In Venetian art

Monsters. No romance. No glorification. Monstrous creatures often appear in the paintings of some Venetian collections. In these days of fear, a new light is cast over these depictions as if, suddenly, they have now become terribly real. 

“Let’s look now”. Starting from the medieval times up to the beginning of our century, artists have tried to represent the unknown, the supernatural or simply deformity in such ways that —let’s be honest— the villain is always more interesting than the hero. As a matter of fact, if there is a hero, then the hero does save everyone. Sure he wins. But our eyes don’t forget the imagery of the “other side”.

Monsters in Vittore Carpaccio at the Scuola degli Schiavoni

St George and the dragon

In the little jewel of the Scuola degli Schiavoni in Castello, in the darkness of the room downstairs, sit and look around, clockwise. Vittore Carpaccio will leave you breathless. To your left, one of the best dragons ever painted appears. Its head is already copiously spilling red blood as St George’s spear, although half broken, has pierced it from one side to the other. Cracking spear cracking the dragon’s head. The teeth of the dragon are thin like those of a crocodile, and lethal, its body is covered in thorns: the forehead, the ears, the wings, the back. Claws don’t promise any soft caress. And can you smell its deadly breath? 

Vittore Carpaccio, St George and the Dragon, Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice, detail of the dragon

St Tryphon and exorcism

In one more painting by Vittore Carpaccio, still in that same room of the Brotherhood of Dalmatians, there’s another demoniac creature. The Christian symbology once more interferes and the monster represents a devil, possessing Emperor Gordian’s daughter. St Tryphon is a a child hero that makes the exorcism. The monster is a combination of several animals. So a mix of a donkey and a lion, a reptile like the dragon with a scary pointed tongue. I imagine it is squeaking or bellowing.

Vittore Carpaccio, St Tryphon, Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice, detail of the monster

Painted between the end of the 1400s and the beginning of the 1500s, one of the most complicated periods in Venetian history, these monsters are intriguing as they may represent more than what you see. The storytelling nature of Carpaccio’s art is open to multi-faceted symbolism. They embody irrational forces striving to destroy order. Once they defeat the monsters, both St George and St Tryphon convert to christianity the ones they saved. In Carpaccio’s stories of hybrid monsters, in other words, there’s a change taking place and monsters help that change take place. A change for the good. But who knows if they come back?

Monsters in Jacopo Tintoretto at the Scuola Grande San Rocco

In another brotherhood, the Scuola Grande of San Rocco, more dragons appear in Jacopo Tintoretto’s paintings, representing a disease like bubonic plague in an hymn to healing. But I find something else more interesting. On the side wall, slightly at the corner, don’t miss the Temptation of Jesus.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Temptation of Jesus, Scuola Grande San Rocco, Venice

Painted in the 1570s, Satan’s epiphany offering Jesus stones to turn into bread is astonishing as Satan is really handsome. A cherub that was known for its beauty and wisdom and then fallen angel, Satan in Tintoretto’s painting is disturbing. I love the chest, the way the left nipple contrasts with the light behind. His rosy cheeks and soft lips, his apparently innocent face framed in long, curly blond hair. Just a little overweight, maybe? But, my, don’t you like those bracelets with spikes, almost a punk ornament around those huge biceps? Not to mention that red drape that could just fly away, leaving Satan completely naked in a swirl of the wind. So, be sincere, how can you then pay attention to the figure of Jesus, up there, hiding behind the tree? Naughty Tintoretto, tempting us, too.

Titian’s Pietà at the Accademia Galleries

But monsters can also be invisible. And it’s the representation of fear that reflects their concealed presence. Have a look at the Pietà painted by Titian and now at the Accademia Galleries in Venice. Of course, the monster is death, and death scares.

Titian, Pietà, Accademia Galleries, Venice

But it does even more when it’s against natural order, i.e. a son dying before his mother. Terror seizes Mary Magdalene to the left and her screaming face more that anything else represents lack of… faith?

Titian, Pietà, Accademia Galleries, Venice, Detail of Mary Magdalene

As you all know, the painting was left unfinished by Titian and was meant to be on his grave. He died during one of the worst pestilences Venice has ever experienced. Over one third of the population was gone. And in the same years when Tintoretto was painting his dragons and handsome Satan, Titian painted for his own tomb one of the best representations of fear accompanied by monstrous lions sculptured on the sides of the Pietà.

Max Ernst and Joan Miró at the Peggy Guggenheim collection

Ready for a big jump into modernity? Just get to the Peggy Guggenheim’s collection at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and there you can see more works with my favourite monsters. One is Max Ernst’s La Toilette de la Mariée, 1940.

Max Ernst, La Toilette de la mariée, 1940
Oil painting, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice 76.2553 PG 78 © Max Ernst, by SIAE 2008

The hybrid nature of the monsters comes back echoing medieval bestiaries. Subconsciousness is turned into reality and monsters hiding inside the soul are clearly monsters the human mind created. But, do they really scare you? 

The monster that scares me most is, in fact, Joan Miró’s Femme Assise II.

Joan Miró, Femme assise II, Febr 27th, 1939 Oil Painting, 162 x 130 cm Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice 76.2553 PG 93 © Successió Miró, by SIAE 2008

Painted in 1939 during Civil War in Spain, this work shows a feminine monster, aggressive, devouring with greed whatever falls in her open mouth. Teeth again. Titanic giant, this unnatural mother scares as it revolts the concept of motherhood. Miró’s creature is a sort of violent Medea brought into life thanks to an original artistic language, invented by the artist. The country was torn apart and sliding into dictatorship. Only a new graphic grammar could describe this. Don’t you feel as if that head is going to turn against the viewer, too?

A Still Life by Luc Tuymans at Palazzo Grassi

Finally, you may be familiar with Still Life (2002) by Luc Tuymans, part of François Pinault Collection and exhibited at Punta della Dogana a few years ago. Probably the largest still life ever painted —it’s almost 3,5 meter high per over 5 meter wide—, Tuymans’ work was painted on the occasion of the first anniversary of the attack against the Twin Towers on 9/11.  During the international exhibition documenta in 2002, artists were asked to talk about that tragic event that changed the history. Tuymans polemically refused, simply acknowledging that the subject could not be represented and offered this Still Life inspired by a work by Cezanne, but in much larger dimensions. 

Luc Tuymans, Still Life, 2002, Pinault Collection

What happens however when one cannot represent a monster, fears or terror? Isn’t that, in the end, a tangible hymn to human fragility?

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

Recommended Posts