashioned style but from a newly imported material - damask - which has gold thread running through it. Instead of using gold leaf, Bellini painted the surface roughly so as to catch the light and give a metallic finish - a revolutionary technique at the time. [Artchive]

The Doge Leonardo Loredan, c. 1501-05.

St. Francis in the Desert, c. 1480 (The Frick)

Madonna with Saints, 1505.

When one enters the little church of San Zaccaria in Venice and stands before the picture which the great Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini (1431?-1516) painted over the altar there in 1505 - in his old age - one immediately notices that his approach to color was very different. Not that the picture is particularly bright or shining. It is rather the mellowness and richness of the colors that impress one before one even begins to look at what the picture represents. I think that even the photograph conveys something of the warm and gilded atmosphere which fills the niche in which the Virgin sits enthroned, with the infant Jesus lifting His little hands to bless the worshippers before the altar. An angel at the foot of the altar softly plays the violin, while the saints stand quietly at either side of the throne: St Peter with his key and book, St Catherine with the palm of martyrdom and the broken wheel, St Lucy and St Jerome, the scholar who translated the Bible into Latin, and whom Bellini therefore represented as reading a book. [Artchive]

The Madonna of the Meadow, c. 1505.

Feast of the Gods, 1514.

The painting's ribald subject comes from Ovid's Fasti, a classical poem that recounts the origins of many ancient Roman rites and festivals. Ovid (43 BC–AD 17) described an incident that embarrassed Priapus, god of fertility, during a woodland banquet for Olympian gods and goddesses. The beautiful nymph Lotis, shown reclining at the far right, was lulled into sleep by wine. Priapus, overcome with lust, seized the opportunity to seduce her. His attempt was foiled when an ass, seen at left, "with raucous braying, gave out an ill-timed roar. Awakened, the startled nymph pushed Priapus away, and the god was laughed at by all." His pride wounded, Priapus demanded thereafter the annual sacrifice of a donkey. [Source: NGA]

GIORGIONE, c. 1478-1510

If the classical painters of central Italy had achieved the new complete harmony within their pictures by means of perfect design and balanced arrangement, it was only natural that the painters of Venice should follow the lead of Giovanni Bellini, who made such happy use of color and light to unify his pictures. It was in this sphere that the painter Giorgione achieved the most revolutionary results. Very little is known of this artist; scarcely five paintings can be ascribed with absolute certainty to his hand. Yet these suffice to secure him a fame nearly as great as that of the great leaders of the new movement. Strangely enough, even these pictures contain something of a puzzle. [Artchive]

The Tempest, c. 1508.

We are not sure what the most accomplished one, The Tempest, represents; it may be a scene from some classical writer or an imitator of the classics. For Venetian artists of the period had awakened to the charm of the Greek poets and what they stood for. They liked to illustrate the idyllic stories of pastoral love and to portray the beauty of Venus and the nymphs. One day the episode here illustrated may be identified - the story, perhaps, of a mother of some future hero, who was cast out of the city into the wilderness with her child and was there discovered by a friendly young shepherd. For this, it seems, is what Giorgione wanted to represent. But it is not due to its content that the picture is one of the most wonderful things in art. That this is so may be difficult to see in a [scan], but even such an illustration conveys a shadow, at least, of his revolutionary achievement. Though the figures are not particularly carefully drawn, and though the composition is somewhat artless, the picture is clearly blended into a whole simply by the light and air that permeate it all. It is the weird light of a thunderstorm, and for the first time, it seems, the landscape before which the actors of the picture move is not just a background. It is there, by its own right, as the real subject of the painting. [Artchive]

Venus Asleep, c. 1510.


Tiziano Vecellio (ca. 1488–1576), known as Titian, was the greatest Venetian artist of the sixteenth century, eventually gaining international fame. Titian is known above all for his remarkable use of color; his painterly approach was highly influential well into the seventeenth century. Titian contributed to all of the major areas of Renaissance art, painting altarpieces, portraits, mythologies, and pastoral landscapes with figures.

Titian trained under two other seminal Venetian artists, Giovanni Bellini (active by 1459, died 1516) and Giorgione (ca. 1477/8–1510). The latter, with whom Titian also collaborated, was influential for his tonal approach to painting and for his landscape style, which was atmospheric and evocative. The two artists worked in such a similar manner that the line between them has been hard to fix: this is true especially for some pastoral landscapes, in which the beauty of nature is celebrated alongside love and music. Titian's drawings of this period, such as Landscape with Goat (1991.462) and Two Satyrs in a Landscape (1999.28), are such pastoral landscapes, the latter with mythological figures in a lush landscape whose untamed beauty contrasts with a carefully balanced arrangement. [For more info, go to the source: MMA]

Noli Me Tangere, 1511-12.

When the young Titian painted the appearance of the resurrected Christ to Mary Magdalen, loosely based on the scene recounted in the Gospel of John (20: 11-18), he proposed a remarkably original interpretation. He clearly knew the masterpieces of his predecessors, such as Giotto, Fra Angelico, etc., but had no hesitation in inventing a type of representation which gave new life to the theme. Titian, whose real name was Tiziano Vecellio, was then only about twenty and had, in 1510, just lost the master who, through the stress he placed on landscape and light, had had the greatest influence on him - Giorgione. For Titian, landscape was henceforth never just an afterthought but was an integral part of a painting.

Thus we see here the meeting of Christ with Mary Magdalen in the middle of a landscape which seems to be one with them, such do the lines of the natural setting continue or rhythmically complement those of the two people. We are no longer in the garden of the tomb as described by John (19: 41), but in the open countryside bathed in morning light. On Mary's side, the curve of a hillside and an earthly settlement is echoed by the inverse curve of her body thrown forward to the ground. Christ's side of the painting opens out onto the blue tinged distances of infinity. But these two different worlds - human and divine - suggested by the division of space are subtly linked to each other: the bend of Christ's body is a direct continuation of the curve of the inhabited hillside; the line of Mary's raised torso continues that of a tree which, while balancing the right side of the landscape, directs the mind of the observer to the idea of a new life. [Artchive]

The Three Ages of Man, 1513-14.

Woman with a Mirror, c. 1513-15.

Sacred and Profane Love, 1514.

Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, c. 1516. (The Frick)

Julia, Lady Peel, 1827, by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 - 1830). (The Frick)

Portrait of Susanna Fourment (Le chapeau de paille) c. 1622-25, Rubens.

Bacchus and Ariadne, 1523-24.

Venus Anadyomene (Venus Emerging from the Sea), c. 1525.

Venus of Urbino, 1538.

Olympia, 1863, Edouard Manet.

Venus and Cupid with an Organist, c. 1548-49.

Danae and the Shower of Gold, 1554.

Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555.

Annunciation, 1559-62.

Rape of Lucretia (Tarquin and Lucretia), 1568-71.

Pieta, c. 1577.

Detail of above (Mary Magdalen)

More info at MMA:
Marriage, Love, and Lineage in Renaissance Venice

Venice and Northern Italy, 1400–1600 CE

Sixteenth-Century Painting in Venice and the Veneto

The Protestant Reformation

The Papacy during the Renaissance

Northern Mannerism in the Early Sixteenth Century

More info at NGA:
Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting: Web Feature:
Includes technical photographs and essays.