Venice in the balance: 300 years of art & music

The Portland Art Museum's big new slice of history finds the art in the music and the music in the art

The Portland Art Museum’s lovely new exhibit Venice: The Golden Age of Art and Music has many keys, and not quite at random I’m choosing this one to unlock it: a modest but beautifully detailed brass sackbut, minus mouthpiece, from the latter half of the 16th century.

Jacopo Comin, called Tintoretto, "The Contest Between Apollo and Marsyas," c. 1545, oil on canvas, 55 x 94.5 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Jacopo Comin, called Tintoretto, “The Contest Between Apollo and Marsyas,” c. 1545, oil on canvas, 55 x 94.5 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

I choose this piece not only because “sackbut” is an undeniably fun word to type, but also because this exquisite antique musical instrument, an ancestor of the modern tenor trombone, is representative of the superbly measured charms of the exhibition as a whole. Like Pietro Longhi’s warm and slyly funny painted domestic scenes, or Tiepolo’s paintings of celestial coronations or artists at work, this anonymously crafted sackbut is evidence of a culture that believed in nuance and stability above bold revolutionary sweep. It was a conservative society, in the cultural rather than political sense, much more comfortable with the interweaving conversation than the elocutionary shout.

Compared to the modern trombone, the sackbut is small. This example has delicate tubing and a bell that opens elegantly, a funnel of perfect proportion to unleash a soft and rounded yet commanding tone. The brass is cunningly and lovingly worked, ornamental yet restrained. The instrument seems a masterwork of form and function, scaled not to the expanses of symphonic concert palaces but to the intimate warmth of the chamber hall.

Proportionality and balance are hallmarks of this exhibition, which originated at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is showing in Portland, its only stop in the United States, through May 11. Drawn from 49 lending sources – including the likes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, London’s National Gallery, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, the Uffizi in Florence, and the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna – it offers a glimpse into the aspirations and achievements of the thousand-year Venetian Republic during its final three centuries, until 1797, when Napoleon came knocking forcibly and the doges decided to surrender quietly rather than embroil their city-state in a probably unwinnable war. Most of the 120-odd works on display are modestly sized, essentially domestic in scale, and they tend to speak quietly, in the struck and plucked unamplified reverberations of the Baroque temperament. They’re best absorbed slowly, personally, at a pace and perception that dials down to their own until it can broaden as it enters their scale. Nothing’s in a rush. The secret is to take some time with them, so you can enter into the leisurely and richly burnished patterns of their world.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto, "The Bucintoro at the Molo on Ascension Day," c. 1745, oil on canvas, 45.25 x 64 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William L. Elkins Collection/Art Resource, NY

Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto, “The Bucintoro at the Molo on Ascension Day,” c. 1745, oil on canvas, 45.25 x 64 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William L. Elkins Collection/Art Resource, NY

The exhibition is very much about the idea of Venice, “this majestic, mighty city, floating on the water,” as Dawson Carr, the Portland museum’s curator of European art, described it last Thursday in a pre-opening talk. Venice’s long constitutional government, he remarked, had kept the city-state cohesive and serene, although in its final centuries it was also in economic, political, and military decline: “Time left them behind.” Culturally, he added, it was another matter: “There may have been economic decline, but we see a golden age. One of the great golden ages.”

Much of Venice’s golden age revolved around music, from the compositions of Monteverdi and Vivaldi to the rougher bleatings of street musicians; and what the composers composed and the musicians played, the painters painted. Besides Longhi, whose intimate domestic scenes of music-making play an intriguing counterpoint to the great genre paintings of the Dutch golden age, artists as varied as Tintoretto, his artist daughter La Tintoretta, Tiepolo, Francesco Guardi, Canaletto, and Cariani created scenes of music-making. Musically, the Venice of the 17th century was flourishing. It was a hotbed of early opera. The city’s first concert hall meant specifically for opera was built in 1637, six years before the operatic pioneer Monteverdi’s death. By 1700, Venice had nine opera houses. Singers, including castrati such as the extremely tall Farinelli (depicted here in one of a series of puckish pen-and-ink caricatures by Anton Maria Zenetti the Elder), were celebrities.

