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Titian and Venice

The sixteenth century was an exceptionally creative period in Venice’s history, truly a golden age. There were many factors – political, social, economic and geographical – which stimulated this flowering of the arts. The Venetian Republic was the envy of Europe for its relatively stable and fair system of government, and for the absence of serious social tensions. It was a very significant military and naval power, with a maritime empire extending down the Adriatic and into the Eastern Mediterranean as far as Crete and Cyprus.  For most of this period Venice also governed extensive areas of the Italian mainland, or ‘terraferma’, stretching almost as far as Milan and including major cities such as Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Brescia and Bergamo.

Diana and Actaeon, Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), 1556

Many of the leading Venetian artists of this period, including Titian himself, in fact came from the mainland territories. Venice’s unique physical setting, emerging miraculously from its shimmering lagoon, set it apart from the warring city states elsewhere in the peninsula, and created an impression of independence and invincibility.

Diana and Callisto, Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), 1556

The National Galleries of Scotland’s recently made a joint purchase with the National Gallery in London, of two outstanding mythological paintings by Titian. The acquisition of the first of these, ‘Diana and Actaeon’, was concluded in 2009, and that of its pair, ‘Diana and Callisto’, in 2012. These hugely important and influential pictures are the crowning glory of the Gallery’s exceptionally rich collection of sixteenth-century Venetian paintings, drawings and prints. Almost all of the major names in Venetian art of the period are represented in the collection, including Lorenzo Lotto, Palma Vecchio, Jacopo Bassano, Jacopo Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese.

Mars, Venus and Cupid, Paolo Veronese (Caliari), 1580

Venice was rich, its wealth based on its excellent trading links throughout the Mediterranean, on its manufacturing industries, and on the customs duties it imposed. Venetian merchants imported a wide variety of luxury goods, spices, precious marbles and jewels, metalwork, fine fabrics and carpets, dyes and pigments, some of which had a direct impact on the art produced there. Venetian painting of this period is celebrated for the variety and brilliance of its colours, which may in part reflect the ready availability of high quality pigments such as ultramarine, made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan. Canvas, the fabric of ship sails, was more popular as a support for paintings in Venice than elsewhere, and this may have stimulated a preference for the bold, highly visible, expressive brushwork which is such a distinctive feature of Venetian painting. Ironically for an island city with very few trees, Venetian artists played a crucial role in the rise of landscape painting, reflecting the growing trend amongst rich Venetians to buy villas and land on the ‘terraferma’.

Venus Rising from the Sea ('Venus Anadyomene'), Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), 1520

Other than landscape painting, the subjects artists treated could be split into sacred works (devotional paintings and altarpieces) and profane ones (mythologies, allegories and portraits). The distinction between these two broad categories sometimes became blurred. Religious art commissioned for churches, convents and for private homes still formed the bulk of art produced in this period.  But alongside this other categories of painting became increasingly popular among Venice’s more sophisticated citizens, such as mythologies, allegories and pastoral subjects. These were displayed in private palaces, in bedrooms, studies and grand reception rooms. The cosmopolitan environment of Venice also gave rise to a trend for sensual, sometimes overtly erotic paintings, with much naked flesh on display.

The Three Ages of Man, Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), 1512