Postcard from Paris: Medievalist John Fleming remarks on “Rivals in Renaissance Venice” at the Louvre

So it is now nearly two weeks since  I trundled off to the Louvre of an evening to see the “Venice Show”, here officially entitled “Titien—Tintoret—Véronese: Rivalités à Venise [Paris, the Louvre, 17 September 2009 until 4 January 2010].  It had not been all that easy to get convenient tickets.  The show is still in great demand and probably will be throughout the relatively short time of its mounting.  The few aficionados I have met who also saw it in at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston suggest that it is being even better received here.  If so, that is really saying something.Its impressiveness perhaps has as much to do with the fact that the grand synoptic expo is itself an endangered species. “You can pretty much kiss goodbye, at least for now, the prospect of more exhibitions like Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice…” began one prominent review of the Boston version. “Transatlantic loans of the kind that make this show the breathtaker it is are a big drain on strapped museum budgets. Boston was lucky to partner with the Louvre on this project, but such masterpiece gatherings are likely to be rare in years to come. Catch them while they’re hot. Hot is the word for this show.”

So it is now nearly two weeks since  I trundled off to the Louvre of an evening to see the “Venice Show”, here officially entitled “Titien—Tintoret—Véronese: Rivalités à Venise [Paris, the Louvre, 17 September 2009 until 4 January 2010].  It had not been all that easy to get convenient tickets.  The show is still in great demand and probably will be throughout the relatively short time of its mounting.  The few aficionados I have met who also saw it in at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston suggest that it is being even better received here.  If so, that is really saying something.

Hot is one word, overheated another.  In my view the show occupies the free-fire zone between them.   A very great deal of the concept—too much, in my view—is invested in the idea of rivalry of the kind recently celebrated in the film Modigliani.  This concept of expressionist dynamism is largely an anachronism in the early modern Venetian setting, but it often structures the exposition’s architecture.  That is, the paintings are for the most part organized in groups by genre or subject matter in a fashion that invites not so much the comparative as the competitive instinct.  The viewer may be surprised to discover at the end that there actually is not an exit poll.  I’ll cast my vote anyhow: Titian, of course, but I already knew that going in.

But this blemish—even granting that others might be willing to consider it such–is so minor as to be relegated to a visual footnote in one’s experience of the show.  It is extraordinary to be able to experience within the space of an hour—the approximate pace at which the traffic flows if you gently resist it—such a staggering assembly of fist-class pieces by first-class painters working within a remarkably harmonious cultural and stylistic moment.  It provides an experience, as the modern museum so often does, that could never have been approached by the artists themselves or by their contemporary patrons and viewers.

There are a few indelible impressions, and the first is of human flesh, especially gorgeous, golden, generous female human flesh.  Titian’s “Venus at her Mirror”, usually at home in the National Gallery in Washington, is in this context even more magnificent than usual.  I never quite understood why Augustine, in his Confessions, waxes quite so penitential concerning his reaction to the myth of Danaë and the shower of gold.  Check out Titian’s “Danaë “from the Capodimonte in Naples and you’ll see why.  Nor are the mythological subjects alone in this regard.  Biblical subjects, and such portraits of uncertainly identified but amply clothed Venetian matrons as those by Veronese (Alte Pinakothek in Munich) or Titian (Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna) have the same quality.  These women have the largeness to be truly beautiful.  We have long known that the fashionable ideal of the anorexic supermodel has threatened the health of the young.  Our three Venetian painters indict it as an aesthetic crime as well.  Baudelaire famously exposed the hypocrite-lecteur.  These guys expose the hypocrite-voyeur.  The effect is especially brilliant in Tintoretto’s “Susannah and the Elders” (Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna).  Here the admirer of the ample nudity of Susannah may at first be puzzled by a shiny white thing in the lower left-hand corner.  Upon inspection it turns out to the bald pate, in somewhat mannerist contortion, of one of the wicked elders.  One dirty old man meets another.

I would estimate that nearly half the paintings deal with sacred subjects.  The visual imagination loosed upon the biblical text is at times overwhelming.  The difficulties encountered by Veronese with the painting now called “The Feast at the House of Levi” (1573, Venice, Accademia) are well known.  The Christian Church, while firmly maintaining the dogma of the Incarnation, has often seemed to reveal secret doubts in its art criticism, at least in that practiced by the inquisitors who invigilated Veronese.  That is, Jesus was fully human, but don’t embarrass us by depicting him in too human a context.  The default bearded-guy-in-bathrobe is safest.  The real trouble with “Levi’s Feast” was that the dinner party looked too much like an actual dinner party.  But that is a painting forty-two feet across, and not the kind of thing to be entrusted to the Poste Italiano, however well insured.  The troublesome Veronese painting in the show is the Louvre’s own “Emmaus Pilgrims”.  Who are the little kids, and whose dog are they playing with?  Did Jesus even have a dog?

Of especial interest to me, as an historian of the literature of medieval asceticism, is the continuing popularity, deep into the sixteenth century and indeed beyond, of certain monastic subjects.  All three of the Venetians, for instance, have large treatments of the “Penitence of Saint Jerome”—though despite the fact that he’s been the Auschwitz Diet for several years, he still has plenty of flesh, sagging and wrinkled though it be.  There is in this phenomenon an important book for somebody to write.  The cult of Saint Anthony of the Desert reached its height only at a time when Europe was well entered upon a money economy.  The Imitation of Christ—surely intended for the private meditation of a few Augustinian canons—became a best seller among the bourgeoisie of the Low Countries and the Rhineland.  That is, the less ascetic actual material existence became, the more popular did ascetic art become.  What did such a substantial burgher as Iseppo da Porto—unforgettably captured in the brilliant portrait by Veronese (Florence, Uffizi)—what did this man see when he viewed the painted self-flagellations of Jerome?

As I said at the beginning, the showis crowded.  But the Louvre handles things very intelligently.  Even with advance tickets there is likely to be a wait.  No more than 500 viewers are allowed into the arena at a time, but the numbers are carefully monitored between comers and goers, and displayed before you while you wait on an ever-changing screen, so that you know when your place in the line is getting warm.  The show itself, as you already know, is hot.

John V. Fleming is the Louis W. Fairchild, ’24 Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature emeritus at Princeton University, where he taught for forty years before retiring in 2006. Fleming graduated from Sewanee (the University of the South) in 1958, before spending three years in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.  He has published widely in the fields of medieval literature, art history, and religious history. Fleming’s first book, post retirement was a departure from his expertise,  a study of classic anti-Communist literature, titled “The Anti-Communist Manifestos” Read more about the book and Mr. Fleming’s work at his website here.

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