The Venetian School of Art

The Venetian School of Art, refers to the distinctive style of art that developed in Renaissance Venice, during the 15th and 16th centuries. A celebratory lust for life, a thriving commercial port linking the East to the West and the influence of High Renaissance ideals of beauty and grandeur; led artists to inject a bold new sumptuousness into the world of art.


Above: Procession of the True Cross (in Piazza San Marco) by Gentile Bellini 1496

The Venetian School of Art – SUMMARY

A celebratory lust for life, a thriving commercial port linking the East to the West and the influence of High Renaissance ideals of beauty and grandeur; led artists in 15th and 16th century Venice, to inject a bold new sumptuousness into the world of art.

The Venetian School, which arose during this thriving cultural moment, breathed fresh life into the worlds of oil painting and architecture by combining inspiration from classical-oriented forebears; with a new impetus toward lush colour and a distinctly Venetian adoration of embellishment.

Much of the artwork of this time, regardless of subject matter or content was woven with the underlying message; that the joyous act of being alive was to be considered with a sense of revelry and enjoyment.

The Venetian School refers to the distinctive art that developed in Renaissance Venice beginning in the late 1400’s and which, led by the brothers Giovanni and Gentile Bellini; lasted until 1580.

It is also known as the “Venetian Renaissance” and its style shared the Humanist values, the use of linear perspective and naturalistic figurative treatments of Renaissance art in Florence and Rome.

The second, related use of the term is the “Venetian School of Painting”, which beginning in the Early Renaissance lasted until the 18th century; with the fall of the Republic to Napoleon’s forces.


Above: Domed arch above one of the entrances to the Basilica. Venetian art was strongly influenced by the Byzantine use of bright colors and gold in church mosaics and Venetian architecture was informed by the Byzantine use of domes, arches, and multi-colored stone; inspired in part by the Islamic architecture of the Middle East.

The Venetian school had a great influence of subsequent painting. Specifically, through the presence of Titian’s art in Spain (he avoided visiting), the Venetian style influenced later Spanish art; especially in portraiture, including that of Velázquez.

Through Rubens, Venetian influence was more broadly transmitted to the rest of Europe.

It also includes artists such as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, associated with the Baroque and Rococo movements.

Antonio Canaletto; was renowned for his painting of mostly accurate and detailed Venetian cityscapes, (the “vedute” style); bought and collected by wealthy northerners making their Grand Tour.

Francesco Guardi, fully developed the other style of landscape – the “capriccio” style: fanciful imaginary scenes of the lagoon, often featuring classical ruins and boats, with small human and animal figures (staffage), not forming the primary subject matter. His work influenced the French Impressionists.

Even after Venetian artists ceased to be a significant force, Venice as a subject for visiting artists has been extremely popular. Among the best known to frequently depict the city are J.M.W. Turner, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet.



>>> The Venetian School’s ground-breaking emphasis on “colorito”, or using colour to create forms, made it distinct from the Florentine Renaissance emphasis on “disegno”, or drawing the forms then filling in the colour. This resulted in works of revolutionary dynamism, unparalleled richness, and distinct psychological expression.

>>> Artists in Venice painted primarily in oils, first on wood panels, then pioneering the use of canvas, which was better suited to the humid climate of the city and emphasized the play of naturalistic light and atmosphere and dramatic, sometimes theatrical, human movement.

>>> Portraiture was revitalised during this time, as artists sought a naturalistic treatment of their subjects that simultaneously conveyed their social importance. They focused not on the idealised role of a person, but their psychological complexity. These portraits also started utilizing more of the figure in the painting, rather than just the head and upper bust.

>>> New genres were born during this period, including grand depictions of mythological narratives and the introduction of the female nude of its own accord rather than as a reflection of a religious, mythical, or historical tale. Eroticism began to appear, entwined in these new forms of subject matter, unconstrained by moralistic messages.

>>> A new architectural direction that married Classical influences, alongside carved bas-relief and decidedly Venetian adornments became so popular, that a whole industry of designing private residences cropped up in Venice.



While the Venetian School was informed by the innovations of Renaissance masters like Andrea Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, and Michelangelo, its style reflected the roots of the very distinct culture and society of the Venice city-state.

