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A colorful cast of Venetian masters

Times Staff Writer

Around the time Christopher Columbus was bumping into San Salvador Island in the Caribbean, a new and soon-to-flourish business was getting underway back in the Italian coastal city-state of Venice. Vendecolore -- color sellers -- began to offer an array of prepared pigments, exotic dyes and other luxurious colorants for use in everything from paint and textiles to glass and pottery.

Venice, because it stood at the crossroads of Western Europe and the Near East, was a hugely rich maritime power. The array of tinctures, tints and dyestuffs in every imaginable material combination and hue soon evolved into a major class of 16th century import-export item. Venice bought and sold color -- and the city’s painters quickly followed suit.

Within a few decades Venetian painting had erupted into the incomparable chromatic spectacle we know today. The marvelous story is told in “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting,” an unsurprisingly drop-dead-gorgeous exhibition that opened here Sunday at the National Gallery of Art. Against deep sage-green walls, the 52 paintings fairly glow with colored light, as if illuminated from within. And with artists of the astounding caliber of those named in the title accounting for more than 40% of the show, the effect can make you giddy.

National Gallery curator David Alan Brown and his colleague Sylvia Ferino-Pagden of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum, where the show travels in October, began their survey with the exceptional Venetian collections in their own museums. To these were added loans from 30 more in the U.S. and Europe, including London’s National Gallery, the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizi in Florence and Paris’ Louvre Museum. The result is the most important American exhibition of Venetian painting in decades.

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The focus is tight. The show and its sumptuous, readable catalog look at the genesis of the Venetian Renaissance.

Giorgione’s “Adoration of the Shepherds,” circa 1500, is the earliest work. Giovanni Bellini’s 1514 “Feast of the Gods,” reworked by Titian in 1529, is the latest. The stark difference between them in subject matter -- from sweet and pious Christian theme to romping Classical myth, from the Gospels to Ovid -- is one instance of the breadth of Venetian painting in the first decades of the century.

The half-millennium was an important date on the church calendar, celebrated with pomp and circumstance. Artists from elsewhere were drawn to Venice -- Leonardo da Vinci visited from Milan in 1500, Albrecht Durer from Nuremberg in 1505 (his second trip) and Fra Bartolommeo from Florence in 1508.

But despite the affluence of the great trading power, the so-called Golden Age of Venetian painting did not take place during a period of calm stability. Anything but.

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War was common, and Venice wasn’t always victorious. The north side of the Piazza San Marco burned to the ground in one of three disastrous fires around the city. Plagues of typhoid and syphilis regularly swept through. (One may have brought down Giorgione, who succumbed in 1510 at the tender age of 33.) The city did not want for drama.

Or, to put it another way, for color.

Since the late 1960s, color in contemporary art has often been regarded with suspicion -- or even outright disdain -- negatively tagged as frivolous, foreign, feminine. Those scornful terms might trace their lineage back to early-16th century Venetian painting.

Yet with life so clearly fragile, one artistic response is to go to the other delirious extremity. Sumptuous indulgence becomes a hedge against mortality, however futile. Faithful patrons commission lavish and abundant religious icons, feverishly hoping to invoke mystical protections.

The exhibition opens with an enormous black-and-white aerial view of Venice, designed by graphic artist Jacopo de’ Barbari (a friend of Durer) and printed in 1500 on six large sheets of paper. It’s a heaven’s-eye view of the lagoon-city -- an extravagant image of imperial self-regard produced in a holy year -- and it nicely sets the stage for the show.

The remarkable woodcut locates Mercury, god of commerce, and Neptune, the sea god, on the north-south civic axis, pretty much describing the whys and wherefores of Venetian power. The sinuous contours of the islands and canals are gently abstracted, bending the actual topography into the profile of a graceful dolphin.

The seven galleries that follow are divided thematically, rather than by artist or chronology. That organizational choice makes for some fascinating propositions.

Take Bellini. He turned the traditional devotional subject of the Virgin and Child (with or without saints) on its side. His paintings -- typically horizontal rather than vertical, as most private or public altarpieces are -- firmly grounded the spiritual subject in an expansive landscape vista.

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The world spread out on either side of salvation’s personification in Mary and Jesus, fading into the eternal distance. The ethereal came down to earth in this format, while the earthly was infused with a preternatural aura.

In a 1510 “Virgin With the Blessing Child,” a green silk cloth edged in pink and with no visible means of support frames the Byzantine-style Queen of Heaven, locating her in a sublime realm. But Bellini’s surrounding landscape faithfully records the plain foothills north of Venice, mingling symbolic characters like a shepherd and his flock with purely realistic ones. Divinity is infused in nature, and light -- color -- is the agent of physical and mystical communion.

