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Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits

"Assumption of the Virgin", Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

“Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits” is the title of an exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in London. It has come from the Prado in Madrid, in slightly slimmed-down form. Not all of the works on show in the Prado can be seen in London (the catalogue is teasingly tantalising in this regard) but there are still a great many treats in store. This is a splendid show, for anyone who already loves Lorenzo Lotto just as much as for those who have yet to be introduced to him.

 

Lotto was born in Venice in 1480. He was greatly influenced by the school of art of his native city but his working life was an itinerant one, spent in Treviso, Bergamo, Venice and the Marche, where he died. He was a deeply religious painter and has left behind him many altarpieces (the devotion often leavened with an infectious sense of fun) but his bread and butter also came (when it came—and in Lotto’s case it was always intermittent) from portraiture, likenesses of members of the increasingly affluent and aspirational middle class of administrators, clerics, artisans and merchants.

 

The painting which begins this article, the Assumption of the Virgin from the Brera in Milan, is not part of the current show. The reason for including it here is because it epitomises the art of Lotto. He was of all the Renaissance masters the one with the greatest sense of humour. Here we see the Virgin, borne aloft on her statutory latex cloud, with the Apostles agog and incredulous beneath her. But Lotto makes us laugh with the witty details. One of the Twelve has taken out his pince nez, the better to view the spectacle. Another, Doubting Thomas, is in danger of missing the whole show. We see him off to the right, sprinting down the mountainside, drapery afloat. We can almost hear him crying, “Wait for me!”

 

If this is the Lotto you love, this exhibition will show you another side of him. There are not many jokes here, probably because his sitters didn’t want to be made fun of—nor did the artist dare to poke fun, in case he did not get paid. A good many of the works displayed here were painted in exchange for bed and board. Lotto never had much money.

 

Nevertheless, he loved a game and he loved a symbol. Some of the portraits include an elaborate rebus, playing on the sitter’s name. Lucina Brembati, for example, wealthy matron of Bergamo, is portrayed (c. 1528; on loan from the Accademia Carrara) with a crescent moon in the top left-hand corner, with the lettters ‘CI’ included within it. The Latin LUNA (moon), with the addition of CI, makes the name Lucina. Another Bergamo patron, painted in 1523 (on loan from the Hermitage), earnestly points to a red squirrel, rather bizarrely (but very sweetly) asleep beneath his cloak. It stands for constancy, a virtue that this new bridgeroom (portrayed with his very young and scared-looking wife) is going to do his level best to embody.

 

One of the heaviest symbolic portraits is the very first in the exhibition, the warts-and-all likeness of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505; lent by the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), a well-fed young thug with incipient rosacea, clutching a scroll which may allude to a successful lawsuit brought against opponents who had plotted his assassination. The portrait originally had a cover, likewise painted on a wooden board, an elaborate allegory of the progress of the soul. On the right we see a spent and drunken satyr, having given the best of himself to wine. On the left, an immature putto cluelessly dabbles with Art and Science, embodied by a pair of compasses and a recorder and pipes. Above them a tiny figure—De’ Rossi’s soul?—studded with four pairs of wings like a seraph, is determinedly making his way up a steep cliff towards a mackerel sky, as blushful as the bishop’s own complexion.

 

Let us not say, then, that the exhibition contains no jokes. There is a particularly good one in the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) from the Royal Collection in London. The wealthy Venetian antiquary poses with his treasures: a head of Hadrian, a Diana of Ephesus. Behind him stand two more: a Venus at her bath, foot daintily raised above a basin of water, into which a statuette of a drunken Hercules is casually urinating.

The "Assumption of the Virgin" in situ in Asolo cathedral.

Even in his altarpieces Lotto includes portraits. One of the delights of this show is the altarpiece of the Assumption from the cathedral of Asolo in the Veneto. In situ it is difficult to appreciate because it can only be viewed from a distance. Here in London, one can get right up to it and inspect the features of the Virgin as she ascends on her cloud. This is no saintly Mother of God. She has been given the mature, worldly features of the redoubtable Caterina Cornaro (1454–1510), Venetian noblewoman and sometime Queen of Cyprus, who retired to Asolo and gathered about her men of literature and learning. The font in Asolo cathedral bears her coat of arms.

 

As the exhibition catalogue admits, “Lotto was not the greatest portraitist in Renaissance Italy and Titian has a better claim to this privileged title in Venice; yet no other painter’s portraits—not even Titian’s—could probably stand up to such a major exhibition without seeming monotonous or creating a sense of déjà vu.”

