The Merchants of Venice Art

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Byline: Peter Plagens

No one sold the world on modernism like Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.

No, it wasn't Manet, with his "Luncheon on the Grass" in 1863, which is what we were taught in art-history class. It wasn't even, as many critics have said lately, J.M.W. Turner in England a generation earlier with his swirling, atmospheric ships-at-sea paintings. Frederick Ilchman, a curator at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, believes it was the Venetian artist Titian and a couple of rival painters, Tintoretto and Veronese, who--about 450 years ago--really invented modern painting. That is, Ilchman says, if your definition is his: "oil on canvas, not done for any specific site, and with the artist, not the patron, choosing the subject matter." Ilchman offers proof in the 56 paintings that make up one of the most breathtaking old-master exhibitions you'll ever see, "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice," which is up through Aug. 16 before it travels to a second and final stop at the Louvre in Paris. Every time we turn around, it seems, the beginning of modernism gets pushed back a little further. Either the artists of our time aren't quite as clever as they think they are, or those old painters were a lot hipper--in grand and glorious ways peculiar to their time--than we think they were. "Rivals" is a very convincing argument for the old-school guys.

At the beginning of the Italian Renaissance in Venice early in the 1500s, Titian (born 1488) labored as a talented apprentice in the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, crafter of exquisite, classically serene and balanced paintings of religious subjects on wood panels. Once Titian completed his training and went out on his own, he began to set Venice on its ear with a jazzier style: intensified color patches and virtuoso brushstrokes front and center, and a more 3-D-looking naturalism, all on canvas (lighter weight, larger formats and, when rolled up, extremely portable). Titian scooped up patrons and fame like a Bollywood flick at the Oscars. But then came a challenger, a younger fellow who'd studied briefly in Titian's own studio and, according to one story, was thrown out because his talent threatened the master. The contender's father was a dyer--a tinter--so people called the new artist Tintoretto (born 1518). No sooner did the Titian-Tintoretto rivalry reach a fever pitch about the middle of the 16th century than a still-younger gun came to town--one gentleman from Verona nicknamed, naturally, Veronese (born 1528). The competition now was a three-way shootout.

Tintoretto promised that with him "the color of Titian" would be improved with "the draftsmanship of Michelangelo." Sometimes he made his preliminary sketches with long, languorous brushstrokes, directly in paint on canvas, and gave away paintings to select patrons as samples. (Very modern, no?) Veronese was already fairly famous when, in his early 20s, he relocated to the more major market of Venice. …