Talking About the Venetians (And Other Things)

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I was up in Boston last Thursday and Friday, mainly to look in on “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice”. That would be the very pleasurable new loan show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts about the ways that the Big Three of 16th-century Venetian painting pushed each other’s buttons for decades. It remains there until Aug. 16 and is now definitely on my short list of the year’s best shows.

Meanwhile, as I was there, Boston was getting pounded. For starters, the Boston MFA was announcing a layoff of 33 people, about four percent of staff, plus a decision not to fill another 21 jobs. This would be nothing out of the ordinary these days, when everybody’s budget and endowment is a mess. But that announcement came at the same time as the news that the New York Times company was putting the screws to the Boston Globe, which it owns and has abruptly threatened to close if can’t get concessions from the unions. Boston without the Globe? I would say unthinkable if I didn’t know how fast the unthinkable is becoming the new normal.

Okay, back to the Boston MFA show, though I feel like I’m talking about civilization as the lights are going out. The art on the walls is a potent mix of the voluptuous, the ecstatic and the beautifully poised, all framed by the question of how three great artists spoke to one another through their work even if they weren’t actually talking to each other.

While I was in Boston I sat down with Frederick Ilchman, the Boston MFA curator who conceived the show and co-organized it with Vincent Delieuvin of the Louvre, where it travels in September for its only other venue. I talked with Ilchman about the bad blood between Titian and his younger challenger Tintoretto and how Italian museums became much more willing to lend paintings to his show after Boston gave back the disputed antiquities the Italians were demanding. As usual I’ll split this conversation into two parts.

LACAYO: Okay, the obvious question — where did the idea for the show come from?

ILCHMAN: My specialty is Tintoretto. One of my particular interests is Tintoretto connoisseurship — what did he really paint? Tintoretto studies now are like Rembrandt studies in the late ’60s when the Bredius catalogue was revised and substantially cut down the number of authenticated Rembrandts, yet everyone realized that there were still way too many. Similarly with Tintoretto — there’s no Old Master painter who’s had so many mistaken attributions.

So a Tintoretto show needed to be done, and I proposed that in 2002 to my director, Malcolm Rogers. He said, “Well, that will be a beautiful show, but it will be expensive, because there are so many things that will have to be moved from Europe. Is there any way you could do a big Tintoretto show that would have wide public appeal?”

One colleague suggested a grand Venice survey, Carpaccio and Bellini up to Tiepolo and Canaletto, prints, drawings, paintings. Then I thought, well, that’s been done well before. Why not re-think the Old Master exhibition? You can do a monographic show devoted to one artist, which is very good for understanding how an artist developed, but you get the feeling he developed in a vacuum. Who were the predecessors? Who were the contemporaries? Whom did he influence? The opposite thing to do is a period show where you show 20 or 30 artists from the same era. There you get a real sense of the range of production, and lots of context, but you lose the focus on individual accomplishment. So I thought, what’s a middle way? How about doing Tintoretto in the context of the Big Three?

LACAYO: We know a lot about Titian’s life. What do we know about the other two?

ILCHMAN: In terms of the hard facts, Veronese is the most shadowy, especially the chronology of his works. You look at a Veronese exhibition now and a lot of his work will be dated something like “1570s” — and with a question mark. With Tintoretto the chronology is pretty good and with Titian it’s excellent because there are so many letters and Spanish commissions.

LACAYO: Tintoretto came along as Titian’s younger challenger in the 1540s, when Tintoretto was in his twenties and Titian was in his fifties. There’s anecdotal evidence that Tintoretto was even apprenticed for a while to Titian but got kicked out of his studio. Whether or not that’s true, as your show makes plain, they didn’t get along and spent decades undermining one another, even while they adopting ideas from each other’s work.

ILCHMAN: The antipathy was palpable. You get hints of it in the anecdotes about them, where they push each other out of the way to get commissions. Then there’s their competition for the support of [the satirist and sometime taste maker] Pietro Aretino. That ceiling painting that we have mounted on the ceiling of our second gallery, the Apollo and Marsyas? That’s an example of the young Tintoretto probably giving a painting for free to Aretino, Titian’s biggest cheerleader, as a way to secure Aretino’s support for himself.

LACAYO: Your show made me think at times of MoMA’s big Matisse/Picasso exhibition of a few years back, where you understood again and again how often each of them was producing work that was meant as a response and a challenge to the other one.

ILCHMAN: Exactly, among these three each of them wanted to impress the Venetians. But very often the one they wanted to impress the most was one or both of the other artists.

LACAYO: The convergence among their styles is so great in places that if a certain canvas is new to me I couldn’t always be sure which of the three was by until I looked at the wall card. Your show reminded me of Rona Goffen’s book from a few years ago, Renaissance Rivals, about the artistic competition among Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, the ways in which their work was sometimes a call and response among all four of them.

ILCHMAN: That book was a definite influence. The difference though is that the guys she dealt with were always in motion, they were in different cities, they moved around, they came together only rarely. But in Venice Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese were constantly bumping into each other. For 40 years they were in the same place. And it’s a small town. With 40 minutes of vigorous walking you can still cover Venice from end to end. Any of these three guys could have become a court painter someplace else, move out to the boonies, take off the pressure. But they understood that the pressure of Venice is what kept them great.