When Titian wrote to his patron, Philip of Habsburg, in 1552 to inform him that he had sent him a painting of the “Queen of Persia of the highest quality”, he described the canvas as a “paesaggio” or “landscape”. Never before had the word been used to describe an Italian painting.
As the work in question was probably the “Venere del Pardo” (1520-25), the appellation is curious. To contemporary eyes, the subject of that masterpiece, now in the Louvre, is clearly the somnolent goddess and the lascivious satyr whose attentions have sent her into a post-coital doze. Yet in Titian’s day, the countryside would have grabbed the viewer’s imagination with equal intensity. A hunting party in an autumnal glade shaded by coppery trees, a white-capped lake framed by hazy, green-grey hills – this pastoral idyll embodied a new chapter in Italian painting. Demanding as much skill and imagination as figure painting, landscape was no longer a bit-player in the history of art – it was a star.
This show sets out to map that transformation. Given how rarely the landscapes of Renaissance paintings are considered as subjects in their own right, it is a laudable intention. Ultimately, it founders thanks to poor loans, an overly complicated concept and a misleading title. Of 50 paintings, just five are by Titian – and one of those is only attributed.
Nevertheless, there are pearls. Few shows could aspire to a finer opening gambit than the “Crucifixion in a Jewish Cemetery” (1475-80) by Giovanni Bellini. His body taut and sinewy as the saplings flanking him, the cross dividing the scene with geometric neatness, Christ hangs in front of serene, cultivated hills and a city chiselled in biscuit-hued stone. There is a rose window that conjures the cathedral of Vicenza alongside a domed building that evokes Solomon’s temple. Simultaneously we are in the Veneto and Jerusalem, in a world of innate equilbrium, where the real is balanced with the ideal, city with country, intellect with spirituality, humanity with the divine.
Before Bellini, no Venetian painter had ever paid the campagna such attention. Valuable is a catalogue essay by curator Mauro Lucco that highlights changing perceptions of the countryside. Though it had formerly been seen as a territory of danger, disorder and dirt, by the mid-15th century various socio-political factors encouraged Venetian patricians to cultivate their farmland more carefully than ever before.
As well as motive for new representation, Bellini had the means. From his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna, he learnt the geometric tricks that enabled perspective. From Antonello da Messina, the Flemish-trained Sicilian who visited Venice in the 1470s, he acquired a passion for lifelike detail and the new-fangled material of oil, whose supple finish and intensity of colour made such verisimilitude possible.
In the golden age of Venetian painting that followed, landscapes were accorded as much importance as the sacred figures they embraced. An unexpected pleasure of this exhibition is a painting of Catherine of Alexandria (1495-97), by the lesser-known master Marco Basaiti. Although dwarfed by the too-big apparition of the saint in the foreground, the valley – with its straw-roofed stone smallholding, fenced plots and washing line – evokes the Veneto with the candour of a postcard.
Though irritatingly dispersed according to the anti-chronological nature of this show, there is a trio of glorious paintings by Bellini’s heir Cima Da Conegliano. Comprising the National Gallery’s “David and Jonathan” (1505-10) and two Madonnas, one from Treviso (1496-99, with workshop), the other from Minneapolis (1500-04), all boast turret-crowned castles instantly evocative of his native Conegliano.
Yet Cima also opened a gateway to a more anonymous Arcadia. His Old Testament brothers cast long, dawn shadows while behind them a riverbank of abundant foliage is reflected in the azure waters. The Minneapolis Madonna is framed by an untamed forest; more generally, Cima’s shifting, metallic light differs from the limpid clarity beloved of Bellini.
Reaching beyond the older painter’s rational, Aristotelian precision, Cima paved the way for the wilder, more poetic fantasies of Giorgione and Titian. And at this point, the lack of A-list loans becomes frustrating. What a great show this could have been had it secured the Venere del Pardo, or the storm-shattered mystery that is Giorgione’s “Tempest”, arguably Europe’s first landscape painting, and built its premise around one of those masterpieces.
Instead we have a juvenile work by Giorgione from the Uffizi, “The Trial by Fire of Moses”. Though far less skilled than the “Tempest”, this painting too is marvellous in its strangeness. The small, insubstantial figures – an exotic mix of Middle Eastern gentlemen in kaftans and turbans, and Renaissance dandies in coloured tights – are squashed into the foreground. Devoid of Belliniesque symmetry, the disorderly landscape – one half dark with looming, breeze-blown poplars, the other a scruffy sweep of sapling-dotted hills falling away into a slice of sky-blue lake – threatens to envelop the little town nestling in its valley.
Painted in the mid-1490s, this evocative wilderness found its literary equivalent in the pastoral epics, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia, that were becoming enormously popular in cultivated Venetian circles. Their writers imagined the countryside as a sylvan paradise, where allegories of love and misrule were played out by shepherds, nymphs, satyrs and deities.
For artists of Giorgione and Titian’s generation, such poetry was a thrilling inspiration, although storylines required little fidelity. Here, one of Titian’s early panels, “Birth of Adonis” (1511), depicts the event – which, in Ovid’s account, is an incestuous trauma – as a rural fertility festival, complete with kissing couple, a pair of deer and a rabbit. Gone are Bellini’s orderly terraces. Instead, these untrammelled grasslands are fecund with trees and bushes in full leaf. Cradled by foliage, the slumbering farmhouse tells us that this is a world where man and nature live in rapturous, pagan harmony.
Yet painters also longed to disrupt that bucolic bliss, as witness a compelling constellation of works under the umbrella “Upheaval into the World”. Including two paintings of “Lot and his Daughters”, one c.1520 by Bonifacio de’ Pitati (Veronese’s master), the other c.1525 by Giovanni Cariani, and the Titian-attributed “Orpheus and Euridice” (c.1510-15), these scenes of apocalyptic blazes and storm-struck skies are the antithesis of pastoral harmony. Certainly Bosch, whose vision of Hell hung in the Ducal Palace, would have had an influence but memories also lingered of the burning plains, visible from the belltower of St Mark’s, that were set alight by the Ottoman Turks in 1499.
From here on, the exhibition loses its thread in sections whose pseudo-intellectual titles – “Technique and Experience”, “The Tender Gaze” – are often an excuse for incoherent gatherings of paintings by lesser-known artists – Lambert Sustris, Paolo Fiammingo – leavened by the odd masterpiece by the likes of Lorenzo Lotto, Veronese and Tintoretto.
On loan from Houston, Titian’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” (1510-11) is the prize. Gathered around a light-bathed babe next to whom a shepherd’s hat and crook have been cast humbly upon the ground, the tender figures appear to have just stepped out of the benign, sheep-dotted hills behind them. Arcadia has surrendered its pagan roots to become a setting for sacred grace.
Given the exhibition’s title, the curators should have matched the handful of great paintings they managed to procure with canvases by Poussin and Claude, the great 17th-century landscape artists who were profoundly influenced by Titian and Giorgione. Let’s hope someone takes up this challenge soon.
Until May 20