Review: An elegant art history lesson, courtesy of DAM

Titian, Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Dominic, and a Donor, about 1513. Image provided by the Denver Art Museum.

By Ray Mark Rinaldi

Glory of Venice tells one of the most important lessons in art history through some of the most beguiling paintings ever made. The exhibit, featuring rare, U.S. showings of some tightly-held Italian Renaissance treasures, is beautiful in that old-school, oil-on-canvas way.

This, art fans, is painting, and plenty of it, from the era when art found its soul. Or at least as it came close.

The work, from the late 1400s and early 1500s, is still of its time, relentlessly reverent, formal and detached even at its most intimate. Those Italians loved their Catholic narrative and all of the saintly characters who drove it. There’s no irony in the devotion to the Virgin Mary or the adoration of the great, sacred sufferers depicted in the work.

But you can see these artists trying, and succeeding, at softening the hard lines and breaking though the flat planes of their medieval forefathers. It’s not Picasso, as one might say, the language is visual and not psychological, and less interesting as art, but Picasso might not have been possible without the humanist advances this exhibit chronicles.

The raw material here is undeniable, and special, much of it from Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia, which has a sizable collection of hometown riches. Other pieces come borrowed from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and the Fondazione Magnani Rocca, located in the Parma province. These works don’t often travel far from the place of their birth.

But Glory of Venice has 50 of them, assembled into neat categories by co-curators Giovanna Damiani, the former “Superintendent of the Museums of the City of Venice” and DAM’’s own Angelica Daneo. It is a win-win for both the old and new worlds — a lovely advertisement for Italian tourism, but also a tidy, look for locals at how the creative class evolved in Europe 500 years ago.

Vittore Carpaccio, The Flight into Egypt, c. 1515, oil on panel. Image provided by the Denver Art Museum.
Vittore Carpaccio, The Flight into Egypt, c. 1515, oil on panel. Image provided by the Denver Art Museum.

The curators limit their timeline to roughly the four or five decades that surround the start of the 16th century, but they argue that much happened during this short period. They start out with a series of paintings, circa 1480, featuring gleaming, haloed figures set on real, gold backgrounds. The subjects here are removed from any natural surroundings, exalted for their superhuman, spiritual qualities rather than their mortal origins. They are worthy of veneration though decidedly, and purposefully, one-dimensional.

From there, the exhibition moves at a rapid pace. Across Europe, painters were mastering ideas about perspective and understanding its ability to capture the realness of a more earthly grace. They began to paint, around the edges, scenic backgrounds, and to weave in the details of the man-made, decorative objects that made their way into these pictures.

Renderings of the Madonna and Child, and there is a whole section of them in this exhibit, begin to show a more biological and emotional bond between the earth’s most famous mother and her offspring. Jesus himself is fleshier, and Saint Dominic feels almost a part of the cloudy landscape around him.

“Glory of Venice” aims to make Venice the center of this change, or at least a major link in the chain. It makes a sound argument that the city was in a unique position, as a center of commerce in a geographically crucial place, to both import and export the humanist ideas that were taking hold throughout the continent.

It makes a squishier case that this deeper understanding of what art could accomplish was due to something in the air, or water, in Venice that allowed painters to see color and the effects of light more clearly than painters in other places. Venice is and was, no doubt, a special place, but it is was also a wealthy place that could support experimentation, and so it did.

And it had an intellectual guide in painter Giovanni Bellini, a “superintendent” of Venice in his own day, who channeled emerging technologies to lead the regional revolution from tempera to oil paint. This exhibit chronicles his own personal metamorphosis with great clarity, maturing in works, such as Christ Blessing and Saint Dominic, both from around 1500, that add a corporal tenderness and serene, background vistas to these images of holy beings.

His followers, as the exhibit emphasizes through pieces by the artist known only as Giorgione and some early works by the very-famous Titian, bring it full circle, develop a style that is both emotive and increasingly free. They began to paint with innovation for their day, using a relatively loose manner of applying paint directly to canvas without a strong reliance on graphic outlines to shape their tableaus.

It was, as a section of this exhibit is titled, A New Beginning for painting. Glory of Venice lays it all out, not necessarily with the great works these painters are known for, but with a well-corralled selection of prototypes that propel the action forward.

Glory of Venice: Masterworks of the Renaissance runs through Feb. 12, 2017, at the Denver Art Museum, 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock. The exhibit is included in the regular admission rpices, which is $10 for Colorado residents. Info at 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.

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