You can experience a bit of La Serenissima at the National Gallery of Art this summer, with Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, an exhibit that opened a couple weeks ago and continues through September 17. Focusing on the first part of the 16th century in Venice, the exhibit combines a few remarkable canvases by Giorgione and Giovanni Bellini, who were venerable elders at this time, with those of one of the major geniuses of Italian art, Titian. The NGA has selected a few of its own best paintings by these three (Bellini and Titian's Feast of the Gods, Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherds), lined up with loans of a few extraordinary works from other institutions and collections, and then padded with minor painters to make a beautiful, medium-sized exhibit.
However, there are plenty of beautiful paintings to see, including Bellini's Virgin with the Blessing Child (1510), from the Brera in Milan. Not only is this a tender depiction of the Madonna and Child, but the pastoral background is interesting to examine up close: the ladder leaning against an orchard tree, the shepherd, one person pushing another person up against a tree, what looks like a leopard perched on the stone (ominously resembling a tombstone — Bellini would die six years later) that bears the artist's signature. Giorgione's Three Philosophers (c. 1506, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna) and mysterious Sunset Landscape (c. 1507, from the National Gallery in London) are both examples of paintings that were specialized enough when they were made -- what is reality? what is perception? why are we looking at a cave? -- that their meaning now is hard to grasp, making them very rewarding to ponder.
In Titian's Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Dominic and Flora, you can see that Titian's models, whom he acknowledged to be often the courtesans of his time, causing quite a scandal, could become in paint the model of Christian purity or the ideal of Greek mythology. Also not to be missed are the striking close-up portrait of Christ Carrying the Cross (c. 1515), by an unidentified Venetian painter, and Savoldo's Torments of Saint Anthony (c. 1512), almost Bosch-like in its hallucinatory imagery.
For those interested in history, there is a large reproduction of Jacopo de' Barbari's remarkable View of Venice (1500), a massive engraving showing the topography of La Serenissima at the turn of the 16th century. All through July and August, there will be regular lectures and events related to this exhibit. If you get the chance to go, save yourself some time and drop in afterward to a related exhibit in the Ground Floor Galleries, The Poetry of Light: Venetian Drawings from the National Gallery of Art. It is hard to imagine spending too much time looking at images of Venice.