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PRINT January 2009

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“Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice”

EMULATION HAS LONG BEEN recognized as a major creative stimulus, but there has recently been increased interest in rivalry, on view, for example, in the 1999 landmark show “Matisse and Picasso”—and again this coming spring in “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the first exhibition to look at the three Venetian giants entirely through the lens of their complex, at times fierce competition. The fifty-six paintings in the show, which is co-organized with the Musée du Louvre in Paris and includes many loans from Venetian churches and private collections, will offer carefully selected comparisons from all areas of their work. Curated by Frederick Ilchman, Jean Habert, and Vincent Delieuvin, the exhibition promises to dispense irrevocably with the passive notion of influence, since the three painters never engaged one another without a hidden agenda.

The psychological dynamics among the three protagonists of sixteenth-century Venetian painting are on view front and center in The Wedding Feast at Cana, 1562–63, Paolo Veronese’s huge and colorful depiction (permanently installed in the Louvre and hence not in the show) of the debauched banquet at which Jesus turned water into wine. The foreground features a group portrait of the artists playing music. Gracefully playing a fiddle in the left foreground, Veronese places himself at a table across from Titian, who engagingly works his string bass. While their inward-leaning profiles affiliate the two, the table nevertheless keeps them at a respectful distance from each other, and it is the lusty old man who dominates the scene, with his red dress and imposing instrument. Veronese, on the other hand, almost entirely obscures Tintoretto, who unhappily plays the second fiddle, looking angrily over his fellow musician’s shoulder—without, however, eliciting any reaction from either Veronese or Titian.

Tintoretto is the outsider in this group, appearing as an obtrusive pain in the neck, restlessly trying to bully his way into the scene. Veronese’s characterization is not altogether off target or unfair, as Tintoretto was ruthless in securing commissions, most famously in the competition for the decoration of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where he outsmarted his colleagues (Veronese among them) by simply showing up with a finished painting and donating it to the charitable lay confraternity, knowing full well that a foot in the door would greatly increase his chances of winning further commissions from this powerful patron. Yet Tintoretto had good reasons for being so aggressive. After all, Titian, the grand doyen of Venetian painting, spared no effort in thwarting his career while promoting that of Veronese. According to a seventeenth-century biographer, Tintoretto was Titian’s apprentice until the jealous master realized his student’s talent and threw him out of the workshop to eliminate a potential rival. Titian probably also encouraged the influential poet and critic Pietro Aretino to write a harmful review at an early stage in Tintoretto’s career and made sure that he was excluded from public commissions, such as the decoration of the Marciana Library, for which, instead, Veronese would be awarded the coveted first prize of a gold chain.

The traumatic experience of Titian’s rejection goes a long way toward explaining not only Tintoretto’s business practices but also his obsession with trying to outdo his former teacher. In “The Venetian Pariah,” Jean-Paul Sartre identified the Oedipal relation to Titian as Tintoretto’s main artistic impulse. The younger artist’s attempt to overcome the crushing father figure by combining Titian’s sensitivity to color and open brushwork with the dynamic, sculptural forms of his great antagonist Michelangelo was allegedly even written on Tintoretto’s studio wall: “Il disegno di Michelangelo; il colorito di Tiziano.” Tintoretto was forever trying to outstrip Titian’s innovations, pushing nearly all of them further, as if telling the elder painter that he had not gone far enough. His brushwork is thus even more open than Titian’s, and he doubles the site-specific dimension of the latter’s compositions while transforming his often ceremonial gravity into a disorienting whirlwind, with figures rendered in Michelangelesque foreshortening jetting at light speed in all directions. Two versions of the Supper at Emmaus at the MFA will offer a case in point. Whereas in Titian’s 1533–34 painting the disciples react with composed dignity to the resurrected Christ joining them at the table, in the Tintoretto (of 1542) they burst out in panic, offering virtuoso twists and turns of the body worthy of being included on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Veronese, on the other hand, shrewdly avoided any conflict with the powerful Titian. The first works he produced after his arrival in Venice exude special respect for the aging master, who would soon become his sponsor. Tintoretto and Veronese’s responses to Titian’s Pesaro Madonna, 1519–26, in the Frari church bear witness to their opposed attitudes. Tintoretto’s altarpiece of the Virgin in Glory formerly in the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano exaggerates the asymmetrical composition and multiple vanishing points of the Pesaro Madonna in an attempt to surpass Titian on his own turf. Veronese, in his altarpiece for a narrow chapel in San Francesco della Vigna, also situates the Virgin off-center, but by contrast offers only a single frontal point of view. By referencing yet deliberately not outdoing the Pesaro Madonna, Veronese thus pays homage to his mentor, rather than challenging his innovations.

By no means, however, did Veronese want to be affiliated with Tintoretto, as he makes evident in The Wedding Feast at Cana. One of the most revealing comparisons in the exhibition, two altarpieces of the Baptism of Christ, elucidates Veronese’s compulsive efforts to distinguish himself from Tintoretto, which, of course, only bear witness to his full absorption of the latter’s accomplishments. At first sight, the lightness of Veronese’s elegant composition of 1580–88 could hardly be further removed from the spiritual intensity of Tintoretto’s supernatural depiction of the event, created circa 1580. Yet in fact Veronese systematically and laboriously transformed Tintoretto’s almost-crouching Christ into the graceful and majestic figure of his altarpiece. (This process is evident in a fascinating series of Veronese’s drawings in the collection of the Harvard University Art Museums.) These two altarpieces, then, reveal two of emulation’s basic truths—namely, that difference is dialectical, and that all rivalry is neurotic.

“Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice” will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mar. 15–Aug. 16; travels to the Musée du Louvre, Paris, Sep. 14, 2009–Jan. 4, 2010.

Benjamin Paul teaches in the department of art history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