 

It is true. In Venice, Lotto (1480–1556) was completely surpassed by Titian (1488–1576). In Bergamo by Moroni (1520–79). His draughtsmanship (particularly of the sitters’ hands) is often clumsy. But the life of the imagination and the sense of personality is never so vivid or so manifoldly felt as it is in the idiosyncratic works of poor Lorenzo Lotto.

Lorenzo Lotto: thought to be his self-portrait (in red) among the paupers begging for alms.

Poor Lorenzo. In 1542 he painted what might be his self-portrait, among the paupers begging for alms in the wonderful Charity of St Antoninus altarpiece from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (one of the wonderful things that the show achieves is to have found a rug that matches the pattern of the carpet in the painting). Four years later, in Loreto, Lotto made his will. “Art,” he admitted, “did not earn me what I spent.” He died in 1556, melancholy and discouraged, in penury. A painting containing another putative self-portrait survives in Loreto, a Christ and the Adulteress (c. 1550), where a bearded figure in the crowd puts his finger to his lips in a gesture that warns us to “Speak no evil.” It is tempting to believe that Lorenzo Lotto was just such a man: broad-minded, tolerant and merciful.

 

This exhibition is poignant in the way it reveals to us a genius unrecognised in his lifetime and the injustice that that entails. We still have not learned to spot talent until it is too late. This show reveals to us an artist who, in a way that so many artists do not, leaves traces of himself in all his works. Lorenzo Lotto speaks to us down the centuries. We long to tell him how much we would have appreciated his work—if only we’d been there.

 

Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits. At the National Gallery, London until 10th February 2019.

Leonardo's Leicester Codex

The celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) have already begun, with the Uffizi’s exhibition of the Leicester Codex. Purchased in 1717 by Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, the Codex was preserved in the UK by the family until it was sold to Armand Hammer in 1980. In 1994 it was acquired by Bill Gates, who has lent it to Florence for this show (which runs until 20th Jan). The curator is Paolo Galluzzi, director of Florence’s Galileo Museum.

 

The Codex was compiled while Leonardo was living in Florence at Palazzo Martelli, and it concentrates on the theme of water. At the entrance, the visitor is invited to ‘walk across’ the waters of the Arno to see a reproduction of the famous Pianta della Catena, a bird’s eye view of Florence made at the end of the 15th century, which highlights the places frequented by Leonardo when he was at work on the Codex. Apart from working on the ill-fated fresco of the Battle of Anghiari (described in Blue Guide Florence), he also studied anatomy by dissecting corpses at Santa Maria Nuova (still functioning as a hospital today) and measured the Rubiconte bridge (now replaced by Ponte alle Grazie), observing the force of the Arno sweeping past its pylons in the river bed.

 

While writing the Codex, Leonardo also consulted the works of earlier natural scientists in the library of San Marco, seven volumes of which have been lent to the exhibition (their authors include Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy and Strabo). Two others of particular interest are a tract by John of Holywood (known in Florence as Giovanni Sacrobosco, lit. ‘holy wood’), born in Halifax, Yorkshire at the end of the 12th century, which was still a celebrated work in Leonardo’s time; and the treatise on architecture by Francesco di Giorgio, which has margin notes in Leonardo’s hand.

 

The Codex itself, with its closely filled pages (recto and verso), written from right to left and crowded with sketches, is displayed in 18 showcases. Leonardo’s famous ‘mirror writing’ is explained by the fact that he was left-handed, making it easier and faster for him to write like this. In the centre of the hall are some five touch screens where the Codex can be ‘read’ in its entirety (also in English), with aids to its understanding. These are installed low enough for children to use (but it would have been nice to have benches in front of them in order to sit down).

 

Animated diagrams and reconstructions show how closely Leonardo studied the structure of water, from a dew drop to ocean waves, from springs to the dynamics of water flow and the erosion of river banks, from moisture in the air to the steam created by heating water, from the prevention of floods to the invention of locks along canals. He even describes how the eye perceives sunlight reflected by water. He suggests that water can be harnessed for the good of man if it is coaxed (rather than coerced) into different directions, and his plans for the drainage of the Arno basin, and for a canal to link Florence to the sea, are illustrated. The words invented by him to describe water, in all its various aspects and infinite movements, are pointed out.

