Venice in the balance: 300 years of art & music

The Portland Art Museum's big new slice of history finds the art in the music and the music in the art

The Portland Art Museum’s lovely new exhibit Venice: The Golden Age of Art and Music has many keys, and not quite at random I’m choosing this one to unlock it: a modest but beautifully detailed brass sackbut, minus mouthpiece, from the latter half of the 16th century.

Jacopo Comin, called Tintoretto, "The Contest Between Apollo and Marsyas," c. 1545, oil on canvas, 55 x 94.5 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Jacopo Comin, called Tintoretto, “The Contest Between Apollo and Marsyas,” c. 1545, oil on canvas, 55 x 94.5 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

I choose this piece not only because “sackbut” is an undeniably fun word to type, but also because this exquisite antique musical instrument, an ancestor of the modern tenor trombone, is representative of the superbly measured charms of the exhibition as a whole. Like Pietro Longhi’s warm and slyly funny painted domestic scenes, or Tiepolo’s paintings of celestial coronations or artists at work, this anonymously crafted sackbut is evidence of a culture that believed in nuance and stability above bold revolutionary sweep. It was a conservative society, in the cultural rather than political sense, much more comfortable with the interweaving conversation than the elocutionary shout.

Compared to the modern trombone, the sackbut is small. This example has delicate tubing and a bell that opens elegantly, a funnel of perfect proportion to unleash a soft and rounded yet commanding tone. The brass is cunningly and lovingly worked, ornamental yet restrained. The instrument seems a masterwork of form and function, scaled not to the expanses of symphonic concert palaces but to the intimate warmth of the chamber hall.

Proportionality and balance are hallmarks of this exhibition, which originated at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is showing in Portland, its only stop in the United States, through May 11. Drawn from 49 lending sources – including the likes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, London’s National Gallery, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, the Uffizi in Florence, and the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna – it offers a glimpse into the aspirations and achievements of the thousand-year Venetian Republic during its final three centuries, until 1797, when Napoleon came knocking forcibly and the doges decided to surrender quietly rather than embroil their city-state in a probably unwinnable war. Most of the 120-odd works on display are modestly sized, essentially domestic in scale, and they tend to speak quietly, in the struck and plucked unamplified reverberations of the Baroque temperament. They’re best absorbed slowly, personally, at a pace and perception that dials down to their own until it can broaden as it enters their scale. Nothing’s in a rush. The secret is to take some time with them, so you can enter into the leisurely and richly burnished patterns of their world.


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