Made in Venice

Charles Hope

  • Andrea Schiavone by Francis Richardson
    Oxford, 225 pp, £30.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 19 817332 6

With the hyperbole typical of the guidebook writer, Francesco Sansovino asserted in 1561: ‘Take it from me, there are more pictures in Venice than in all the rest of Italy.’ This is obviously not true, but it is almost certainly the case that during the 16th century more oil paintings were produced in Venice than in any other city of Europe. Many were undistinguished, but virtually all of them, as contemporaries everywhere recognised, reflected a distinctive local tradition whose best representatives were among the outstanding artists of their day. Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, for example, were all active when Sansovino was writing: at that time nowhere else in Italy could boast of a group of painters of comparable stature. But not only have historians of this period devoted much more attention to the art of Florence and Rome: they have also tended to regard developments in these two cities as the norm, and painting in Venice as a deviant provincial phenomenon.

The pattern had already been established by Vasari in 1568, and it is no coincidence that almost all the Venetian artists most fully studied today are ones he admired or discussed in some detail. The bibliography on Titian, like his output, is vast; that on Giorgione is almost as large, though in his case it mostly consists of a huge superstructure of speculation built on a tiny corpus of authentic pictures and an almost complete absence of documents. A few other famous individuals such as Lotto, Tintoretto and Veronese have also been the subject of detailed monographs, usually of no great distinction. For the most part, attention has been focused on problems of attribution, against a background of biographical information assembled by German-speaking historians before the First World War. The subject is now very much the preserve of local scholars with a marked, if understandable reluctance to spend much time outside their chosen city and a less excusable distaste for entering an archive. In fact, the vitality of recent research on Venetian history has not yet really extended to the city’s paintings. This is still an incompletely mapped landscape, dominated by a few peaks which are repeatedly scaled while others remain untouched.

The paintings of Andrea Schiavone, even his name, are now known only to specialists: before the publication of Francis Richardson’s book no substantial study of his career had appeared since 1913. Yet in the 25 years before his death in 1563 Schiavone established himself as one of the foremost painters of Venice. He was one of the very few living artists mentioned by Sansovino in 1561, and his reputation remained high well into the 17th century. By then the details of his life had been largely forgotten – so much so that his first biographer, Carlo Ridolfi, writing in 1648, conflated him with a minor furniture painter who outlived him by two decades. As a result, Schiavone’s authentic works tended to be dated much too late, while his oeuvre was inflated by dozens of third-rate little pictures which made any assessment of his real quality virtually impossible.

Besides being a relatively successful painter, Schiavone, most unusually for the major Venetian artists of his generation, was active as a printmaker. He was also a prolific draftsman in a variety of media, and this too was unusual in Venice at the period. A reconstruction of his career therefore calls for expertise in three distinct fields, none of which has been adequately studied. To make matters worse, Schiavone’s surviving pictures are widely scattered, with many in private collections, and the number of dated works is very small. Given the limitations of previous research and the major problems that he faced, Richardson was quite right in choosing to produce an old-fashioned monograph primarily concerned with attribution and chronology, and including an extensive catalogue. Such books tend to be hard going, but this is a notable exception.

Richardson is an unusually perceptive and intelligent writer, his knowledge of the material is unrivalled, and he is scrupulously fair in his presentation of the evidence. His conclusions almost always inspire confidence, not only because his analyses of individual works are invariably subtle and to the point, but also because he is prepared to admit his doubts and reservations. To read Richardson’s book is to share in a process of discovery: anyone who does so will look at Schiavone’s work with a new respect, as well as learning much that is illuminating about Venetian painting of the period.

Early writers on Venetian art regarded Schiavone as a painter whose impressive talent was matched by his historical importance. In this century it has often been proposed in rather unspecific terms that he played a significant role in the two major developments that occurred in Venetian painting during his career: the assimilation of elements of central Italian Mannerism and the adoption of a new type of brushwork, characterised by a rejection of strong contours and by a marked use of impasto. Richardson has now shown that this analysis was in both respects correct. Schiavone was apparently the first artist in Venice to use a fully-fledged Mannerist style for his figures and compositions, and he did so even in his earliest works, a series of etchings after designs by Parmigianino. Soon afterwards, he was influenced by two important Tuscan artists who visited Venice around 1540, Vasari and Francesco Salviati. But Schiavone’s paintings were also remarkable from the first for a very free, experimental handling of pigment. Soon afterwards, we find the same phenomenon in the work of Tintoretto and, slightly later, in that of Titian.