 

Parts of the Codex are also dedicated to the moon, which Leonardo recognised as having the same physical nature as the Earth. He describes the Earth as containing a ‘vegetative soul’ and suggests that the flesh, bones and blood of living creatures are related to the Earth’s soil, rocks and water. His geological studies led him to understand the origin of fossils found on high ground formerly covered by the sea.

 

Some other treatises, written by Leonardo at the same time as the Leicester Codex, have been lent to the exhibition: one on the flightpaths of birds and experiments in mechanical wings (lent by the Biblioteca Reale in Turin); two (smaller) double sheets from the Arundel Codex about the canalisation of the Arno (lent by the British Museum); and four sheets of the Codex Atlanticus (lent by the Ambrosiana in Milan).

 

This is an exhibition dense with information that attempts to explain Leonardo’s complicated mind and to compass his interests, which darted from one observation to another. It succeeds in producing a picture not only of his deep scientific knowledge but also of his humanity, so many centuries ahead of his time and based on precise observations of the world about him.

 

The excellent catalogue is available also in English and the exhibition has a website.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence and co-author of the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy (details to follow shortly on this website).

Budapest Art Nouveau

The age of graceful living, in the closing years of the 20th century, is vividly evoked in the newly-reopened villa of the Hungarian collector György Ráth. Ráth was director of the Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts between 1881 and 1896 and during his tenure, the museum collection was augmented with fine works of sculpture and furniture as well as objets d’art. His handsome villa, on the wide, leafy boulevard leading to City Park, was also something of a show-home. He and his wife were celebrated for the magnificent silver and porcelain of their dining table and the spacious reception rooms were tastefully dotted with choice objects, as well as furnished with stately and ponderous items designed by the Historicist architect Albert Schickedanz. The atmosphere of those times has now been marvellously recreated.

Ráth died in 1905 and his wife donated the villa and its contents to the Hungarian state. After many years of closure, it reopened to the public this autumn with a new permanent exhibition tracing the evolution and development of Art Nouveau.

Surviving stained glass in the Ráth Villa.

The display begins in Britain, the cradle of the Arts and Craft movement, where in response to the rapid rise of industrialisation, William Morris in England and Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland placed an emphasis on the hand-made and the artisanal. The ‘Skoal’ vase by Walter Crane (c. 1885), featuring a pair of Norse warriors quaffing from drinking horns, is a prize piece. On the same floor, trends in Austria and France are explored. There is furniture by designers of the Wiener Werkstätte (notably Koloman Moser and Joseph Hoffmann), Thonet bentwood chairs, and lamps by Tiffany and Gallé (particularly spectacular is a gilded lamp-sculpture of Loie Fuller, the shade formed by her billowing drapery).

Detail from an inlaid Viennese hardwood cabinet of 1901 by Koloman Moser.

In all the rooms, careful attention has been paid to the ancillary fixtures and fittings. All the wallpaper has been designed in keeping, picking out and repeating patterns from some of the objects on show. The carpets are carefully chosen (in some cases purpose-made) as are the ceiling lamps. Especially fine is the globular ceiling lamp imitating a ball of mistletoe, by the Hungarian metalsmith Gyula Jungfer (and you can stand beneath it with impunity; the tradition of kisses under the mistletoe is not a Hungarian one).

In the Art Nouveau Dining Room (with sound effects of clinking cutlery), the wall text prompts you to note the complete absence of straight lines. You are plunged into a world of sinuous arcs and whiplash curves. Everything bends, even the floppy-stemmed wine cups on the dining table (contemporary, by Gergely Pattantyús). There is cutlery by Christofle and faïence by the celebrated Hungarian firm of Zsolnay. Also by Zsolnay is the selection of plates designed by the painter József Rippl Rónai, each one different, for the Art Nouveau dining room of Count Tivadar Andrássy (1898). The wallpaper in this room uses a pattern from one of them.

Upstairs (note the fine, creaking wooden staircase) is a long gallery with display cases stuffed with treasures: more glassware by Tiffany and Gallé; jewellery by Lalique; metalwork by Ö. Fülöp Beck and decorative vases, bowls, platters and wine cups by Zsolnay. There are wall tiles too, covered with the lovely iridescent ‘eosin’ glaze which the Zsolnay manufactory pioneered.

Decorative eosin-glazed wall tile by the Zsolnay manufactory.

