Andrea Schiavone: Venice’s Mannerist black sheep

In 15th-century Venice, it wasn’t easy to compete with the triumvirate of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese but several artists did, one being Andrea Schiavone. Unable to avoid the three giants’ influence entirely, Schiavone did have a strategy for distinguishing his own work, mostly by looking for inspiration beyond Venice. While pointedly declaring his interest in art outside Venice, particularly the Mannerism of Parmigianino, Schiavone managed to integrate it with the Venetian colorito.

Born Andrea Meldolla in the Venetian-ruled city of Zara in Dalmatia where he still goes by the Croatian name of Andrija Medulić, he is now better known as Schiavone (meaning a Slav) – the Venetian term at the time for a person coming from present-day Croatia. Schiavone trained either in Zara or in Venice where he was always seen as rather non-academic and self-taught. By 1540 he was well established in Venice where he steadily introduced Mannerist modes into local artistic circles.

Venice was certainly receptive to Mannerist influence – as seen in the works of later Titian and Tintoretto and Veronese in general but, with the exception of Schiavone who remained committed to the Mannerist mantra throughout his career, Venetian painting continued to be dominated by non-Mannerist ideas in colouring and expression. Vasari’s disparaging remarks about Tintoretto’s lack of good design show that the differences between Florentine and Venetian painting remained fundamental.

Schiavone’s painting divided Venetian public opinion of the period for his non-conformity. His contemporaries generally admired his compositions but opinions on their technique differed. While Tintoretto and El Greco were impressed by his innovative ideas, Pietro Aretino lamented his lack of “finish”, as did Vasari who declared that in Schiavone, he saw the embodiment of a “certain manner that is used in Venice, that is dashed off, or rather, sketched, without being in any respect finished”.

Schiavone’s Christ before Pilate, my favourite, now in the UK’s Royal Collection Trust, is Mannerism par excellence. The half-length horizontal composition is cropped dramatically with its tight grouping of large figures confined in a small space. The theatrical lighting in a dark setting gives the scene a drama and menace of Caravaggio‘s best work. Schiavone’s technique with a broad brush loaded with paint adds a forcefulness to the confrontation as does the nobility and heroism of his Christ.