The Geography of Art


Feeble excuse of the year coming up:

I have a meeting with some Italian colleagues next year but the flight times on Monday were not very convenient, so I decided to spend a weekend in Venice so that we can get down to work bright and early on Monday.   The reward for this noble act of self-sacrifice is the opportunity to gorge myself on art for the weekend.

As a part-time lecturer in a Geography Department, I find myself walking Venice’s narrow streets and pondering how art has geographies of its own. I have been fascinated by the history of art for some time, but my travels this year have made me acutely aware of just how time and space are tightly knitted together.   Why, for example, does Venice have relatively few paintings by Titian, its most famous Renaissance painter, yet so much by Tintoretto?   Why haven’t I yet seen a Canaletto here? Or, take the story back a few steps, what was it about Venice that allowed Titian to flourish in the first place?


Left: A Canaletto-free zone: the Accademia gallery in Venice; right: Titian’s Tobias and the angel, photographed in the gallery.

I was at the National Gallery’s Making Colour exhibition a couple of weeks ago, which reminded me how the pigments from which artists derive their colours also have complicated stories, none more so than ultramarine, the intense blue pigment so conspicuous in Titian’s work. Once you know that it is derived from a rare mineral extracted from mines in Afghanistan it cannot be a coincidence that a city that built its wealth on trade with the Orient also bred artists who made bold experiments with colour.

The Titian / Tintoretto distinction is interesting.   I don’t have internet in my rented apartment as I write this so what follows is speculation but Titian was a superstar artist of his time who worked for many clients around Europe. Many of these paintings were sold over time and made their way to the art markets.   Napoleon, apparently, removed many Titians from Venice, which is why the Louvre has a good collection. Tintoretto, on the other hand, spent most of his career in Venice producing religious-themed art for institutions, several of which are still extant.   The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is the supreme example of this.   If you want to see Tintoretto, you have to travel to Venice.   Indeed, if you want to see Tintoretto, you have to travel around Venice.   There are cities where the great art is concentrated in a few galleries – London, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, New York, for example. And then there are cities such as Rome and Venice which are, themselves, the galleries.

Canaletto’s absence is easier to explain: he was the eighteenth century equivalent of the many, many purveyors of tourist gee jaws that line the streets around the tourist honey-pots.   His canvases are really glorified postcards, telling the world about a Grand Tour undertaken by wealthy young men in the eighteenth century. That is why there are so many scattered around stately homes in Britain.   I am, frankly, not missing them. There are so many other artistic delights in Venice – Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini have fascinated me as much as the Tintorettos – that I expect to be fully entertained without venturing beyond the end of the seventeenth century at all.

One thought on “The Geography of Art

  1. Pingback: The anatomy of angels | microscopesandmonsters

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