Monday, January 2, 2012

Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum

Between Christmas and the new year the university where I'm employed shuts down for a week. This time off from work is perfectly suited to visiting local art museums, at least in my world. On Tuesday of last week I visited the de Young museum in San Francisco with my partner and an old & dear friend, to see Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

I missed my chance to see many of these paintings the one time I visited Vienna, in June of 2002. It was my own weakness ... my partner has more stamina for art museums than I do. That, and one other thing: I couldn't imagine visiting Vienna without paying homage to Sigmund Freud (an errand in which my traveling companion was decidedly uninterested). So while Matthew visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum, I took a stroll to Berggasse 19, where Freud lived, wrote, and practiced until he was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938; and then hung out at an outdoor café and scribbled in my journal until Matthew showed up to tell me what I'd missed.

Patience paid off, though: nine and a half years on, and here's a chance to see some of the paintings from Austria's great museum on the wild, provincial west coast of the U.S. of A.

The exhibition is lovely, a riot of sumptuous 16th century color painted by Titian, Giorgione, Veronese, Tintoretto, and more. A side effect of the exhibition -- for me, anyway -- was a vertiginous sense of time and event that I have felt when I visited or read about Venice.

I am a poor student of history. There are vast tracts of humankind's record that I have only glimpsed in fuzzy fragments, and the Republic of Venice is prominent among these. Venice was a great naval power during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance -- think of Shakespeare's Othello -- but to me the city and its influence are shrouded in intrigue and mystery ... which is a fancy way of saying that an in-depth sense of Venice runs aground in the shallows of my historical reading.

Perhaps for that reason I was particularly struck by Tintoretto's Portrait of Sebastiano Venier (and the Battle of Lepanto), dated to approximately 1571. I'm sure that sometime, somewhere, the Battle of Lepanto has crossed my neural radar (did I read the timeline at the back of Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red? I might have...). But the significance of this naval battle is not deeply imprinted in my sense of the world.

At Lepanto, the Ottoman empire suffered a significant defeat and crucial losses in a naval battle against Spain, Venice, and others. The Turks had superior numbers of ships, sailors, and fighters; the so-called "Holy League" brought more than twice as many guns and cannon to the battle. Decimation of the Turkish fleet and elite fighting forces at Lepanto is regarded in retrospect as a pivotal turning point in preventing Ottoman incursion deep into the European continent. Had the battle gone otherwise, it is reasonable to imagine, European history would have been a very different story from the one we now tell.

And so to Tintoretto.

Pure portraiture is not my favorite flavor of fine art ... I read, I write, I'm moved by narrative ... and the narrative in much of formal portraiture is too subtle to catch my imagination. But the Portrait of Sebastiano Venier (and the Battle of Lepanto), hung in a room near the end of the Masters of Venice exhibition, instantly drew me in. The subject, Sebastiano Venier, was chief admiral of the Venetian navy and commanded Venice's ships in the Battle of Lepanto; he was elected Doge (the ruler of the Venetian city-state) a half-dozen years later. I learned this much from the curators' note hung beside the painting at the de Young.

Venier's visage is commanding and his armor imposing in Tintoretto's painting, but the most fascinating thing to me is that he is portrayed against a background depicting the decisive battle of 1571: he is not only a man, not only an admiral, not only a ruler of Venice, but a man whose role in the history of Islam and Christendom would ring plangently, thought Tintoretto, even into these modern times, four hundred and forty years on. Across a long stretch of water, galleys face off in clouds of smoke and fire, as a sumptuously armed old man gazes with stern humility from the canvas. It's an invitation to story.

I read the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Lepanto after visiting the de Young, for whatever that's worth in our era of communal pre-digestion. But will Tintoretto's painting lead me to read more deeply about the sixteenth century conflict between the Ottoman and European empires? Well, to make certain-sounding statements in that vain would be rash. I still have half of Thucidides waiting on the I'll-get-back-to-it list for more years than I care to cop to. But even if I duck the opportunity to seriously strengthen my grip on Venetian history, I've at least filled in another piece in my hazy sense of How Things Happened. Perhaps my own personal Age of Reading History is yet to come....

I'll mention one more painting from the de Young exhibition, if only to keep from getting too lofty in this post. Think of this mention of Bernardino Licinio's Portrait of Ottaviano Grimani as a step down from the sublime to the frivolous.

Grimani was Procurator of San Marco, essentially a Vice Doge of Venice, and I was struck by Licinio's portrait because I loved seeing the slashed-fabric look of his doublet in a painting executed in 1541, nearly five centuries ago. Michael Jackson's dressers might have drawn inspiration from Grimani. Matthew thought if he were to dress in Grimani's style he might prefer a more vivid color than black beneath the slashed doublet.

The more things change......

Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna is at the de Young through 12 February.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Déjà vu at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
Hidden Histories
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Time, History, and Human Forgetting

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Bernardino Licinio's portrait of Ottaviano Grimani.

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