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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

Jacopo Bassano, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, probably 1555/1560probably 1555/1560

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.

Jacopo Bassano, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 15451545

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.