Lorenzo Veneziano (active Venice, 1356-1379) The Crucifixion
Sublime aura

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 53, Winter 2017

Page 12

A newly discovered work by the great 14th-century artist, Lorenzo Veneziano, shows the crucial move from the flat Byzantine style to the flesh-and-blood figures of Giotto, says Andrew McKenzie

A magnificent, newly discovered devotional altarpiece has come to light. For the last century, it had been the property of the same Italophile English family and concealed from the eyes of the world's art historians. Unsurprisingly, it has caught the attention of leading scholars. In a recent essay, Professor Gaudenz Freuler of Zürich University states: "Not only is this painting an astonishing addition to the oeuvre of the most innovative Venetian painter of the 14th century, it also allows a new insight into Lorenzo Veneziano's artistic direction towards the middle of the 1360s." This moving and magnificently colourful panel will be offered in December's Old Master Painting Sale in London.

A remarkably inventive artist of extraordinary talent, Lorenzo Veneziano was indisputably the leading Venetian painter of the second half of the 14th century. His impact on later Venetian painting was both profound and widespread. He was instrumental in instigating the significant move in Venetian art towards the Gothic style, turning away from those old-fashioned Byzantine models that had previously dominated the culture of La Serenissima. Having gathered inspiration from his travels in mainland Italy, his work was in as much demand there as it was in Venice. Significantly, Lorenzo introduced a naturalism, a fluency of draughtsmanship and a vitality in his figure poses that had never before been seen in Venetian art. All of these elements are emphatically evident in this ornate and animated panel.

The style of the Crucifixion is derived from the tradition of the great founder of Venetian 14th-century painting, Paolo Veneziano, who preceded Lorenzo as the leader of the city's painters in the first half of the century. An awareness in Venetian art of the revolutionary innovations introduced by Giotto to northern Italy in the first decade of the 1300s was first discernible in Paolo's work. However, as is apparent in this altarpiece, Lorenzo employed a more progressive artistic response to his Venetian precursor, based, it would seem, on the Paduan interpretations of Giotto's novelties. It was Giotto's ability to render three-dimensional form and space, the simplicity of his compositions and his effective portrayal of human emotions that explain why his works have been dubbed the first modern paintings.

Lorenzo's response to these innovations was to be developed by the next generation of Venetian painters, such as Guariento and later Altichiero, whose paintings executed for the Doge's Palace from around 1408 established the International Gothic style in Venice.

This freshly discovered panel crucially displays a number of the more modern elements that Lorenzo had come to adopt by the 1360s. These can be seen, for example, in the painting of the figures, which display a more physical presence. This is coupled with the artist's growing interest in elaborate decoration, as is visible in the ornate garments of the figures and on the soldier's armour. The Saviour's body on the Cross is constructed with meticulous care and with the most delicate of brushstrokes, underlining the artist's capacity to render minute anatomic details to perfection, while also conveying the tension of a hanging body. The interaction between the figures in this panel has now moved away from the earlier, almost violent manner in which Lorenzo had tended to arrange them. They engage in a more subtle fashion, united here in groups: on one side a family in its common grief; on the other an assembly of unbelievers amazed by Christ's sacrifice. This new emotional intensity was Lorenzo's gift to Venetian art.

The panel to be offered at Bonhams incorporates a number of subtleties that convey this heightened emotion. These include the mourning St John, who is turned to the viewers in order to engage them in his grief, and the imposing figure of the high priest seen from behind as he converses with his companions, whose face is foreshortened.

These features can be accounted for by Lorenzo having witnessed on the mainland – in the Po valley in particular – those artists who attempted to refashion the art of Giotto and create more modern artistic solutions.

It seems that through Lorenzo's continuous contact with the artistic currents and cross-currents in the Po valley and the north Italian mainland, he was prompted to return to a new reflection of the artistic possibilities of Giotto's innovations of the first third of the Trecento. The emergence of this important work by Lorenzo Veneziano allows us a clearer understanding of this significant period in the artist's eventful career.

Andrew McKenzie is Director of Bonhams Old Master Paintings.

Sale: Old Master Paintings
Wednesday 6 December at 2pm
Enquiries: Andrew McKenzie +44 (0) 20 7468 8261

  1. Andrew McKenzie
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 8261
    FaxFax: +44 20 7447 7439

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