Titian and the Renaissance in Venice


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It is the cradle of ideas that made history. Time and again, Venice was the starting point for great innovations. A city of seafarers and merchants, Venice was a vibrant melting pot of diverse cultures from all over the world. The sixteenth century saw literature, music and art flourish. The singular quality of Venetian painting is encapsulated by Titian, one of the city’s most influential artists. Virtuoso colour, energy and a striking sense of animation make Venetian Renaissance art a fascinating visual experience.

Titian is not a painter (...) but a miracle!

Sperone Speroni, Dialogo d'Amore, 1542 Toggle credits


A Resplendent Republic

Venice – city without parallel! Reflected in the rippled surface of the maze of canals are the buildings’ shimmering facades, the gondolas and people. The atmospheric play of light and colour is unforgettable.

Some 30 million people from all over the world visit Venice every year. Gigantic cruise ships rock the architectural fabric of the city and jeopardise its fragile foundations. In the long run, centuries-old churches and palazzi are in danger of sinking beneath the waves and the sheer weight of people.

During Titian’s life (1488/90-1576) Venice was one of the world’s ten biggest cities. A republic, at times boasting a population of some 200,000 inhabitants, it was the beneficiary of a globe-girdling network of merchants and trading posts. La Serenissima – ‘the most serene’ – was the epithet applied to the proud city not just by the sea, but on it.

Palazzi and Canals

Art, music, literature and science – sixteenth-century Venice was a city of immeasurable cultural wealth.

A woodcut nearly three metres across! This enormous map of Venice was printed in 1500. It provides a bird’s eye view of the lagoon and shows Venice, shaped like a fish, surrounded on all sides by water. To record the position of landmarks, the artist and his assistants scaled the highest bell towers and looked down upon the sprawling alleyways and canals. And whenever this still did not yield results, they resorted to topographical survey instruments and, ultimately, their imagination. All the important sites of the splendid capital of the republic can be made out on this map.

Jacopo de' Barbari (Design?), View of Venice, 1498–1500

Woodcut printed on six sheets of joined paper, 137 × 284 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Graphische Sammlung, Nuremberg


    Saint Mark's Square


    Close-up of Saint Mark’s Square with the splendid Basilica di San Marco, the Campanile and the Doge’s Palace – the power centre of Venice.

    Combined Shape



    Ships carrying merchandise from all over the world docked in Venice every day. ‘I, Neptune, reside here, watching over the water of this port,’ reads the tablet suspended from the ancient sea god’s trident.

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    ‘I, Mercury, shine favourably upon this above all other places of commerce,’ pledges the airborne god of trade. The map underscores the pride of the mercantile republic.

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    Rialto Bridge


    Still a major attraction, the Rialto Bridge was, in 1500, the only bridge to span Venice’s largest canal, the Canale Grande. Nearby we see the German merchants’ trading post; it is labelled ‘Fontico dalamanj’ – Warehouse of the Germans.

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    Taking up the tail fin of the ‘fish’ is the Arsenale. Owned by the Venetian republic, the shipyard built warships and trading vessels. Few people had access to the strictly guarded site. Today, the Arsenale is one of the venues of the famous Venice Biennale.

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    The gondolas of Venice are famous all over the world. Today, they are a tourist attraction, but in the 1500s, the sleek flat-bottomed boats were a vital and ubiquitous means of transport for the city’s citizens.

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Jacopo de' Barbari (Design?), View of Venice, 1498–1500

Woodcut printed on six sheets of joined paper, 137 × 284 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Graphische Sammlung, Nuremberg

A mercantile republic – not a kingdom or a principality. Venice enjoyed the reputation of being a liberal city. For this reason, it attracted people of widely different backgrounds and faiths. Anyone who was granted citizenship had a political voice and the right to vote – by no means a given in sixteenth-century Europe! The Venetian republic was presided over by the doge.

Venice and
the World

The numerous vessels in the woodcut are testimony to the Serenissima’s trade network over sea and land that extended along the Adriatic coast, via Crete and Constantinople – today’s Istanbul – to the Black Sea in the northeast and the Pacific Ocean to the southeast . Traditionally, Venice was allied with the Byzantine Empire, the leading political power in the East. To this day, the city’s facades bear witness to the exchange with the Orient.

Palazzo Contarini Fasan, Canal Grande, Venice, 15th century

Power and wisdom

A lush red velvet curtain and sumptuous golden robes: The head of the Venetian republic is shown with all the pomp and circumstance his office commands.

