by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Rare Gathering of a Family's Works

By Roderick Conway Morris
CONEGLIANO, Italy 24 March 2016
Correr Museum, Venice
St Antony of Padua by Alvise Vivarini, 1480-81



Venice in the 15th century produced two major family studios of painters: the Bellinis and the Vivarinis. The story of the Bellinis — the father Jacopo and sons Giovanni and Gentile — is well known, that of the Vivarinis much less so, even though they were also important forces in transforming the gothic art of the early years of the century into the radically new forms of expression of the Venetian Renaissance.

The Vivarini workshops spanned a period of six decades, from around 1440 until the first years of the sixteenth century. The altarpieces and other paintings created by the studio's founder Antonio; his brother-in-law Giovanni d'Alemagna; Antonio's youngest brother, Bartolomeo; and his son Alvise, came to adorn not only many churches in Venice, the Veneto and the Bergamo regions of the mainland, but also along the length of the Adriatic coasts — from the Marche and Puglia on its western shores to Istria and Dalmatia on its eastern side.

This exceptionally wide distribution of works, some of which later found their way into museum collections on both sides of the Atlantic, has made it a challenge to stage a truly representative exhibition of the Vivarini. But this obstacle has been overcome for the first show of paintings by all members of the family, from all the regions to which they were exported in the 15th century.

Antonio Vivarini was born around 1415-20 into a family of glassmakers on the island of Murano. The show opens with two of his earliest known pieces: the 'Parenzo Altarpiece' from 1440, on loan from Porec (formerly Parenzo) on the Istrian coast of Croatia, and a 'Madonna and Child' of about 1441 from the Accademia in Venice.

While at first look both are classic gothic pieces with their gold-leaf backdrops, the Madonna in particular manifests an awareness of advances in the illusionistic molding of figures, influenced perhaps by the Florentines Masolino and Filippo Lippi, who were in Venice in the 1420s and '30s, respectively.

Early in the 1440s Antonio began to collaborate with Giovanni d'Alemagna, who had married one of his sisters. Two sets of panels — scenes from the lives of St. Monica, by Antonio, and of St. Apollonia, by Giovanni — give a glimpse of their individual styles. But a 'Madonna Enthroned with Child' — with its luxurious drapery; towering and intricately embellished, almost cathedral-like throne; and realistic renderings of surrounding grasses and roses — manifests an extraordinary homogeneity of painting styles that was to characterize their joint works.

The next section, 'New Saints,' highlights a central factor in determining the Vivarini studio's subject matter. This era was one of religious ferment, led by the so-called Observants (also known as the Zealots), who advocated a return to the strict observance of the rules of religious orders and their vows of austerity and poverty. The key figures in this movement were SS. Francis, Antony, John of Capistrano and Bernardino of Siena, who was canonized with astonishing quickness, just six years after his death in 1450.

The Franciscans were in the vanguard of this movement, but it also attracted preachers and adherents among the Augustinians, Dominicans, other mendicant orders and the laity.

The saints most revered by the Observants play a conspicuous role in many Vivarini altarpieces, reflecting the churches and convents for which they were destined. Antonio's images of San Bernardino could have been taken from life (after he came to preach in Venice), and the Vivarini iconography of Bernardino and other Observant saints had an enormous influence on other artists.

In 1447 the Vivarini studio moved to Padua, where Antonio and Giovanni found themselves working in the Ovetari chapel alongside two pioneering young artists, Andrea Mantegna and Nicolï Pizolo. This experience and the Vivarini exposure to Paduan classicism and humanism left a palpable mark on the studio's subsequent works.

In 1450, Giovanni d'Alemagna died, the studio moved back to Venice and Antonio's principal collaborator became his youngest brother, Bartolomeo. The latter had assisted in Padua and, once again, it is impossible to distinguish one artist's brushwork from the other's. In the 1450s the studio attracted a steady stream of commissions, including two for major altarpieces at Rab in Croatia and at Rutigliano in Puglia, both on display here. During the 1460s Bartolomeo began to assert a more personal style, characterized by harder, brighter, enamel-like colors and more strongly sculpted figures.

He dispensed with the gothic divisions in some 'sacred conversation' images, notably in two outstanding examples, from the Basilica of San Nicolï and the St. Peter Martyr church, both in Bari (the latter on loan from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples), but he subsequently continued to produce altarpieces in the older gothic style, as witnessed by the Scanzo altar, from near Bergamo, of 1488.

While there is in another, of 1491, from close-by Torre Boldone, a suggested unity of landscape in which the three saints featured are placed, each saint is individually framed within a slender gilt arch. This later conservative tendency may well have derived from the traditionalism of many of his clients.

Antonio's son Alvise was born between 1442 and 1453 and raised in the family workshop, but clearly studied the latest trends introduced by Giovanni Bellini; Antonello da Messina, who was in Venice in the mid 1470s; and the Umbrian Pietro Perugino, who was in the city from 1495 to 1497.

In the last sections of the exhibition, devoted to Alvise, panels from Bari, Barletta, Bergamo, Venice and Amiens reveal a technical mastery and originality in composition suggesting that the last Vivarini merits more attention than he has generally received. Indeed, some of the city's younger painters, such as Jacopo de' Barbari, Marco Basaiti and Cima di Conegliano, may well have drawn more inspiration from him than has been recognized.

The important commissions Alvise received in Venice by the 1480s — to work alongside the Bellini brothers in the decoration of the Doge's Palace and to produce altar paintings in prominent churches — is indicative of the esteem he enjoyed in the city's highly competitive market.

The exhibition ends with two remarkable panels from the 1490s: 'The Risen Christ,' from the San Giovanni in Bragora church in Venice, and a 'Madonna and Child with Saints,' from the Musée de Picardie in Amiens, both bold and inventive in composition.

Reconciling the newly rediscovered glories of ancient pagan art with the teachings and iconography of the Christian church was a primary concern for Renaissance artists. With his 'Risen Christ,' Alvise Vivarini makes a daring contribution to this enterprise, his Savior standing gracefully posed on the slab of the open tomb like a classical statue come to life, as two soldiers stare up in astonishment.

In the vibrantly atmospheric 'Madonna and Child' he creates a new form of 'sacred conversation' by placing the infant Christ on a flat rock surrounded by a protective circle of the Virgin and saints. The unusual, pyramidical arrangement of the figures is echoed by the misty blue mountain cone rising from the rolling landscape of the backdrop.

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024