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Camerino of Duke Alfonso d'Este

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View of the passageway linking the castle and palace, 1782, Photograph, Musei Civici d'Arte Antica, Ferrara

The court of Duke Alfonso d'Este in Ferrara was one of the most brilliant in Italy and attracted leading scholars, musicians, poets, and painters, including Giovanni Bellini and Titian. Bellini's Feast of the Gods was the first of several paintings that Alfonso commissioned between about 1512 and 1523 to decorate his luxurious camerino (study), located in a passageway connecting his palace and castle. Part of a suite of rooms called the camerini d'alabastro for their alabaster relief sculptures, the study eventually contained three paintings by Titian, among them the Bacchanal of the Andrians. The room was a haven where the duke could retreat from the pressures of court life, admire his art collection, and impress guests with his magnificence. Considered one of the most beautiful interiors of the Renaissance, the camerino was stripped of its decoration in 1598 when the Este family lost control of Ferrara.

Infrared Reflectography

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Infrared camera used to study Giovanni Cariani's Concert, c. 1518-1520, National Gallery of Art, Bequest of Lore Heinemann in memory of her husband, Dr. Rudolf J. Heinemann

In Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century, most paintings were on wood panels, but the use of fabric nailed to wood stretchers was rapidly becoming more common. Prior to painting, the panel or canvas was prepared with a layer of white gesso (plaster) on which the artist often made a preliminary sketch of the composition, typically using black ink, paint, or charcoal.

Infrared reflectography reveals these underdrawings. Paint layers are usually transparent to infrared light, making the artist's initial sketch visible. The infrared light passes through the layers and is then reflected back from the gesso and recorded on a monitor. The underdrawing absorbs rather than reflects the light and so appears as black in the reflectogram. Depending on the materials used, however, the drawing is sometimes transparent or is blocked from view by the upper paint layers.

Like x-radiography, infrared reflectography contributes to understanding an artist's individual technique as well as the development of specific pictures. In general, Bellini's underdrawing corresponds fairly closely to his painted compositions. Giorgione frequently departed from his underdrawn composition as he applied the paint layers. Titian's underdrawing is often only a rough notation of where elements were to be placed during the painting stage.

La Serenissima

The Most Serene Republic of Venice (La Serenissima) had its origins in the seventh century, when the first doge was elected. By 1500 the doge had become more a figurehead than a ruler, as political power rested with the Greater Council and the Senate. Although voting rights were limited to the male nobility, the Venetian form of government was remarkable at a time when most other Italian city-states were dominated by a single dynastic ruler. The city's strategic location at the head of the Adriatic made her the "queen of the seas" with a vast trading network that stretched out like tentacles across the Mediterranean to Egypt and Syria, Constantinople, North Africa, Spain, and northern Europe. The seat of an empire, Venice controlled territories on the Italian mainland, the Adriatic coast, Cyprus as well as Crete and other islands in the Aegean Sea.

As the sixteenth century opened, however, Venice was in a state of crisis. In 1503, the republic lost important Aegean trading outposts after a brief war with the Ottoman Turks. Plague repeatedly struck the city and one virulent outbreak in 1510 probably cut short the life of Giorgione, then in his early thirties. More disastrous was the war that pitted Venice against the League of Cambrai, an alliance formed by the papacy and its Italian allies, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor in order to halt Venetian expansion on the mainland. Venice's humiliating defeat in a crucial battle of 1509 nearly extinguished the republic. Recovery was slow, but the war effectively ended when Venetian troops marched victorious into Verona in 1517. That the arts flourished amidst this chaos was largely due to the wealth the city had accumulated in the previous century, its prosperous trade with northern Europe, and its stable republican government.

Making the View of Venice

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How was this great map of Venice actually made? A topographical survey on this scale (63 x 121.5 in.) was unprecedented, but the essential requirements for making it had long been available. Compasses and astrolabes, as shown here, were already in use for navigation, and practical applications for measuring angles and distances could readily be found in treatises on gunnery.

Although it is possible to take in the entire city from the top of the campanile in the Piazza San Marco, a single viewpoint would be very difficult to translate into the broad lateral scope of the map. Most likely one or more surveyors took sightings from bell towers all across Venice, resulting in many sections that could be assembled into a larger view. Here the artist must have played an important role in synthesizing these sections and then laying in the details of buildings and streets to form both a perspective overview and a city map. Comparison with the true outlines of Venice exposes many discrepancies, but they hardly detract from the magnificence and seductive credibility of Jacopo's achievement.

