Since 2010 I have been using this site to discuss my interpretations of famous Renaissance paintings including Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione", and Michelangelo's"Doni Tondo." The full papers can now be found at

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Durer in Venice

Albrecht Durer traveled to Venice in the latter half of 1505 and stayed until early in 1507. It seems that he had planned this journey for a while but an outbreak of plague in Nuremburg apparently hastened his departure. Erwin Panofsky devoted a whole chapter to the Venetian sojourn in his magisterial study, “The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer.” Panofsky entitled the chapter, ‘The Second Trip to Italy and the Culmination of Painting, 1505-1510/11.’***

Panofsky points out that Durer had achieved a high degree of fame even before this visit to Venice. In Panofsky’s words,
The young beginner who had visited Venice eleven years before was now a world-renowned master whose inventions were copied and imitated everywhere. Also, he was no longer poor….Thus he did not walk about the city as an unknown and insignificant tourist but plunged into its colorful and stimulating life as a distinguished guest. He became acquainted with ‘intelligent scholars, good lute-players, flutists, connoisseurs of painting and many noble minds’ who honored and befriended him. [107-8]
Despite his mastery in wood-cut and engraving, Durer turned exclusively to oil painting while in Venice. Panofsky indicates that Venice and its painters had a great impact on the German master. From his correspondence we know that Durer regarded the aged Giovanni Bellini as still the greatest of painters, but in a letter dated February 7, 1506, Durer mentioned that he had also found “many painters much superior to Jacopo de’ Barbari,” an artist already well-known to Durer before the Italian trip.

Panofsky indicates that Durer turned to painting to show that he could work with color as well as any Venetian, but also because of the desires of his patrons in Venice. Almost immediately on his arrival Durer was welcomed by the prosperous German merchant community. It would appear that connections in Nuremberg and Augsburg had paved the way for him and even arranged a lucrative commission to paint an altarpiece for S. Bartolommeo, the German church in Venice. In a letter to a friend about the altarpiece, usually called the “Feast of the Rose Garlands,” Durer claimed that the commission was an effective way to “silence those who said I was good as an engraver but did not know how to handle the colors in painting.” [109-110]

On the completion of the “Feast of the Rose Gardens” Durer, himself, bragged, “I herewith announce that there is no better image of the Virgin in the country.” This claim might be exaggerated but the painting did gain much acclaim.
Old Giovanni Bellini…visited his studio and expressed the wish to acquire one of his paintings…When the “Feast of the Rose Garlands” was completed it was admired by the whole Venetian aristocracy, including the Doge and the Patriarch, and finally even by Durer’s colleagues….” [109]
Panofsky agrees with this contemporary evaluation despite the very poor condition of the painting today. “In one propitious moment he succeeded in synthesizing the force and accuracy of his design with the rich glow of Venetian color.” Panofsky acknowledges Durer’s debt to Bellini
The balanced grandeur of this composition would not have been attainable to Durer without the study and complete understanding of the style of Giovanni Bellini whom he so frankly admired…(112)
The painting was inspired by the increasingly popular devotion to the rosary, especially among the Dominican friars, whose founder was considered to have been the creator of the devotion. The rose garlands in the painting actually represent the decades of the rosary, and in Panofsky’s opinion the painting should actually be titled, “the Brotherhood of the Rosary.”

While working on the altarpiece for S. Bartolommeo, Durer also completed two smaller paintings of sacred subjects. The first was the so-called “Madonna of the Siskin”, now in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. The second was a version of “Christ Among the Doctors” that is now in the  Thyssen Bornemisza collection in Madrid.

The “Madonna of the Siskin” derives its popular name from the bird on the arm of the infant Jesus. However, it is actually a representation of the meeting of the young John the Baptist with the Holy Family on their return from the sojourn in Egypt. Panofsky notes that the young Baptist is the most significant iconographical feature in the painting.
The inclusion of this figure…was an utter novelty in Northern art which…knew only the triad of the Holy Family and the complete circle of the Holy Kinship, but not the “Virgin with the Infant Jesus and the Little St. John.” This theme was Central Italian rather than Venetian, but that compositions not unlike Durer’s…existed in Venice and the “Terra Firma” is demonstrated… [113]
In Panofsky’s opinion, Durer took this traditional subject to a new level. He “surpassed this and similar prototypes by enlivening the entire composition and by endowing the little St. John with a Leonardesque or even Raphaelesque vitality which had been foreign to the earlier Venetian and Venetianizing schools.”... [114]

While the Madonna of the Rose Garlands took months to complete, it would appear that “Christ among the Doctors”, the final painting in the Venetian triad, was done in a matter of days. Yet, Durer considered this painting as “something new and extraordinary” and Panofsky concurs.
The emphasis on manual gesticulation, and even the specific gesture of arguing by counting fingers is unquestionably Italian, as is also the compositional form as a whole. The idea of presenting a dramatic incident by half-length figures so that the whole effect is concentrated on the expressive quality of hands and faces had been sanctioned by Mantegna…and had gained favor in all the North Italian schools, particularly in Venice and Milan. [114]
Panofsky’s description of this painting reminds me of the so-called “Three Ages of Man” usually attributed to Giorgione. I have interpreted that painting as a dramatic incident also from the life of Christ: the encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man. Giorgione, who was working in Venice at the same time as Durer, also used the expressive hands and faces of half-length figures to create an effect. In both paintings the half-length treatment provides a kind of close-up or zoom effect.