Titian’s 1514 picture of the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ exemplifies the mind-boggling complexity such a theme could attain. He places the post-Crucifixion meeting in a sprawling landscape.

The shapes of the standing man and the kneeling woman rhyme with those of a tall tree and full shrubbery behind them. Her body strains forward in concert with the leaning direction of the tree, while his body curves and spirals like the twisting path that rises above the shrubs toward the city on the distant hill.

Noli Me Tangere” -- Do not touch me -- Jesus said to a startled Mary Magdalene, asserting that the reality of his presence after death was beyond mortal flesh. Titian’s composition embeds both the narrative and its spiritual implication within the radiant materiality of nature, illuminated by a diffuse and golden-azure light.

Mounted on the wall-label next to the canvas, a small X-ray image reveals earlier stages of Titian’s composition as he worked out the final painting. The changes are dramatic, especially in the figure of Jesus and the tree. You can see how, in the studio, the artist knitted the elements of the picture together to bring the desired effect into view.

Technical analysis in the conservation lab is a revealing feature of this exhibition, with numerous pictures accompanied by similar labels. (There’s also a separate study room.) Infrared examination can expose under-drawing, and X-rays can reveal hidden layers of painting.

Pigment analysis is also remarkable. A minuscule sample of the blue mantle worn by the Virgin in Giorgione’s breathtaking “Adoration of the Shepherds” shows, through electron-microscope analysis, the delicate layers of intensely colored glaze the artist applied. Surprisingly, beneath the ravishing ultramarine blue is a layer of bright crimson. The eye cannot see the red while looking at the painting, but its presence alters the reflection of light from the blue robe, yielding extraordinary depth and richness.

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And that’s not all. The analysis shows that Giorgione also mixed pulverized glass into the red paint, further tweaking the inner illumination that comes from oil paint. The oil in which colored pigments are suspended already traps ambient light; adding tiny bits of glass further shatters, interrupts and reflects it.

Other thematic galleries are devoted to the pastoral landscape, with its vision of a lost world of peace and harmony that can be regained through art, and to portraits of men shown not in standard power poses but acting out romantic roles -- poet, dashing soldier, lover or musician. The most affecting is Titian’s famous “Man With a Glove,” where a keenly observed realism fuses with an idealized nature.

The man’s bright, white shirt emerges from his pitch-black doublet to form a sharp, narrow V-shape topped by a ruffle that encircles his throat. It’s a lily, symbol of virtuous purity, and his head is the stamen.

Willem de Kooning asserted that “Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented,” and Venetian artists used that same idea to invent a new subject: the erotic female nude. (Remember: Venice was a lively seaport, so prostitutes and courtesans were everywhere.) Titian’s goddess-like “Flora,” with her cascade of reddish-gold hair and white garment slipping from her breast, is cheesecake of a most astoundingly refined variety.

Better, this painting (and scores like it), meant for the privacy of a gentleman’s bedroom, set the stage for Giorgione’s devastating portrait of a tired, doleful crone.

His haunting “Old Woman” represents the inevitable loss of natural beauty as more than just a matter of sagging skin, grayed hair and stumps of teeth; the loss also resonates as a chromatic deficit.

“Old Woman” is virtually the only painting in the show without any rich, sumptuous color. All neutrals -- black, gray, burnt umber, shades of tan -- the astounding portrait consecrates the poignant woman instead with a cap and fringed shawl of purest white. Nature’s loveliness fades, Giorgione proposes, but the beauty of art is what endures.

Among the show’s several curatorial coups is the inclusion of Titian’s justly famous erotic masterpiece, “Pastoral Concert (Concert Champetre),” once attributed to Giorgione and never before seen in the United States. (It was lent by the Louvre.) Bellini and Titian’s “Feast of the Gods” has been reunited with Titian’s sexy gambol “Bacchanal of the Adrians,” with which it shared a wall in the celebrated Alabaster Room of the Duke of Ferrara’s castle.

Only a handful of paintings by the brilliant and mysterious Giorgione are known, and attributions are regularly subject to heated scholarly dispute. But five Giorgione paintings are here -- including the great “Three Philosophers,” with its hypnotizing vision of an earnest young man vainly trying to use drafting tools to measure nature’s magic.

Giorgione represented that thrilling enchantment with a fluttering cascade of leaves hovering in space at the entry to a dark cave. (Yes, it has an erotic kick.) Opposite, the philosophers are wrapped in dazzling robes of emerald, crimson, silver-blue and gold. Color that beggars description envelopes their maturing world of thought and attitude, and it makes the young man’s T-square as useless to humanity as an appendix.


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