Like the pope, kings and emperors, the doge of Venice was in office for life. However, his power was held in check by various political councils and committees. Today, the complex regulations governing the election of the doge and the administration of the city would be described as a system of checks and balances. The equitable division of power and the prevention of excessive concentration of power were the cornerstones of the republic.

Titan, Portrait of Doge Francesco Venier, 1554–56

Oil on canvas, 113 x 99 cm, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid


    Francesco Venier


    The doge’s wan face contrasts sharply with the splendour of his appearance. Francesco Venier had to be supported by two men every time he wanted to get up or move about.

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    Titian knew how to present the doge in the best possible light: In 1554, the Apulian port of Vieste was attacked by Barbary pirates. The doge liberated the trading post . Through the window in the portrait, we see the burning town.

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    Conciliatory Gesture


    Venier solved the conflict over Vieste through diplomacy rather than warfare and showed great skill in his negotiations with Suleiman I (the Magnificent), Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The portrait presents Venier making a conciliatory gesture.

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    Firm Grip


    Francesco Venier’s left hand clasps his splendid robe. The doge was unpopular with the Venetians. Despite the economic crisis, he denied himself nothing. The lavishness of his balls and banquets was the stuff of legend.

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  • The Cap

    The cap may strike present-day viewers as a little odd. The Corno Ducale (Italian, ‘ducal horn’) is the ceremonial crown of the doge. Titian’s portrait shows Francesco Venier who reigned from 1554 to 1556.

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Titan, Portrait of Doge Francesco Venier, 1554–56

Oil on canvas, 113 x 99 cm, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The Renaissance (French, ‘rebirth’) is considered a period of momentous change. The culture of antiquity became the model for a new value system and a new idea of man. More than any other country, Italy was the cradle of numerous scientific discoveries and cultural innovations. For the republic of Venice, however, the sixteenth century heralded the start of its slow decline. In 1453, the Ottoman Empire had conquered Constantinople. Venice’s influence in the East was gradually waning. Moreover, the discovery and colonisation of the Americas ushered in major geopolitical changes. European trade moved to the oceans, where Venice could not compete.

Man at Centre

Although Venice lost its pre-eminence as a global power, Venetian Renaissance art and culture were highly innovative. Numerous poets, thinkers and artists visited the lagoon, attracted by the city’s liberal reputation. Among the newcomers were Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci and Erasmus of Rotterdam. Still famous today, they exemplify Renaissance humanism, the intellectual movement that sought to revive classical learning. Humanism spread the ideal of human agency and called for scholarship and critical thinking. Self-scrutiny and self-knowledge are among the greatest achievements of the period. Artists and art theorists devised ingenious new forms of seeing and representing the visible world.


Brushmarks and Colour

Dynamic brushmarks and expressive energy – Venetian Renaissance artists developed an unmistakeable style of painting.

A breath-taking evening sky – lush colours glow in soft transitions from orange to blue. They contrast sharply with the grave-looking man dressed in sober black. The box of dry pigments on the window sill alludes to the identity and profession of the sitter: He is Titian’s pigment merchant Alvise dalla Scala.

Titian, Portrait of the Colour Seller Alvise Gradignan dalla Scala, c. 1561/62

Oil on canvas, 138 x 116 cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, © bpk | Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/Elke Estel | Hans-Peter Klut

In Venice, the profession of the specialist pigment seller emerged around 1500. Until then, painters called on apothecaries to supply their needs. Pigments were extracted from plants, insects and other natural materials, often sourced from far-away lands and continents . Venice quickly established itself as the hub of the European pigment trade. Alvise dalla Scala supplied the Habsburg imperial court and the Vatican.

Velvet and Silk

Further to their own production, the Venetians imported Oriental textiles and yarns to manufacture the finest fabrics. The resulting garments were luxury goods that served the display of social status. The depiction of these sumptuous materials in paintings shows that patrons and artists alike understood the importance of the visual message they conveyed.

Different Forms of Painting

Luminosity, light effects and contrasts: Venetian painters developed a wide range of techniques in the handling of paint and colour and won great acclaim for their brilliant command of colour.

Jacopo Tintoretto and Workshop, Moses Striking the Rock, c. 1555 (?)

