Massive and majestic Renaissance emerges from MFA

by Beacon Staff • March 25, 2009

It is no wonder that inside the Gund Gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston viewers stand in hordes around each painting in its newest exhibit, iTitian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice./i After all, a collection like this hasn't been seen outside of Venice in half a millennium, making the exhibit a historic event for not only Boston, but for the global art community.

The MFA has gathered 56 of the finest pieces of Venetian Renaissance art by three of the Italian city's most famous artists from museums all over the world including Paris's Museacute;e du Louvre. The show will run until Aug. 16.

The paintings are not just displayed to be admired, but to tell a story. The three artists featured in the gallery, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, lived in 16th century Venice and were tied by jealousy, talent and culture, creating a rivalry that resulted in priceless masterpieces.

Sorted by thematic elements (religious images, portraits, mythological nudes) and arranged in compare-and-contrast pairings, museum-goers are also treated to a lesson in history and art as they make their way through the large, dramatic rooms teeming with elaborate gold frames.

Prior to the 1500s, Rome and Florence were Italy's main stages for fine art. The chief medium of the period was wood and artists used fresco and egg tempera paints. But, in Venice, both types of paint had problems staying on the wood panels due to the area's humidity. It was the introduction of oil paints at the end of the 15th century that sparked the fire of Venetian art.

The slow-drying oil paint also allowed artists to revise their work as they went along-something that was hard to do with previous colors. This is reflected in a fascinating section of the gallery devoted to paintings that have been rethought and redone by their masters.

Using infrared lighting and x-ray technology, experts have made several discoveries on paintings such as Titian's iSt. Catherine of Alexandria at Prayer/i and Tintoretto's iNativity/i.

With the weight of the paint, artists paid more attention to their use of the brush and the detail of the strokes. With three different brush strokes-Titian's broad method, Veronese's fine-tipped approach and Tintoretto's combination of the two styles-the men stopped signing their works. Their different techniques became their signature.

It was also during this time that canvas made its way onto the art scene as the material of choice instead of wood panels. Artists no longer had to travel for their patrons. With the fabric, they could work in their home studios and send their finished products to Rome and other countries.

The three knew the value of the texture of canvas and used it to add an erotic element, capturing the look of soft flesh in many of their nude and mythological figures found in the religious paintings.

The goddess Venus is a popular subject, and the artists use their mastery of the material to add suppleness to her flesh. The three portraits of the goddess of love hang near each other, allowing for viewers to examine the differences between the three artists' visions.

Also displayed near each other are three different versions of iThe Supper at Emmaus/i, one completed by each artist.

It is especially in these paintings that the rivalry, as well as the individual styles of the trio, becomes evident. Veronese's version is almost dreamlike, full of bright colors as well as a ring of light around Jesus' head.

Next to it is the much larger, darker, ominous version by Titian. There is less grandeur and the only real light to be found is on Jesus' face. Tintoretto is a mix of the two styles. His colors are earthier but noticeably brighter than Titian's work. Light surrounds Jesus' head and behind him in the background is a single beam, presumably of the cross he would later be nailed to, and a crown of what appears to be thorns.

Another apparent theme is that the exhibit displays each artist's work in portraiture. Although most of the paintings look similar-solemn figures standing in front of a dark background, dressed in striking clothes with varied textures-one pair of pictures on the left wall stand out. A portrait of a mother and daughter entitled iLivia da Porto Thien and Her daughter Porzia/i hangs. Next to it is its companion piece, iIseppo da Porto and His Son Adrianno/i.

Both done by Veronese around 1551, the family is painted in front of light backgrounds. The women are dressed in peach and green with jewels adorning them, while father and son look sophisticated in dark colors.

What is interesting about the two paintings is that although Veronese painted them for the same family, they are rarely displayed together. Before this exhibit, they resided on separate continents. Mother and daughter can usually be seen at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. while father and son normally hang on the walls of the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy.

But, geographic and, for that matter, thematic boundaries are of no concern for the MFA in its momentous new exhibit.

Filled with picture-perfect portraits, sensual nudes and iconic sacred depictions, the MFA's iTitian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice/i is like traveling through a world of magnificence and old-world splendor.