Review ‘Paolo Veneziano: Art & Devotion in 14th-Century Venice’ Review: Worship at the Altar of Beauty

Fourteenth-century Venice, with a population of 100,000, was not only one of the largest cities in Europe, but also a rich hub of maritime trade and a cultural center where the aesthetics of Italy mainland, from Europe to the north and exotic Byzantium to the immediate east, everything flourished. It is in this fortuitously rich and cosmopolitan environment that the painter Paolo Veneziano (c. 1295-1362) lived and worked.

That the exhibition “Paolo Veneziano: Art & Devotion in 14th-Century Venice” – small by the standards of historic art blockbusters, but deceptively magnificent – took place is something of a miracle. The seven hundred year old altarpieces which were replaced in style by the Renaissance (obsolete relative flatness by a more convincing three-dimensionality) were first relegated to storage and then cannibalized for their pieces. Unscrupulous middlemen sold them in pieces and scattered the individual panels to the winds. This, added to the contemporary museological difficulties – logistical, administrative and, more recently, linked to Covid-19 – in bringing together some of these parts, is the reason why “Art & Devotion” is, surprisingly, the first exhibition devoted solely to the Venetian artist.

“The Coronation of the Virgin” by Paolo and Giovanni Veneziano (1358)


The Frick / J collection. Paul-Getty Museum

Contained in a single forest green gallery at the Getty Center (the color enhances the beauty and meaning of the art without making it precious), the show consists of two altarpieces and several individual panels (some of which were part of other altarpieces. ) by Veneziano, as well as some contextual art objects (including intricately patterned textile fragments and a simply stunning little carved ivory telling the full story of an altarpiece). The modest room has an impact, albeit gradual rather than instantaneous, equal to if not greater than a museum gallery filled with larger, newer, and grander Old Master paintings.

Paolo Veneziano comes from a family whose profession was painting. His father, brother and three sons also practiced the trade. He ran a large workshop which included carpenters, woodcarvers and gilders. It worked on commissions from civic and religious organizations (although at that time the two were intertwined). In the words of the charming but somewhat scholarly and dense catalog of the exhibition, Veneziano “responded to the needs of an elite clientele with technical advances, reinvented typological forms, a daring pictorial conception and an intense engagement with the artists. visual stimuli from his hometown “. Altarpieces were an important part of the workshop’s activities and it may well be, according to Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of painting at the Getty, that Veneziano himself invented the triptych which has reclosable exterior panels.

If only one work could be considered the hallmark of the exhibition, it would be “The Coronation of the Virgin” (1358), which Paolo painted with his son Giovanni, and which is his last work. The 43 x 27 inch panel belongs to the Frick Collection in New York. The Frick was supposed to be the second location for ‘Art & Devotion’ (he published the catalog), but was forced to drop out due to complications from Covid-19. One of the delightful visual peculiarities of the ‘Coronation’ are the drapery folds in blue garments somehow created by gold leaf covered in red lake pigments. They underline Veneziano’s chronological position between medieval art and the bare beginnings of the Italian Renaissance. Mr. Gasparotto believes, however, that Veneziano overlaps more significantly the artistic traditions of the West and those, more flat, patterned and decorative, of Byzantium. Its semi-flatness is part of the exhibition’s likely appeal to Modernist painters in the public.

Nonetheless, the thrill of seeing a concentration of Veneziano’s work assembled in a museum as carefully adventurous as the Getty, and the profound brilliance of the work (if that phrase is not an oxymoron), outweighs the glories of a particular room. If I have a favorite, as any attentive spectator will, it’s “The Generosity of Saint-Nicolas” (1340s). Saint Nicholas obtained canonization in part by ceding his inherited wealth to the poor. In this panel, he spends three golden balls in the house of an impoverished judge to ensure a future for the judge’s three daughters. It is not so much the narrative (which is probably not immediately apparent to contemporary American viewers) as the lovingly rendered anomalies of architectural space that make the painting so fascinating.

“Paolo is a forerunner of the great masters of the Venetian Renaissance, Giovanni Bellini and Titian,” the catalog tells us, and this is certainly true. But that beginning is less important than what is actually in front of the visitors of the Getty. Although Veneziano took full care of his clients – standard operating procedure before the advent in the Renaissance of the at least semi-autonomous master or genius – the paintings of “Art & Devotion” exude a simple sincerity not always evident in painting. later Venetian. An artist cannot respond to what the catalog calls “mendicant spirituality” without owning quantities of it himself.

During the suppression of Italian religious orders in 1860 by Giuseppe Garibaldi, a Veneziano panel (not in the exhibition) depicting 14 saints survived because it was hidden, disguised as a screen, in a peasant’s house. The need for such small favors of fate makes it astonishing that exhibitions like this occur. “Art & Devotion” will never be repeated, so a visit to the Getty is for Venetian art lovers a bit of a last chance.

Paolo Veneziano: Art & Devotion in 14th Century Venice

Getty Center, until October 3

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