National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Venetian Painting in the Early Renaissance

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In the mid-1400s, Venice was the most powerful city in Italy, made rich by nearly a thousand years of commerce, mostly in goods from the East. Its navy ruled the Mediterranean as if it were a Venetian lake. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, the city's fortunes had begun to change. Venice lost both territory and trade after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Later, Portuguese naval exploration around the tip of Africa drew still more traffic away from Venetian-controlled overland routes. Increasingly the city's future lay with the West. Despite the renown of its ambassadors and spies, however, Venice's position weakened.

Venice nevertheless maintained its prestige and legendary splendor. Venetian artists first established an international reputation during these years. Grounding their art in the senses, they appealed to the eye -- and the spirit -- through brilliant color, glowing light, and the beauties of nature. Long ties with Byzantium had left a lingering preference for gold mosaics and iconlike images of the Virgin, but by the 1470s Venetian painters had absorbed the renaissance innovations of Florence and central Italy. Through the city's preeminence in the oriental trade for spices and luxury goods, Venice's artists had always enjoyed access to the finest and most costly pigments. Greater contact with northern Europe now introduced them to the new technology of oil painting, which had recently been perfected in the Low Countries.

Oil paints are slow drying and can be blended. Built up in translucent layers, they capture and reflect light in a way that the flat opaque colors of tempera paints cannot. Italian artists were quick to adopt the new medium, and in the works of Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini its full potential was realized. There, for the first time, is found the sensuous, luminous color that would characterize Venetian painting for centuries to come.

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