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Venice at its most sensual

March 25, 2009|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

BOSTON — In the marvelous exhibition of 16th century Venetian painting at the Museum of Fine Arts here, a small passage in a Veronese tells a spellbinding tale. It's not his greatest painting, nor even the best Veronese in this exceptionally rich exhibition, with its magnificent canvases by Titian and Tintoretto. Still, it makes your jaw drop.

Painted in the mid-1580s, a nearly life-size figure of Venus is seen from behind in a sumptuous boudoir. She displays herself -- garment fallen below her waist, left hand adjusting an ornament woven into her golden hair, right arm extended toward an attending Cupid. He holds a mirror in which Venus regards herself, and the reflection frames her face like a portrait. The face contrasts with the radiant flesh of her nude back, while also recalling the pure marble of a classical Roman statue.

None of these, however, is the passage in question. In a few square feet of canvas just below Cupid's feet and above a pair of lovebirds beneath the goddess' chaise, you will see lace, linen, silk, cotton, satin, metallic thread, fur and velvet, all next to skin -- a panoply of textures, arrayed in a sensuous rainbow of limpid hues. The painting's action is visual -- Venus looking at herself in a mirror, while Cupid helps her to see. But Veronese fuses vision with the sense of touch. See it, feel it. The combination is powerfully erotic.

And if that weren't enough, the tactility gets doubled. An abundance of colored cloths abutting skin is depicted, and luminous oil paint is daubed on canvas, underscoring that painting is also a skin of colored cloth. Image and object meld. The result is magic.

That, in a nutshell, is the dazzling glory of Venetian Renaissance painting. These epicurean artists didn't invent the oil-on-canvas technique. It had been around since ancient Egypt, where it was sometimes used to render funerary masks. But the "Big Three" artists under the microscope in "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice" brought the technique to a fever pitch. Before them, major paintings in Western art were more likely to have been executed on plaster or wooden panel, as in the Giovanni Bellini "Virgin and Child" hung at the entry for comparison. After, oil on canvas ruled for the next 400 years.

Touch also became an artist's calling card. Distinctive brushwork meant that signing one's name to a painting was superfluous. The uniqueness of the artist's touch was signature enough.

Curator Frederick Ilchman has pretty much built the exhibition around the language of paint-handling -- although traditional connoisseurship is not his aim. Rather than looking inward, to identify masterpieces, this connoisseurship is more modern. The rivalry pinpointed by the show's title is played out as an active, engaged conversation among artists, spoken with brush and pigments and canvas. These paintings talk to one another, as well as to us.

Veronese's unusual backside-Venus, for example, was partly painted to demonstrate the artist's capacity to compete with the legacy of mighty Titian -- 40 years his elder, darling of Europe's royalty -- who had painted for the King of Spain a famous twisting figure of the goddess of love with Adonis. (The version lent to this show is from the Getty Museum's collection.) Titian had died at the ripe old age of 88, after an extraordinary career as the city's most powerful artist, but that didn't automatically leave the field to the prodigiously gifted Veronese. He had Tintoretto to contend with.

A decade younger than Veronese, Tintoretto was slower to mature as an artist than the slightly older prodigy. In order to illustrate the myriad ways in which these three very different painters went about their business -- which included keeping an eye on one another -- the Boston show is installed thematically, rather than chronologically. A fantastic map at the entry pinpoints their studios, making an almost perfect equilateral triangle around the city's central Rialto bridge.

There are 19 paintings by Titian (circa 1488-1576), 18 by Tintoretto (circa 1518-1594) and 17 by Veronese (1528-1588). Unlike the great 2006 Venetian show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which focused on how more than half a dozen artists took off as the 16th century got into full swing, this one follows the sweep of the century through just the Big Three protagonists. The second half of the 16th century is emphasized, when all three worked simultaneously.

Needless to say it's restricted to portable pictures. Painting on canvas rather than wood meant that Veronese could roll up his 42-foot-long "Feast in the House of Levi" to get it into the basilica refectory it was made for; but that doesn't mean the leviathan will ever be shipped across the Adriatic, much less the Atlantic.

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