Oil on canvas, 118 x 182 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main – ARTOTHEK

No hint of parched aridity here! Titian’s contemporary, Tintoretto, painted the desert in lush shades of green. The scene shows Moses and the Israelites on their arduous journey to the Promised Land. Plagued by thirst, the people of Israel revolt against their leader. Only a miracle can save them now. Moses strikes a rock with his staff and brings forth a stream of water. Dressed in a luminous red garment, Moses stands out against the throng of people in the background. Tintoretto’s handling of paint is strikingly bold – swift cursory brushstrokes are evident all over the canvas.

The painting is a little puzzling: The splendid clothes of the Israelites suggest a grand stage production. People who have spent many long years wandering the desert just don’t look like that! The pearl jewellery of the women and the extravagant hats of the men are painted with loving attention to detail. Their getup is wholly inappropriate. Time and again, the Israelites turned against Moses, even though he had been commanded by God himself to lead them to the Promised Land. By painting them in all their unwarranted finery, Tintoretto underscored their deplorable lack of faith and judgement.

A dreamlike, eerie mood. The figures stand out starkly against the pitch-black background. To render the saturated darkness, the artist Jacopo Bassano painted the scene on a polished slate tablet. The gleaming black stone lends intensity to the oranges, reds and yellows. Bright accents look like touches of reflected light. Bassano’s striking painting captures the moment of Christ’s death – according to the Bible, the land was plunged in sudden darkness.

Jacopo Bassano, Calvary, c. 1575

Oil on slate, 49.4 x 29.8 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, © Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (2019), Photo: Calveras / Mérida / Sagristà

Among all those, who depicted night scenes with shining and reflecting lights, the old Bassano could truly fool the eyes with his natural renderings.

Karel van Mander, Schilder-Boek, Chap.7, 39, 1604 Toggle credits

Jacopo Bassano, Study for an Arrest of Christ, 1568

Charcoal and coloured chalk on blue-grey paper, 41.3 x 54.9 cm, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques, Paris, bpk | RMN – Grand Palais, Michèle Bellot

Bassano’s drawing is unusual for the period. He was the first artist to employ coloured chalks to enhance his line drawings! Using blue, yellow and red, he picked out individual figures in the scene. Line and colour coalesce in a lively composition. Touches of white chalk suggest the play of light across the figures.

and Life

The artist’s idea assumes shape in the drawn line. Many Renaissance artists held that the line drawing represented the true conceptualisation of the previously formless idea that was only then translated into a painting. Colour only came in on the canvas. Venetian painters, on the other hand, were convinced that colour was the very essence of painting. Colour infused the image with vibrancy and life. In Bassano’s colour drawing, the line between drawing and painting is blurred.

Line vs Colour

Clearly visible brushmarks and generously applied paint – Titian’s late work occasionally borders on the abstract.

Titan, Tarquin and Lucretia, c. 1570–75

Oil on canvas, 114 x 100 cm, Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna, © Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste Vienna

Titian rendered the figure of Tarquin with dynamic brushstrokes. The loose, agitated brushwork of his clothing contrasts sharply with the delicate handling of Lucretia’s face. Executed without underdrawing, the painting has a remarkable sketch-like immediacy. Titian’s innovative technique brings out the drama and animation of the scene.

The viewer looks at the distraught figure of Lucretia. Renowned for her beauty and virtue, she is the object of Tarquin’s desire. He threatens to slander her to her husband, to tell him that he caught her committing adultery if she does not now surrender to his advances. An unsettling, highly dramatic story of a rape that ends in Lucretia’s suicide!

If Titian had been in Rome at that time, and had seen the works of Michelagnolo, those of Raffaello, and the ancient statues, and had studied design, he would have done things absolutely stupendous.

Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite, 1568 Toggle credits

Alongside Titian, Jacopo Tintoretto is one of the great Venetian painters. A fervent admirer of Michelangelo, Tintoretto combined the Florentine artist’s formal clarity with the Venetian flair for colour.

Combined Shape

Clear contours, well-thought-out proportions and exquisitely contorted poses distinguish Michelangelo’s work. Rippling with energy, the crisply modelled muscles of the male nude in the ceiling painting of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican are strikingly expressive.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Detail: Ignudo, Vatican, 1508-12

Combined Shape

Tintoretto translated Michelangelo’s style into his own visual language: The play of light and shadow softens the clear-cut contours and makes the brushstrokes visible. The atmospheric painting draws the viewer in to explore its shadowy depths.

