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Members' Research Report Archive

Jacopo Bassano and the Invention of Localism

Tom Nichols, University of Glasgow
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, November 1–December 19, 2016

At the base of a steep, grassy hill, five shepherds kneel, sit, and recline around and among two cows, several sheep, a goat, and a dog in the lower half of this painting, while a winged angel appears in a golden shaft of light in the upper half of this vertical painting. All the people have pale skin. One brown cow spans most of the composition along the bottom, its head facing our left. In the lower left corner, closest to us, a man smoking a long pipe reclines against a tangerine-orange cloth. He wears a round, brimmed cap, a loose white shirt, tattered gray, knee-length pants, and gray cloth wrapped around his shins above bare feet. He leans on his right elbow and crosses his ankles, as he looks to our right in profile. Next to him, to our right, a woman kneels with her body angled away from us to our right. She bends over, perhaps to milk the cow in front of her with the pail sitting next to her, and she looks back to our left. Her chestnut-brown hair is pulled up and braided or coiled. Her rose-pink dress and the white blouse under it fall off her right shoulder. A slate-gray cloak or scarf wraps around her waist and we see the bottom of one bare foot. On the opposite side of the cow, near its head, a young boy angled to our right, with straight brown hair falling down to his eyebrows, looks down at the animal. Most of his face is in shadow but light catches the tip of his nose and the front of one cheek. To our right, along the edge of the painting, behind the rump of the cow and among the shadows, another young boy is seen from the chest up. He wears with a wide-brimmed, brown hat and reaches his right arm across his body as he looks to our left, toward the streak of light. The head of a second cow stands behind him, only the head visible. The steep, grassy hill rises sharply behind this group and cows.The fifth person leans into the scene from our left, above the reclining man on the orange cloth. He has short brown hair and beard, and a slightly hooked nose. Wearing a rose-pink garment, he looks up at the angel with his right hand shielding his face. A tree trunk rises along the left edge of the painting beyond that man. A dog, sheep, and a goat are tucked in and around the cows. Golden light pours down onto the man in pink from past the angel in the bank of clouds above. Against a night sky with navy-blue clouds, gold and white rays emanate from the parted clouds beyond the angel. Kneeling on a dark, fern-green cloud, the angel leans forward and down, and points down at the shepherd wearing pink with one hand and up with the other. The angel has silvery-gray wings and wears a gray robe. Blond curls lift as if in a breeze. In the landscape below, topaz and aquamarine-blue forms could be mountains or surging waves.

Jacopo Bassano, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, probably 1555/1560, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.126

In the course of my visiting fellowship at CASVA I explored the importance of localism in the paintings of Jacopo Bassano (c. 1512–1592), the painter who, despite his training in Venice, elected to run his workshop from his hometown of Bassano del Grappa. I focused primarily on two works by Jacopo in the National Gallery of Art collection: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1545) and The Annunciation to the Shepherds (c. 1558). The earlier painting was commissioned by the Venetian podestà in Bassano del Grappa, Piero Pizzamano (1512–1571), and is indicative of Jacopo’s special ability to accommodate the cultural values of leading Venetian patricians. But this work also served as a conduit for the spread of Jacopo’s influence to metropolitan Venice itself, especially given that Pizzamano promptly took it home with him at the end of his term of office.

Close to us, six light-skinned men crowd into two small wooden boats that together span the width of this horizontal painting. The bow of the boat to our left overlaps the stern of the boat to our right. In the stern of the boat to our left, along the left edge of the canvas, a man, Jesus sits in profile facing our right. A marine-blue garment drapes around his waist and legs over a rose-pink tunic, and three rays of gold light emanate from the top, front, and back of his head. He raises his left hand toward the other two men in his boat. A bearded, balding man wearing marigold orange kneels with his hands pressed together in prayer in front of Jesus. To our right, at the bow of the boat and near the center of the composition, a younger bearded man with flowing hair steps toward Jesus, his arms outstretched. His pink tunic and emerald-green cape billow around him. Two muscular, bare-chested men bend over the side of the boat to our right, pulling in a fishing net. A balding man with a white beard sits in the bow of that boat, his body facing our left. He looks over his left shoulder toward the water and the half-submerged oar he holds. Blue water stretches into the distance between a distant mountain to our left and the meandering shoreline to our right. The horizon where the blue sky meets the water is close to the top edge of the composition.

Jacopo Bassano, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 1545, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1997.21.1

Jacopo must have understood this likely future trajectory beyond the local world of Bassano from the outset and constructed his painting accordingly. On the one hand, he included a distant view of the town with that numen of place, Monte del Grappa, on the horizon beyond. On the other, he used intense coloration to suggest connection with the Venetian tradition of colore while alluding to his patron through the focus on Saint Peter, Pietro Pizzamano’s onomastic saint. In this way, Bassano’s painting characteristically links the local world of Bassano to the interests of a powerful Venetian patron, as if to reconfirm in visual terms the new measure of political control exacted by the city of Venice over its subject town, or dominio, Bassano del Grappa. Jacopo’s Miraculous Draught of Fishes also makes a formal link to the international visual culture of the Renaissance through its insistent reference to Raphael’s tapestry of the same subject in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This was a typically ambitious connection, suggesting that Jacopo could be compared to a leading representative of central Italian classicism whose work was increasingly revered throughout Italy and across Europe.

The Miraculous Draught indicates that Jacopo’s localism was at the same time intimately linked to the wider cosmopolitan and metropolitan culture of the Renaissance. It was a kind of deliberate cultural invention or construction, developed not to challenge the authority of Venice but as a form of agreeable local export that reconfirmed Venetian dominance (the rural presented as a kind of acceptable tribute to the dominant urban). In The Annunciation to the Shepherds Jacopo developed the kind of sacred pastoral theme that was to become so important to his work of the 1560s and 1570s. His close focus in this work on the daily realities of peasants and animals served as a marker of the local while asserting stylistic originality. Jacopo’s promotion of lowly rural imagery does not involve satirical or moral distancing from local peasant life but rather casts it as a locus of rural productivity and potential spiritual enlightenment. In this painting, he avoided the kind of physiognomic facial and figural distortions evident, for example, in contemporary German and Netherlandish satirical prints featuring peasants. But Jacopo’s naturalistic depiction of his lowly protagonists was  innovatory in sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance art and functioned as a badge of artistic identity. The contrapposto of the peasants’ opposing moving and reposing forms is quite deliberate, as are the references to fashionable artistic sources such as Titian (1488/1490–1576) and Parmigianino (1503–1540) apparent in the construction of their forms. Through his sophisticated treatment of peasants and animals in such works, Jacopo inserted himself into the progressive and individualistic artistic culture of the Renaissance in Italy.

The fellowship was of great importance to my development of an ongoing research project that will throw new light on the place of “the local” in the art of a major Renaissance painter. Jacopo’s visual suggestions of place through depictions of landscapes, peasants, and animals represent a kind of progressive artistic invention that anticipated (and, from the later 1560s onward, received) the avid attention and approbation of an undifferentiated international audience. But this development suggests that the response to Jacopo’s vivid description of the rural world of Bassano del Grappa was ultimately dependent on the loss of place. Cultural displacement was to this extent a significant aspect of his definition of place, a paradox that may also be seen as a defining trope of modernity.

Bassano, Jacopo
Italian, 1510 - 1592
Jacopo Bassano
The Annunciation to the Shepherds
probably 1555/1560
Jacopo Bassano
The Miraculous Draught of Fishes