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Giovanni Bellini, Lamenting over dead Jesus

The Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice houses some of my favourite works of art like the Lamentazione by Bellini (1434/9 – 1516). Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Joseph of Arimathea, the Virgin and Mary Magdalene, between St. Martha and Philip Benizi.

Detail of Bellini’s Lamentation

In the landscape we see the Magi on the left and the shepherds on the right. Note the rabbits as a symbol of vitality, rebirth and resurrection in antiquity, which may explain their role in connection with Easter, the resurrection of Christ.

It is not entirely clear how the art and technique of oil painting came to Italy from Flanders. Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden had started the use of oil for two dimensional painting. At that time, the 15th century, the more common methods of colour painting were fresco (pigments on wet plaster) and tempera (pigments in a binder of egg and water). Bellini, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio were masters of tempera. Those techniques had many advantages. But Bellini was intrigued by the oil medium, which he probably came to know from Antonello da Messina. Antonello himself had met Petrus Christus, a disciple of Van Eyck, in Milano. Antonello exchanged ideas with Petrus, and then he did with Bellini. The latter had become a great expert of two dimensional representation of the three dimensional experience, and he used oil to great advantage. But he threw in a great deal of other tools, of which this Pietà is a marvellous example. The extremely detailed rose bed, the richly developed town, the clever triangular composition of the adult christ on the virgin’s lap, the restrained representation of Jesus’ injuries so as to emphasize the pains of Maria…

Giovanni Bellini, Sacra conversatione

Giovanni Bellini painted many scenes relating to the life of Jesus, and most of them prominently figure Maria and Magdalena. He gave unexpected twists to those representations, such as this Sacra conversazione, Madonna and the Child between Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (1490).     This sacred conversation exudes a serenity that is the hallmark of Bellini’s best works. Maria Magdalena has been described as a prostitute, a sinner who had been redeemed by Jesus. Although this theory has been abandoned (read this), the misconception lingers on till today. In another strand of thinking Maddalena was married to Jesus (and this), and his closest disciple. In art, she is present at his birth, at his crucifiction, and at his resurrection. No other disciple, and not even Mary, is so present in his life and death. Especially the scene where Magdalena witnesses the resurrection of Jesus and wants to touch him but of course his appearance is not material so he says “do not try to hang on to me” (noli me tangere). In Bellini’s Sacra conversatione Maddalena appears to be engrossed in contemplation, perhaps about her future with Jesus. This Magdalena looks very young, I would say 14 years. Bellini’s command of representation is at its top, the hair, the hands, the face, the necklace. She is very beautiful but has none of the eroticism Tiziano would imbue her with.

Giorgione, La Vecchia
Giorgione, The tempest

Giorgione’s (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, c. 1477/8–1510) La Vecchia is another jewel in the Accademia. Giorgione was a student and collaborator of Bellini, like Tiziano and both have been extremely important in expanding Bellini’s art into many directions. Giorgione’s Tempest (1508) is said to be the first landscape painting in European art (while the Chinese were painting fabulous landscapes for millenia). But this portrait of and old woman is also very unusual for it’s time. Of course Van Eyck, Botticelli, Leonardo and Bellini himself had painted portraits, but such a realistic image of a ‘normal’ or let’s say common woman hadn’t been tried before. The flap that comes from her sleeve says “col tempo” —with time— and what Giorgione meant to say is not hard to guess. “The old woman is poor and dishevelled and open-mouthed. (No portrait of this period is open-mouthed.) She is “in a state”. And the point of the picture, it seems, is not to depict her, but to illustrate this “state”.” (the independent).

Tiziano, Madonna col bambino

Tiziano Vecellio (1488/1490 – 1576) was a contemporary of Giorgione and also a student of Bellini. He painted with a kind of naturalness and ease that introduces a new trend in painting. The madonna with child shows Maria with a lovely expression of tenderness. The use of colour in Tiziano is extraordinary, the  combination of subtle tones, the harmony between the curtain, the veil, the shirt and the skirt. And so typically Tiziano has used the curtain and some sort of a wall to create a contrast between the calm of the inside and the turmoil of the outside world. The second painting is an enormous mural in one of the rooms of the Accademia, showing the presentation of the virgin at the temple. Notice the old lady selling eggs in the foreground. 

