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Jun 17 2010

Categories: Painting

Paolo Veneziano


Paolo Veneziano is a painter that marked the Venetian art of painting of the 14th century. He is considered to be the founder of the Venetian school of painting, and he was also one of its first official public painters. To get familiarized with his specific artistic expression, one must first perceive the artistic situation of that time in Venice.


Washington Coronation of the VirginThe art in Venice through history has always differed from the rest of Europe. Noticeably, it is more prone to color, as to emphasizing decorativity, than in the case of European art (or the other cities of the Apenine peninsula, for that matter). Venice was founded by Byzantium, through the administration of the city of Ravenna, so it was, from the beginning, under the Byzantine influence. Despite gaining independence in 9th century, the influences from the East remain. This longevity of Byzantine influence is most commonly explained by the connections to Sienna school, whilst the direct connections to Constantinople were disregarded.1 Although its specific artistic expression suggests that it was closed to external influences, the truth tells otherwise. Venice had rather developed maritime and merchant routes, and the merchandise that was transported from the East to Europe by sea came through the Venetian harbor. Particularly successful time for its economy were the first four decades of the 14th century. Thus, it was a very alive and dynamic international city. Here lies the key to understanding its art. The Venetian artists took over any sort of stylistic influences from other cultures, but they applied it in their own manner. In other words, the foreign cultural elements and influences that arrived to Venice were interpreted and transformed into the Venetian style.


In 14th century Venice we can distinguish several artistic influences from different centers, which can also be recognized in Paolo’s works. Those are:
  • BYZANTIUM Primarily Byzantine influences, mostly from its center – Constantinople. This direct stream from the capital of Byzantium, was best received on the doge’s court. This is no wonder considering that Venetian workshops were continuously in contact with Constantinople. These Byzantine influences arrive to Venice in several turns, so they’re presence in art is felt more or less, depending on the period. One of the Byzantine moments that particularly marked Venetian art was the decoration of Baptistery of St. Mark, during the reign of doge Andrea Dandolo.
  • RAVENNA The second stream, which can also be linked to Byzantium, is brought to Venice by the Ravenna’s mosaic masters. They bring the secrets of mosaic art to Venice, as well as the fascination with bright sparkle colors (which will be exceptionally characteristical for later Venetian art). Ravenna, being the leader of the Adriatic school, finds its rightful heir in Venice.
  • GOTHIC Gothic style had its influence on this period’s art as well. Paolo himself was the first Venetian painter who combined the Byzantine with the Gothic shapes, although the Gothic influences were often disregarded by his researchers.

Paolo – Life and Work

The Early Faze

Cover of blessed Leo Bembo, curch of St. Blasius, Vodnjan, around 1321The works of Paolo Veneziano were recorded between 1333 and 1358, while his other works were asigned to him stylistically. The work considered by most authors to be one of Paolo’s first is The cover of the blessed Leone Bembo (cca. 1321) which is currently located in Vodnjan.2 The work was originally held in the Venetian church of San Lorenzo, and it was brought to Vodnjan after the desacralization of Venice by Napoleon, in which Venice lost many of its artworks. The Cover of the Blessed Leone Bembo is a painted sarcophagus cover, divided into five fields. In the central field, which is also the largest, is a display of Leone Bembo himself, whilst the four smaller ones, on the left and on the right of the main display, represent the miracles he performed. Blessed Leone was from Venice, thus these pictures display the miracles he performed there. Two stylistic influences can be recognized in this Paolo’s work; firstly, there is the Byzantine influence which is obvious because of the golden background, greenish faces and strong contours, whilst the communication between the characters is done in Gothic manner.

Another work called Polyptych of St. Lucy (1321?), which was done for the church of St. Lucy on the Isle of Krk, also dates from this period. Beside St. Lucy, local saints of Krk were also displayed in this work. It remains unknown who commissioned it.

The Death of the Virgin from 1333 is Paolo’s first signed work. It shows obvious merging of styles typical for Venice. The central part depicting Madonna uncovers elements of Byzantine art, whilst the saints were pictured under the western influences.

The Washington Coronation of the Virgin also corresponds to this period, though it was not signed nor dated. It was first attributed to Paolo by Evelyn Sandberg Vavala, and this attribution has onwards become generally accepted. However, it is considered today that Paolo is in fact not the author, and the work is attributed to the Master of the Washington Coronation, who was later attributed to several other paintings that were at first considered to be Paolo’s.3

A State Painter (pittore ufficiale)

Lunette of the tomb of doge Francesco Dandolo, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, 1339Paolo Veneziano was one of the first Venetian artists that worked as a public painter, i.e. he worked directly by the orders from the doge’s court. The first work he did as a public painter was the Lunette of the tomb of doge Francesco Dandolo from 1339, which is presently located in the Venetian church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. The doge himself did not want his headstone to look over-ornate, thus he requested this from his painter. In the middle of the lunette there are Madonna and baby Jesus, and on the left and right are the doge and his wife kneeling, the wife dressed as the third class. They surrender themselves to Madonna, which is also the message of this display. It is also notable to mention that Christ is looking towards the men, whilst Madonna is looking towards the women. This work also shows the stylistic quality of Paolo’s work. He gives much more attention towards the orchestration of colors, rather than the space itself, which alienates him from Giotto’s painting. What represents the quality of his painting are large solid color surfaces.

