by Roderick Conway Morris

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Bassano's Pastoral Idyll

By Roderick Conway Morris
Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, England
Annunciation to the Shepherds by Jacopo Bassano, c.1560



As part of the celebrations following Christendom's naval victory over the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571, an impromptu exhibition of masterpieces was held in Venice at the Rialto, including works by Giorgione and Raphael. Only two living artists were deemed worthy of inclusion: Titian and Jacopo Bassano.

Bassano enjoyed a reputation that long survived him - between 1801 and 1810, for example, around 400 paintings by Bassano and his studio were sold on the British art market - and his and his sons' works can be seen in galleries all over the world. But poor studio reproductions, copies made to meet what seemed to have been an insatiable demand for the Bassano brand, and subsequent mis-attributions have obscured the brilliance of Jacopo's finest works.

Jacopo Bassano is now generally agreed to have been born between 1510 and 1513. His hometown has made a virtue of the uncertainty by spreading a series of exhibitions and events celebrating the 500th anniversary of his birth over the next three years. The first of these, 'Jacopo Bassano', aims to clarify the development of the master's art from the earliest days until his death in 1592, by showing some 25 of his most outstanding paintings from the Museo Civico in the town of Bassano del Grappa, along with 15 loans from international public and private collections.

Bassano was the son of a moderately talented painter whose workshop-home was close to the town's famous covered wooden bridge that spans the River Brenta as it emerges from a mountain valley onto the Venetian plain. Hence the family was nicknamed 'dal Ponte', later to be known as Bassano when their fame spread to the wider world.

Entering the family business early, Jacopo soon proved that his gifts far outstripped his father's. And early, too, he began to manifest an increasingly distinctive style born of a complex mix of absorption and innovation. Trips to Venice brought him in contact with the masters of the metropolis and visiting artists from other parts of Italy, yet he was content to remain in his birthplace, thus preserving a degree of isolation from the mainstream that allowed his originality to flourish.

His palette, like Titian's, went through marked changes during his long life, the bold bright colors of his youth giving way, via numerous experimental excursions, to the darker hues of his last canvases, dramatically illuminated by coruscating bursts and shafts of silver and golden light.

Jacopo's unusual interest in depicting country life, rural scenes and domestic animals eventually gave rise to a new manner of pastoral painting. These bucolic scenarios appealed to the Venetian aristocracy, which was then building villas and cultivating farming estates on the mainland. And, in due course, his naturalistic, down-to-earth depictions of shepherds, cowherds and peasants were being sought after by collectors and the landed classes of countries as religiously and socially diverse as France, Spain and England.

He was also admired by his fellow artists. He was on friendly terms with his more urban contemporaries Titian, Tintoretto, Annibale Carracci and Veronese, who paid Jacopo, an accomplished musician, the compliment of including his portrait in the all-star ensemble of artists that make up the wedding band in the 'Marriage at Cana' (now at the Louvre).

The rapid early flowering of Jacopo's talents is vividly illustrated in this exhibition by a newly discovered 'Christ Driving the Merchants from the Temple' (sold at auction at Christie's in London in 2009 to a private buyer). It has been dated at around 1531-32. Jacopo has placed some convincingly rendered cattle, sheep and goats center stage but is still struggling somewhat with the painting of the perspective, human elements and their placing in the overall space. But he had made enormous strides in both technique and composition by the time he executed the Bassano's Museo Civico's 'Flight into Egypt' in 1534 (previously thought to be the artist's earliest independent work), still one of his freshest and most charming pictures, notable also for its attentive depiction of plants, leaves and grasses.

A large section of detached fresco from a façade of Bassano's Palazzo dal Corno of 1539 is in a very reduced state. The tumbling putti, rams, asses and even an exotic monkey are reasonably discernible, but unfortunately the female nudes, which must surely have been influenced by Giorgione's famous (now lost) frescoes on the façade of the German Warehouse in Venice, are very faded.

The artist's observant and sympathetic portraiture of simple, often barefoot, country folk in their worn, patched clothes offers persuasive evidence of the humanity of a man whose humility and simplicity were noted by his biographers. But he brought an equally engaging directness to his likenesses of'altogether grander figures, as demonstrated by two portraits here: of 'A Cardinal' (possibly the great Venetian humanist Pietro Bembo) from Budapest, and a 'Venetian Senator', from Berlin. The Budapest portrait is an extraordinarily powerful study and a technical tour de force.

The portrait of the cardinal dates from the 1540s, the decade when Jacopo also executed pioneering portraits of animals - represented here by the wonderful 'Two Hunting Dogs Tied to a Tree Stump' from the Louvre - which were decisive in establishing this genre.

Jacopo only began to paint the fully developed biblical-pastoral themes for which he was ultimately to become most famous in the late 1550s and '60s, one of the first of which was 'St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness'. Further excellent examples of these on display here are the delightful 'Annunciation to the Shepherds' from the Duke of Rutland's collection at Belvoir Castle in England and the 'Adoration of the Shepherds' from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which have only been rediscovered by scholars in recent years. In pictures such as the Museo Civico's 'Rachel at the Well' the mass of livestock and attendant peasants so dominate the composition that the biblical incident, relegated to the background, becomes almost incidental.

In Jacopo's lifetime the Bassano family studio won so many commissions that it could scarcely keep up. As is revealed by the 'Libro secondo', an invaluable volume of the workshop's accounts, one picture was not delivered until 14 years after the contract was signed. At the same time, the almost industrial way the studio came to operate sowed the seeds of the decline in Jacopo's standing. For not only were inferior works released onto the market - increasingly dominated by that new phenomenon, the professional art dealer - but Jacopo's descendents were still reproducing ever-more incompetent 'Bassanos' more than half a century after his death. These would surely have horrified an artist whose ceaseless exploration of new ways of extending his range gave birth to some of the most unusual and expressive compositions of the era, and who more than once inscribed on his drawings the motto Nil mihi placet (Nothing satisfies me).

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023