The last room explores specifically Hungarian trends in the genre, works that are not only made and designed by Hungarian artists in the Art Nouveau style but which are also Hungarian-themed. There are tapestries from the artists’ colony of Gödöllő (a town just east of Budapest) illustrating stories from Hungarian legend; a screen of c. 1909 designed by Károly Kós (best known for his folk-revival architecture) showing the death of Attila the Hun; and a plain but beautiful chair by Béla Lajta, designed for the Jewish Institute for the Blind, with a folk motif of a bird carved shallowly on its backrest.

As you leave, be sure to pay your respects to the bust of György Ráth himself, in the entrance lobby. His fine likeness in bronze (1894, by Alajos Stróbl) is placed next to a marble bust of his wife (same date and sculptor). Ráth is dressed in ceremonial Hungarian attire. The original cloak chain, clasp and buttons, meticulously depicted in the sculpture, can be seen in the adjacent glass case, along with his gilded spurs. This is a delightful show. You are likely to want to visit it more than once. The next step will be to pay some attention to the villa’s garden, where the original allegorical statues of the Four Seasons still stand.

Art Nouveau: A Hungarian Perspective
Now showing at the György Ráth Villa in Budapest (Városligeti fasor 12; open Tues–Sun 10–6).

Islamic Art in Florence

Egyptian jug (14th century). Brass with silver and gold inlay. © Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

The world of Islamic art has been explored in Florence this summer in a major exhibition (Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th century, open until 23rd September), divided between the Uffizi Gallery (the Aula Magliabecchiana exhibition space on the ground floor, so accessible directly from the ticket office) and the Bargello Museum. As is well known, the religion of Islam prohibited cult images and generally speaking all representations of the human form (the only religious element being inscriptions) and so Islamic art consists largely of metalwork, textiles, ceramics, carvings, carpets, all of which we tend to group under the title of ‘decorative arts’, which in terms of 20th-century Western Art History lost ground to the study of painting and sculpture. For those of us ill-versed in the history of Islamic art, perhaps one of the most striking things about this exhibition is the wide date span of objects which have great similarities and stylistic unity, and the occasional difficulty scholars have in identifying not just the region of origin, but even the country. This is also because the works were often made by itinerant craftsmen who were called on to satisfy the trade in luxury items throughout the Islamic world and beyond. Perhaps we have become all too used to looking closely at the dates and birthplaces of the artists when standing in front of a painting or sculpture in Italy.

 

This is therefore an exhibition to be enjoyed above all for its great variety of beautiful objects, all of them of the highest quality, from the huge geographical area of the Middle East under Islamic rule: Syria and Egypt and the North African coast, as well as Persia, Turkey and Muslim Spain. A feeling of exotic luxury exudes from the wonderful carpets, textiles, velvets, brass-work incised in silver and gold, ivory carvings, tiles, glazed earthenware pottery, glass mosque lamps, etc.

 

The great majority of works displayed come from Florence itself: from the two major donations made at the turn of the 20th century to the Bargello Museum by Carrand and Franchetti; from the 19th-century collections in the Museo Stefano Bardini and Museo Stibbert; and from the Medici collections now divided into a number of museums in the city. Much of this art is not normally on display, so this has been an occasion to bring these wonderful pieces into the open and delve into the deposits. In particular, part of the Franchetti collection of textiles in the Bargello can at last be seen, and objects from the Museo e Galleria di Palazzo Mozzi Bardini are also on display.

 

The stuffed giraffe which greets visitors to the Uffizi part of the exhibition has been rescued from the Natural History Museum in Florence: taxidermists were ordered to preserve this extraordinary gift, presented to the Florentine Grand-Duke in 1835 by Ali Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt. It was the successor to another giraffe, sent to Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1487 by the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, and which was once to be seen grazing in the Boboli Gardens. It is known that Lorenzo used to exchange gifts with his contemporaries in Constantinople (Mehmet II) and Cairo (Qa’it Bay). He might even have worn the parade jacket (on show from the Bargello) which bears the name of a Mamluk emir.

 

The extraordinary flare the Medici family had for collecting beautiful things is once again demonstrated in this show, as well as their ability to ‘enrich’ some precious objects from the East with decorations (it is thought that the handle of Lorenzo’s sardonyx vase from Persia, on display from the Tesoro dei Granduchi in Palazzo Pitti, was designed by Verrocchio). A rock-crystal bottle made in Egypt in the 10th century was given a Renaissance mount and ended up in the treasury of the Medici family church of San Lorenzo. Interestingly enough, there is some brasswork in the exhibition which has not been definitively identified: it could be either Islamic or Florentine. But we know that the precious little coffer with silver and gold damascening, clearly inspired by Islamic art (on loan from the Louvre), was produced in Florence in 1570.