Jacopo Tintoretto, St Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1571/72

Oil on canvas, 143.5 x 103 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna, KHM-Museumsverband

Venice and Florence, the two dominant cultural centres of sixteenth-century Italy, became embroiled in a controversy over the respective merits of colore and disegno. The aesthetic debate manifested itself primarily in the art-theoretical treatises of the Renaissance. The experimental colourism of the Venetians was set against the Florentine ideal of disegno, which was based on drawing, perspective and proportion.

Disegno and

Disegno (Italian, ‘drawing’) refers not only to drawing as such, it encompasses the entire conceptualisation of a work of art. The latter, it was believed, was God-given and formed in the artist’s mind. The lines of the drawing give visual expression to the extraordinary talent of the artist. The Florentine writer and artist Giorgio Vasari hailed Michelangelo as the ultimate master of disegno. Vasari did not attach much importance to colorito (Italian, ‘colouring’) and declared colour to be a merely superficial quality to be added to design. He claimed that the figures in Titian’s paintings were badly drawn and even went so far as to assert that the Venetian artist used colour to hide his deficiencies in compositional drawing. In Venice, Titian’s friend, the writer and theorist Lodovico Dolce staked out his position in the debate by insisting that Titian was indeed an outstanding draughtsman. His use of colour, Dolce explained, infused his paintings with life!

Lodovico Dolce, Dialogo della pittura di M. Lodovico Dolce, intitolato l’Aretino, 1557

Kunsthalle, Library, Sign. C360-8, Hamburg, bpk | Hamburger Kunsthalle | Christoph Irrgang


Painted Poetry

‘Absolutely god-like’ and ‘unrivalled’ – these were the glowing terms Lodovico Dolce used to praise Titian.

The poet and art theorist Dolce described Titian as the greatest of all painters and asserted that not even Michelangelo could match his handling of colour.

Titian, Boy with Dogs in a Landscape, c. 1570–76

Oil on canvas, 99.5 x 117 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam | Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

Energetic brushwork and blurred passages of colour! Titian’s painting presents an unsettling scenario. Ominous clouds of smoke darken the sky. A little boy looks back across his shoulder; he is alone in the woods with two large dogs. What is going on? The scene appears to have sprung from Titian’s own imagination. He developed the composition with paint and colour without underdrawing. The rhythmic, improvised manner and the mysterious motifs create a strange atmosphere. In his correspondence, Titian referred to some of his paintings as poesie, the product of fancy. The viewer is left to come up with their own interpretation of the work.

And I think that to be painted by Titian and praised by Aretino would amount to a new generation of people.

Sperone Speroni, Dialogo d'Amore, 1542 Toggle credits

The poet Pietro Aretino and Titian were celebrities of their day. To be praised by Aretino and painted by Titian would have been the highest honour. The writer, satirist and scandalmonger Aretino cultivated contacts with leading political figures, thinkers and artists all over Europe. He was able to provide Titian with ideas and commissions. Engaging in a playful rivalry, the writer and the painter egged each other on to perform to the best of their ability. Aretino heaped extravagant praise on Titian’s compositions, and Titian, in turn, translated Aretino’s poems into paintings.

Imagination and Drama

Bright red blood spills onto a splendid dress. Procris, the daughter of the king of Athens, has collapsed, mortally wounded by a hunting spear.

Paolo Veronese, Cephalus and Procris, c. 1580

Oil on canvas, 162 x 190 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, Photo Musées de Strasbourg, M. Bertola

A tragic story: Emerging from a thicket, Procris is fatally struck by her own husband, Cephalus, who has mistaken her for his quarry. Driven by jealousy, she had secretly followed Cephalus into the woods. His constant invocation of the name Aura led her to believe he was cheating on her with a nymph. In their last moments together, Cephalus clears up the fatal misunderstanding: his call to Aura (Greek, ‘breeze’) was prompted simply by his desire for fresh air to cool him after the exertions of the hunt.

We painters take the same licence the poets and the jesters take.

Paolo Veronese, Transcripts of his Inquisition Trial, 1573 Toggle credits

Veronese probably knew the story of Cephalus and Procris from the celebrated Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC–17 AD). In Veronese’s imaginative rendering of the scene, Procris is wearing a white and gold brocade dress. The folds of the material lend themselves to a fascinating play of light and shadow. Cephalus tenderly holds his dying wife’s hand. Veronese’s flair for poetic compositions made him one of the most sought-after painters of Venice.

Pictures of Nature

Landscape of Dreams

Into the countryside! The painters and poets of Renaissance Venice discovered the countryside as a haven of peace, fertility and unfettered love.

