For all but connoisseurs, the Venetian Renaissance started with Giovanni Bellini in the last decades of the 15th century and reached its zenith with Titian in the mid-16th century. But Bellini was not born into a desert. Amongst his inspirations had been the Vivarini loved ones. This trio of Venetian painters comprised Antonio, his younger brother Bartolomeo and Antonio’s son Alvise — who was Bellini’s modern — and their careers spanned considerably of the 15th century. They reflect an era marked by enormous tension — political, social, intellectual, religious — and show the sumptuous creativity that typically blossoms out of cultural maelstrom.
Now, thanks to the first show dedicated to them, in the Veneto town of Conegliano, the Vivarini oeuvre is illuminated as never ever just before (“The Vivarini: The splendour of painting in between the Gothic and the Renaissance” at the Palazzo Sarcinelli). So as well is Venetian art’s transition from a medieval to a Renaissance sensibility.
Paterfamilias of the Vivarini was Antonio. Born on the island of Murano just ahead of 1420, he was the son of a glass master from Padua and most likely found an apprenticeship in 1 of the Venetian workshops.
As opposed to Florence, early 15th-century Venice was no cauldron of innovation. Instead it was struggling to emerge from “the final, stiff half-barbaric splendours of Byzantine decoration”, as the 19th-century critic Walter Pater place it.
Lack of wealth was not the issue. In 1420, the Venetian Empire was at its peak, but the patricians who presided more than the imperial engine had been set in their ways. Humanism had yet to kindle their imaginations. When Donatello, the avant-garde Tuscan sculptor, arrived in Padua in 1443, he complained bitterly of the lack of artistic inspiration.
Nonetheless, adjust was afoot. Apart from Donatello, groundbreaking Tuscan artists who paused in the Veneto integrated Masolino, who co-authored the magnificent Carmine Chapel in Florence with Masaccio, and Filippo Lippi, a master of plasticity and perspective.
Antonio was intrigued by these new ideas. Commissioned in 1440 by patrons in Parenza in Istria, his vast ten-panel altarpiece still relies on the antiquated custom of setting the saints in person sections against empty gold backgrounds, but their fluid types — especially Christ increasing like an athletic ghost from his sarcophagus — enjoy a naturalism that looks forward to the Renaissance.
By the early 1440s, he had been joined in his workshop by the painter Giovanni d’Alemagna. Couple of scholars pretend they can distinguish the pair’s person hands but the partnership was fruitful. Particularly gorgeous are a couple of little panels (1440-45) attributed to each painters, which show the miseries of Saint Apollonia. The figures are as well stiff and static to provoke emotion. Rather, the genuine drama comes from the architecture. These fantasy courtyards, with their spiral columns, stone eagles, swags, cherubs, crenellations and chromatic marbles, not to mention a plethora of exotic Levantine headdresses, betray artists in thrall to La Serenissima’s cosmopolitan flavours and a burgeoning vogue for the antique.
By 1446 the pair have been in Padua operating on the Ovetari chapel in the Church of the Eremitani, alongside Andrea Mantegna, whose sculptural figures and daring perspectives had been the most avant-garde in northern Italy. Antonio responded with vigour. His “Man of Sorrows” (1449-50) portrays Christ standing in a sarcophagus that is deliberately shadowed and angled to give the illusion of spatial depth.
Such progressive suggestions ran in tandem with much more austere tendencies. This exhibition makes a welcome work to tease out strands in modern theological thought usually overlooked by art historians. A space devoted to the era’s “new saints” displays paintings of 15th-century hellfire-and-brimstone preachers such as Bernardino of Siena. Punitive, evangelical and generally anti-semitic, they wanted a return to the roots of Christian teaching and shunned classical humanism as sinfully pagan. But their potent personalities saw several devotional functions painted in their name.
Bernardino, who died in 1444 and was currently canonised by 1450, requires centre stage in a 1458 polyptych painted for a church committed to him on the Croatian island of Rab. With his whittled cheeks echoing the grooves of his sober grey cowl, a blister-red copy of the Scriptures in his hand, he epitomises the ascetic: passionless on the outdoors, flaming with righteous ardour inside.
The Rab polyptych is, we are told, the operate of Antonio and his younger brother Bartolomeo, who was born in the 1430s. By the 1460s, Bartolomeo is painting alone, and his innovation was to introduce the “sacred conversation” to Venetian painting. (His older brother had currently paved the way when he painted the “Four Fathers of the Church”, 1444, now in Venice’s Accademia Gallery.) But Bartolomeo took the genre, which primarily liberates the holy figures in an altarpiece from their separate panels, significantly further than his brother.
On show here is his glorious “Madonna and Child with Saints” (1465), on loan from Capodimonte in Naples. Set against a dazzling sapphire sky, the Virgin sits on a marble throne in front of a flowering hedge, her child dozing on her lap, with four saints standing either side of her. To see the figures interacting freely in a naturalistic landscape was revolutionary at that time.
The Naples altarpiece is a charmer on several levels. Bartolomeo, who was most likely in Padua with his brother, borrows Mantegna’s custom of framing Mary with a garland of beribboned flowers. Other nods to the Paduan incorporate the cherubs and vines carved on the marble throne — a beguiling instance of pagan designs infiltrating the Christian story.
Bartolomeo’s experimentations happen early his profession. By the 1480s he has retreated to Gothicism, and his late altarpieces after once more confine lonely figures within golden cages. Most most likely, he was unable to compete with the expressive naturalism and technical proficiency of the new generation of Venetian artists such as Bellini and the Sicilian Antonello da Messina.
Young Alvise has no such limitations. On a various planet from his uncle’s stylised saints, his St Jerome (1476-77) is a white-bearded penitent kneeling by a rocky outcrop in a graceful, full-frontal pose developed to show off the classically beautiful body of a significantly younger man. Behind him, a limpid blue river meanders through grassy hills, the trees, flowers and watery reflections captured with an focus to detail that tells you the sharp-eyed Bellini and Antonello, rather than his own loved ones, are his true masters.
Alvise never ever ceased to evolve. Inspired perhaps by the example of Perugino, a Tuscan painter who was Raphael’s master and who visited Venice briefly in the 1490s, his late paintings take on a classical solidity of form and inner dynamism that stamp them as thoroughly modern day. The luminous, fleshy physique of his “Risen Christ” (1497-98), every single limb turning in a diverse direction, has no trace of the Gothic linearity that was a signature of his father and uncle.
It’s a privilege to see all 3 Vivarini generations displayed with such focus. Their journeys were, in all their twists and turns, forward leaps and reverse manoeuvres, a mirror of Venice’s own path towards the Renaissance.
To June 5, mostravivarini.it
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