An emphasis on rich colour permeated creation, bringing the atmosphere of the area and its people alive in a visual representation of the time.

Venice was known throughout Italy as “the serene city” due to its prosperity. Because of its geographical location on the Adriatic Sea, Venice had become a vital hub for trade, linking the West to the East. As a result, the city-state was worldly and cosmopolitan, emphasizing the pleasures and riches of life, rather than driven by religious dogma and proud of its independence and the stability of its government.

The first Doge or Duke to rule Venice was elected in 697, and subsequent rulers were also elected by the Great Council of Venice, a parliament made of aristocrats and wealthy merchants. Magnificence, entertaining spectacles, and lavish feasts marked by carnivals that went on for weeks, defined Venetian culture and became part of its joyous artistic sensibility.

Unlike Florence and Rome, which were under the sway of the Catholic Church, Venice was primarily associated with the Byzantine Empire, centred in Constantinople that ruled Venice in the 6th and 7th centuries. As a result, Venetian art was strongly influenced by the Byzantine use of bright colours and gold in church mosaics and Venetian architecture was informed by the Byzantine use of domes, arches, and multi-coloured stone, inspired in part by the Islamic architecture of the Middle East.

By the mid-1400s the city was a rising power in Italy and Renaissance artists like Andrea Mantegna, Donatello, Andrea del Castagno, and Antonello da Messina visited or lived in Venice for extended periods of time.

The Venetian School style synthesized Byzantine colour and golden light, with the Renaissance innovations of these artists.

Andrea Mantegna

The artist Andrea Mantegna first introduced the linear perspective, naturalistic figurative treatment and classical proportionality that defined Renaissance art to Venetian artists; as he worked in nearby Padua, his native town, on his “Stories of St. James” (1448-1457). His work was to profoundly influence Jacopo Bellini, who became one of the first Venetian artists to employ linear perspective and taught the technique to his sons, Gentile and Giovanni; later leaders of the Venetian School. A lifelong artistic and familial connection developed, as Mantegna married one of Jacopo’s daughters. Mantegna’s influence can be seen in Giovanni Bellini’s “The Agony in the Garden” (c. 1459-1465), referencing Mantegna’s “The Agony in the Garden” (c.1458-1460); both paintings based upon a drawing by Jacopo Bellini.



Andrea Mantegna, Stories of St. James (1448-1457)






Antonello da Messina

Antonello da Messina worked in Venice from 1475-1476 and had a noted impact on Giovanni Bellini’s adoption of oil painting and emphasis on portraiture.

Credited with introducing oil painting to Italy by Giorgio Vasari, Antonello first encountered the art of the Northern European Renaissance while he was a student in Naples. As a result, his works were noted for their synthesis of Italian Renaissance and Northern European principles and influenced the development of the Venetian School’s distinctive style.

L: Antonello da Messina – Thought to be a self-portrait.


Giovanni Bellini, “Father of Venetian Painting”

Pioneering oil painting in Venice, Giovanni Bellini has been called the “Father of Venetian painting.” Both he and his older brother Gentile were renowned; making the Bellini family workshop the most popular and celebrated in Venice.

Important early commissions by the Bellini brothers were primarily religious subjects like Gentile’s “Procession of the True Cross” (1479) and Giovanni’s work depicting the “Deluge of Noah’s Ark” (c. 1470); now lost.

Giovanni Bellini was particularly popular for his treatments of the “Madonna and Child” (above left), a subject for which he had a deep affinity and his depictions combined a kind of devotional gravity with a sense of charm and delight in the light and colour of the world itself. However, it was Giovanni’s emphasis on depicting natural light and synthesizing Renaissance principles with Venetian colour; that made him the leader of the Venetian School.

By the early 1480’s Giovanni Bellini, shaking off the influence of Mantegna, had mastered oil painting as seen in his “Transfiguration of Christ” c. 1480 (above right). He pioneered the Venetian School’s emphasis on portraying natural light and atmosphere by employing colour and tonal gradations. His “Doge Leonardo Loredan” 1501 (below right) established the Venetian School’s stylistic treatment of portraiture and the importance of the genre in Venice.

