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Titians altarpieces in the church of the Frari Venice
Titian’s Pesaro and Assunta. Altarpieces in the church of the Frari, Venice.
What was the importance of these two altarpieces for the development of painting in Venice, both from a stylistic and iconographic point of view?
It has been said that Titian’s Assunta, which adorns the high altar, and Pesaro (on the left aisle of the chapel of the Immaculate Conception) stand mid-way between the past and the future of Venetian painting. This infers that Titian drew on established traditions learnt from his masters Bellini and Giorgione, and imbued his works with a freshness and inspiration not seen before. Furthermore, it becomes apparent that his sensitive construction of the works – considering the authority of his patrons – facilitate a depth of interpretation which highlight both the sacred and civic concerns of the time.
To illustrate Titian’s progressive role in Venetian art history, I will draw on Renaissance documentation, and contemporary research that notes the stylistic and iconographic elements of these altarpieces. In 1568 the Florentine chronicler Vasari wrote of Titian, “Titian…who has adorned with great pictures the City of Venice…deserves the love and respect of all craftsmen, who ought to admire and imitate him in many things. For he is a painter who has produced…work which…will live as long as the memory of illustrious men endures” . This is a useful starting point for such an investigation: this representation is valid, since Vasari had met and spoken to him while writing the book, and being a Florentine he wasn’t so susceptible to employing the Venetian rhetoric which could tend to be biased
The contemporary chronicler Ludovico Dolce recorded the shock and criticism the Assunta attracted when it was first unveiled. Such controversy points to its radicalism and supports assertions that it was influential for developing artists: “For all [the panel’s grandeur and awesomeness], the oafish painters and the foolish masses, who until then had seen nothing but the dead and cold works of Giovanni Bellini, of Gentile, and of Vivarino…, which were without movement and modelling, grossly defamed the picture. Then, as envy cooled and the truth slowly dawned on them, people began to marvel at the new style established in Venice by Titian…”
There is good reason to conclude that the Assunta and Pesaro altarpieces rank amongst the finest and most notary of Titian’s works. In his book, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, Peter Humfrey claims that the exceptionally large number of churches in Venice elevated the prevalence of this style, as they all needed to be decorated. The lack of fresco painting (due to the humid climate) meant more panel paintings were constructed, and so “Venetian painters tended to concentrate their most ambitious efforts…on altar painting”
Limitations of the investigation
The lack of primary documentation from this era hinders our ability to place the artwork in its socio-cultural context. When relying on the rhetoric of the State-appointed historians, we must consider the bias that results from their upholding of the ‘Myth of Venice’. Obviously, the value of these to the research question is limited; being contemporary, they are unable to describe Titian’s long-term influence on Venetian painting.
Definition of key terms
When analysing artwork from a stylistic point of view, all visual (not metaphorical) factors are taken into account. Issues of composition, symmetry and asymmetry, colour palette, application of paint, and rendering of forms are all relevant. Iconography refers to any elements of the painting that can be left open for a religious or sacred interpretation. These two points of view are inextricably linked: for example, the placement (re: composition, thus stylistic element) of the Madonna and Child, elevated in the centre of a devotional painting also has iconographic references: this was their traditional position, and portrayed their roles as intercessors between the figures below, and God in Heaven above.
In this context, the altarpiece refers to a painting set behind an above the altar in a Christian church. Painted altarpieces might be accompanied by sculpture, as in the case of Titian’s Assunta, which features three free-standing marble figures on the frame.
The term sacra conversazione refers to the type of composition made popular by Bellini, where a group of saints are gathered in a unified space. Any ‘conversation’ between saints is solely spiritual and internal; paradoxically, as soon as obvious communication takes place (in the case of Titian’s Pesaro), the composition no longer conforms to what constitutes a sacra conversazione .
Established traditions in altarpiece design
Titian was painting amongst the turbulent climate of the age of Reformation and the Counter-Reformation: this may have influenced his work, endowing it with a greater sense of drama and more overt display of emotion which is evident especially in Assunta. This was a significant development from the entrenched Venetian style established by Bellini: his altarpieces were characteristically tranquil and meditive (Humfrey refers to Bellini’s Diletti, S. Giobbe and St Catherine of Sienna altarpieces in defining the sacra conversazione). His style embodies the Venetian ethos of ‘La Serenissima’.
Stylistic developments in Assunta and Pesaro altarpieces
While depictions of the Assumption scene had been painted by such names as Vivarini and Palma Vecchio, Titian’s subjects are much more powerfully built and more dynamic in their gestures than the relatively angular and timid figures in the earlier altarpieces. There is a mood of vivacity and upward movement, driven by the shifts in dark and light through the three zones (disciples, Madonna, God and angels). The viewer’s eye is arrested by the raised arms of the disciples, the foreshortening of the virgin’s body refuses to let the eye rest, until it reaches the sweeping group of angels. Rosand affirms the stylistic importance of this work, in suggesting that its unveiling heralded the arrival of the classical High Renaissance in Venice. Titian’s dramatic gestures and breadth of form draws comparisons to the art of Raphael, and in particular, his Assumption. Some scholars suggest Titian may have seen preparatory sketches for this work around the time he received the commission for Assunta , in which case the originality of his work is dubious. However, the fact that he hadn’t yet undertaken the ‘artist’s pilgrimage to Rome’ and viewed the works of Raphael and his contemporaries, offers credibility in terms of his artistic innovation.
A justification of why Assunta was not accepted by the patron, Guardian of the Fransiscan order, Fra Germano, was because the human forms are too sensual. A highly rhetorical passage from a 1910 book by Charles Ricketts, asserts that “the face of Mary satisfies us as expressing ecstasy in a human type” . While being ultimately subjective, it sheds light on how people would personally react to it. The exuberant vitality would have been frightening and even offensive, to generations used to Bellini’s style.
The Assunta is notable in combining two significant biblical events: the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and the Coronation. The Coronation was a theme most usually represented in a horizontal format, yet perhaps this extensive thematic content would have offered more scope for drama and innovation when it was to be set in a tall, arched format. Infact, when Titian received the commission to construct this work, it was the largest altarpiece that had ever been seen in Venice.
In the same way, Pesaro demonstrates an unorthodox blending of styles: the altarpiece painting and the votive portrait style. He transforms the traditional composition of the sacra conversazione from one of centrality, to asymmetry. Rona Goffen supports this notion, claiming there was “no real precedent in earlier altar paintings for this asymmetrical scheme” . The shift in the Madonna and Child’s positioning has iconographic ramifications, as a central position reflects their supreme role in the relationship with the saints and patrons. They still dominate the Pesaro, their elevation conveys importance, and their split attention (Madonna looking to the left, and the Child to the right) is the key to uniting the two groups. Titian draws on character
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