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Members' Research Report Archive

Colorito: Painting Techniques in Venice during the Sixteenth Century

Michel Hochmann, École pratique des hautes études, Paris
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, January 5–February 28, 2014

Four people with pale skin are gathered to our right in a landscape, their heads bowed down toward an infant who lies on a white cloth on the ground in this horizontal painting. The nude baby has a rounded belly, chubby limbs, and short blond hair. To our right and near the edge of the panel, a woman kneels with her hands in prayer, looking toward the baby so she faces our left in profile. She wears a lapis-blue robe over a rose-pink dress, and a white cloth covers her head and shoulders. Behind her and to our left, a man with a white beard, wearing a golden yellow robe, sits or kneels next to a rock at the mouth of a cave cut into a rocky outcropping that extends off the top of the composition. To the left of the baby and at the center of the foreground, a pair of men wear tattered clothing and hold shepherd’s staffs. The man closer to us kneels with his hands pressed together in prayer as the man behind him bends his knee as if to kneel. The landscape recedes deep into the distance on the left half of the painting with a winding river, houses and other buildings, grassy hills, and mountains beneath a blue sky. A small winged angel wearing white looks down on the scene from the upper left corner.

Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505/1510, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.289

During my stay at CASVA, I finished writing a book about painting techniques in Venice during the sixteenth century. The volume summarizes the many scientific studies that have been conducted in the last decades in museums and collections around the world. It reconsiders ideas about the art of the period, on subjects including the role of drawing, the evolution of preparations and colored grounds, and oil as a binding medium. I integrate these observations with all that the historiographical tradition (treatises, books of recipes, literature on art) tells us about these matters. Venetian colorito, the Venetian aesthetic and practice of color, for example, has been the topic of many assumptions, and painters from the Seicento onward have tried to recreate what was sometimes called the Venetian secret. My book outlines all these theories and traces their evolution.

The documents are few, but some are very important, such as painters’ inventories, of which Palma Vecchio’s is very useful. Recent publications have focused on the pigments trade and the vendicolori in Venice: everyone knows how central this trade was at the time in Italy, and inventories and letters have been published showing the nature of the materials that were in use at that time. Matteo Mancini, for example, has published correspondence between the king of Spain and Venetian painters, Titian in particular, that reveals the fascinating personality of one of these merchants, Alvise della Scala, who was Titian’s purveyor. More recently, Tristan Weddigen and Gregor Weber have shown that the famous portrait of a man with a palm by Titian, now in Dresden, represented Alvise himself, demonstrating how close he was to the painter, who wanted to pay homage to him and to the quality of the materials he sold (as indicated by the box full of pigments depicted next to him).

The book encompasses the main aspects of this topic, starting with the role of drawing. Everyone knows Vasari’s vituperative attacks against the Venetians’ ignorance in that regard, but the use of infrared reflectography has completely upset such received commonplaces by revealing the great variety of the use of disegno in these artists’ practices, from invention to reproduction. Recent studies of the great botteghe of Titian and of the members of the Bassano family allow a better understanding of the use of drawing in that context. One chapter studies binding media, showing how long and complex the process of the adoption of oil was for Venetian painters and questioning the varieties of additives that may have been in use in the sixteenth century, such as varnishes and essences. It describes how the Venetians contributed to launching the canvas as a support for oil painting, but also how these artists participated in experiments such as painting on marble, stone, or copper. Many commonplaces on these topics, such as the use of colored grounds, have recently been a subject of debate.

The book reviews everything that we know about the various pigments, their trade, their manufacture, and their alteration, using all available archival material, published and unpublished. Then it explores painters’ techniques, including their brushwork and the many discussions it gave way to in the artistic literature of the time. Venetian painting has also been exalted for its unione, or combination of sfumato with vibrant color, and the book discusses famous commentaries (those of the French Academy on the use of colored reflections, to give one example). Scientific examinations may also be applied to understanding such complex matters as the depiction of shadows and the use of glazes. I further try to outline the great tradition of the German Koloritgeschichte and to describe some of the choices made by artists of the period (Titian, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Veronese) in the rendering of color and chiaroscuro.

During my residency in Washington, I explored the resources not only of the National Gallery of Art Library but also of the files of the conservation department. I enjoyed the opportunities to discuss this topic with the Gallery’s curators, scientists, and conservators. In particular, I benefited from many very useful meetings with Barbara Berrie, who is a great specialist in the field of old master painting techniques and who is studying the pigments used in Venetian paintings of the Renaissance.

Italian, 1477 - 1510