Santa Conversazione Palma VecchioTurning now to Venice for our last examples, we find that the love of natural scenery was remarkably strong in this city of water and sky, where the very absence of verdure may have created a homesick longing for the green fields. It was Venetian art which originated that form of pastoral Madonna known as the Santa Conversazione. This is usually a long, narrow picture, showing a group of sacred personages, against a landscape setting, centering about the Madonna and child. The composition has none of the formality of the enthroned Madonna. An underlying unity of purpose and action binds all the figures together in natural and harmonious relations.
The acknowledged leader of this style of composition—the inventor indeed, according to many—was Palma Vecchio. It is curious that of a painter whose works are so widely admired, almost nothing is known. Even the traditions which once lent color to his life have been shattered by the ruthless hand of the modern investigator. The span of his life extended from 1480 to 1528. Thus he came at the beginning of the century made glorious by Titian, and contributed not a little in his own way to its glory.
It is supposed that he studied under Giovanni Bellini, and at one time was a friend and colleague of Lorenzo Lotto. A child of the mountains—for he was born in Serinalta—he never entirely lost the influence of his early surroundings.
To the last his figures are grave, vigorous, sometimes almost rude, partaking of the characteristics of the everlasting hills. Perhaps it was these traits which made the Santa Conversazione a favorite composition with him. He has an intense love of Nature in her most luxuriant mood.
For a collection of Palma's pictures, we should choose at least four to represent his treatment of the Santa Conversazione: those at Naples, Dresden, Munich, and Vienna. The Naples picture is considered the most successful of Palma's large pictures of this kind, but it is not easy for the less critical observer to choose a favorite among the four. One general formula describes them all: a sunny landscape with hills clad in their greenest garb; a tree in the foreground, beneath which sits the Virgin, a comely, country-bred matron, who seems to have drawn her splendid vigor from the clear, bright air. On her lap she supports a sprightly little boy, who is the centre of attention.
In the simpler compositions the Madonna is at the left, and at the right kneel or sit two saints. One is a handsome young rustic, unkempt and roughly clad, sometimes figuring as St. John the Baptist, and sometimes as St. Roch. With him is contrasted a beautiful young female saint, usually St. Catherine. Where the composition includes other figures, the Virgin is in the centre, with the attendant personages symmetrically grouped on either side. In the Vienna picture the two additional figures at the left are the aged St. Celestin and a fine St. Barbara.
Of all schools of painting, the Venetian is the least translatable into black and white, so rich in colors is the palette which composed it. This is especially true of Palma, and to understand aright his Santa Conversazione, we must read into it the harmony of colors which it expresses, the chords of blue, red, brown, and green, the shimmering lights and brilliant atmosphere.