Giorgione: "Three Ages of Man"
Pitti Palace

In the year after Durer left Venice, Giorgione was given the commission to fresco the exterior walls of the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the center of German community in Venice. Over the years scholars have tried to find some northern influence on Giorgione’s work, but Panofsky never mentions Giorgione. Instead, he argues that Durer was greatly influenced by what he saw in Venice. After his return to Germany, Durer eventually gave up painting and went back to his wood cuts and engravings. But they would never be the same. His stay in Venice had brought his work to an even greater level.

I like to think of him and Giorgione both trying to satisfy the demands of their patrons for sacred subjects while at the same time working to a make their work exceptional and innovative. 


***Erwin Panofsky: The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer, Princeton, 1955. Page citations are in brackets.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Renaissance Society Conference 2014

I was really looking forward to attending the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America that was held this year in New York City from March 27 to 29. This conference was the sixtieth in the RSAs history and because of the location turned out to be the largest in the Society’s history. The program book came to over 800 pages although an app was available for easy reference.

I was especially interested because the conference program showed a heavy emphasis on the art of the Venetian Renaissance. On Friday alone there were four consecutive sessions under the title, “Art, Architecture, and the Artist in Renaissance Venice.” In addition there was an early morning roundtable discussion entitled, “Early Modern Venetian Studies in the Twenty-First Century.”

I was only able to attend on Friday but looked forward to hearing from a mixture of leading scholars in the field and younger scholars anxious to establish their credentials. Before going any further I have to say that the panels I attended turned out to be disappointing for a variety of reasons that I will discuss below.

First, let me discuss the roundtable mentioned above. The abstract indicated that “this panel will bring together an international, interdisciplinary group of top scholars working in Venetian studies today to examine the current state of the field and to look forward to future directions of research.” There was indeed a distinguished group of professors from various distinguished universities who in turn briefly discussed their own work but in no way indicated any future directions in the field of Venetian studies.

One significant omission was the lack of any discussion of the role of the Internet. In his introduction the chairman of the panel spoke at length about a new publication of material from Venetian archives. Apparently, the publisher has printed less than a hundred copies of what sounded like a huge tome. Depending on demand a less expensive paperback version might be available in a few years.

Is this where Renaissance studies are going? Why shouldn’t this book be instantly and inexpensively available to a much wider audience? Medieval manuscripts used to be available only to a few until the appearance of moveable type. Why did these scholars fail to discuss the Internet and its uses in the twenty first century?

In the question period one member of the audience asked if Venetian studies might go into decline in this century after a meteoric rise in the past century. This question finally elicited a spirited if inconclusive discussion among the panel. Ironically, the discussion came to an end after an Italian scholar in the audience lamented the decline of modern Venice. Actually, he claimed that Venice was dying, not so much because of the threatening waters but from contemporary mis-management and corruption. It was a somber end to the roundtable.

I will only say a few words about the next two panels I attended, both under the title, “Art. Architecture, and the Artist in Renaissance Venice.” First, the future of Venetian studies would appear to include an excessive interest in funerary tombs and monuments. It is as if scholars, both old and new, believe that all that needs to be said about the great masterworks of the Venetian Renaissance has been said. Now they will work in fallow fields of little artistic value.

Second, one of the speakers gave an example of how not to present a paper at a conference. She did choose a large subject and even warned that she might have too much material. Participants are limited to a twenty-minute presentation and usually you can only read ten pages in that time. So one would expect that that the paper be edited carefully and discussion limited to a few examples. Instead, the professor just chose to read her entire paper at breakneck speed. What could she have been thinking of?

Finally, my day ended with another roundtable, a kind of summing up of the Art and Architecture series. This roundtable included a number of other luminaries. The room was packed with expectant listeners. The tone, however, was set by one of the three chairpersons who introduced each of the eight participants at length. Her introduction took almost 20 minutes of the allotted 90. I frankly can’t remember anything that was said by any of the participants. It was an exercise in non-controversy.

I do remember that they were all women, a fact pointed out by someone in the audience during the question period. Most of the people in the room were also women. Art History has become a province for women. This issue was never raised at the conference. What is the special appeal of Venice and its art to women? Why are men not interested? Maybe these questions could be addressed at a future conference.