A tale of two cities

From 1400 to 1600, the richest cities in Europe were Venice and Antwerp. Vibrant ports and financial centres, with mercantile links stretching east and west, they were dynamic, innovative and outward-looking – in art as well as in business. Like London and New York today, they proved a magnet for painters and collectors. With Van Eyck and Rubens versus Bellini, Titian and Veronese, how did each artistic establishment eye the other, and did their mutual influence shape Europe’s cultural identity?

Venetian and Flemish Masters at Brussels’ Palais des Beaux Arts deepens and particularises our understanding of the relationship between the northern and southern Renaissance. With important loans from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo such as Giovanni Bellini’s sorrowful, startling “‘Lochis’ Madonna and Child” – the baby portrayed in an awkward posture anticipating that of Christ carrying the cross and Mary’s lapis lazuli gown tinged blood-red at the point where it touches him – Titian’s glowing golden landscape “Orpheus and Eurydice” and decorative works by Tiepolo and Canaletto, it unravels across three centuries the qualities of flamboyant colour, luminous atmosphere and dramatic narrative composition that distinguished Venetian art.

Bergamo, for a long time mainland capital of the Venetian Republic, has an excellent collection encompassing the full scope of historical, religious and portrait genres. These are interspersed with Flemish works from Antwerp’s Fine Arts Museum, ranging from Rogier Van der Weyden’s acutely detailed, vigorous portrait “Philippe de Croy” (1460) to Jacob Jordaens’ pulpy beaming “Bacchus” (1650), which illustrate the ebb and flow of ideas between the cities. The astonishing mimetic realism achieved through the use of oil paint by Van der Weyden and Van Eyck was seized upon by Venetians who made the medium their own, while their chromatic intensity and lively approach to classical subjects in turn inspired northern baroque artists such as Jordaens.

Although the Flemish selection is patchy – why on earth just a single Van Eyck and Rubens? – the exhibition’s overall narrative thrust is coherent and well-paced, with a couple of interventions by the contemporary Belgian sculptor of hyper-realist sacred figures Berlinde de Bruyckere and a retrospective of Antwerp painter Luc Tuymans in the upstairs gallery adding piquancy and provocation. From Bellini to de Bruyckere, the show asks: what are the enduring demands and uses of representational art?

For a new style of realism was indisputably what Venice took from Antwerp. Painted in tempera, Carlo Crivelli’s jewel-like “Madonna and Child”, crisp, flat, full of allegorical decoration, is a lovely opening example of the old Gothic order – resisting change, Crivelli continued to recall medieval illuminated manuscripts. By contrast, Vittore Carpaccio’s oil on wood “Nativity of Mary”, with its domestic details of a homely Renaissance interior, with busy servants, a pair of rabbits picking at titbits on a tiled floor, finely rendered surfaces and long receding perspectives, shows the assimilation of northern everyday verisimilitude.

Within the Bellini family itself one can trace the impact. Jacopo Bellini’s delicate pink “Madonna and Child” (1440) set on a gilt ground with gold haloes around the heads is essentially a Byzantine icon. His son Giovanni’s “Madonna and Child”, still painted in tempera, is more psychologically arresting; bathed in the translucent light so characteristic of Venetian painting, the soft but sculpturally modelled figures demonstrate the dexterity with which the younger Bellini transposed Netherlandish influence into an Italian idiom. A few years later Giovanni is painting in oil, mastering flesh tones, subtle gradations of texture for hair, eyebrows, cloth, and nuances of expression – in his “Portrait of a Young Man” the subject returns our gaze, warm, immediate, lifelike, and in 1506 Dürer marvelled of Bellini that “though very old, he is still the best at painting”.

By then, though, Bellini was being challenged by his most brilliant pupil. In Titian’s 1507 “Madonna and Child”, figures of unprecedented monumentality are blended into a serene scene of rocky blue mountains, verdant pastures and thick clusters of trees below a rose-streaked sky. These are the features of Titian’s native Pieve di Cadore in the Veneto, which he left as a child to join the Bellini studio, but whose image recurs through seven decades of his work, including in the autumnal sunset of “Orpheus and Eurydice” here. In the “Madonna”, landscape unites Christian myth and pastoral poetry; although an early work, the loose, fluent brushstrokes, the definition of form by sonorous colour transitions rather than linear contour, the airiness – as if we had just opened a window on the vista – and rich sensuality and expressive force all anticipate Titian’s maturity and mark the difference between Venetian and other Italian painting.

Famously, Michelangelo visited Titian and protested that, though a great colourist and dramatist, he did not draw enough. Florentine disegno versus Venetian colore became a cliché of Renaissance interpretation: the smooth harmonies of Veronese’s majestic “Saint Christine” and Jacopo Bassano’s tender “Virgin and Child with Saint John” are compelling instances of paintings that, though far apart in sensibility, are compositionally determined by the Venetian liquid, vivid handling of colour.

But Titian’s most important heir was the Flemish Rubens. Born in 1577, a year after Titian’s death, he visited Venice in 1600 and quickly absorbed the Venetian master’s art of grand spatial constructions, vibrant hues, variety of invention and speed of technique. In Rubens’ “The Holy Trinity”, Christ’s pale corpse is theatrically enveloped in a darkness just lit by the accents of colour from a golden cloud and an angel draped in red. The racked, muscular body stretched vertically across the composition, though, harks back to Flemish models and asserts a northern humanism: God and the Holy Ghost have mere walk-on parts compared with the suffering of man.

Thematically, this show should have ended here – or better, with Titian’s other Netherlandish heir, Rembrandt, whose late suggestive broken surfaces echo Titian’s final, rough, non-finito manner. But Belgian Rembrandt holdings are poor, so he is unrepresented. Instead, Brussels’ final rooms show total divergence in styles between the schools, though both represent codas. Flemish still lifes – crystalline but dead, marking the finale of devotion to pure mimesis – are followed by the vedute of Canaletto, Bellotto and Francesco Guardi, and Pietro Longhi’s masked spectacles: metaphors for the decline of Venice from real power to pageantry.

By the late 1600s, neither Venice nor Antwerp were internationally significant. Yet over the centuries, Poussin drew on Bellini, Turner reckoned that “the highest honour that landscape has, she received from the hands of Titian”, and political painter Luc Tuymans today looks to Van Eyck.

It is impossible to imagine the history of western art without Venetian light and colour and Flemish expressive realism. A tale of two cities is expertly condensed and brought alive here.

‘Maîtres vénitiens et flamands’, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, to May 8 www.bozar.be

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