- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

During the Italian Renaissance, Venice enjoyed a golden era of painting. Artists such as Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and Titian combined secular subject matter with atmospheric effects and vivid colors to innovate in the new medium of oils. Their brilliant canvases have long overshadowed the City of Water’s three-dimensional art during the early 1500s.

A tiny but provocative exhibit at the National Gallery of Art challenges this conventional view through the work of inventive Venetian sculptors who may have influenced their more famous painter colleagues.

“An Antiquity of Imagination” shows how these Renaissance artists combined the look of ancient Roman statuary with the hairstyles and clothing of their day to create a new type of private art as portable as easel paintings. Their dreamy reliefs and busts of saints, gods and mortals rival the restless and romantic beauty of figures featured in the better-known paintings from Venice.

Curator Alison Luchs, who organized the excellent 2007 show devoted to Florentine sculptor Desiderio da Settignano, sprinkles a few paintings among the dozen sculptures to reveal ideas shared between artists working in both mediums. Rather than present a definitive picture, she raises questions over the meaning of the works to encourage a rethinking of Renaissance art during a crucial period of its development.

The most exciting discovery of the show is sculptor Tullio Lombardo (c. 1455-1532), who collaborated with his father, Pietro Lombardo, and younger brother, Antonio, on designing prestigious tomb commissions. The Lombardos’ church monuments reflected the latest Florentine ideas about reviving classical antiquity through statues inspired by archaeological finds.

The exhibit displays only four sculptures known to be solely carved by Tullio, but these are enough to demonstrate his enormous talent. The most striking are marble reliefs portraying two couples, each figure carved so deeply as to resemble a freestanding bust set against a block of stone.

With its rounded faces, glancing eyes and curly hair, the earlier work from around 1490-1495 reveals Tullio’s close study of Roman funerary reliefs and other ancient sculptures. However, its depiction of a toga-clad man and bare-breasted woman isn’t just a dry copy but is infused with the psychological intrigue of a Giorgione or a Titian.

The pairing suggests a bridal couple doomed to separation, since the figures seem to occupy different worlds. They do not face one another but stare in opposite directions, their full lips parted as if sighing at an unseen presence.

The second couple, carved by Tullio around 1505, is more unified with heads tilted toward one another. Carved with the same hairdos and facial features, the two might be fraternal twins. The grapevine garland in the man’s hair suggests he might be Bacchus, the ancient god of wine, while the woman leaning into his side might be his bride, Ariadne.

Yet their long, rippling hair and the woman’s brocaded snood indicate the figures are from Renaissance times. Perhaps they represent a celebrated 16th-century poet with his beloved or a popular musical duo.

Part of Tullio’s skill was to modernize the ancient world and bring it to life through moody expressions and naturalistic details. He makes us want to know more about the identity of these sensuous, mysterious figures who yearn for something beyond their reach.

In composing his sculptures, Tullio clearly was aware of the paintings of his day. The lips and eyes of his earliest couple were once colored and their pale faces juxtaposed against a black background. The later Bacchus pairing is set within a border suggestive of a picture frame.

Like Tullio’s glancing couples, the portraits painted by Venetian artists often featured the sitter’s head tilted in one direction and the eyes directed in another to create a feeling of ascent. Included in the exhibit is one such example, an early 16th-century painting of a Venetian gentleman whose gaze is far more assertive than the reveries expressed by Tullio’s figures.

As elusive as the sculptor’s couples is his portrait of a young man in a relief from a museum in Romania. With a curly Renaissance hairdo and arms truncated to recall Roman busts, the figure suggests both a real person and an idealized one. He may be St. Sebastian looking at the heavens, as painted by Bellini, or an anxious youth from ancient times seeking unattainable love.

This upwardly searching expression gains momentum in a relief carved by Tullio around 1510-1516, perhaps for a church monument in Venice. Taken to be both a man and a woman, the long-haired saint recalls the earlier Bacchus figure but with a greater sense of movement and intensity.

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