I wasn't sure how much to expect from our clowder of kittens and their friends as we made our way through the rain (I bet nobody has noticed how much it has been raining in New England. I might be led to believe I was living in Seattle, but the coffee is still bad, the live music overpriced and the footwear is stylish) and into the restored Huntington entrance of the MFA Boston for the Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice show. The titters about bum cracks from the 6-8 year old group was taken up in exuberant chorus by the 4-and-under set. I won't bore you with the details, but my nightmare scenario involved a disarmingly handsome officer from the Italian questura, a brightly lit room, a glowering agent from some prestigious international insurance institution, my cackling 3-year-old and a priceless broken masterpiece.
But seriously, if you live within 3 hours of Boston, try to see this show sometime during the next two weeks. It's up until August 16th, when it travels to the Louvre. As all the reviewers point out, given the costs required by the aforementioned prestigious international insurance institutions, it is highly unlikely that we will have an opportunity to see such an amazing collection of painting anytime in the near future. The only thing is, if Blicky Kitty had actually gotten that curatorship he applied for years ago, the exhibit would have been a distinctly different experience. For one, it would've been called Titian, the Other Guy, and Whosey-Whatsit; How Titian Rocked my Renaissance World.
Blicky also wouldn't have framed the interplay and visual conversations between the three artists in quite the same way. The reviewers practically make it sound like a horserace:
"Veronese is in the lead by a stretch with his depiction of the Holy Family, now it's Tintoretto coming up from the right with his Suzanna and the Elders, and wait now here comes Titian out of nowhere with a Reclining Venus. The crowd goes nuts. There's chiaroscuro everywhere and you almost can't make it out..... but yes, it's Titian, folks, winning the race by half a length."
Don't get me wrong. The interplay between artists is fascinating to see, but the true joy of this show is the opportunity to see really amazing art close up. When you stand next to a Titian, you get to experience the style that created a tidal shift in the way artists in the Western world used paint. He was the first one to use color and the depiction of light rather than line to delineate form. As his style became more mature and confident, his brushwork became a vehicle for the expression of energy and emotion. He also revolutionized the use of oil paint and glazing with his slow, exacting method of applying layer upon layer to his canvases. He painted over a reddish ground layer to lend warmth to his color then built up the paint. His subtle use of glazes (called velatura or veiling) brought out the richness of the different pigments. Titian was said to have cried "Trenta, quaranta velature!" ("Thirty, forty glazes!").
It's no small feat that Titian gained a mention in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists. Vasari chronicled all of the great Italian Renaissance artists from Cimabue to Vasari. This book is such an important source for art historians that I'm not really even sure how famous a certain little painting in the Louvre would be (or Dan Brown, for that matter -- his wife's an art historian so she'd totally back me up) if Vasari hadn't rhapsodized about its enigmatic beauty. Vasari's book traced all of the artists and their work, evaluating them for how high they ranked on the Tusca-meter. If they were Tuscan enough, they got his highest praise; garbatissimo, which translates roughly as elegant, gentile or wicked-Tuscan-ie. Of course, Michelangelo who like Vasari was born in Tuscany was the pinnacle of all things artistic.
So it's quite a feat that Titian, who had the double misfortune of not being born in that birthplace of the arts and of beating Vasari out on a big commission even made the lineup. Of course Vasari's praise was measured. Some people mentioned in the Lives thought Titian's painting would have been improved if he were to study more works from antiquity or the work of Michelangelo. Vasari even wrote that Michelangelo (the object of his total man crush), after praising the painting of Danae (above) lamented that in Venice they didn't learn how to draw well first. He quoted him as saying that if Titian were assisted by art as he is by nature, especially in the imitation of life, it would not be possible to surpass him, for he has the finest talent and a very pleasant, vivacious manner. So does that mean if he had been Tuscan, he would have been the greatest artist in the book?
Well, the good news is that I'm not in some sexy Italian jail cell, being interrogated mercilessly. The kittens actually loved the show. Elder kitten was delighted to figure out that the shell in the hand of one figure identified her as Venus. Destruction-prone younger kitten kept herself entertained for a while by admiring the pretty dresses or the animals in the foreground of the Last Supper paintings. But mostly she just delighted in calling out various body parts of each nude figure in a really, really loud voice.
Ecco qui il vostro Mandatory Fun: