Fate is notoriously capricious. For some artists, it brings greatness, for others who may have worked alongside them, there’s only oblivion. In this article, I look at the once-famous Venetian painter Andrea Vicentino (1542–1617), one of Tintoretto’s peers.
He’s thought to have been born in or near the town of Vicenza, which lies between Verona and Venice. He was most probably apprenticed to Giovanni Battista Maganza in that town, and to have assumed its name, rather than his original surname of Michieli or Michelli. He moved to Venice in the mid-1570s, when Jacopo Tintoretto was at the height of his career, the city was being ravaged by plague, and one of its famous victims was Titian, who died there in 1576.
Unfortunately, I only have a date for one of his paintings, so I’ll consider them thematically.
Initially, Vicentino seems to have worked alongside Tintoretto until he registered with the painters’ guild in 1583.
He painted several history works for the Doge’s Palace in Venice, among them The Doge Introduces Ottone to the Pope and Receives the Ring With Which the Wedding of the Sea Will Be Celebrated Every Year. This tells some of the legendary background to the annual ceremony of the Marriage of the Sea, established in about 1000 to mark the conquest of Dalmatia.
In 1177, Pope Alexander III acknowledged the help he had received from Venice in his struggle against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. To mark this, he drew a ring from his finger, gave it to the doge, and told the ruler of Venice to cast a similar ring into the sea each year on Ascension Day, to wed the sea. This ceremony continues today.
Soon after the famous naval engagement in the Gulf of Patras in 1571, Tintoretto was commissioned to paint the Holy League’s victory for the Doge’s Palace. His painting was destroyed by fire in 1577, and in about 1600 Vicentino was commissioned to paint its replacement, his Battle of Lepanto (1603).
This is probably his most ambitious painting, with its cast of dozens of galleys, hundreds of oars, and innumerable figures locked in battle.
The battle took place in a branch of the Ionian Sea on 7 October 1571, between the fleets of the Ottoman Empire and a coalition of mainly Spanish and Venetian warships representing the interests of Pope Pius V. It was the last major naval engagement between galleys, and saw over four hundred of them locked together in what’s been described as an infantry battle on floating platforms. The victory of the Holy League was crucial to history, as it was the turning point of Ottoman expansion into the Mediterranean, and a great moral victory for Christian Europe.
Most of Vicentino’s paintings are religious, and of those most shown here are in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, where Titian was buried.
Creation of the World is a delightful composite of the story of Adam and Eve using multiplex narrative. The foreground scene shows the Creator with Adam and Eve, with two distant vignettes of the couple with the forbidden fruit, and at the right being expelled from the Garden of Eden.
Vicentino’s The Brazen Serpent Raised by Moses in the Desert is based loosely on the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapter 21, 5-9, which refers to a period in which God sent ‘fiery serpents’ among the people, because they had spoken against both God and Moses. He makes clear the popular forward reference from the serpent which has been ‘crucified’ to bring healing to those who remain enlightened, to the much later crucifixion of Christ.
Tintoretto’s version of The Brazen Serpent had been completed in 1576 as the centrepiece of the ceiling in the Sala superiore in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. It’s not only large in size, but epic in its imagery, and may well have been an influence on Vicentino’s more modest interpretation.
Vicentino’s The Wedding at Cana was painted for, and remains in, San Trovaso in Venice, and may well have been influenced by Tintoretto’s much earlier painting in the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (below). Described in the gospel of John, but not the three other gospels, tradition holds that this was the first miracle performed by Jesus, in which he turned water into wine, referred to in the decanting taking place in the foreground.
Tintoretto’s very large Wedding at Cana is thought to have been painted mainly by his studio and not his own hand. It adopts a very different composition in a traditional style.
The last of Vicentino’s paintings I show is, appropriately, his Last Judgement, another modestly visionary composition based on the book of Revelation. He makes skilful use of colour to contrast with distant monochrome figures.
Vicentino also played an important role in the Counter-Reformation, as he painted works for many provincial churches on the mainland to support their renovation. It’s just a shame that history has (rightly) remembered his colleague Tintoretto, but forgotten Vicentino almost completely.