Charming paintings of musical scenes abound in The Golden Age of Art and Music, from an anonymous c. 1515 painting of a musician holding a violin-like Renaissance stringed instrument called a lira da braccio, to Tintoretto’s mythological hoedown in his c. 1545 painting The Contest Between Apollo and Marsyas. Piazzetta’s intimately dramatic painting The Singer, from about 1730, captures an intense vocalist in full flower, one hand holding his sheet music and the other spread wide in gesticulation. I’m quite fond of Marco Ricci’s caricature-like painting Rehearsal of an Opera, c. 1720, with its studied domesticity and warmly earnest performers. And a pair of lovely small bronzes from the early 16th century by the sculptor Riccio – one of Orpheus with a lyre; the other of a shepherd, possibly Daphnis, blowing on a panpipe called a Syrinx, so named for the nymph who was saved from a goatishly amorous Pan by being turned into river reeds, and whose suddenly vegetated form Pan then cut and fashioned into the first panpipe – illustrate Venice’s continuing fascination with the old Greek tales.

Andrea Briosco, called Riccio, "Seated Shepherd, with Syrinx (Daphnis?)," c. 1520, bronze, 8.4 inches tall, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Andrea Briosco, called Riccio, “Seated Shepherd, with Syrinx (Daphnis?),” c. 1520, bronze, 8.4 inches tall, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Overwhelmingly, the paintings and drawings in this exhibition reflect the tastes and accumulations of Venice’s ruling and upper middle classes. The city may have been a republic, but like all cities of its time it was stratified, with a large peasantry that scrambled for a living. The city was also known across Europe for its courtesans and prostitutes, who were so ever-present that they became something of a tourist attraction: As Samuel Johnson wrote, “If a young man is wild, and must run after women and bad company, it is better that this should be done abroad.” Venice was famously abroad, and its world of art and music recorded a demimonde that anticipated the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec. Many of the artworks in the exhibit are laced, or unlaced, with symbolic double meanings: “The lute was the instrument most associated with love,” Carr noted. Artists were attuned to the pleasures and perils of carnality.

The preoccupation comes through in works such as Simone Peterzano’s c. 1565-70 oil painting of a bare-breasted and comfortably plump Venus playing a lute; and in the dreamy mythological meadow of an anonymous painting, once attributed to Bellini, from about 1515, which includes an oddly placid Pan with a naked companion, an equally naked Circe, and Orpheus, clothed and bowing his lute, soothing the destructive potentialities of the others. Another anonymous painting, Poet Playing a Hurdy-Gurdy and a Young Woman, from about 1515-20, is an understatedly comic study of the well-fleshed poet, garlanded and in a fur collar, beside the equally well-fleshed young woman, who seems remarkably serene. She’s eyeing the hurdy-gurdy. He’s eyeing her. And Tiepolo’s wonderful 1726 painting Apelles Painting the Portrait of Compaspe is a work of sly high comedy, with takes and double-takes and startled glances as the painter looks over his shoulder at the bare-shouldered object of his affection. The story, from Pliny, is that the great classical painter fell in love with Compaspe, a favorite of Alexander the Great, while painting her portrait, and as a reward, Alexander gave her to the artist. Adding some modern irony to the tale, Tiepolo painted an African slave into the scene, watching the drama unfold from the side.

Bernardo Stozzi, "Street Musicians," 1634-37, oil on canvas, 43.3 x 61.6 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: The Bridgeman Art Library

Bernardo Strozzi, “Street Musicians,” 1634-37, oil on canvas, 43.3 x 61.6 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: The Bridgeman Art Library

One of my favorite works in the exhibition, for its technical skill and also for its subject matter, is Bernardo Strozzi’s vivid 1634-37 oil painting Street Musicians, which frankly depicts life among the lower classes. The painting’s frame is crammed with the bristling energy of its three musicians, who are worn, loose, edgy, and willing. Improvisational frenzy oozes from the scene, which has broad and bawdy underpinnings. The three musicians have some kinship to Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although I get the sense that Strozzi’s musicians, while adept at raising a ruckus, are better at their craft. The bagpipe player at left is stringy-tough and looks to have years of cheap wine behind him. The dress is practically falling off of the woman in the center, who’s intently blowing into her recorder. The shawm player at right has the fierce scrunched-up intensity of a satyr in flight. The golden glow of Strozzi’s palette holds the whole scene together, creating a comedy that’s also warm and affectionate: His musicians are funny, but they’re not being made fun of.

