Venice is a 10,000-carat jewel set by the greatest ever goldsmith pinned to the breast of the most beautiful woman to have lived. Built out of a need for security in the turbulent world of late antiquity, it was protected by the lagoon, which also gave it political stability, and with political stability came riches, conservatism and trade. The great longevity of the serene republic and the restricted space of the island made it a mishmash of styles and architectures. The exuberant frontage plastered along the canals gives the sensation of being immersed in a grandiose opera set. It is a fabulous and wonderful and totally pleasurable explosion of culture. The physical Venice, which sucked in Ruskin and Thomas Mann and continues to charm us today, reflects the peculiarities of its geography and history — but so does its awesome painterly history. Restricted, like the city itself, by space, I have chosen representative art in a backwards journey.
If you arrive in Venice by train, surging over the lagoon on the long, low railway bridge and arriving into Santa Lucia station, you will be near the Palazzo Labia, one of the greatest sights of the Venetian rococo (an age in which Venice has been stuck as if in aspic, with its succession of costume balls and masquerades). Perhaps the most famous Venetian spectacular of the last century was held here, the Latin American millionaire Carlos de Beistegui’s Oriental Ball. Its theme was Antony and Cleopatra (with Diana Cooper in the starring role) — particularly fitting because the Palazzo Labia was decorated by the astonishing Giambattista Tiepolo, the greatest decorative painter of his day, and the frescoes representing Antony and Cleopatra are perhaps his finest work, the culmination of extensive meditations on the theme of the ancient lovers. Brilliantly coloured figures burst out of the architecture of the great hall. They evoke a romanticised and exotic vision, immersing the viewer, or partygoer, in the drama of the Egyptian queen’s court.
The roots of Tiepolo are firmly set in the great Venetian art of the 16th century and especially in his artistic forebear Paolo Veronese. Veronese’s work will be exhibited in the National Gallery in the spring, but one of the glories of the Accademia is his ‘Feast in the House of Levi’ (so-called after it fell foul of the Inquisition when it was entitled ‘Last Supper’). The huge, 40ft-wide canvas provides a starting point for Tiepolo’s playful designs, integrating figures and architecture animated by no less delightful a palette of colour.
But before arriving at the Acca-demia, if travelling by foot from Palazzo Labia, there are two buildings that set us in the golden age of painting in Venice. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco contains the greatest work of Jacopo Tintoretto. A breathtaking array of canvases decorate the lower and especially the upper halls of the confraternity. With its sometimes festering canals, Venice was scourged by plague throughout its history. To guard against this, the Venetians surreptitiously filched the body of St Roch of Montpellier, the patron saint of plague victims, as centuries earlier they had stolen the body of St Mark. The presence of the holy saint in the nearby confraternity church and the desperation associated with the plague gave them a fervour and a spiritual yearning that is well represented in Tintoretto’s canvases.
You don’t have to be sick to perform the act of spiritual time travel, but perhaps yearning for a cure helps elevate the spirit to the same pitch of emotion as paintings such as ‘The Brazen Serpent’, telling the story of how Moses saved the Israelites from a plague of fiery serpents. The painting has the feel of a Last Judgment, with angels carrying victims away and a mass of seething bodies depicted in great contrasts of light and dark rising to the dominant figure of the patriarch planting a bronze serpent and calling for God’s intercession to avert calamity.
Agitated, as you may be, with a fervour inspired by St Roch, it is not far to stumble to the Frari, the principal Franciscan church of Venice and the burial place of Titian, the most painterly painter in history. It is filled with the most beautiful art: the finest is perhaps Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’, above the high altar. If Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese form a holy trinity of Venetian cinquecento painting, there can be no doubt that Titian is God the Father. The reasons are very clear in this outstanding painting of his early maturity. Darkly lit disciples reach up, through a cool blue sky, to the ascending Mother of God, their fingers brushing the cloud on which she is carried by a host of putti. The Virgin raises her hands and eyes in the direction of God, who appears above her in preparation for her coronation. All the lessons of formal organisation, brilliance in storytelling, colour and emotion are here in a work that combines personal devotion to the Virgin with a sense of the great glory of the Mother of God.
Breaking away from the Frari, it’s something of a cheat to rush to the Accademia, the great art gallery of Venice, the final resting place of the great works in its collection rather than the building where their reputation was established.
Nevertheless, with a wave to Veronese’s ‘Feast’ and Carpaccio’s St Ursula paintings, it is necessary to come here to gaze at ‘The Tempest’, by the Venetian mystery man Giorgione. It is one of only a handful of paintings securely attributed to this elder -contemporary of Titian, whose enormous reputation during his life was obscured by his early death. A work of great strangeness whose precise subject has foxed two centuries of art historians, it evokes a poetic spirit that animated Venice and responded to a taste for the secular and delightful and the private.
No amount of time is enough to luxuriate in the glories here. There is one artist I must end with, though: Giovanni Bellini, the teacher of Titian and Giorgione. His serenely beautiful San Giobbe altarpiece is in the museum. A statuesque Madonna sits enthroned beneath a half dome filled with golden mosaic and raised above a ravishing collection of saints and music-making angels.
Venice at the time had distinctly old-fashioned taste. Bellini brought to it a love of natural light and classical composition that animated his work without sacrificing the golden glow of the past. His importance was celebrated by one of the most profound art critics of the 20th century, Giuseppe Cipriani, whose crowning creation, the Bellini cocktail, combines the warmth and colouring of peach juice with the clear, sparkling gold of a fine prosecco.