Arts, Culture & Media

16th Century arts scene

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Tintoretto's house, Venice, Italy (CC: contagiousmemes/Flickr)

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The modern art scene is a world unto itself. People buy, sell, talk, and write about art – not always in language the rest of us can understand. But the idea of an art scene itself has been around for centuries. The World’s Alex Gallafent looks back at one charged moment in art history.

Venice, Italy – a magical city on the water. Mid-way through the 16th century. It’s home to three working artists, each at a different stage of his career. The old master: Titian. The challenger: Tintoretto. And the newcomer: Veronese.

"As any of these three artists were walking down the streets in Venice or gliding in a gondola, they would have gone by masterpieces of their competitors, they always would be reminded that just around the corner was work by another artist," says Frederick Ilchman, a curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Ilchman is the man behind a new show at the museum that examines the rivalry between Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. It was a rivalry that flourished in Venice. Densely populated with beautiful people seeking beautiful things for their beautiful buildings, Renaissance Venice is the place for any artist with ambition – kind of like Andy Warhol’s New York in the 1970s. With no one ruling figure, Venetian families compete for art, each hoping to snare the best work for their chapels and palaces.

"There are people that want to acquire works of art not because they’re a portrait of someone in their family or because it’s part of their religious devotion, but rather because they want this work of art because they enjoy owning something so beautiful."

Art was commissioned by monasteries, convents, and business groups, guilds.

"And of course they didn’t want to look less impressive than their competitors," adds Ilchman.

Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese were only too happy to keep up with demand for their paintings.

"These were businessmen," says Rhona Macbeth, the Museum of Fine Arts’ conservator of paintings.  "All three artists were running large-scale studios and producing work for many different kinds of client, and would need to produce their work quickly sometimes to get the commission."

By all accounts, Tintoretto was the quickest of the three. Like Warhol centuries later, he used a kind of factory approach to his art-making. One painting on display in Boston is Tintoretto’s “Nativity”: two women look down at the baby Jesus. But when Macbeth and her team examined the picture with x-rays, they found something hidden beneath the surface. Originally, the two women had been gazing at the feet of Christ on the cross. That crucifixion scene had been sliced and diced to make the nativity scene.

16th century Venetians published art guide books and art biographies. Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese were competing not only for work but for reputation. So, says curator Frederick Ilchman, they would paint the same or similar subjects, waiting years and years for the right commission.

"With this new painting, I can make a response and paint a figure standing in a certain pose or a certain color. I can finally do this. I can top that other guy at this moment."

Apparently, Titian and Tintoretto didn’t get along too well. And Veronese was promoted by old man Titian as his young protege, at the expense of Tintoretto. Ilchman thinks that was all for the better.

"There’s no real victory in being the only artist of quality surrounded by mediocrities. And that they all three stayed in Venice for their whole careers I think is important evidence that this exciting art scene, with all its turbulence and challenge was exactly where they wanted to be."

In other words, if you want to be good, you want to have good rivals.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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