One of the attractions of the exhibit as it’s been curated by the Montreal museum’s Hilliard T. Goldfarb and installed in Portland is the breadth of its view of Venetian art and culture during these years. Several grand urbanscapes by Canaletto are marvels of draftsmanship combined with liveliness. His paintings of the Piazza San Marco, the busy and stately interior of the 11th century basilica of San Marco, and the harbor with its seagoing merchant ships are rendered in clear lines and gorgeous soft lights. A series of deft woodcuts from the mid-16th century by Matteo Pagano captures the pomp and ceremony of the doge’s procession through the city, possibly on Palm Sunday. And the link between art and music is accentuated by several musical scores, including some fabulous large illuminated parchments.

Unknown craftsman, Bass Coronet, 16th century, leather, wood, iron, copper, ivory. Musée de la musique, Paris. Photo: Jean-Claude Billing

Unknown craftsman, Bass Cornett, 16th century, leather, wood, iron, copper, ivory. Musée de la musique, Paris. Photo: Jean-Claude Billing

A highlight is the liberal selection of period musical instruments, including the sackbut and several Middle Eastern-style instruments brought to Venice through contact with the Ottoman Empire: small cymbals called zil; a personal, handheld kettledrum called a naqqarah; a zurma, or shawm, of pearwood. A leather-covered bass cornett from the 16th century  curves and coils sinuously like a snake in a marketplace. A grouping of stringed instruments – a mid-17th century theorbo by Matteo Sellas, an archlute by Christopher Koch from about the same time; a mid-18th century mandolin by Giuseppe Molinary – is striking for the intricacy of their inlay and their finely detailed beauty as visual objects as well as instruments. Be sure to walk all the way around their display cases: the details on their backsides are well worth taking in. (Music is also piped softly through the galleries, although if things are crowded you might miss it. I was standing by the theorbo when a plucked jingle suddenly sounded. The woman standing next to me, startled, looked up and laughed. “Is that your cell phone?” I asked. It wasn’t. The ceiling speakers, I was told later, are remarkably directional; specific music is designed to be heard at specific stops along the way.)

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, "Apelles Painting the Portrait of Campaspe," c. 1726, oil on canvas, The Monreal Museum of Fine Arts, Adaline Van Horne Bequest

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “Apelles Painting the Portrait of Campaspe,” c. 1726, oil on canvas, The Monreal Museum of Fine Arts, Adaline Van Horne Bequest

Venice: The Golden Age of Art and Music begins in the Renaissance and blends into the Baroque and Rococo periods, although the distinctions in the exhibition are more a gradual fade and blending than a clear demarcation. The pieces show a good deal of ornamentation but precious little of the floridity that sometimes gives the Baroque and Rococo a bad name. (The best art from both periods is ornamental but not riotous.) Balance is important to the Venetian worldview – when you’re living on the water, it’s not a good idea to go overboard – and Carlo Saraceni’s 1605 painting Lazarus and the Rich Man, like the music of Vivaldi, reflects the dualities inherent in a stable view of life: rich man and poor man; feast and famine; heaven and hell. But something’s wrong. The scene is also disruptive, with the feasters crowded to the left of the canvas and the lutists leaning toward the empty right, their fingerboards pointing like weapons toward the void.

As the Venice Republic found out, nothing lasts forever.

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 Venice: The Golden Age of Art and Music includes several concerts among its related events, including Baroque music from Cappella Romana, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Allora Baroque Ensemble, and the Oregon Symphony; plus a performance by the Arnica Quartet of Benjamin Britten’s Third String Quartet. Britten was a 20th century Englishman but spent significant time in Venice and was deeply influenced by the city; his final opera was Death in Venice. Schedule and details of the concerts and several talks are here.

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 The Portland Art Museum’s Venice show opened on Saturday, shortly and coincidentally after Polish artist Pawel Althamer’s exhibition The Neighbors opened at the New Museum in New York. Consisting of sculptures that place casts of the faces of Venetian citizens atop skeletal body constructions, it offers a radically different and distinctly modern view of life in Venice. See a slide show and Holland Cotter’s review for the New York Times here.

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, "The Singer," c. 1730, oil on canvas, 32.5 x 27 inches, Museée Fabre, Montpelier, France. Photo: Frédéric Jaulmes

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, “The Singer,” c. 1730, oil on canvas, 32.5 x 27 inches, Museée Fabre, Montpelier, France. Photo: Frédéric Jaulmes

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One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I love this piece, sly, charming, seriously humorous if you will. And am grateful indeed for the historical context, worth paying attention to.
    It’s a very different picture of Venice than the one Donna Leon paints of the city today, unspeakably corrupt, but still elegant, still aesthetically pleasing.

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