Manet: Return to Venice, Palazzo Ducale, Venice – review

Forget the Biennale. The foremost reason for visiting La Serenissima this summer is to witness a truly once-in-a-lifetime artistic encounter. Thanks to an alliance between the Musée d’Orsay, the Uffizi and the Venice Civic Museums Foundation, the “Venus of Urbino”, one of Titian’s most renowned paintings, and the masterpiece it inspired, “Olympia” by Manet, are together for the first time in history.

The setting for their rendezvous is Manet: Return to Venice, an exhibition that aims to reveal the influence of Italian Renaissance art on the father of French modernism.

Even without its starring couple, this exhibition has been long overdue. As the Musée D’Orsay’s Manet/Velázquez exhibition testified in 2002, the French artist’s unflinching realism has long been associated with the 17th-century Spanish master.

So why have Manet’s Italian gurus been overlooked? No one doubts that “Olympia” was inspired by “The Venus of Urbino” or that “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” riffs on Titian’s “Pastoral Concert”. But Manet’s paintings are always read as rebellious ripostes by the anti-classicist revolutionary par excellence rather than as more obedient heirs to the Renaissance tradition.

This show does not alter that perception. Instead, it reveals that Manet’s radicalism was rooted in classicism’s lessons. It is given serious weight by a clutch of other stellar juxtapositions, including Manet’s “The Balcony” (1868-69) and Vittore Carpaccio’s “Two Venetian Ladies” (c.1495), and “Portrait of Emile Zola” (1868) alongside Lorenzo Lotto’s “Portrait of a Young Gentleman in his Study” (1530). The result is the stuff of revelation, with one room after another offering illuminations of Manet, French modernism, the Renaissance and – most rivetingly – the sexual politics of both eras.

By the time Manet saw the “Venus of Urbino” in Florence’s Uffizi Galleries in 1857, the 35-year-old Parisian painter was already familiar with the Italian masters. Three years previously he had spent time in Venice, Florence and maybe Rome. Although scholars are still debating which drawings were made during this period, what is certain is that when he returned to Paris, he took to copying Venetian masters in the Louvre with vigour.

Although Titian’s original is absent, Manet’s 1854 copy of the Venetian’s “Pardo Venus” has been lent by the Musée Marmottan. Showing a satyr peeking at the dozing deity’s sex while a hunter and maid cavort with another goat-footed creature on the grass, this folderol of forbidden desire is disturbing even through Titian’s harmonious eye. Painted by Manet before he had evolved the piercing clarity that would become his signature, it is transformed into a nervy, midsummer’s nightmare whose tension comes from the artist’s effort to model his figures directly in colour – wintry turquoise blues, warmthless sage-green and muddy brown, Venus’s spill of ice-pink flesh – rather than employing colour within a clearly defined contour. This is how Titian often appears to have worked; but under Manet’s less experienced hand, the figures have an ephemeral quality that heightens the unreal mood.

Even though Manet painted his louche picnic lunch several years later, it is fascinating to see “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” – not the Orsay’s masterpiece but the Courtauld’s small but potent study – hung close to the “Pardo Venus”. In part, “Le Déjeuner” was inspired by Titian’s serene bucolic symphony “The Pastoral Concert (what a shame that could not be not present), which shows two naked nymphs cavorting with two fully dressed young gentlemen. Thanks to Titian’s flair for burnished light and curvaceous rhythms, those potentially scandalous nudes are woven into a benign unity with the rolling grassland around them.

Manet shatters that Edenesque innocence. By 1863, when he painted “Le Déjeuner”, he had mastered the tonal orchestra missing in the “Pardo”. In dark-lit, yellowish whites, his model’s nakedness is a brittle shriek of sexual vulnerability against the unforgiving coal-black suits and beards of her male companions. The thrill of seeing it close to the “Pardo Venus”, even Manet’s copy, is not just that it makes lascivious satyrs of us all but also that it highlights the dangers – of excess and transgression – that haunted Renaissance Arcadias too.

Arriving in Florence in 1857, Manet was still on a learning curve. One of this show’s blessings is a shoal of pictures he made inspired by Italian Renaissance works he saw on the 1857 trip. Interestingly, he found the frescoes of Andrea del Sarto, that most clinical of Renaissance masters, especially compelling. From the chunky volumes and jagged strokes that give his red-chalk drawing “Draped Man Standing” (after a figure by del Sarto) a stalwart charisma, to the weighty shading that brings an intolerable gloom to his pencil drawing of “Christ of Sorrows” (also after a del Sarto fresco), it is evident how effortlessly the young Manet sifted realism from romanticism even when confronted with the heady fusion of the Renaissance.

In the light of these drawings, Manet’s treatment of Titian’s Venus – one of the most idealised females in the history of art – makes more sense than ever before. Hanging next to each other against mulberry-hued panels, neither Venus nor Olympia has ever looked more majestic. Yet it has never been clearer that the only characteristic this pair share is their profession.

Titian’s nude was most probably modelled on the Venetian courtesan known as La Zaffetta. Her elder sisters are a pantheon of somnolent Aphrodites, most particularly that of Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus”, whose Arcadian landscape Titian probably finished.

Titian updates the pastoral sweetness of Giorgione’s deity – so pure that even her self-pleasuring fingers appear innocent – in favour of a wide-awake beauty whose plump, honey-hued flesh flows across the canvas with the same brazen promise as her caramel-blonde tresses.

That Titian models his girl on a goddess says much about the status of courtesans in Renaissance Italy. This femme fatale is sans souci. Relaxing in a palatial bedchamber that opens on to blue skies, her maids scrabbling in richly decorated chests behind her, she exudes the languid confidence of an independent woman who can please herself in more ways than one. And so it was for high-class escorts during Titian’s day. A regular guest at Titian’s table, La Zaffetta was cultured, wealthy and respected.

When Manet first laid eyes on “Venus” in the Uffizi just over 500 years later, the world was very different. Paris, in the throes of industrialisation, was flooded with prostitutes. The confusion of terror and desire their presence suscitated in the male psyche was exacerbated by the freedoms gradually being extended to women generally. Myriad imaginative expressions bear witness to the fantasies such changes provoked: from Degas’ refined voyeurism to the obsessive, ecstatic misogynies that litter “Les Fleurs du mal”, published in 1857 by Manet’s contemporary Baudelaire.

Little wonder Manet brought his goddess down to earth. With her dead-fish gaze and matt, blotchy, uncooked flesh, her figure flattened à la Japonaise to strip it of all the comforting classical illusions in which Titian wraps his Venus, Olympia is a glacially anonymous symbol of a sexual liberty that both thrills and terrifies. In mid-century Paris, “this odalisque with the yellow belly”, as one critic described her, caused outrage; the French government had to post guards in the Salon where she was displayed.

The presence of both paintings prompts more esoteric insights. The thoughtless racism with which Manet weaves together the complexion of the maid, who is presenting a bouquet from a client, and the startled black cat – whose diabolical symbolism would have been familiar to Manet – has often been noted. Yet seeing Olympia next to Venus reminds one of another Renaissance painting: the Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto, in which the Madonna’s appalled reaction is mirrored by her terrified tabby. Did Manet know Lotto’s work? Or was it the Renaissance painter who intuited that even angels bearing flowers may merely be proposing yet another dubious sexual exchange?

Until August 18,

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