A peasant family working the land. Jacopo Bassano’s painting testifies to the new interest in all things natural and rustic. In the sixteenth century, this tied in with a renewed interest in the myth of the Golden Age. That myth, which goes back to antiquity, describes a period in which mankind lived in a state of primordial freedom, in harmony with nature, and decries civilisation as the source of violence and war.

Jacopo Bassano, Pastoral Scene, c. 1560

Oil on canvas, 139 x 129 cm, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

  • Animal Companions

    Bassano’s paintings always feature animals. Here we find cows, sheep and a sleeping dog. The artist probably painted them from observation. 

    Combined Shape
  • Young and Old

    Young and old are shown performing their everyday chores. The grandmother is preparing a simple repast.

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  • Children

    The peasant children looking after the animals are depicted kneeling, stooping or in otherwise contorted poses. What would have been hard physical labour is made to look innocent and happy. The painting presents country life as a pastoral ideal state.

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  • The Peasant Woman

    A beautiful back can delight. Showing the creamy bare skin of the young peasant woman’s back, the painting invites city dwellers to feast their eyes.

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    The Peasant


    The peasant is at work sowing, but birds are gobbling up the seeds. An allusion to the biblical parable of the sower? The seed stands for the Word of God – not everywhere does it fall on fertile ground.

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Jacopo Bassano, Pastoral Scene, c. 1560

Oil on canvas, 139 x 129 cm, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Blue mountains in the distance, open forests, rolling hills, the farm: Bassano’s painted landscape is inviting. What is now being depicted as beautiful and worthy of an artist's attention, was deemed dangerous and alien for many ceturies. The forest, the mountains and the open seas were seen as populated by demons and monsters, as places that did not provide the shelter that only civilisation offered. The landscapes of the Venetian painters bear witness to a change of mind.

Just a group of trees, but a fully formed work of art! Highly detailed drawings from nature such as this one were a novelty in the sixteenth century. The landscape is an autograph drawing by Titian.

Titian, Group of Trees, c. 1514/15(?)

Pen and brown ink, traces of grey printer's ink on beige paper, 21.8 x 31.9 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, © bpk | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A river, meadows and forests, a church spire and hazy blue mountains – Titian’s famous Madonna of the Rabbit combines the depiction of the Virgin and Child with a pastoral landscape backdrop.

Titian, Madonna and Child, St Catherine and a Shepherd (Madonna of the Rabbit), c. 1530

Oil on canvas, 71 x 87 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, bpk | RMN – Grand Palais, Thierry Le Mage

Saint Catherine of Alexandria places the Christ child in his mother’s arm. Mary is seated on a cushion in the open countryside. Grass, a basket with an apple and grapes, a rabbit – the modern viewer imagines a picnic. But what is the simple shepherd doing here? Titian’s composition alludes to the idea of Arcadia – an idyllic vision of an unspoiled landscape populated by shepherds. By the way, Titian’s gentle shepherd is a portrait of the aristocratic patron who commissioned the painting, Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua.

A Silent

Titian’s picture references the work of his predecessors. Titian’s teacher, Giovanni Bellini, was famous for his paintings of saints and his altarpieces. The centralised focus of these is always the Virgin and Child surrounded by attendant saints. Today, this format is known as Sacra Conversazione (‘holy conversation’). Meaningful gazes and gestures invest the figures with life and draw the viewer into the silent conversation.

Giovanni Bellini and Workshop, Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist and St Elizabeth, c. 1500

Mixed media on poplar, 72 x 90 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main – ARTOTHEK

Yearning for Arcadia

The countryside, peace and fertility! Arcadia is a utopian ideal, a place to escape the constraints of society.

But Arcadia is also a real place. A province of the Peloponnesian peninsula of Greece bears that name. The poets of classical antiquity sang the Edenic beauty of the region. In the Renaissance, their verses were rediscovered, admired and re-edited in Venice. Arcadia became the epitome of a life that was uncorrupted by civilisation. The pastoral poetry of antiquity, with its heady mix of landscape description, nostalgia and eroticism, met with great acclaim.

Combined Shape

A young man flees the city for the countryside. Disguised as a shepherd, he lives a life of freedom. In a nutshell, this is the plot of Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia, a ‘bestseller’ of the sixteenth century.

Jacopo Sannazaro, Arcadia

Venice: Niccolò Zoppino and Vincenzo di Paolo, 10 September 1524, 8o | Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Sign. Res / P.o.it. 921

Combined Shape

Sannazaro drew on the Idylls by the Greek poet Theocritus (c. 270 BC). Theocritus’s poetry deals with the encounters between shepherds, nymphs and gods in nature. But it also contains unidealised descriptions of the simple life of countryfolk.

