Flemish masters take over Venice’s most iconic building


The exhibition From Titian to Rubens sees many masterpieces from Flanders travelling to the cultural capital for one of Italy’s most spectacular autumn exhibitions

City of Bridges

Rubens House director Ben van Beneden was in Venice last week for the opening of the exhibition From Titian to Rubens: Masterpieces from Antwerp and other Flemish Collections. Van Beneden was a guest of honour as he curated the exhibition himself.

The curator also met a delegation arriving from Antwerp, led by city councillor for culture Nabilla Ait Daoud. While in the City of Bridges, the group also visited an exhibition of work by Flemish artist Luc Tuymans at the famous Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal.

From Titian to Rubens, meanwhile, is housed in Venice’s most iconic building, the Palazzo Ducale. Staged in co-operation with the City of Antwerp, VisitFlanders and the Flemish Community, the exhibition features works by the eponymous masters and many others, including Anthony van Dyck, Michiel Sweerts and Jacob Jordaens.

“This beautiful exhibition puts Rubens and his Baroque contemporaries in the spotlight once again,” said Ait Daoud. “This time it won’t be Rubens who is inspired by the Venice masters, but visitors from all over the world who will be inspired by our Antwerp and Flemish artists.”

Throughout his life, Rubens held an open dialogue with Italian art, especially with Venetian art

- Curator Ben van Beneden

The 15th and 16th centuries saw a great many trips between the low countries and Italy taken by artists of the day. Aside from exchanging both theoretical and practical knowledge and skills, artists were collectors of works from the other lands. Rubens and van Dyck, for instance, were both huge fans of Titian, who was a generation before them and would prove to be one of their most significant influences.

“At the beginning of his career, Rubens was also influenced by Tintoretto and Veronese,” van Beneden told Italian news site Arte. “Throughout his life, the artist held an open dialogue with Italian art, especially with Venetian art.”

Titian, the greatest master of the Venetian school of painting, was already a legend at that time. “His painting style, the extraordinary colour palette and the great pictorial virtuosity provided an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Rubens and van Dyck, especially in the field of portraiture,” explained van Beneden. “He was also the first artist to give movement to his portraits and to instil a sense of personality in his subjects. These elements were emulated – and surpassed – by Rubens and van Dyck.”

The 12 rooms of the Doge’s apartments in the Palazzo Ducale are home to From Titian to Rubens, which includes some 100 paintings and drawings. Works by Flemish masters of the Baroque and Renaissance were borrowed mostly from institutions in Antwerp but also from the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, the National Gallery in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Musée National d’histoire de l’Art in Luxembourg City. There are also pieces from private collections.

Some of the works borrowed from Flanders include van Dyck’s “The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ” from Antwerp’s Fine Arts Museum (KMSKA), Rubens’ “The Flagellation of Christ”, loaned by St Paul’s Church in Antwerp, and “Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata” from Ghent’s Fine Arts Museum.

One of the Doge’s rooms has been given over to 16th-century Flemish composer Adriaan Willaert, who relocated to Venice and became maestro di cappella of the St Mark’s Basilica for 40 years until his death. He is also credited as the founder the Venetian School of music, leaving a lasting mark on the cultural history of not only the city, but all of Italy.

“Even in Venice, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, people will be inspired to visit Flanders,” said Flemish tourism minister Ben Weyts. “The works of the Flemish masters hang in many most prestigious places, but only here can tourists really immerse themselves in the world of these famous artists. Flanders is the cradle of so much art and culture, and that is how we must profile ourselves internationally.”

Only in Flanders can tourists really immerse themselves in the world of these famous artists

- Minister Ben Weyts

But Venetian masters are also making their way from Flanders to Venice for the exhibition: Two Titians and one Tintoretto are returning to the city for the first time in centuries. Titian’s “Jacopo Pesaro Presenting Saint Peter to Pope Alexander VI” is part of KMSKA’s collection and will return to Antwerp when the exhibition closes in March.

Two other paintings that have been on show in Rubens House, however, will stay in the Palazzo on permanent loan: Tintoretto’s “Angel Foretelling the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria” (otherwise known as the Bowie Tintoretto) and Titian’s “Portrait of a Lady and Her Daughter”.

The former had belonged to David Bowie’s estate and was purchased in an auction in London in 2016. The following year, the private buyer loaned it to Rubens House, which is now transferring the altarpiece, painted in the 1560s, to its home city of Venice, where it will stay on long-term loan.

Finally, Titian’s splendid “Portrait of a Lady and Her Daughter” – emblazoned on the exhibition’s posters and billboards across Venice – will be seen in the city of its birth for the first time in 500 years. Not that it wasn’t in Venice during most of that time. It was only removed from the city in the mid-19th century – but it was hidden beneath an entirely different painting.

Titian’s son painted over “Portrait of a Lady” shortly after his father’s death, and the original masterpiece was found just six years ago following an x-ray examination of the underpainting. Rubens House has held the privately owned painting since 2017 and now it will remain in Venice, again on long-term loan.

Images, from top: Detail from “Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata” (Peter Paul Rubens, c 1633) / courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” (Anthony van Dyck, 1635) / courtesy Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts

Tourism in Flanders

The majority of tourists visit Flanders from neighbouring countries like the Netherlands, the UK, France and Germany. The main destinations are the coast and the Flemish art cities.
West Flanders - West Flanders is the number-one destination for tourism in Flanders, including for residents living in the region. Visitors are flocking to the province for several reasons: The long coastline, the historical city of Bruges and the First World War memorial sites.
Art cities - The most popular tourist cities in Flanders are known as the “art cities”, which include Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Mechelen and Leuven. The most-visited city is Brussels, followed by Bruges. Other popular Flemish regions include the fruit-growing area of Haspengouw and the pastoral Maasland along the eastern border of Flanders.
World heritage - Flanders has five listings in Unesco's list of protected world heritage, including a series of 26 belfries and the entire historical city centre of Bruges.

percentage of local jobs in tourism


average amount spent per day by a tourist in euros

21 785 600

Number of tourists who visited Flanders in 2016