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Venice: Where the sun set on the Italian Renaissance


By Robert Damien Santagata

The most serene city of Venice – La Serenissima, as she was long called – rises from the water like a miraculous, dreamy mirage – colorful, frail, improbable … eager to impress. She has attracted lovers of beauty and culture for centuries, from her heyday as a powerful maritime empire to the time when her power, influence, and monopoly of trade with the Near East began to wane, thanks in large part to the Portuguese, whose alternate trade routes to these exotic lands caused fair Venice to suffer economically.

But do not worry or feel sorry for Venice. She enjoyed – no, celebrated – her slow decline (perhaps it was all just simply denial on her part) with lavish festivals, pageantry, and unrivaled decadence. Incalculable sums of money were spent entertaining the aristocracy, the masses, everyone and anyone who happened to be there at a given time. Venice loved a party … and still does.

For centuries, she was the richest, most powerful republic in Europe, endowed with a mighty, courageous, well-trained navy, an abundance of ships – which, it just so happens, were manufactured at a rate of about one per day – and competent leaders, not to mention more money in the coffers than entire nations.

The history of Venice is indeed remarkably rich; in fact, countless books have been authored about her. But to many “Venetophiles,” it is the art and architecture that inspire the most awe in those fortunate enough to gaze in wonderment upon her unparalleled beauty, her unique architectural styles, and the sundry works of art that embellish her, filling museums, galleries, churches, even the facades of palaces lining the Grand Canal. Venice’s artistic output represents a veritable atomic explosion of rich, vibrant colors, ethereal landscapes, fertile compositions that are both pagan and devotional in nature, lest someone should feel offended.

The most emblematic Venetian Renaissance masterwork is the enigmatic, mysterious “La Tempesta” (The Tempest) by Giorgione, a landscape in which a woman breast-feeds a child while a colorfully clad man stands nearby and a bolt of lightning flashes across an ominous sky above them. The colors are vibrant; the details precise; the result awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, this great, extremely important seminal artist died at the age of 33 from the plague, and his oeuvre comprises but a handful of paintings, all of which are fantastically poetic.

Titian, the greatest of Venetian Renaissance painters, was mightily prolific and magnificently talented. Hundreds of paintings are attributed to him – not at all surprising as he reputedly lived to the age of 99. He was for a while a student of the great Giorgione, which is glaringly evident in his countless masterworks, both of religious and mythological themes. A favorite of many is his allegorical painting of “Sacred and Profane Love,” which is housed in Rome’s Borghese Gallery; another one, which some authorities attribute to Giorgione, hangs in the Louvre in Paris. Depicted in it are two very “Titianesque” (fleshy but beautiful) women, one scantily clad with alabaster skin and voluptuous curves, the other chastely clothed, both leaning against a marble sarcophagus on which a scene from Venus and Adonis is depicted. The death of Titian in 1574 marked the unofficial end of the Italian Renaissance, even though an immensely talented painter by the name of Tintoretto painted for years after Titian’s passing,
right up until the dawn of the Baroque. Perhaps one of Tintoretto’s greatest artistic accomplishments is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (a building that once housed various Venetian confraternities), which comprises some 60 canvases and an altarpiece and represents one of the most arduous and fascinating pictorial undertakings known in the entire history of art.

The Bellini brothers, Gentile and Giovanni, sons of one Jacopo (another notable artist), were active in the early Venetian Renaissance, as was Giorgione, and were equally endowed with artistic talent. Giovanni had an obvious penchant for the Madonna and Child theme – he composed many – and there is one in the Accademia Gallery in Venice that is every bit as realistic as a color photograph, not to mention utterly lovely, moving, and touching. The mother, her covered head slightly cocked to one side, gently holds the infant in her left arm, while the opposite hand lovingly caresses the bottom of his tiny foot. She is pensive, adoring, and protective of her child, and nothing else in the world matters to her.

Paolo Veronese is yet another Venetian Renaissance giant, known as an extreme colorist (weren’t they all?!) and composer of elaborate narrative cycles. His famous “The Feast in the House of Levi,” painted in 1573, was one of the largest canvases of the 16th century and, because it was originally intended as solely a depiction of the Last Supper, and because it was more “fertile” than the average undertaking of this theme (it is literally a banquet scene),
it was investigated in a cautionary though not punitive manner by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Veronese impressed upon the inquisitors the notion that “we painters take the same liberties as poets and madmen.”
As the brilliant Florentine Renaissance waned, the Renaissance in Venice effloresced in the late 16th century, reached its zenith, and to many admirers, the countless artworks created by her great artists rival those of the vaunted Florentines. One need only visit La Serenissima and pay homage to the city where the glorious sunset of the Italian Renaissance came to pass.

The author of this series, Robert Damien Santagata, is a “rabid Italophile” and the author of the 2020 book “The Paradise of Exiles.” This series presents his vivid, evocative descriptions of his search for the soul of Italy – rapturous descriptions that the author attributes to Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition in which overexposure to any form of great beauty induces a state of euphoria that can include elation, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations and even fainting.

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