by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice and the North

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 18 December 1999
Alte Pinakotek, Munich
Still-life with Dead Partridge and Gauntlet
by Jacopo de' Barbari, 1504



The course in the 'History of European Civilization' on Woody Allen's spring bulletin board offered students the chance to study 'the decision to hold the Renaissance in Italy.' And, in fact, while specialists have long been investigating the inflow as well as the outflow of ideas and influences that combined to create what we now call the Renaissance, the notion persists that, in its origins at least, it was almost exclusively an Italian, or indeed a Florentine, affair.

Any such lingering myths are exploded in a dazzling array of more than 200 paintings, drawings and engravings, by some 90 artists, the show's thoughtful and lucid presentation making it accessible and rewarding both to regular gallery-goers and the public at large. 'Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents at the Time of Bellini, Durer, Titian,' at Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal, continues until Jan. 9.

Given the vastness of the subject, the curators have been wise to confine themselves to relations and connections between Venice and southern Germany and the Low Countries. But it goes without saying that what happened in these three High Renaissance powerhouses had reverberations throughout Europe.

Venice's geographical position, history and cultural diversity made it the ideal meeting point at many levels during these times. Nor were existing relations disrupted by the Reformation, since Protestant merchants and other travelers could safely visit and reside in the Serenissima without fear of the Inquisition, just as students from dissenting lands in the north could safely continue to attend Padua University, which fell within the Republic's territories.

In the early part of the period surveyed - from about 1440 until 1600 - few artists actually traveled between north and south. But so lively was the exchange of paintings, prints, books and artifacts between these mercantile partners that mutual awareness of artistic developments on both sides of the Alps was acute and continually updated.

One early and productive direct encounter between a northern artist and Venice in general, and Giovanni Bellini in particular, occurred when Durer visited the city in 1494-1495 and then again in 1505-1507. Durer singled out Bellini as his favorite Italian painter, and the much older Venetian master clearly admired the German and tried to acquire his work. Durer was universally praised in Venice for his virtuosity as an engraver, and his prints were eagerly sought long after his death in 1528.

Later in the century numerous artists from the Low Countries and Germany journeyed to Italy, and many foreigners could be found at work in the studios of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. Meanwhile, Titian crossed the Alps to paint the Habsburgs at their court at Augsburg in 1548 and again in 1550-51.

The exhibition explores several areas where we can see influences coming into Italy from the north - in the case of portraits, for example, Van Eyck and his followers had an enormous impact - and Italian styles and techniques can subsequently be seen returning in the other direction.

Venetian landscape and pastoral scenes were profoundly affected by northern painters, while Venetian artists introduced their confreres to new ways of handling color and depicting the figure.

Durer made important contributions to this intense contemporary study of both the nude and landscape, and recorded later how he was particularly stimulated to try to unravel the underlying mysteries of human proportion by his contact in Venice with Jacopo de' Barbari. This very interesting but elusive artist soon after went north to become the court painter to Maximilian I in Nuremburg, Durer's home town. The Venetian artist was also the author of 'Still-life with a Dead Partridge and Gauntlets' (1504), the earliest known independent still-life painting of the Renaissance. When Jacopo died, Durer unsuccessfully tried to gain possession of his book of drawings.

Jacopo de' Barbari was almost beyond question responsible for the astonishing aerial overview of Venice, a joint enterprise with Anton Kolb, the Nuremberg merchant and friend of Durer. It was published in 1500, and along with the original wood blocks is the centerpiece of 'The Bird's Eye View: Jacopo de' Barbari and the Representation of the City in Renaissance Europe.' This revealing exhibition continues at the Correr Museum here until Feb. 27.

The position from which Venice is observed has been calculated to be about 500 meters (1,650 feet) above sea level, more than five times the height of the city's tallest tower, yet the accuracy of the topography is little short of miraculous.

The print remains one of the most resonant symbols of the north-south artistic collaboration that made the Venetian Renaissance what it was.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023