In later works, he turned to mythological subjects, like his “Feast of the Gods” 1504 (above left), which established a new genre of painting. Writing from Venice in 1506, Albrecht Dürer described Bellini as “the best painter of all.” He was also a noted teacher, as both Giorgione and Titian, subsequent leaders of the movement; were trained in his workshop.




Giovanni Bellini was the first great portraitist among Venetian artists, as his “Doge Leonardo Loredan” (1501), created a compelling image that, while naturalistic and conveying the play of light and colour; idealised the subject and his social role as leader of Venice.

The much-acclaimed work fuelled the demand for portraiture by aristocrats and wealthy merchants, who sought a naturalistic treatment that simultaneously conveyed their social importance.

Giorgione and Titian both pioneered new treatments of the portrait. Giorgione’s “Young Woman”1506 (left), developed the new genre of the erotic portrait that was subsequently, widely adopted.

Titian extended the view of the subject to include most of the figure, as seen in his “Portrait of Pope Paul III”, c. 1553 (left) and emphasized not the idealized role, but the psychological complexity of his subjects.


Paolo Veronese also painted noted portraits, as seen in his “Portrait of a Man” (c. 1576-1578), showing a full-length view of an aristocrat dressed in black standing against a pediment with columns

Jacopo Tintoretto was also known for his compelling self-portraits.


Mythological Subjects

Bellini pioneered the mythological subject in his “Feast of the Gods” (1504).

Titian further developed the genre into depictions of bacchanal scenes such as his “Bacchus and Ariadne” (1522-1523), painted for the Duke of Ferrera’s private chamber.

Venetian patrons were particularly drawn to art based upon classical Greek myths, since such subjects, unconstrained by religious or moralistic messages; could be enjoyed for their eroticism and hedonism.

Titian’s work included a wide range of mythological subjects, as he created six large paintings for King Phillip II of Spain including his “Danae” (1549-1550), a woman seduced by Zeus disguised as sunlight and his “Venus and Adonis” (c.1552-1554) below left; depicting the goddess and her mortal lover.

Mythological contexts also played a role in launching the genre of the female nude, as Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” (1508), which pioneered the form.











Titian further developed the subject by emphasizing an eroticism played toward the male gaze as in his “Venus of Urbino” (1534) above right. Their titles placed both works within a mythological context, though their pictorial treatments eluded any visual references to the goddess. Other works by Titian were to include such references as seen in his “Venus and Cupid” (c. 1550).

This impulse, so popular among the Venetians, also influenced their development of contemporary scenes as dramatic spectacles. This can be seen in Veronese’s “Feast in the House of Levi” (1573) painted on a monumental scale, measuring forty-three by eighteen feet.


Venetian Architecture

Venice had developed to the extent that there was little room for expansion. As a result, many architectural projects involved redesigning buildings, often by creating new facades.

The first architects of the Venetian Renaissance were the brothers Antonio and Tullio Lombardo, who rebuilt the Scuola di San Marco (c. 1490) left. Trained as sculptors, they carved the facade in relief; to create an illusionistic perspective.

While Renaissance innovations via the work of Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti, and Donato Bramante did influence Venetian architects, it was the Byzantine and Gothic tradition that continued to dominate architectural design.

That changed in the 1500’s, when the sculptor and artist Jacopo Sansovino moved to Venice after the 1527 Sack of Rome. Appointed chief architect of Venice in 1529, he was commissioned to design various public buildings in St. Mark’s Square. His love of High Renaissance ideals led him to create a new style incorporating classical traditions alongside the Venetian love of lavish decoration.



His masterpiece was the Biblioteca Marciana, (1537-1587) below, the Library of Saint Mark’s, praised by Andrea Palladio as the “best building since Antiquity.”


The greatest and most influential of Venetian architects, Andrea Palladio, was known not only for his designs but his “Il Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura” (The Four Books of Architecture) (1570); which included his architectural rules and concepts and was widely read throughout Europe.

Left: Andrea Palladio’s design for La Rotonda, his most influential work, was included in Il Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture) (1570).


The Humanist scholar and architect Gian Giorgio Trissino was Palladio’s lifelong mentor. Trissino, a friend of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, was influenced by Leonardo’s designs employing radial symmetry and his interest in the architectural principles of Vitruvius.

