The Poetry of Venetian Painting

Paris Bordone, Palma il Vecchio, Lorenzo Lotto, Titian

Poetry, sensuality, colour and light – 16th-century Venice was a vibrant centre thriving with artistic innovation. Newly available pigments enabled the influential painters around Titian to explore a wide variety of topics in an unknown poetic and sensuous style. Their coloristic virtuosity, allegorical depictions and mythological scenes still fascinate us today; their erotically charged and idealized female portraits and their male portraits continue to fascinate.

Paris Bordone, one of Titian’s as yet overlooked students and rivals, counts among the great artists of Venetian painting of the first half of the 16th century. Discover Bordone’s multi-faceted work in the context of his contemporaries, as presented in this important show. With around 100 paintings and prints by Paris Bordone, Palma il Vecchio, Lorenzo Lotto and Titian, this exhibition offers an enchanting insight into the splendor of Venetian painting.

The presentation brings together works from renowned national and international museums, including Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Alte Pinakothek, Munich; Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; National Gallery, London; Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh; Musée du Louvre, Paris; State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; and Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome.

Key subjects

Discover the exhibition

A Metropolis of Art

Venice obtained great wealth and political power around 1500 as a centre of international maritime trade. Venice possessed a lively and diverse culture, which was in part nourished by the arrival of foreign artists, artisans and intellectuals from the Venetian mainland and the regions north of the Alps. The flourishing printing and publishing industries in Venice in particular provided impulses for artistic subjects. The generation of artists around Giorgione and Titian, including Paris Bordone, Palma il Vecchio and Lorenzo Lotto, developed a style of painting that was considered genuinely Venetian.


Mythological subjects and allegories grew more significant in Venetian painting of the sixteenth century. Patrons and collectors formed among the nobility and wealthy patricians but also among the educated bourgeoisie of the city. The Venetian painters sought inspiration for their motifs in the ancient bucolic poetry of Theocritus and Virgil, but they did not just translate ancient texts into paintings; they rather interpreted their literary models freely.

The Reclining Nudes

The motif of a reclining female nude became established in Venice in the first half of the sixteenth century and is still taken up by artists today. The success of this pictorial theme is closely tied to the rise of the early modern art market and of the associated demand for works.  The motif became famous above all thanks to paintings by Giorgione and Titian that treat themes such as ideal female beauty, love, eroticism and sexuality. Scholars have offered very different interpretations of such works, ranging from early modern pinup pictures, visualisations of art theory or literature to depictions of courtesans and paintings for weddings.

The Belle Donne

The female portrait was another of the new subjects that emerged in Venetian painting at the beginning of the sixteenth century . Astonishingly, portraits of the wives of doges did not begin to be produced until the second half of the sixteenth century and then only occasionally. The few portraits of Venetian gentildonne (noblewomen) were compensated for by an excess of portraits of idealised beautiful women. These idealised portraits of numerous variations represent beautiful young women, often with a low-cut décolleté and sometimes with bare breasts and a seductive look, sitting at their toilet with makeup utensils or in an interior.

Self-Image and Reflexion

As an attribute of self-knowledge, the mirror is part of the allegory of Wisdom, one of the four cardinal virtues, and of Truth, but also in a negative sense as a symbol in personifications of Pride, Lust and Vanity. The antithetical interpretations of the allegorical depictions demonstrate the ambiguity of this motif. As a result, the traditional interpretations recede to the background in the portraits of idealised women by the Venetian painters of the sixteenth century. Through an increasing eroticisation of the subjects of paintings the beauty of women was almost celebrated. But these works are also linked by a warning: Youth lasts only briefly, beauty vanishes with age, love grows cold. Thanks to awareness of the omnipresent theme of the vanitas, in a sense a melancholic veil of transience is placed over the sensuous beauty.

Architecture and Perspective

In several of the works in his extensive œuvre, Bordone was intensely engaged with architecture. This is reflected in his precisely executed, magnificent architectural prospects found in certain paintings, where they serve as backdrops for Biblical subjects and frame the actual scenes. In 1537 Sebastiano Serlio published Regole generali di architettura (General Rules on Architecture). Bordone borrowed architectural details in particular from Serlio and employed them in his depictions of the Old Testament subject of David and Bathsheba, scenes of the Annunciation and in his large-format painting of the Tiburtine Sibyl.

Male portraits

The leading Venetian painters developed a new intellectualised view of the portrait that emphasised the character and individuality of the sitter. Thus, male portraits had a particular significance within Venetian painting of the sixteenth century. Those portrayed by Titian and Palma now reveal their inner lives with a new intensity and turn their innermost feelings outwards. Their melancholy gazes roam in the distance, sometimes fixing on the viewer directly and offering insight into their mental state. Even men in armour were often depicted as poetic and lost in thought.

Venice and the North

The Italian Renaissance influenced painting north of the Alps as well in the early sixteenth century. Transalpine artists intensely grappled with the new advancements. Travels to Italy enabled them to study antiquity and the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance artists. Close trade relationships between Nuremberg and Venice had existed since the Middle Ages. In 1505, Albrecht Dürer crossed the Alps for the second time on his way to Venice and engaged in an intense dialogue with the works of the leading painters, including Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Giorgione and Palma il Vecchio. The wealthy Fugger family of bankers also shaped the economic life of Europe in the early sixteenth century and commissioned works from Titian and Bordone.

Supported by


The exhibition is under the auspices of the Embassy of the Italian Republic

Culture partner