15th century Italian narrative painting
To critics accustomed to the style of fifteenth-century narrative paintings by Italian artists from Tuscany, the Venetian examples of narrative paintings with religious subjects that Patricia Fortini Brown analyzes in a recent book will come as a great surprise. While the Tuscan paintings present large-scale figures, clear narratives, and simple settings, the Venetians filled their pictures with dozens of small figures and elaborate buildings, in addition to a wealth of carefully observed anecdotal detail often irrelevant to the paintings’ principal subjects—the religious stories they narrate.
Although it occasionally obscured these stories, this accumulation of circumstantial detail from Venetian life—the inclusion of prominent Venetian citizens, for example—was considered appropriate to the narration of historical subjects and underlined the authenticity of the historical events depicted. Indeed, Brown argues that the distinctive style of the Venetian paintings—what she calls the “eyewitness style”—was influenced by Venetian affinity for a strongly parochial type of historical writing, consisting almost exclusively of vernacular chronicles of local events embroidered with all kinds of inconsequential detail.
And yet, while Venetian attitudes toward history that are reflected in their art account in part for the difference in style between Venetian and Tuscan narrative paintings, Brown has overlooked some practical influences, such as climate. Tuscan churches are filled with frescoes that, in contrast to Venetian narrative paintings, consist mainly of large figures and easily recognized religious stories, as one would expect of paintings that are normally viewed from a distance and are designed primarily to remind the faithful of their religious tenets.
In Venice, where the damp climate is unsuited to fresco, narrative frescoes in churches were almost nonexistent, with the result that Venetian artists and their public had no practical experience of the large-scale representation of familiar religious stories. Their model for painted stories was the cycle of secular historical paintings in the Venetian magistrate’s palace, which were indeed the counterpart of written history and were made all the more authoritative by a proliferation of circumstantial detail.
Moreover, because painting frescoes requires an unusually sure hand, particularly in the representation of the human form, the development of drawing skill was central to artistic training in Tuscany, and by 1500 the public there tended to distinguish artists on the basis of how well they could draw human figures. In Venice, a city virtually without frescoes, this kind of skill was acquired and appreciated much later.
Gentile Bellini, for example, although regarded as one of the supreme painters of the day, was feeble at drawing. On the other hand, the emphasis on architecture so evident in the Venetian narrative paintings was something that local painters obviously prized, largely because painting architecture in perspective was seen as a particular test of the Venetian painter’s skill.