- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

The National Gallery of Art’s “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting” is intended to show that Italy had two “renaissances” — first in 15th-century-to-early-16th-century Florence and Rome, then in early 16th-century Venice. The title is a mouthful, but the luminously rich exhibit is a stunner and educator.

It’s no surprise that the National Gallery owns two of the most important works here, Giorgione’s seminal “Adoration of the Shepherds,” donated by the “robber baron” collector Samuel Kress in 1939, and Giovanni Bellini and Tiziano Vecellio’s — better known as Titian (circa 1485-1576) — superb “Feast of the Gods,” gifted by Joseph E. Widener in 1942.

To these, the gallery has added “Bacchanal of the Andrians” from Madrid’s Museo del Prado and “Man With a Glove” from the Louvre Museum, both by Titian — while treasures from other major museums abound.

The Venice of 1500 to 1530 shines as the star here in revolutionizing traditional — especially sacred — subjects, such as Madonna and Child groupings; inventing bucolic landscape as a theme of its own; introducing bust portraits of erotic women and romanticized men as single subjects; and marrying landscape with antique and religious images.

If you’ve seen Raphael’s “Madonna With the Goldfinch” in Florence’s Galleria degli Uffizi, then you know he placed his vertically oriented sacred figures smack dab in the center. In the exhibit’s touching “Virgin With the Blessing Child,” Bellini (about 1430/1435-1516 ) — described in the show’s catalog as the “Father of Venetian Painting” — also placed the holy ones centrally. The difference is Bellini’s horizontal format featuring panoramas of fields and mountains in the background.

Bellini’s young student Titian extended the landscape genre even further by crowding the lovely, peasant-looking woman and chubby baby of “Virgin and Child” to the right of the picture and opening up an even more atmospheric landscape on the left.

The short-lived Giorgione (1477/1478-1510) pushed the approach even further with his “Shepherds” worshipping a tiny bambino Jesus in one corner (circa 1500). The highly detailed landscape behind of a road winding back to bluish Dolomite mountains reveals the beginnings of Venetians’ passion for idealized outdoor scenes.

Another important development highlighted by the exhibit is the beginning of the asymmetric “sacre conversazioni (holy conversations)” images. Most notable is Titian’s “Virgin and Child With Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Dominic and a Donor” (circa 1513-1514), in which the baby Jesus twists away from his mother to interact with a luscious, lavender-satin-clad Saint Catherine. It and “Man With a Glove” (circa 1523/1524) are two of several superb Titians that also were displayed in the gallery’s smashing “Titian: Prince of Painters” show in 1991.

The show’s most impressive section is called “Allegories and Mythologies: The Pastoral Landscape.” Its high points are Titian’s famed “Pastoral Concert” (circa 1510) — the best pastoral landscape of the period, according to the exhibit label — and the show’s real stunners, Bellini and Titian’s “Feast of the Gods” and Titian’s “Bacchanal of the Andrians,” displayed on a single wall in a separate gallery.

“Feast of the Gods,” on the right, is the calmer of the two, with slightly drunk, bare-breasted women welcoming advances from men — among them a satyr. The figures form a balanced, classic band across the horizontal composition, while Titian’s rocky outcropping behind seems to ecstatically thrust everything toward the sky.

There’s no escaping the sexual ecstasy of the “Bacchanal.” Wine flows, a child urinates, while women flirt, and the shimmering female nude in the foreground exults in her unclothed body.

The show’s male and female portraits are pleasant but not earthshaking. Although Giorgione’s “Portrait of a Woman (Laura)” (1506) receives the highest praise from exhibit scholars, Titian’s “Flora” (circa 1520) is the more delectable. Titian is well on his way here to his later gorgeous nudes, such as the 1538 “Venus of Urbino.” The artist’s breaking up of surface and intense colorings would lead to J.M.W. Turner’s landscapes and to New York’s abstract expressionists of the 1950s.

It’s a miracle that a show like this could be mounted, and the gallery and the co-sponsoring Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna deserve high praise.

WHAT: “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays through Sept. 17

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB: www.nga.gov

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