In common with previous writers, Richardson sees these two innovations as essentially unrelated: one reflecting non-Venetian models, the other based on a characteristic local preoccupation with the actual process of painting. This leads him to characterise Schiavone’s career as paradoxical, a formulation that unfortunately does not go very far towards explaining the artist’s intentions. It could be argued that it also does less than justice to his intelligence or originality.

The question of Venetian responses around 1540 to the art of central Italy – the so-called ‘Mannerist crisis’ – has long been debated by historians. Underlying the discussion is the assumption that there was something unhealthy about Mannerism which Venetian painters, to their credit, came in time to reject. Richardson himself sees the style as some kind of contagion, at one point calling Schiavone ‘a carrier of Mannerist germs’. But in the 16th century the distinction between Venice and central Italy was seen, not in terms of different styles, but of colore and disegno. These expressions do not have an exact English equivalent: they correspond roughly to execution and conception. It was believed in Florence and Rome that the basis of painting, indeed of all the visual arts, was to be found in disegno, the process of translating one’s ideas into visual terms by means of drawings. As a result, the pictures emphasised mastery of draftsmanship, as revealed by elaborate and fanciful compositions, difficult foreshortening, expressive contours and powerful modelling. By contrast, Mannerist artists from these cities regarded the activity of applying paint to canvas, subsumed under the term colore, as largely mechanical and lacking in intellectual interest.

When painters in Venice adopted the vocabulary of Mannerism, they did so for the most part in a rather half-hearted, superficial way. In particular, they totally rejected the commitment to drawing on which the style was based. Apart from Veronese, who was trained on the mainland, none of them used drawings as a major element in their creative process. Whereas Florentine artists were all taught to draw with astonishing competence, this was something that Venetians simply did not cultivate. It is notable that even Schiavone’s many drawings are hardly ever associated with his pictures. His sketchy, unconventional technique, involving an abundant use of wash, suggests that he regarded drawing as an extension of painting rather than the reverse.

Against this background, the reaction of Schiavone and his Venetian contemporaries to Mannerism becomes more comprehensible. For the most important aspect of Mannerist art was not so much a particular style – though it did involve the use of conventional formulae for figures and compositions – as an emphasis on the artist’s skill, and especially his mastery of disegno, in a way that was overtly non-naturalistic. Schiavone and his fellow Venetians did not care much about disegno, but they were excited by the idea that art need not be naturalistic and that it was concerned with virtuosity. In their case the virtuosity was manifested primarily in terms of colore. Seen from the standpoint of Florence or Rome, this was certainly a paradoxical, even perverse deformation of Mannerist ideals. But for a Venetian it was a logical development of traditional concerns, a self-confident response to an alien fashion.

This interpretation implies that painters in Venice were able to think about what they were doing in a rather sophisticated way. It is generally assumed, however, that they were an unintellectual lot – inspired but hardly cerebral artisans. There is no evidence for this belief, but it is so prevalent that even Tintoretto, an artist known to have been associated with writers and intellectuals, is often regarded as irredeemably bourgeois – for no better reason than that he once insisted on taking his wife with him on a trip to Mantua. Yet he and Schiavone were largely responsible for establishing the idea that the aesthetic value of a picture is primarily dependent on the artist’s distinctive manner of painting. In the history of European art this development was scarcely less important than the achievements of the High Renaissance in Florence and Rome, and much more so than the work of the conventional Mannerists. As Richardson has now demonstrated, the real innovator here was Schiavone, even though his pictures often lack the formal inventiveness and the extraordinary panache that make Tintoretto’s oeuvre so consistently impressive. In clarifying the outline of Schiavone’s career, Richardson has made one of the most intelligent and significant contributions to the study of Venetian Renaissance painting to have appeared for many years.