Jan. 9, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 8

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    Brush with greatness

    Life of little known Renaissance painter illuminated in Cohen's Pordenone Many of us are familiar with the artists of the High Renaissance period: Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Pordenone.


    "Pordenone [1483-1539] is not very well known in this country, but he was quite successful in his time," said Charles Cohen, Professor in Art History and author of the new two-volume work The Art of Giovanni Antonio da Pordenone: Between Dialect and Language, published by Cambridge Press.

    Volume I is a 500-page narrative of Pordenone's life and art, while Volume II contains supporting materials for the study -- illustrations, a complete catalogue of the works, and supporting documents. The set contains 800 plates -- 32 of them in color -- including many views of paintings and preparatory drawings that are being published for the first time.

    "Pordenone was an intense character, very competitive. He was involved in a murder case, although he was exonerated. Early sources agree that he was fatally poisoned, and some even suggested that a rival was responsible," Cohen said.

    "Like his persona, perhaps, his art was a bit idiosyncratic -- more expressive and illusionistic than his contemporaries. He is an artist who involves the observer. For instance, most fresco painters of his day would paint a chapel dome so it seems like it goes up into the perfect golden heavens. In Pordenone's God the Father, however, God with his angels comes swooping into the chapel. He intrudes into your space, almost threatening to land on your head. In another fresco in the same chapel, Pordenone has figures that look as if they are really standing on a platform, greeting the descending God. This kind of painting is similar to Baroque art -- except Pordenone was painting 100 years earlier. He was tremendously inventive."

    Cohen first became acquainted with Pordenone's paintings while in graduate school, and began the long process of seeking out and studying his work. The Art of Giovanni Antonio da Pordenone is the result of 20 years of research.

    "He's a difficult artist to research," Cohen said. "He did frescoes, mostly, and altar pieces. He did very few portable paintings. That's partly what makes him less well known, because his works -- except for a rare few, one of which is at the Smart Museum -- didn't wind up in aristocratic collections and then in museums. To see his work you have to do what I ultimately did -- travel around Italy to small chapels in out-of-the-way places, often in the countryside. But that was part of the fun of studying this artist, as was the constant sense of discovery."

    One of the most interesting things to Cohen is Pordenone's long artistic journey from a humble, provincial style to expressive art coveted by the Doge of Venice. He came from a traditional, modest background in Friuli, a province in what is now northeastern Italy, near the Alps. It wasn't a highly developed area, and so was lacking the rich, complex artistic culture of such cities as Rome and Venice. But in his book Cohen shows how Pordenone selectively used aspects of his somewhat backward, old-fashioned style of painting to create something new and extraordinary.

    "He worked quickly, at first for economic purposes -- the more commissions the more money -- but later because that brushwork had become part of his style, and it added dash and immediacy that was much admired. He often painted fierce characters with psychologically probing expressions. When working in Venice, he sometimes combined Michelangelo's sculpted figures with the landscapes and use of light typical of the Venetian school. A good example of this is on exhibit at the Smart Museum -- Milo of Croton attacked by wild beasts, a painting once owned by Queen Christina of Sweden and the Duke of Orleans. But beneath the Venetian and Michelangeloesque qualities there is a brutality and directness that suggests his provincial background," Cohen said.

    Cohen often scaled scaffolding in the churches he visited to study Pordenone's brushwork and under-drawings, invisible from the ground but showing through the paint if one can get close enough. "It makes a real difference to be able to see how the artist's early ideas and the finished product differ. I include preparatory drawings in my book so that readers can get that same sense of discovery," he said.

    Pordenone's art was unusual for his time, Cohen said. His figures weren't always beautiful, and the compositions weren't always symmetrical. "His figures often ignored the central ideas of High Renaissance painting -- clarity, harmony and beauty," he said. Pordenone also was something of an itinerant artist, fitting his style to the locale where he was working and creating frescoes that would complement the works of other artists in the same chapel.

    "Each town had its own artistic culture and, since I was trying to write a social history as much as an artistic history, studying works by local artists, and the demands of their patrons, showed me how Pordenone adapted his work to the varying milieu he was painting for.

    "I wanted to understand his social culture. What does it mean to be a major artist educated provincially, constantly on the move, but working in ducal palaces as well? To produce serious religious art in out-of-the-way places that had traditional religious values rather than humanistically influenced artistic values? I was interested, too, in the range of his style. In a curious way, Pordenone's provincialism gave him the freedom to combine different artistic traditions like no one else. He moved out of his provincial box and traveled to places like Venice and even Rome, where he saw the Sistine Chapel. He combined these experiences with an expressive Germanic influence that must have come to him over the border from Austria. He was very individualistic, very much one of a kind, and in that sense, modern."

    While other art historians have studied and published works on various aspects of Pordenone's work, The Art of Giovanni Antonio da Pordenone is the most comprehensive study of the artistic, cultural and psychological whole of the artist. It analyzes his background, the influences that affected him and the influence he had on other artists.

    "Many art historians overlook him because he doesn't fit neatly into one of the established categories of Renaissance cultural or artistic style," Cohen said. "Academic critics are suspicious of that, and we often don't know what to do with him, but Pordenone was a great artist, who also represents a fascinating cultural and social phenomenon. And certainly, my book, as weighty as it seems, is not the last word."

    -- Jennifer Vanasco