Unraveling Canvas: from Bellini to Tintoretto

Abstract

Over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, canvas substituted panel or wall as the preferred support for painting in Venice, moving from the periphery to the core of artmaking. As it did so, canvas became key to the artistic processes and novel pictorial language developed by painters like Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. Sixteenth-century critics associated canvas with painting in Venice, a connection that has persisted to become a veritable trope of Venetian art history. Despite this, we have hitherto lacked a convincing account of Venetian canvas supports and their impact. This dissertation, by examining the adoption, development, and significance of canvas in Venetian art over the period 1400 to 1600, attempts to provide one. Approaching canvas from multiple perspectives, this project offers a deeper understanding of what early modern canvas was at a material level, how it was made and supplied to painters, and its catalyzing role in early modern Venetian art. By tracing precisely how canvas operates within paintings, focusing on lodestar examples whilst drawing on extensive and intensive object-based research carried out on a large corpus, this thesis demonstrates how actively canvas participated in the elaboration of the pictorial poetics of mature Cinquecento art in Venice. It argues that we owe the existence of this distinctive artistic idiom in no small part to the twist of a yarn, the roughness of a thread, the thickness of a stitch. Canvas was critical to both the making and the meaning of these pictures. The wider aims of the project are twofold: on the one hand, to model a methodology that integrates approaches such as visual, textual, and sociocultural analysis with technical art history and conservation-informed comprehension of the materially altered nature of art objects; on the other, to contribute to an account of the history of an art form—the canvas picture—that still occupies a central role in the global art world today

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