Theocritus, Idylls

Venice: Aldus Manutius, February 1495 (m. v. = 1496), 2o | Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Sign. 2 Inc.c.a.3238

Combined Shape

Sannazaro was an ardent admirer of the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BC). A part of Virgil’s pastoral work, the Eclogues, also known as Bucolics (Greek, boukólos, ‘cowherd’) is set in the Greek Arcadia, establishing it as a poetic ideal that resonated in the Renaissance mind.

Virgil, Bucolics

Venice: Aldus Manutius, April 1501, 8o, printed on vellum; coloured ink drawing on fol. A2r: anonymous illuminator (“First Pisani Master”), Shepherd Playing Bagpipes | Manchester, The University of Manchester, The John Rylands Library, Sign. Aldine 3359

Come, pluck a little flower on my mounds and abandon this dark grotto

Jacopo Sannazaro, Arcadia, 1514 Toggle credits

A rare

The Idylls and the Bucolics were re-edited in Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The driving force behind this enterprise was the printer and publisher Aldo Manuzio who was a central figure in book-history. He was the inventor of the pocket-sized book, the predecessor of the modern paperback. Manuzio's famous printer's mark consists of an anchor and a dolphin. The anchor is a symbol for slownesss, while the dolphin symbolizes speed. Taken together the printer's motto is: "more haste, less speed." Manuzio's editions were supposed to be published with diligence and care.

Printer's Mark of Aldo Manuzio

Nudity in Nature

The landscapes of Venetian poetry and painting are populated not only by shepherds, but also by nymphs. The mysterious female characters embody a life unfettered by social conventions.

Jacopo Palma il Vecchio, Two Reposing Nymphs, c. 1510–15

Oil on poplar, 98.3 x 152.4 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main – ARTOTHEK

Palma Il Vecchio’s painting of two nymphs resting on a riverbank is as mysterious as it is seductive. Half-covered breasts, bare feet and thighs, a beguiling gaze at the viewer. The two beauties are as alluring as the verdant, fertile landscape they inhabit. The nymphs of Renaissance poetry hunt, swim and disport themselves with lovers. Those kinds of carefree pleasures were distinctly off-limits to respectable sixteenth-century women. The nymphs tempting charms appear within one's reach, yet remain unattainable.

Paris Bordone emphasised the plump curves of his nude Venus. The classical goddess of love admonishes saucy Cupid whose arrow is aimed directly at her pudenda. This playful scene will not leave anyone untouched.

Paris Bordone, Venus and Cupid, c. 1545–60

Oil on canvas, 93.7 x 143.3 cm, Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw, © National Museum in Warsaw

Bordone was inspired by Giorgione’s celebrated Sleeping Venus. Giorgione was the first artist to ever paint a female reclining nude in an expansive landscape setting. Very few paintings in the history of art caused as much of stir. To this day, the dreamy, unselfconscious nude has lost none of her erotic and sensual appeal.

Giorgione and Titan, Sleeping Venus, c. 1510

Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Images of Women

Idealised and Beguiling

One can almost hear the rustle of the lustrous silk. The dark background heightens the creamy gleam of the young woman’s skin.

The young woman’s gaze is pensive and playful in equal measure. Thin threads of smoke waft up from the incense burner in her hands. Is the scent meant to beguile the viewer? The shimmering blue silk of her dress appeals to the sense of touch. The painting is not the portrait of a specific Venetian woman but an ideal representation of female beauty. Many of the Venetian paintings of belle donne (‘beautiful women’) are erotically charged. Sebastiano del Piombo’s painting appeals to all the senses!

Sebastiano del Piombo, Woman in Blue with Incense Burner, c. 1510/15

Oil on panel transferred to hardboard, 54.7 x 47.5 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection

The Scent of

For a long time, the unusual brass object was thought to be an ointment jar or a lamp. But the numerous holes emitting delicate wisps of smoke identify it as an incense burner. They were used to burn aromatic substances and to fill the room with a smoky fragrance.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Woman in Blue with Incense Bruner (Detail), c. 1510/15

Oil on panel transferred to hardboard, 54.7 x 47.5 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Decorous and desirous

A painting full of astonishing details! Does the scene show two virtuous ladies at their toilet? Or is it a warning to the viewer?