As a result, Palladio employed Vitruvian classical elements and mathematical proportions, but reinterpreted them toward simple designs that, using locally available and inexpensive construction materials; were easily reproducible.

Though he designed the Venetian churches San Giorgio Maggiore (1565) and Il Redentore (1576), he was primarily known for his residential architecture. His country villas and city palazzos became the standard for aristocratic homes.



The Venetian School declined around 1580, in part due to the impact that the plague and the city losing a third of its population by 1581.

It was also in part due to the deaths of the last living masters, Veronese and Tintoretto. Both artists’ later works, emphasizing expressive movement rather than classical proportions and figurative naturalism; had some influence upon the development of Mannerism (also known as Late Renaissance), originating from Rome and Florence; that subsequently dominated Italy and spread throughout Europe.


Note on Mannerism. It bridged the gap between the High Renaissance Art and the Baroque Art style of the 17th century, gaining popularity in much of Europe and northern Italy, finally coming to an end around the early 1600’s.

Mannerism, a new style that emerged in Florence and Rome, broadly following the death of Raphael in 1520. It encompasses a variety of approaches influenced by and reacting to, the harmonious ideals associated with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and early Michelangelo.

The style is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities.

Mannerism in art focused on the human figure and depicted forms in contorted poses with more emotional content, a rather disturbing unrest and an almost surreal feeling evident.

Rejecting the stability and classical ease of the High Renaissance, mannerism in art reflected the general turmoil in Europe present at the time with the sack of Rome in 1527, the Reformation and new outbreaks of plague.


However, the Venetian School’s emphasis on colour, light, and delight in sensory life, as seen in the works of Titian; also created a contrast with Mannerism’s more cerebral approach and informed the Baroque works of Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci.

The Venetian School had an even greater influence beyond Venice, as kings and aristocrats from throughout Europe avidly collected the works. Artists in Antwerp, Madrid, Amsterdam, Paris, and London; including Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Rembrandt, Poussin, and Velázquez, were widely influenced by Venetian art.

In architecture Palladio was equally influential, particularly in England where Christopher Wren, Elizabeth Wilbraham, Richard Boyle, and William Kent; embraced his style.

Inigo Jones, called “the father of British architecture,” built the Queen’s House (1613-1635), the first classical inspired building in England based upon Palladio’s designs. As a result, the British 17th century became dominated by the “Palladian” style and in the 18th century, Palladio’s designs informed the architecture in the United States.

Thomas Jefferson’s design for his home at Monticello and for the U.S. Capitol building were predominantly influenced by Palladio and he was named “Father of American architecture” in a 2010 decree, by the U.S. Congress.

Well beyond the Renaissance era, the work of the Venetian School remained distinctive. As a result, the term “the Venetian School of Painting,” continued to be used into the 18th century.

 Venetian artists like Giovanni Battista Tiepolo extended the distinctive style into both the Rococo and Baroque movements, with which he was associated.

Other 18th century artists like Antonio Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal 1697 -1768), known for his painting of Venetian cityscapes, and Francesco Guardi (1712-1793), are primarily discussed within the Venetian School of Painting. Guardi’s work was later influential upon the French Impressionists.

L: Antonio Canaletto: “Entrance to the Grand Canal”  (1730)      R: Francesco Guardi:  “View of the Venetian Lagoon with the Tower of Marghera” (1770)











Art historian Evelyn March Philipps wrote, “Venetian colour, when it comes into its kingdom, speaks for a whole people, sensuous and of deep feeling, able for the first time to utter itself in art.”

He further states” Venice in all her history, in all her character, is Eastern rather than Western. Hers is the kingdom of feeling rather than that of thought, of emotion as opposed to intellect. Her whole story tells of a profoundly emotional and sensuous apprehension of the nature of things; and till the time comes when her artists are inspired to express that, their creations may be interesting enough, but they fail to reveal the true workings of her mind. When they do, they find a new medium and use it in a new way. Venetian colour, when it comes into its kingdom, speaks for a whole people, sensuous and of deep feeling, able for the first time to utter itself in art.”

The story goes that Rembrandt, when told as a young artist to visit Italy, replied that it wasn’t necessary, because “it was easier to see Italian Renaissance art in Amsterdam than to travel from town to town in Italy itself.”