In constructing the final view, Jacopo had to find a middle ground between showing the city and its architecture from an angled viewpoint and simultaneously unfolding its plan. The process of fabricating a bird's-eye perspective required a great many visual adjustments, hence our impression that on the lower margin we are positioned directly above the land, which then sweeps outward and upward in a great curve to the distant horizon. The awkwardness of this graduated viewpoint is especially evident when the map is shown vertically against a wall, but when displayed nearly flat, the perspective falls satisfyingly into place. This is how the map would most often have been seen—unrolled and laid out across a table, for the amazement and curiosity of beholders.

Venetian Pigments

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Cross section of a paint sample from Priapus' tunic from Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherds ("Allendale Nativity"), c. 1500, National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection
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Cross section of a paint sample from the horizon in Giovanni Bellini and Titian's Feast of the Gods, 1514 and 1529, National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection
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Cross section of a paint sample from Silenus' robe from Giovanni Bellini and Titian's Feast of the Gods, 1514 and 1529, National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection

The Feast of the Gods and the Bacchanal of the Andrians exemplify the brilliant use of color for which Venetian Renaissance painters are renowned. Bellini, Titian, and their contemporaries benefited from the presence of vendecolori (color sellers), a profession that emerged first in Venice, where they were operating by the 1490s. Vendecolori offered an array of materials, including prepared pigments and raw materials for colorants and dyes. They engaged in international trade and sold imported colors alongside those made locally. Azurite (blue), orpiment (yellow-orange), realgar (red-orange), vermilion (red), and copper green resinates are among the many pigments listed in their inventories. Artists and agents from throughout northern and central Italy traveled to Venice to obtain painting materials.

The color sellers served not only painters, but also dyers, glassmakers, and potters as well as all members of the painters' guild, which included decorators of masks, furniture, books, textiles, and leather. At the vendecolori shops, painters learned of materials that had previously been intended for other trades. The expanded range of available pigments must have stimulated artists to experiment with coloristic effects.

For the robe of Silenus in the Feast of the Gods, Bellini combined red pigment with orpiment and realgar, traditionally used by manuscript illuminators, to create an intense orange—a key color in the sixteenth-century Venetian palette. To enrich the blue at the horizon (now mostly painted over by Titian), Bellini mixed azurite with small amounts of the pulverized amber-colored glass used by ceramic decorators.

Artists in Venice made masterful use of glazes—thin layers of translucent mixtures of oil and pigment–to give their paintings a luminous surface. In the Feast of the Gods, Bellini added luster to Priapus' silken tunic by layering a transparent copper green glaze over bright white underpaint. To add warmth to the green glaze and mute its strident tone, he also mixed in transparent red pigment. With a dry brush, he then scumbled (dragged) opaque vermilion paint over the glaze to create red highlights.

X-radiography

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X-ray equipment and x-radiograph of Giovanni Cariani's Concert, c. 1518, National Gallery of Art, Bequest of Lore Heinemann in memory of her husband, Dr. Rudolf J. Heinemann

X-rays pass through a painting and record on film the atomic weight (density) of the various materials. Dense materials, such as lead white paint or the nails securing a fabric to a wooden stretcher, create white areas on the film. Less dense materials show up as gray or black.

X-radiographs are used to detect changes made during the process of painting. All the alterations are recorded simultaneously on the film. If the artist reconsidered a figure's pose, for example, each version of that pose will appear in the x-radiograph, as will the figure's appearance in the finished painting.

Infrared reflectography and x-radiography are complementary: the use of an underdrawing can sometimes be inferred from contours in x-radiographs, just as design changes in the paint layers are sometimes evident in infrared reflectograms.

Comparing x-radiographs and infrared reflectograms with a finished painting helps to determine how the composition evolved from the underdrawn stage to the final application of the paint layers. These technical photographs do not always provide enough information, however, to place the artist's changes in an exact sequence. Instead, the stratigraphy of a painting may be studied using a microscope to examine cross sections of tiny paint samples (0.1–0.5 mm).