When you look at a painting, has your attention even been drawn by what happens in the background of the main scene? In other words, do you let yourself get distracted?
When you tour Venice and its art galleries such as the Accademia Galleries or the Doge’s palace, you will find important paintings whose background is really worth observing.
Take the whole series of votive paintings in the Senate and Collegio halls of the Doge’s palace for instance. You will often see St Mark’s square as it was in the early 1580s in the background of the paintings. You can admire what the bell tower looked like before it collapsed in 1902 — and just looking out of the window you can check if its reconstruction has been faithful!
Or you can enjoy the view of St Mark’s basin, once the port of Venice, with its ships resting. In Titian’s work portraying Doge Antonio Grimani, the brushstrokes, although thick and blurred, still let us see and imagine a lot. We can see the reflection of a ship with a white sail on the calm water of the lagoon, the Doge’s palace and the bell tower. The view is taken from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and is still very popular among photographers nowadays.
Do not miss looking at the background of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary at the temple in the Sala dell’Albergo of the Scuola della Carità, now part of the Accademia Galleries. Beyond the architecture, you can see wonderful blue mountains. Trust me, choose a cold winter day and go to the top terrace of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Rialto, or climb the Bell Tower on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, or simply stand at the Fondamente Nuove, you will then see the blue mountains. Sometimes capped with snow, sometimes partially hidden by a light veil, the Dolomites will impress you with their majestic, imposing nature.
If Titian portrayed the Dolomites, it is also because he was born there, in the town of Pieve di Cadore. Similarly in the altar pieces by Giambattista Cima da Conegliano, we can find the same blue color for more mountains and hills, near the town of Conegliano, typically showing the arrival of the spring. The Veneto Region is the source of inspiration and you can tell how enchanting it can be.
There is one painting I like admiring in the Senate Hall of the Doge’s palace. Jacopo Palma Il Giovane represented the allegory of the war of Cambrai, with a victorious Venice holding the sword and winning against Europe —well, the story is quite different, but the propaganda of the time managed to portray a decisive military defeat into its opposite… In the background we don’t find the classical Venetian lagoon or St Mark’s square, but the mainland, the newly conquered territories up to Bergamo.
Far from being decorative elements, backgrounds in paintings of the early and late Renaissance bring a realistic representation which does not just link to the message of the painting. Sure, if you see St Mark’s square appearing behind a Doge, it emphasises the role of the square as the political centre of the Venetian government. In return, it shows the authority of the State leader and his devotion to the patron of the city.
However, both in religious and political paintings, the presence of a landscape or architecture you recognise envelops the main scene in a true, realistic context. It makes it real like a newspaper’s article.
However, there are cases when backgrounds become more interesting than the main scene. Still in the Accademia Galleries or at the Painting Collection in the Correr Museum, how can you miss the mysterious Tempest by Giorgione or the works by Vittore Carpaccio? His strong narrative vein is incredible. Have a look at the representation of the Rialto district at the end of the 15th century. The main subject of the painting is officially the exorcism scene on the balcony of the Patriarch of Grado’s palace on the left. But no one notices it.
My favourite background is a hunting scene in the lagoon painted by Carpaccio. This painting is now stored at the Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
As a matter of fact, this painting proved to be the background of a painting by Carpaccio, representing two ladies, which you can see at the Correr Museum.
There are many interpretations regarding these ladies. Are they courtesans? Are they bored, while waiting for their husbands to come back from game hunting? Someone must have thought the background was quite nice if they cut the piece in two! If it weren’t for the lily flower, torn in two, we would have never understood it was one single masterpiece.
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