Paris Bordone, Venetian Women at Their Toilet, c. 1545–50

Oil on canvas, 97 x 141 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased by the Royal Institution 1830; transferred to the National Gallery of Scotland 1859

  • Mirror, Mirror … 

    Look closely! The hand points to the mirror, but the young blonde woman’s pensive gaze is directed into the distance above it. A warning that beauty is transitory?

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  • Seductive Details

    The unbuttoned dress offers a glimpse of the woman’s flushed décolleté. A pearl necklace is draped seductively between her exposed breasts. Her braids have come undone, and her hair tumbles over her naked skin.

    Combined Shape
  • Toiletries

    A silver vessel, comb and mirror: The utensils point to the traditional subject of the Toilet of Venus, which shows the goddess of love in the act of dressing or grooming herself.

    Combined Shape

    Ambiguous Glances


    As though caught in the act of doing something untoward, she touches the blue fabric over her bare shoulder. Her lips slightly parted, her gaze intense, she seems to flirt with the viewer, but she also sends out a clear message: I can see you!

    Combined Shape
Paris Bordone, Venetian Women at Their Toilet, c. 1545–50

Oil on canvas, 97 x 141 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased by the Royal Institution 1830; transferred to the National Gallery of Scotland 1859

The Comb as an
Erotic Motif

In the sixteenth century, combs were used for personal grooming and as hair ornaments. But combing oneself assiduously in front of a mirror was seen as a sign of supreme vanity. Combs were also a popular love token. These intimate objects, which came into close contact with a part of the body that had powerfully erotic associations, allowed the lover to feel close to his beloved. Combs were sexualised objects to be used behind closed doors.

A little aristocrat! Titian’s famous portrait shows the two-year-old Clarissa Strozzi from Venice. A state portrait of a child that depicts the child as a child, it is unique in the history of art. The bridal white satin dress spells out the girl’s future as a wife and mother. Back in the day this was regarded as a caring and benevolent gesture. Our definition of childhood and its representation have changed over time. Initially what appears as a cute portrait of a little girl evokes ambivalent feelings.

Titian, Portrait of Clarice Strozzi, 1542

Oil on canvas, 121.7 x 104.6 cm, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, bpk | Gemäldegalerie, SMB / Christoph Schmidt

Clothing and Customs?

Cesare Vecellio’s costume guide features a Venetian bride in her wedding dress. It is similar to the dress worn by little Clarissa Strozzi. Vecellio’s book is full of surprises: it shows people and clothing from all over the world and from all eras. Fabrics, jewellery and hairstyles provide vital clues to social status, age, gender and region of origin.

Cesare Vecellio, De gli habiti antichi, et moderni di diverse parti del mondo libri due, Venice: Damian Zenaro, 1590

Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, Düsseldorf, Sign. 20 H 32

Images of Men

A Show of Self-Assuredness

Velvety, rough or silky smooth? The fabric of the sumptuous garment is depicted in such detail that one wants to reach out and touch it.

Jacopo Bassano, Portrait of Bernardo Morosini, 1542

Oil on canvas, 86 x 69.5 cm, Kassel, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, bpk | Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel

The vinous red and the wide sleeves of the robe are symbols of social status. Apart from the doge, only physicians and high-ranking diplomats were allowed to wear such clothing. The sitter is probably the Venetian Bernardo Morosini. He was in close contact with the painter Jacopo Bassano.

brocone con caperi

Sources of the period describe the pattern of the fabric as brocone con caperi (‘brocade with caperberries’). And, indeed, the tear-shaped pattern is strongly reminiscent of the leaves of a caper bush. In the Renaissance, all plants had a symbolic meaning, and capers were renowned for their health benefits.

Flowers and Buds of a Caper Bush

Anybody who was anybody had their portrait painted. Portraits were an important part of sixteenth-century culture. From rulers, diplomats and merchants to scholars – portraits were a means of communication, networking and broadening one’s sphere of influence. Social status is conveyed by details such as clothing, accessories, furniture and stance. But Renaissance portraits also offer insights into the personal achievements, virtues and values of the sitter.

A man in a dignified pose. The nobleman Daniele Barbaro was one of the most respected scholars of his time. He proudly presents his life’s work. The book he is opening with his left hand is his translation of and commentary on Vitruvius’s famous architectural treatise De Architectura written in the first century BC. Fascinated with the relationship between science and the arts, Barbaro saw the study of architecture as a key to understanding the world.

