Reality doesn't dim the art of 18th-century Venice

March 19, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

The holy family's flight into Egypt has been a favorite subject for artists down the ages. In standard versions, they appear as three lonely figures with a donkey, traversing hostile terrain or perhaps huddled under a tree in a storm.

But not in 18th-century Venice!

In the first room of the National Gallery's splendid "The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century," the viewer encounters Sebastiano Ricci's "The Flight Into Egypt," painted about 1713. In it, a gallant Joseph, holding the baby Jesus in one arm, chivalrously guides Mary into a small boat. There, an oarsman and a maid with a basketful of food await them. Meanwhile, another fellow holds the gangplank so Mary won't stumble, a boy leads the donkey, an angel stands by with a basket of fruit and another fellow leans into the scene, no doubt hoping to be helpful as well.

This group with its six attendants looks less like a poor couple frantically fleeing the country for fear of their son's life than a family setting off for a picnic on a beautiful summer afternoon. And as such, it's totally in keeping with the spirit of "The Glory of Venice."

The art of 18th-century Venice, as this exhibit of more than 200 works sumptuously demonstrates, is one of glorious color, elegant gesture, seductive atmosphere. Ricci, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and others created religious and mythological paintings that are dramatic in gesture, rich in costume and uplifting in sentiment.

Canaletto and Francesco Guardi recorded town views and regattas in which boats are picturesquely placed under decorative skies and the sun always smiles on the warm stone of buildings. Lord knows where Venice gets all that water, because it certainly didn't rain there in the 18th century.

Marco Ricci's architectural ruins have decorous foliage growing from them, soft colors, satisfyingly asymmetrical compositions, and light that brings out their best features.

Very little of the gritty reality of ordinary life creeps into this idyllic world. The man who holds the gangplank in Ricci's "Flight Into Egypt" has dirty feet, and the oarsman's clothes sport a patch, but these are touches only. No shadow clouds our enjoyment of the decorative arrangement of these luxurious scenes.

In the well-known story of Judith and Holofernes, Judith cuts off the head of Holofernes. The incident is often depicted in art with a considerable amount of blood. But in Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini's "Judith With the Head of Holofernes" (about 1710), not only is the blood conspicuous by its absence, but the artist has carefully placed the head so that we can't see it's not attached to a body, and Judith considerately reaches out to close its eyes. Tiepolo depicts "The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew" (1722) before the knife has touched the saint's flesh.

In the same artist's "Rinaldo and Armida in Her Garden" (about 1745), Armida's right leg protrudes invitingly from yards of voluptuous golden fabric. If you look at the picture carefully, the leg doesn't look as if it could be attached to the rest of Armida's body, and her other leg doesn't appear to exist at all. But never mind that; the two lovers form a satisfying pictorial arrangement, despite the fact that their physical disposition would in reality be, if not impossible, at least supremely uncomfortable.

But none of the above constitutes negative comment on this exhibit or on the art that it comprises. It's merely meant to evoke the spirit of an age drawing reluctantly and with self-delusion to a close. In Venice as elsewhere, the arts of the 18th century helped to prop up an optimistic worldview that was to be swept away by the political, social and industrial revolutions to come.

"Politics in 18th-century Venice was characterised by a self-contradictory effort to preserve the status quo in the increasingly difficult defence of a myth of grandeur and prestige which had by then become illusory," writes Giovanna Nepi Scire, Venice's superintendent of fine arts and history, in the show's catalog. By the beginning of the 18th century, Venice had lost much of its former glory as a maritime power, and its status as an independent state would not survive the century.

To see this exhibit is to understand that Venetian art of the 18th century was clearly meant to support the "myth of grandeur and prestige." The central figure in Pietro Longhi's "Masked Figures With a Fruit-Seller" (about 1760) dons a mask in order to be able to associate with those beneath her station without ostensibly lowering herself; but her wealth is obvious to everyone who sees her magnificent attire. The pretense can be kept up, though, so long as no one challenges it.

Similarly, our ability to see through the "myth of grandeur and prestige" need not prevent us from the full enjoyment of this superbly organized exhibit, which is a consistent joy to experience.

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