Fit for a Saint

Nicholas Penny

  • The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice by Peter Humfrey
    Yale, 382 pp, £19.95, May 1995, ISBN 0 300 05358 4
  • Italian Altarpieces 1250-1550: Function and Design edited by Eve Borsook and Fiorella Superbi Gioffredi
    Oxford, 296 pp, £45.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 19 817223 0

The most significant event to have taken place in Italy in recent years, as far as the art and architecture of that country is concerned, is the institution of an annual opening of numerous normally inaccessible historic buildings in Naples, organised by the private charity Napoli Novantanove. The two open days in May last year attracted a million visitors. Few of them, I suspect, came from the UK, where the episode was little noticed, and where Naples, sadly, is now little loved, but the success of this initiative has been well publicised in Italy. It coincides with a determination to reverse the trend towards the closure of more and more old buildings, and a recognition that surveillance provides better security against theft than locks and alarms. Visitors to Venice are beginning to benefit from this new policy. San Sebastiano, which contains the world’s greatest collection of paintings by Veronese, and the Madonna dell’Orto, which contains the most moving and sublime of Tintoretto’s canvases, have been reopened, as have many other churches in the quieter (often eerily silent) quarters of the city, well off the main tourist routes.

Venice retains within its churches more of the late medieval and Renaissance paintings that were made for them than any other city in Europe. In the Frari we can see in their original settings altarpieces by Bartolomeo Vivarini and Giovanni Bellini, and two of the greatest altarpieces by Titian, including the high altarpiece of the church, the Assunta. But this is one of the largest and most splendid churches in Italy; what is more remarkable is that many smaller Venetian churches, such as S. Giovanni Crisostomo, retain, among the dusty debris of the last century’s piety and the electric aids of today’s, masterpieces which were made for them in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In S. Giovanni Crisostomo we find one of Bellini’s greatest paintings, his late altarpiece of Saint Jerome between Saints Christopher and Louis of Toulouse, which is reproduced on the jacket of The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice. The book opens with a consideration of which elements in this painting were conditioned by its setting. The church interior is illustrated in black and white to show how the arched vault in the altarpiece echoes that of the chapel in which it is placed and how the pilasters of the painting’s stone frame echo those which mark the entrance to the chapel itself. The lighting on the saints in the painting accords with the natural light which comes into the church from the entrance wall.

Humfrey’s concern with the settings of altarpieces and with their cost and manner of construction means that he has much to say about frames. In the Appendix entry for Titian’s Assunta he emphasises something that most visitors to the Frari will hardly think about, even if they notice it: the sculptural adornment of the stone frame, the huge statues of Saint Francis and Saint Anthony of Padua beside the Resurrected Christ on top, and the relief of the dead Christ projecting into the painting from the lower edge. Yet these elements of the altarpiece were certainly not of peripheral interest to the friars. It might not have upset Titian to discover that little attention is now paid to them, but it is worth reflecting on how diminished the dramatic impact of his narrative rendering of the Assumption would be, had he incorporated into the painting Saint Francis and Saint Anthony in clearly recognisable form, as he surely would have been obliged to do had this sculptural frame not been devised.

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