Critic Jonathan Jones noted, “Modern art is hardly imaginable without the influence of Titian, as the three most influential post-Renaissance painters, Velázquez, Rubens and Rembrandt, were devoted to Titian – Rembrandt modelled one of his own self-portraits on Titian’s A Man with a Quilted Sleeve (c. 1510); Velázquez learned his luxurious style from Titians in the Spanish royal collection; Rubens copied many of his paintings.”



The Venetian painting technique of artists like Titian and Giorgione during the Italian Renaissance was derived from the painting technique of Northern Renaissance artists. Strongly influencing Venetian artists were the oil painting techniques developed by the Van Eyck brothers, Flemish painters working around 1400.

The Van Eyck’s painting technique combined the use of egg tempera and oil painting. The underpainting was done in a grisaille technique of tempera, with pure coloured oil glazes applied on top.

This combination painting technique worked well for their small panel paintings, producing the luminous, jewel-like tones for which they are so famous.

Venetian artists by Titian’s time had perfected the oil painting technique, but it was Titian who realised that canvas was better suited to the Venetian painting technique producing larger compositions.

Stages of the Venetian painting technique:-

>>> In the Venetian painting technique, artists prepared the canvas with a glue-gypsum mixture, providing a pure white ground similar to gesso used today, a technique we call “priming”.

>>> Next, the Venetian artist applied a medium value tone, (often an opaque brownish colour, rather than neutral greys) to the entire surfaces.

>>> Then they began to apply an opaque underpainting in glazes of white for the highlights and darker values to define the shadows, creating a monochromatic image of their chosen subject. The underpainting was kept leaner and smoother than the layers that will be applied above; so as to control the textural effect at that stage.  It was also painted with its darkest areas slightly lighter than the desired final effect; so that colours painted over them retain the right amount of brightness and depth.

>>> After the underpainting was dry, the Venetian artist began to further “flesh out” forms, painting with transparent glazes of boldly applied colour.

>>> Once the colour has dried, it can be modified with glazes, scumbles, and/or semi-glazes. It can also be painted over with opaque colour. Such steps may be repeated as desired, until the artist was satisfied.

>>> Highlights are always the final step and are applied wet into wet with a fully loaded brush. Impasto is a popular highlight technique, as it creates the most opaque passages possible. It is a technique that will guard against the fact, that oil paints become more transparent as they age. This application of such solid highlights over more transparent dark layers also creates the impression of depth, something the Venetian Method is famous for.


L: Example of underpainting

R: Example of highlight application



The Venetian Method is the most diverse and flexible out of any oil painting method yet developed.

Its carefully-developed utilization of opaque passages, glazes, scumbles and semi-glazes works natural light into oil paint to create ranges and tones of astounding variety, while also allowing the artist the greatest manoeuvrability, as the picture can be adjusted at any stage during its creation.

The optical illusions created by light-manipulating techniques like glazing and scumbling, combined with being able to choose which edges are refined and sharpened (selective focus), enables those who master the technique to fool the viewer into seeing a three-dimensional reality. No other method equals the Venetian Technique in this regard.

Among the Old Masters who favoured the Venetian Technique (whilst adding their now-famous personal touches to it, of course) were Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Nicholas Poussin, Jacques Louis David, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Jean Léon Gérôme and a host of other lesser-known but admirably skilled Renaissance artists.

Preparation was utterly key to the astounding results achieved by the Old Masters and the other great painters of old; the preparations undertaken prior to beginning work on the final canvas or panel shaped the entire look and feel of the resulting work.

Drawings, sketches, and studies, all done on separate surfaces, were required while conceptualizing any work; being needed to solve potential problems that may otherwise arise later.

Smaller paintings, those often used by apprentices, were sometimes created without colour, to be used as a guide when applying the underpainting to a large canvas. This was generally overseen by a Master, who would look on and correct the resulting work in progress.


See my other blog posts in the category of Art-Music-Literature 

The Venetian School of Art    The Venetian School of Art    The Venetian School of Art    The Venetian School of Art

The Venetian School of Art    The Venetian School of Art    The Venetian School of Art    The Venetian School of Art

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