Editors' pick

An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture


Editorial Review

Tullio, Graded on a Carve

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

Around 1500, in Italy, a bunch of talented artists set things up so that when people heard the word "art," they automatically thought "painting." We're barely out of that mind-set today. That gets me thinking back to the moment just before painting's PR victory, and to the poor sap who decided sculpture was the way to go. He must have imagined he could put a brake on painting's rise, or at least pull even with it.

Tullio Lombardo was that sculptor, born in Venice around 1455 and dying there in 1532. The heart of his career landed at just the moment when Venetian painters such as Giorgione and Titian -- not to mention central Italians such as Leonardo and Raphael -- were nailing down their art form's triumph. Today, there's sure proof they succeeded: Though Tullio is one of the world's great sculptors, the National Gallery of Art has just launched his first museum solo. "An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture" is a modest two-room affair, with sculptures by Tullio and colleagues (including a younger brother, Antonio, who was almost as good) plus a few works by painters of their time.

Some of this show's outsize impact comes from Tullio's competition with painting. Renaissance painters had made such undeniable advances in realism -- in storytelling, the treatment of space, the rendering of light and shade and bodies -- that "lifelikeness," in any and every sense of the term, had become the crucial measure of every artist's success, in all media. Tullio goes to stunning lengths to make his sculpture, done in lifeless marble, rival painting's liveliness.

One of this show's treasures is a bust-length image of a loving couple, carved in ultra-high relief around 1495 and on loan from the Ca' d'Oro palace in Venice. Like many other objects in this show, it is full of telling details meant to bring its stone to life. Tullio makes his figures' lips, though barely parted, reveal perfectly carved teeth. He also captures the creased little mounds of flesh that bridge the space between the woman's underarms and breasts. These mounds are not memorable, necessary features of human anatomy (do we even have a name for them?). Instead, they are the kind of incidental, unexpected, surplus detailing that flags an artist's deep commitment to capturing the way things are.

The soft tissue of the tear ducts that Tullio renders in the corner of almost all his figures' eyes play the same role. He even uses his carved stone to capture the reflection of a light source in his subjects' pupils. He makes hard marble stand for immaterial sparkle, in just the kind of artistic prestidigitation that was normally reserved for painted works.

Around the time of Tullio's death, when he was about 80, hack writers began an endless debate on the relative merits of painting and sculpture. That flabby literary genre, known as the "paragone" (the "comparison"), finds heft in Tullio's carvings. They may have even helped launch it.

Many of Tullio's sculptures would once have looked more like full-color paintings than they do today. After centuries of overcleaning, the Ca' d'Oro relief, like most other works by Tullio, is now white-on-white. A few traces of pigment hint at how it and many of its fellows were intended to look: Its two pale-fleshed figures were once touched up with colored paint on lips and eyes, and stood out against a black background. They would have rivaled the bright figures, pushing back against surrounding darkness, that Bellini and other Venetian painters had recently perfected in the new medium of oil paint. Tullio, that is, might have succeeded in making his lovers seem lit as well as carved.

Tullio's figures also get an added dose of energy from their very active glances. They're never passively waiting to be looked at, as a statue might; they're always caught in the act of looking out into the world, like a real or painted human. Their roving gazes signal that Tullio's figures are animate -- as animate as the painted character studies just then being perfected and put onto the market by Venetian painters.

Tullio's figures are also meant to animate us. In both the Ca' d'Oro relief and another slightly later one that shows a couple usually identified as "Bacchus and Ariadne," the woman's blouse has been pulled open to reveal her breasts. Circa 1500, the well-heeled private patrons who ordered such objects, mostly young and male and brought up in strait-laced Venetian society, would likely have risen to this bait.

In her 1995 book on Tullio, Alison Luchs, this show's curator, described how these sculptures came at precisely the moment when Venetian painters were developing a new market in secular art objects meant for private contemplation. Tullio wasn't about to let them have that market all to themselves.

When it came to pleasing sophisticated connoisseurs, sculpture even had an advantage. More than any other medium in Renaissance Italy, it had close ties to the consummate art of ancient Greece and Rome. Painters could only read reports about, and try to re-imagine, the extraordinarily realistic but entirely vanished pictures of their classical predecessors. Sculptors could take inspiration from actual surviving works, and try to rival them.

Tullio takes care to cast his sculptures as remnants of the classical past. The arms of Bacchus in his relief are illogically cut off just below the shoulder, as in surviving Roman busts, and so are the arms of a gorgeous young man in a portrait relief from a museum in Sibiu, Romania. Instead of reading as visions cropped out of a continuous reality, such as we get in painting (or photos, for that matter), these works make absolutely clear that they are fragmentary objects, like the precious ones that came down from antiquity. And then, in rivalry with painting, Tullio gives these objects more life than they ever had before.

The true aim of Renaissance neoclassicism was to bring a vanished Roman culture fully back to life. He even gives his classical figures hairdos and outfits from his own time, borrowing from painting's skill at capturing the everyday. In Tullio's hands, classically inspired sculpture is more time machine than archaeologist's dig site.

His gorgeous sculpture of a young warrior saint, dressed in classical armor but with a Renaissance dandy's hair, doesn't wait for us to come to him in admiration. He takes a half-step forward to meet us.

No painted hero could do more.