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Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727–1804), The Minuet (1756), oil on canvas, 80.7 x 109.3 cm. Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Francesc Cambó Bequest, 1949. Inv. MNAC 064989. Photo Calveras / Mérida / Sagristà
Has any city ever had as much fun as Venice?
Carnivals, masked balls, romantic intrigues in private opera boxes . . . Renaissance and Baroque Venice had it all. Even stuffy religious and political ceremonies were an excuse for celebration. Music was on the street, in the theatres, in the church, and in the home.
Indeed, the only thing Venetians seemed to enjoy more than music was competing to see how much silk they could drape over their bodies without toppling over.
The exhibition Splendore a Venezia, currently on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is like Venice itself: an exquisite sensory overload, with an intellectual undercurrent. This is apparently the first major exhibition to explore the link between Venetian art and music, so in addition to gasp-inducing canvases by Titian, Tintoretto, and Tiepolo, you’ll also see historical musical instruments and manuscripts. Don’t read music? No problem. Vivaldi and opera are piped into the rooms for your listening pleasure.
Be forewarned, however: you will want to linger here until the guards nudge you out at closing time.
The exhibition starts with iconic paintings of the Venice waterfront by Canaletto and Guardi. You’ve seen these images reproduced a zillion times on posters and tote bags, but to see them huge and in person is an entirely different experience—like visiting a tourist site you’d only seen in photographs before. They’re even more gorgeous than you’d realized.
A less ambitious exhibition could stop right there and still be a blockbuster. But Splendore a Venezia has a lot to say—about history, politics, social class, and more. It’s all wrapped up in such a charming package that it never feels didactic.
Perhaps that’s because Venice itself has a way of turning anything into fun —even mythological tragedies and cautionary tales. This is not the dour Northern Renaissance with its pious, thin-faced penitents. Indeed, the cavorting goddesses in Venetian art make one wonder if the entire rationale for the Renaissance was the freedom to paint naughty nudes. (“Honest, Cardinal, it imparts a moral lesson!”)
The pleasures of Venice were both high and low, as the exhibition points out. You’ll see paintings of street singers and gondoliers (the museum even has a real gondola) alongside images of the upper classes with their fancy, inlaid instruments, hosting private concerts in their palazzos. In Venice, bawdy commedia dell’arte rubbed shoulders with gilded opera houses. Music was part of the social fabric at every level, in both public and private.
In fact, Venice’s reputation for a giddy good time is what helped it thrive for so many centuries. The city lost its Silk Route prominence after the Portuguese figured out how to sail around the Horn of Africa. But instead of declining into financial ruin, Venice rebranded itself as a destination for music and festivals (similar, I guess, to the way Montreal and New Orleans reinvented themselves after economic setbacks). At one point, Venice had no fewer than nine competing opera houses. Living large is its own (financial) reward.
No one—no matter how jaded—can resist Venice’s artistic and musical charms. Fortunately for us, Splendore a Venezia is the next best thing to being there.
Splendore a Venezia: Art and Music from the Renaissance to Baroque in Venice is on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until 19 January 2014.
Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.
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