Gallerie dell’Accademia di Belle Arti, Venice/Art Resource

You can pretty much kiss goodbye, at least for now, the prospect of more exhibitions like “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice,” which opens Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts here. Transatlantic loans of the kind that make this show the breathtaker it is are a big drain on strapped museum budgets. Boston was lucky to partner with the Louvre on this project, but such masterpiece gatherings are likely to be rare in years to come. Catch them while they’re hot.

Hot is the word for this show. Devotional ardor radiates from monumental church paintings. In a gallery of female nudes with skin so incandescent as to barely need lighting, eroticism floats like a scent. For the first time in European art we see paint itself used as an impassioned material, the instrument of fervid hands and inflamed personalities.

The show is about three such personalities: Tiziano Vecellio, or Titian; Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto; and Paolo Caliari, called Veronese. All three shot off sparks as they reforged painting as a medium. And all three had feverishly competitive overlapping careers.

These masters of 16th-century Venetian painting were no Holy Trinity. They were a discordant ménage-a-trois bound together by envy, talent, circumstances and some strange version of love.

This is the story the exhibition tells through 56 grand to celestial paintings — no filler here, not an ounce of fat — sorted into broad categories (religious images, portraits, belle donne) and arranged in compare-and-contrast couplings and triplings to indicate who was looking at whom, and why, and when. And that story is set against a larger historical narrative that goes something like this.

Before the 16th century Italian art was dominated by two cities, Florence and Rome, and by two kinds of painting: fresco and egg tempera — water-based, fast-drying, smooth-surfaced — on wood. Venice lay outside this mainstream. Fresco wasn’t viable in the city’s humid atmosphere; tempera had problems too. Then, at the end of the 15th century, oil painting, still little known in the rest of Italy, was introduced, and Venetian art caught fire.

Giovanni Bellini (1431-1516) was the cusp figure. A single painting by him of the Virgin and Child with four saints, dated around 1505, opens the Boston show. It is done in both tempera and in oil on wood. Another painting on the same theme and of a slightly later date hangs beside it. This one is by Titian (1480-1576), a Bellini pupil. It is in oil on canvas, which demonstrates a revolution in progress.

Bellini’s figures, probably painted in part by assistants, are still quattrocento cutouts with colors filled in. Their connections to one another are vague; no one seems to quite know how he or she ended up in the same picture. Titian’s grouping is an organic merging of shadow and light; figures gaze at one another, rapt. Bellini’s palette hovers, soft and pale, in the ether; Titian’s is loam-dark, with the red of the Virgin’s robe as startling as a spill of roses or rubies turned up in the earth.

The oil-on-canvas format had other far-reaching practical consequences. With it artists could produce fresco-size pictures, much in demand for courts and churches, that were portable. Painters no longer had to relocate to Rome or Madrid for big-dollar gigs. They could work at home and mail the art in.

Also, oil paint was physically different from other paint. Because it was slow drying, artists could rethink and revise as they went. (The show has a fascinating section on pictures buried under other pictures.) And its controllable density and weight allowed each stroke to leave a distinctive and volatile trace, like the ink line in handwriting.

As a result people began to pay attention to brush styles, not just as indicators of skill but as evidence of an artist’s emotional presence. At a certain point Titian stopped signing his pictures. The way he used paint was identification enough, even as it changed over his long career, from Bellinian polish to an expressive rawness — see his scraped and scratched late “Entombment” — that Goya and countless later artists would emulate.

At the same time, such a personalized, implicitly egocentric mode went against a Venetian social ethic. Officially, La Serenissima placed supreme value on harmony and equanimity. Public art commissions were scrupulously distributed among many artists; assignments were by committee, not charisma.

Titian, and the oil medium he mastered, turned the page on that. When it came to adorning the city’s churches and all-powerful confraternities, as well as for painting state portraits or soft-porn fantasies for private delectation, he was the artist of choice.


Holland Cotter
New York Times