(b. before 1300, d. ca. 1360)

The Crucifixion

c. 1340
Tempera on panel, 31,8 x 37,5 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The poet Petrarch called Venice "a world apart." Protected by a bewildering network of canals, the city naturally turned to the sea and, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, commanded an extensive empire in the eastern Mediterranean. When Venetian commercial interests diverted the Fourth Crusade from the Holy Land to loot the riches of Byzantium instead, many Greek artists were forced to find work in Italy.

That the city remained tied to its Byzantine traditions is evident in the work of Paolo Veneziano, the first Venetian artist we know by name. If he was aware of the more naturalistic styles of his contemporaries in other parts of Italy, he chose not to emulate them. This painting's small size and arched shape suggest that it might have originally crowned a larger panel in a multipart altarpiece. Paolo's style is essentially Byzantine, with ethereal figures and flat gold backgrounds. But his form -- the altarpiece -- is a Western one.

Paolo's Coronation of the Virgin also is part of the Gallery's collection. The subject of the Coronation was not painted by Byzantine artists and seems to have originated near Paris in the twelfth century. This may be the first such scene painted in Venice. Its strong colors and brittle figures seem almost abstract, a sense increased by the gold striations of the drapery: even without Byzantine models to follow, Paolo's painting has a strong Byzantine character.

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