Art: The Renaissance Men Who Invented Modernism

No, it wasn't Manet, with his "Luncheon on the Grass" in 1863, which is what we were taught in art-history class. It wasn't even, as many critics have said lately, J.M.W. Turner in England a generation earlier with his swirling, atmospheric ships-at-sea paintings. Frederick Ilchman, a curator at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, believes it was the Venetian artist Titian and a couple of rival painters, Tintoretto and Veronese, who—about 450 years ago—really invented modern painting. That is, Ilchman says, if your definition is his: "oil on canvas, not done for any specific site, and with the artist, not the patron, choosing the subject matter." Ilchman offers proof in the 56 paintings that make up one of the most breathtaking old-master exhibitions you'll ever see, "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice," which is up through Aug. 16 before it travels to a second and final stop at the Louvre in Paris. Every time we turn around, it seems, the beginning of modernism gets pushed back a little further. Either the artists of our time aren't quite as clever as they think they are, or those old painters were a lot hipper—in grand and glorious ways peculiar to their time—than we think they were. "Rivals" is a very convincing argument for the old-school guys.

At the beginning of the Italian Renaissance in Venice early in the 1500s, Titian (born 1488) labored as a talented apprentice in the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, crafter of exquisite, classically serene and balanced paintings of religious subjects on wood panels. Once Titian completed his training and went out on his own, he began to set Venice on its ear with a jazzier style: intensified color patches and virtuoso brushstrokes front and center, and a more 3-D-looking naturalism, all on canvas (lighter weight, larger formats and, when rolled up, extremely portable). Titian scooped up patrons and fame like a Bollywood flick at the Oscars. But then came a challenger, a younger fellow who'd studied briefly in Titian's own studio and, according to one story, was thrown out because his talent threatened the master. The contender's father was a dyer—a tinter—so people called the new artist Tintoretto (born 1518). No sooner did the Titian-Tintoretto rivalry reach a fever pitch about the middle of the 16th century than a still-younger gun came to town—one gentleman from Verona nicknamed, naturally, Veronese (born 1528). The competition now was a three-way shootout.

Tintoretto promised that with him "the color of Titian" would be improved with "the draftsmanship of Michelangelo." Sometimes he made his preliminary sketches with long, languorous brushstrokes, directly in paint on canvas, and gave away paintings to select patrons as samples. (Very modern, no?) Veronese was already fairly famous when, in his early 20s, he relocated to the more major market of Venice. His lighter, somewhat more pastel colors became favorites of important religious and civic groups. With his quickly gained reputation as "master of the grand gesture," Veronese snagged a commission to paint canvases for the ceiling of the Room of the Council of Ten in the Palazzo Ducale. When Titian left town in 1548 to meet Philip II, the future king of Spain—and art patron to die for—Tintoretto (who hardly ever left Venice) unveiled his stunning "Miracle of the Slave" and became, temporarily, the hottest artist in town. Meanwhile, Veronese—who figured Titian was an unmovable No. 1—declared himself a Titian fan and openly aped the master's compositions and figures. Back in the city, Titian made it a point to praise Veronese in order to undercut Tintoretto. The upshot of this frantic competition was that the three artists often didn't have to sign their paintings: their individual styles spoke for themselves. And that, of course—we'd call it "branding"—is as modern as you can get. "Venice was a small city," Ilchman says, "and these guys couldn't walk down the street without seeing one another's work."

The great rivalry continued to produce wonderful paintings right up to the deaths of the artists—Titian in 1576, Veronese in 1588 and Tintoretto in 1594. Some of the pictures in the Boston exhibition—such as a big, melodramatic Veronese "Temptation of St. Anthony" (1553) adjacent to one by Tintoretto (1577), and a row of "The Supper at Emmaus" paintings by all three artists—are nicely installed for direct comparison of styles. But the show is hardly didactic. That famous Titian in the Prado in Madrid—the one where the organist turns around to ogle a reclining nude Venus? It's here. So is Veronese's "Mars and Venus United by Love" (circa 1575), every randy high-school boy's favorite picture at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. And there's "Flora" (1518), a lovely Titian portrait from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which almost never lets anything leave its hallowed walls.

The Italian largesse comes from the MFA's 2006 voluntary return of 13 antiquities, including a Roman statue of Sabina and a 2,500-year-old Greek bowl. Though the Boston give-back was an early model of restitution, it wasn't an unadulterated act of charity on the part of Malcolm Rogers, the MFA's smart British-born director. (He's previously curated exhibitions on guitars and the Muppets, which drew the ire of art snobs—and huge crowds.) The return included a savvy "partnership" agreement for Italy to "loan significant works to the MFA's displays and special exhibitions." One of those is that lovely Titian, and several paintings in "Rivals" come from Venetian churches not usually given to lending. Almost as important: Italy also speeded up its achingly slow paperwork for the show. For which we say grazie.