Commentary by Hovak Najarian
The importance attributed to artists by scholars can be determined usually by how many of their works are projected onto a screen in an art history class. Lazzaro Bastiani’s work is seldom shown or discussed and often he is left out entirely from textbooks. A reason for this is that his contemporaries were the major artists of his time; the fame of Renaissance artists such as Botticelli, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Durer continue to overshadow Bastiani to this day. Bastiani did not work for the Medici in Florence or the pope in Rome; even in Venice where he lived, the artists of the Bellini family were more widely known. Yet, like a good journeyman, he was employed steadily and produced respectable work.
Before the early Renaissance, there was no separation of the arts but in the fifteenth century, painting came to be regarded as being of a higher order. Craft workers were erroneously thought to be occupied only with repetitious handwork whereas the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture were recognized as having intellectual content. Although the weaving process was associated with the crafts, tapestries in effect were akin to painting and were admired. Artists such as Bastiani, were commissioned to make cartoons (full scale preparatory designs) that were reproduced in woven form. The creator of a cartoon, however, did not participate in the weaving process; a tapestry was made usually by a guild or a family of weavers
In Bastiani’s Pentecost, the fine wool, silk and silver threads make up a richness of texture that differs from the surface of an oil painting. The materials are different yet, in style, the Pentecost is in keeping with fifteenth century Venetian painting. Because contacts through trade had been going on with the Near East for many centuries, the rebirth of classicism during the Renaissance was not as strong in Venice as it was in Florence and Rome. The influence of Greek sculpture in works such as The Birth of Venus by Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli gives his painting a neat, uncluttered effect. Bastiani on the other hand, seems to be determined to fill all spaces with ornate details. In the tapestry, symbols of rebirth, resurrection, immortality, and purity are found in the form of such fauna as a hare, peacock, and stag; in flowers we are reminded of the transient nature of life and eternal life is symbolized by a palm tree. Unlike the setting described in the Book of Acts (2:1-21), Bastiani does not place the apostles in a room but instead he presents the scene as if it were an outdoor stage with Mary enthroned in the center. He places the apostles in two groups but does not place a tongue of fire resting above them individually as described by Luke. Bastiani gives us simply an overall reddish glow above their heads.
The placement of Mary on a throne (an image derived from Byzantine sources) in the center of the tapestry has made her the focus of attention. She is noted in the Book of Acts (1:14) as being in the upper room prior to Pentecost and she was there apparently during the event but Luke does not single her out as being a central figure. Instead, Bastiani’s placement of Mary seems to be a result of the extraordinary growth in the veneration of Mary that started in the early thirteenth century and continued through the Renaissance.
Like information on Bastiani himself, the original setting for the Pentecost tapestry is obscure. At the present time it is on the altar of Santa Maria della Salute (Basilica of St. Mary of Health) but the church had not been built at the time the tapestry was woven.
When preparing to weave a tapestry, strong parallel threads are stretched close to each other and tied onto a loom. These are the warp threads through which the weft – the threads that cross over and under them – are passed. If warp and weft are equal in size, color, and texture the fabric will be uniform throughout. When making a tapestry, however, a wide range of colors are used for the weft as the weavers follow an image that was designed by a painter. The result is like a painting except instead of pigments being placed on a woven piece of cloth (a canvas), the pigments are in the threads themselves and are an integral part of the fabric.
© 2012 Hovak Najarian