Paolo Veneziano with sons Luca and Giovanni, Pala Feriale, 1345Another Paolo’s work that he did as a public painter is Pala Feriale. It was located at the main altar in the church of St. Mark in Venice, and it served as a cover for Pale d’oro. It was signed by him, and cosigned by his sons Luca and Giovanni. Doge Andrea Dandolo was the first to make note of the legend of St. Mark. He claimed he was the only one who knows the whereabouts of his remains, which was a frequent question at that time, since the church of St. Mark has a crypt, but it was unusable due to the frequent flooding. Andrea Dandolo claimed it to be at the main altar, thus the entire story of St. Mark is set in that exact spot. The displays reveal events from St. Mark’s life, as described by the doge. Venetians invented and presented an experience of the saint, because they wanted to give their city a pilgrimage signature. The reason for this lies in the fact that the pilgrims travelled across Venice on their way to the Holy Land. Here they would wait for a galleon, and in the meantime they would explore the city. The city’s sights were even noted in official guidebooks. Thus Venice decided to offer the pigrims an honoring of St. Mark. Another painting that Paolo painted while working as a public painter is the Madonna from the Academy in Venice.

Madonna from Academy in Venice also belong to a group of work painted by Paolo as a state painter.

Decadence – the fifties of the 14th century

In the period from 1347 to 1358 Paolo didn’t sign his artworks. During that period, due to the Black Plague outburst in Venice, he leaves to Dalmatia.4 One other reason for leaving Venice is the diminished demand for his works. In painting art in mid 14th century Venice figures lose volume, the emphasis is put on the line, characters are presented with a dose of hieratic rigidity, whilst the faces show fanaticism that was not common in the previous period. The accent is on the religious fascination, and there are also some references to Eastern Christianity. This new byzanthism, having different characteristics than in the previous works, is also present in Paolo’s works. Examples of works showing the new expression include the polyptychs from Paris and Pirana; M. Muraro wonders whether these works belong to those of Paolo, or they perhaps belong to the workshop. He deems that it is inappropriate for a court painter such as Paolo to sink to a level of „painter of saints“ – „madonner“.5 Other explorers have different opinions on Paolo’s change of style. E. Sandberg Vavala considers that Paolo is approaching closer to Gothic, and thus the changes in his style should be considered accordingly.6 Lasareff, however, thinks that Gothic elements are a significant criteria for dating of Paolo’s works, but he also stresses out that neither painter’s development is uniform, so him also had phases in which he preferred Byzantine or Gothic influences. Nevertheless, he claims that Gothic is visible in his later works.7 Paolo lived in Dubrovnik during this period, and he left his works in Dubrovnik and Trogir.

Mature Period

Coronation of the Virgin, The Frick Collection, 1358This period includes many signed and dated works. The number of orders is increased, so consequently the workshop gets organised. Apart from the distribution of work, another novelty is copying of the painted characters within the workshop. The characters were copied using transparent paper, and this was especially done with the Madonna. In this period, Paolo stabilizes the production of Madonnas, of both Byzantine and Gothic type. The particularly noted work from this period is the Crowning of Madonna (Frick Collection, New York) from 1358. This was also his last documented piece, which he dated and cosigned with his son Giovanni. Paolo concluded his career with a painting that sums up all his previous experiences. As Muraro states, Paolo hereby introduces Gothic tradition to Byzantine culture.8 The impression gained by studying of this work is pure decoration – which is exactly what the Venetians strived to all the time. Nevertheless, one must ask oneself why hasn’t this display of the coronation of Madonna ever had any influence in Venice? A fresco of the same theme that was painted in the doge’s palace in 1365 by Guariento, a Padovan painter, has completely different stylistic expression. Venetian policy is changed over these years. They do not seek ideal in distant Byzantium anymore, but they resort more to a presentation within the context of Italian nation.9 It seems that Paolo’s style, who combined decorativity of late Gothic with the elements of the East, which he preferred more than Giotto’s realism, was too gentle and abstract for a city that wanted to be represented in a new perspective – less eastern and Byzantine, and more Italian and European.


Venice always had a specific artistic expression, which absorbed influences from different areas, but also interpreted them in its own manner. Such surrounding influenced on forming the artistic figures within. Paolo Veneziano, a painter who still hasn’t with certainty been attributed to all his works, whose life and work is still rather unknown, is by far an artist that marked the 14th century. This is a time of spreading of Giotto’s realism, still Paolo follows his own, different stylistic expression. By being constantly divided between the influences of both Byzantium and Gothic, in his latest works he fortunately combines those influences, thus creating a new, original expression.

  • Founder of the Venetian painting school
  • First Venetian state painter
  • Because of the plague, he spent a part of his life in Dalmatia
  • MICHELANGELO MURARO, Paolo da Venezia, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1970.
  • 1 MICHELANGELO MURARO, Paolo da Venezia, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1970., 1.
  • 2 This work is dated differently (and atributed also). Muraro denys a year of its occurrence (1321), and considers that its originated date should be placed in the middle of Trecento. Lasareff considers that Paolo was not its author at all, and that this is a work of his master (Master of Maestro Paolo). Compare MICHELANGELO MURARO, Paolo da Venezia, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1970.
  • 3 Compare MICHELANGELO MURARO (note no. 1), 22.-23.
  • 4 MICHELANGELO MURARO (note no. 1), 60.-61.
  • 5 MICHELANGELO MURARO (note no. 1), 62.
  • 6 MICHELANGELO MURARO (note no. 1), 62.
  • 7 MICHELANGELO MURARO (note no. 1), 62.
  • 8 MICHELANGELO MURARO (note no. 1), 69.
  • 9 MICHELANGELO MURARO (note no. 1), 67.


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