Paolo Veronese, Portrait of Daniele Barbaro, c. 1556–62

Oil on canvas, 121 x 105.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 2019

Architecture and the cosmos

Daniele Barbaro can be described as a Renaissance polymath. To his mind, the rules and practice of architecture – from structural analysis to the design of the facade – reflected the mysteries and laws of nature and the universe. So, it should come as no surprise that the book propped up against the column base features a drawing of a sundial. Hidden behind the book is an armillary sphere, an astronomical instrument used to represent the movement of the planets. It alludes to Barbaro’s abiding interest in astronomy and cosmology.

Daniele Barbaro, I dieci libri dell'architettura di M. Vitruvio tradutti et commentati da Monsignor Barbaro Eletto Patriarca d'Aquileggia, Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1556

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Sign. BE.5.E.29, Vienna

The Lustre of Power

Praising Titian’s handling of this suit of armour, the poet Aretino claimed that its lustrous sheen pierced the viewer’s eye like an arrow.

Titian, Portrait of Alfonso d'Avalos with Page, c. 1533

Oil on canvas, 110 x 80 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The nobleman shown here is Alfonso d’Avalos. He is wearing the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece. To this day, the members of this exclusive order are appointed by the King of Spain. The great Habsburg emperor, Charles V, bestowed the honour on Alfonso d’Avalos in 1531.

Charles V admired Titian. He made him the principal painter to the imperial court and even conferred a knighthood upon him – a hitherto unthinkable honour for an artist. Even in old age, Titian remained one of the most successful painters of his time. He died, nearly ninety years old, in 1576 during a devastating plague epidemic that killed almost a third of the population of Venice.

Servant and Ruler

An attendant approaches the knight and hands him his helmet. Contrary to what modern viewers might think, the attendant is a short-statured adult, often referred to as a ‘court dwarf’ in the context of courtly life. Renaissance courtiers were not free to approach the sovereign, touch him, give voice to uncomfortable truths or ribald jests. The court dwarfs alone got away with these transgressions – within the clearly defined parameters of their role.

Titian, Portrait of Alfonso d'Avalos with Page (Detail), c. 1533

Oil on canvas, 110 x 80 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Titian, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1510

Oil on poplar, 20 x 17 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main – ARTOTHEK

Fluid contours, visible brushstrokes and a free handling of glowing colour – more than any other artist, Titian embodies the art of Venice. Few cities had as profound an impact on the course of the history of art! The atmosphere, vibrancy, heightened emotion and painterly energy of the sixteenth-century Venetian school went on to have a lasting effect on the development of Western art. We can catch glimpses of this fascinating period not only in the churches, secular buildings and streets of the city but also in the poetic paintings of Renaissance Venice.


The open sea! The monumental panorama of water and waves is more than two metres wide and was printed from twelve separate blocks onto twelve sheets of paper.

The city in the background is reminiscent of Venice. Even though the subject of the print is the biblical story of the crossing of the Red Sea – with the Egyptian army being submerged on the left, while Moses and the Israelites reach dry land on the right – the image is clearly inspired by the artist’s familiarity with the sea. A drawing by Titian served as the model for the impressive woodcut. Rolling waves, ominous clouds, rugged rocks and countless figures invite viewers to take a closer look. 

Unknown Printmaker after a Drawing by Titian, Submersion of the Pharaoh's Army in the Red Sea, c. 1517 (this impression 1549 or later)

Woodcut in twelve blocks, second state of two, published by Domenico dalle Greche, Venice 1549, c. 122 / 123.5 × 220.5 / 222.5 cm | Frankfurt am Main, Städel Museum, Graphische Sammlung, inv. no. 23758 D

  • A dramatic battle over life and death, horses and their riders in the floodwaters – the pharao's legion is stricken by the approaching storm and waves. After Moses has parted the Red Sea for the crossing of the Israelites, the waters devour their pursuers.

    Combined Shape
  • Whirls, waves and a curling surface – the representation of the waters take up a large part of the woodcut. The dramatic scene allows the artist to express his fascination with the wide-open sea. The observation of the natural world comes into focus.

    Combined Shape
Unknown Printmaker after a Drawing by Titian, Submersion of the Pharaoh's Army in the Red Sea, c. 1517 (this impression 1549 or later)

Woodcut in twelve blocks, second state of two, published by Domenico dalle Greche, Venice 1549, c. 122 / 123.5 × 220.5 / 222.5 cm | Frankfurt am Main, Städel Museum, Graphische Sammlung, inv. no. 23758 D