Bowie’s Bargain: A Rock Star’s Venetian Masterpiece

The late David Bowie was not one of my favorite entertainers. I know, I know, many of you are now pointing at me on your side of the screen and shouting, “Blasphemy!” but there it is. Apart from one or two of his 80’s tunes, however, I just don’t care for his work.

It was nevertheless fascinating to learn, after his death, that the artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust had accumulated a rather significant art collection during his lifetime. And as it happens, one of the first pieces that he acquired turns out to have been quite a find. For it appears that in purchasing the work pictured below, Bowie found a lost work by one of the most important artists of Renaissance Venice.

Jacobo Tintoretto (1518-1594) is one of the greatest names in Venetian art, representing the transition from the classical precision of the High Renaissance, to the more emotional and elongated style known as Mannerism. He was famous both for his portraiture and for painting enormous religious, mythological, and historically-themed compositions at breathtaking speed. His “Il Paradiso” in the Doge’s Palace in Venice for example, which depicts hundreds of saints and angels in Heaven is, at roughly 80 feet long and 30 feet high, one of the largest canvases ever painted.
Fast-forward to 1987, when the now well-established David Bowie pays a visit to Colnaghi’s in London, which for over two centuries has been one of the world’s premier dealers in Old Master paintings. He purchased a 16th century Venetian altarpiece, which depicts St. Catherine of Alexandria interrupted at her prayers by an angel, who gives the saint a premonition of her forthcoming martyrdom. At the time, the painting was believed to be a work from late in Tintoretto’s career, and mostly executed by assistants in the artist’s studio.

Following Bowie’s death, the altarpiece was sold for around $250k – a decent price for a studio piece, but nothing spectacular. After the sale however, experts examining the picture on behalf of the new owner concluded that the painting is, in fact, a much earlier work than originally thought. Moreover, given the details such as the underdrawing and pentimenti – changes of mind by the artist himself while painting the picture – the piece was clearly by Tintoretto himself.

Further research led experts to the preliminary conclusion that this was a piece created in a competition between Tintoretto and his rival Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), for the decoration of the Church of San Geminiano in Venice, which once stood on St. Mark’s Square, opposite the Basilica. The church was demolished by everyone’s favorite midget social-climbing bastard, Napoleon Bonaparte, so that he could build a larger palace for himself in the city. When the church was destroyed, the art within it was scattered, and so some of the pieces in the church’s collection – like Bowie’s Tintoretto – ended up in private hands.

I must confess that, on the whole, I usually prefer Veronese to Tintoretto. I find Tintoretto somewhat muddled and murky, whereas Veronese is often crisp and direct. Take these paintings, for example, which are two of the images that Veronese painted for that competition to decorate the now-gone San Geminiano. Sts. Geminiano and Severo, two 5th century Italian bishops, are shown in wonderfully detailed vestments, while St. Menas, a soldier martyred in the 3rd century during the Roman persecutions, is about to step out of his niche and do some damage with that halberd.

That being said, a personal favorite of mine is Tintoretto’s “Miracle Of The Slave” (1548) which is now in the collection of the Accademia in Venice. This picture dates from an earlier period in his career, when he used a lighter palette than we see in the “Paradiso”, and made full use of the famous Venetian embrace of bold color choices, such as in the aquatic blues and raspberry reds scattered throughout the painting. Here, Tintoretto depicts a pious legend in which St. Mark intervenes to stop a slave from being tortured to death for being a Christian.

Note how the only person who sees St. Mark appearing from Heaven is the little baby in the arms of the woman standing at the left of the picture. Everyone else in the painting is so intent on either the slave lying on the ground, or gazing in amazement at the broken torture implements, that they miss what’s going on right above their heads. Perhaps the artist intended this as a subtle reminder of Christ’s admonition that if we are to imitate Him, and see as He sees, we must become like little children. In its innocence, the baby in this picture “gets” it, in a way that the adults in the image do not.

Currently, Bowie’s former Tintoretto is on exhibition at the Rubenshuis in Antwerp, the former home of Holland’s most famous Old Master painter Peter Paul Rubens, who was a great lover of Venetian art. Further technical analysis is underway on the altarpiece, which I imagine will need to be cleaned and restored, as is usually the case with Old Master paintings. It’s a shame for Bowie’s estate that the entertainer never had the painting cleaned or re-examined during his lifetime, since the piece would have fetched a far, far greater price at auction as an autograph Tintoretto, than what it did as a studio piece.

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