by Roderick Conway Morris

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Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa
The Flight into Egypt, by Jacopo Bassano, 1534

Jacopo Bassano and the Family Studio

By Roderick Conway Morris
BASSANO DEL GRAPPA 13 November 1992


Now more famous as a producer of the spiritous liquor recalled by the latter part of its name, historically Bassano is above all renowned for the painter Jacopo Bassano, who died 400 years ago this year.

The anniversary is the occasion of an impressive exhibition of over a hundred paintings and drawings by Jacopo and the family studio - at Bassano's Museo Civico until 6 December, and thereafter, from 23 January till 25 April, at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. The show is accompanied by an admirably informative and beautifully-produced catalog.

One of Italy's most attractive and spectacularly-situated towns, Bassano is built astride the River Brenta where it pours out of a gorge from the craggy Dolomites onto the lush Venetian plain. Spanning the Brenta's flow - green and placid in summer, but a turbulent torrent in spring - is a majestic covered wooden bridge designed by the 16th-century architect Palladio.

Jacopo's father's house-studio, where Jacopo was born around 1510, was close by the bridge, and hence the family was known locally as 'dal Ponte' (the appellation Bassano being applied only further afield when Jacopo's fame spread). The young Jacopo, who soon revealed that his gifts greatly exceeded those of his workmanlike, but decidedly provincial father, visited Venice from time to time and won the friendship and esteem of his fellow artists there. But he never seems to have been tempted to abandon his birthplace permanently.

The artist's independence from metropolitan Venetian pressures, said Professor R.W. Rearwick of Maryland University, the exhibitions' American organizer, had a profound influence on his work.

'He was always experimenting and improvising,' said Rearick. 'He never took the attitude, 'I must play the game, I must satisfy my patrons', he simply didn't have to do this.'

Another positive consequence of staying close to his roots was that he continued all his life to draw directly on personal observation and experience, giving his portrayal of nature and country life in particular a rare power and immediacy. At first, in conventional fashion, rural backdrops and peasant actors played a secondary role in the depiction of biblical events, but as time went on, the landscape and country folk about their tasks often took center stage, and thus Jacopo established a whole new genre of pastoral painting.

The studio Jacopo inherited from his father remained a family business to an extent unparalled by any other major Renaissance artistic workshop, his brother and later his children helping both with paintings and the relentless production of everyday craft goods for the local market - from religious banners and decorated candles, to shop signs and sculpted ämarzipan for parties. (The domestic facet of this teeming and industrious household, which eventually took over almost all the houses on their block by the bridge, is expanded upon in a separate exhibition, 'The Family of Jacopo', at Bassano's Archivio di Stato, till 20 December).

But the energetic and ambitious family nature of the enterprise, which helped raise them from artisan status to that of honored citizens (exempted from paying local taxes), also had strange and tragic consequences. Francesco, outstandingly the most artistically talented of Jacopo's sons, moved to Venice and took over Titian's famous studio-residence in the north of the city after the old master's death. Receiving so many important commissions that, despite his father's regular visits to provide advice and support, Francesco was finally overwhelmed, he was apparently in a highly-wrought state when, one night, some unknown person began to beat on his door. Alone in the house and convinced that assassins had come to murder him, Francesco threw himself out of the window into the courtyard, and died of his injuries several months later, just a few weeks after his father succumbed to old age. Nevertheless, the Bassano studio went on cranking out 'authentic' Bassano's for a good fifty years after the demise of Jacopo and Francesco.

The upshot was that, though Jacopo was held in the highest regard by contemporary artists and buyers, and his works were internationally sought after for many years to come (hence their very wide distribution in European and North American museums and collections), over-production and the sale of a plethora of often woefully inadequate studio pictures finally buried the jewels under an avalanche of dross.

Surveying the main hall of Bassano's Museo Civico, Rearick fondly reminisced about how he had bought his first Bassano as a schoolboy from the Miss Moores, two eccentric elderly sisters who ran an antique shop in his hometown, for $20. This precocious hunch marked the beginning of a passionate pursuit and, after decades of research and sorting of sheep from goats, he and his Italian colleagues are now able to present a strikingly fresh reassessment of a painter for whom, in Rearick's words, 'every painting was an adventure', and who 'will once again surprise.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023