Tiziano, Presentation of Maria in the temple

Tiziano painted the light on the subjects rather than the subjects themselves, and he did so with ease great and accuracy. In this detail of his last painting, the Pietà in the Accademia, the effectiveness of his technique is particularly evident. Indeed he foreshadows the use of light in Caravaggio, and later Rembrandt. In fact, the method is really what the impressionists would use as their basic principle.

Tiziano, Pietà
Tintoretto, Deposizione

Before leaving the Accademia a brief mention of two other masters of the Venetian school (and forgive me for not showing so many other great painters in de Accademia), the “Deposizione” (ca. 1555) by Jacopo Comin (1518-1594) and a detail from the “Sacrada Famiglia”(1525) by Palma il Vecchio (1480-1528). Many names of Italian painters tell a story, but Jacopo Comin’s naming is a full-blown novel. For a long time he was known as Jacopo Robusti—his father was a sturdy guard of the city of Padua and hence known as “robust”. However Comin was generally known as “il Tintoretto”—the dyer’s boy, as this was his early livelihood. Aside from this he was called “il Furioso”, which, when you see the massive amount of huge paintings, seems a very appropriate name. And, his paintings are whirlwinds by themselves; full of energy, dynamics and dramatics, mostly inspired by his strong religiosity. The name Comin refers ro the spice cumin, unfortunately not a very suitable ending to this exercise in onomastics. Tintoretto, as he is usually referred to in English, was a great admirer of Tiziano (Titian ?), a feeling that was not mutual. And in many technical aspects it is obvious Tintoretto had imbibed every aspect of the Venetian school. Perfect colouration, excellent composition, full control of poses and musculature, superbly executed perspective and foreshortening. I didn’t like Tintoretto, I used to find it all too exaggerated, too dramatic. In the Deposizione Jesus’ wounds are not overwhelming, just a small stab on the right side of his chest. On the contrary his well muscled legs show he is still a young man, in full strength. As the suffering of Jesus is not highlighted in the painting the attention shifts to the distress of the surrounding group (a strategy seen in other paintings of the era). Mary, Jesus’ mother who has her son on her lap has fainted, Mary of Cleopas supports her. Mary Magdalene shows a gesture of despair and pain, Joseph of Arimathea hold up the torso. Notice that this, like so many of Tintoretto’s paintings, is very large, some 2¼ by 3 meters. And then take a close look at the details, the easy flow of the robes and cloths, the hands, the faces, the hair and the tresses. And then there is the clever use of light and dark. I was wrong. Tintoretto is a marvellous painter. And I came to admire the enormous amount of work he produced, surely with the help of others, but also, it testifies to is technical prowess. To accomplish what he did he had to be extremely efficient and competent, no time could be wasted in doubts, trials and errors.

Palma il Vecchio, Sacrada Famiglia

The work of Palma shows how much he was influenced by Tiziano and Giorgione, though his teacher Andrea Previtali was a student of Giovanni Bellini. I won’t bother you with more onomastics after the disappointment over Comin, suffice it to say that his real name was Jacopo (or Jacomo) Negretti alias (detto) Palma il Vecchio. Palma has often been seen as a secondary painter, ‘student of…’, like Ferdinand Bol or Gerard Dou. However, as experts are discovering more and more works that were formerly attributed to Tizaino or Giorgione are really from Palma’s hand, it becomes obvious what a magnificent painter he really was. And he had one interesting trump: his daughter Violante was an amazing beauty. Apparently Tiziano was in love with her, and he painted her. Be that as it may, Palma’s many nudes probably were courtesans, but also for his religious pieces we recognise some faces from various other paintings. The beautiful Catherine in Palma’s Sacrada Famiglia is clearly the same model we see in many paintings by Tiziano, probably Angela dal Moro, alias (detta) La Zaffetta (zaffo = sbirro = follower, crony). According to a dutch dictionary of swearing zaffo (which in dutch means sissy or goof) could be related to Sappho by the association with homosexuality.