 

Among the ceramics are five albarello vases decorated with the Florentine heraldic lily, made in Syria in the early 15th century and here re-united from Paris, Toronto and Doha. A large lustreware pitcher made in Valencia (and now preserved in Berlin) bears the Medici arms.

 

Two large brass basins for ablutions, made in Syria in the late 13th or early 14th century, are displayed together: one is now in Kuwait City but the other, even more beautiful, ended up in Palermo. The exquisite ‘Barberini Vase’ (lent by the Louvre) was once owned by Pope Urban VIII: it was made in the mid-13th century with silver inlay and delicately incised ornament. The pope was evidently unworried about possessing an Islamic artefact.

 

The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence also preserves Islamic documents and manuscripts (and they are holding their own exhibition, Images from the Orient, in conjunction with this one). The Medici even started their own printing press for Oriental scripts. On show at the Uffizi is the Library’s most precious holding of Islamic manuscripts: the earliest known example of ‘The Book of Kings’, the Persian epic poem dating from 1217.

 

The huge collection of decorative arts which belonged to Louis Carrand (1821–99), an antiques dealer from Lyon, was begun by his father Jean-Baptiste, and since Louis spent much of his life in Florence, he left it to the Bargello (there are plans to open a new Islamic Hall there: Carrand’s collection is considered to be the best of its kind in Italy). On show for this exhibition are assorted objects of great interest from the collection: ivory plaquettes made in the 11th–12th centuries with musicians and dancing figures; an ivory elephant from a chess set thought to have been made in Iraq in the 10th century; brass objects including a large ewer from Egypt (since it is inscribed with the name of a Yemeni Sultan, it can be dated to 1363–77); tiles from Iran and Iznik tiles from Turkey; Ottoman textiles; a 14th-century glass mosque lamp; a bronze inkwell from Persia; a steel helmet in the form of a turban, and much more.

 

Part of the textile collection left to the Bargello by Giulio Franchetti in 1906 is displayed in the same room. The largest piece is an amazing strip of red velvet covered with gold discs from Tabriz, identified as one of the panni tartarici (loosely defined as ‘Tartar cloth’) documented in Italy as early as 1295, when it is mentioned in the inventory of Boniface VIII’s papal treasury.

 

On the ground floor of the Bargello there is a selection of the carpets (together with an Ottoman saddle-cloth) from the Museo Stefano Bardini. Bardini’s carpet collection is the largest in Italy, but also on show here are carpets and textiles which he sold and which have ended up outside Italy: the exquisite Mamluk textile fragment in silk lampas with birds and animals is today preserved in the Musée des Tissus in Lyon (purchased from Bardini in 1907). One of the most outstanding carpets is the one which Bardini brought from the Florentine Capponi family and which he sold on to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is an Isfahan carpet from central Persia, dating from the late 16th century, with a blue border with birds and a frieze of animals against a red ground around the central medallion, which has people enjoying a banquet (you have to look closely to make them out).

 

The huge Mamluk carpet (with wonderful scarlet and green colours) made in Cairo in the early 16th century, recognised as the largest in the world, comes from the deposits of the Pitti (understandably not on permanent display there because of its size). For this exhibition it is displayed in the Uffizi.

 

A small area on the ground floor of the Bargello has been dedicated to a fascinating selection of the Islamic pieces from the incredibly crowded rooms of the Stibbert Museum, including 19th-century art created by craftsmen at work in Stibbert’s own lifetime, which he may have picked up on his travels. The fascinating wood manuscript covers from Persia have figurative scenes: a dragon about to eat a king (although the figure of majesty mysteriously appears again in six more scenes on the same panel), and a procession with musicians, mules and a group of women wearing the burka (in black and white). There are also examples of arms and armour from Mughal India and an Indian Qur’an owned by Stibbert’s grandfather.

 

In the catalogue to this fascinating exhibition, the Uffizi director Eike Schmidt writes that he sees it as the role of museums not only to preserve the past but also to foster a dialogue with the present in order to encourage the flow of art and culture between worlds that are only apparently distant one from the other.

 

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

The Wonders of Pontormo

Pontormo's 'Halberdier' (photo: Wikicommons)

A tiny exhibition in Florence this summer, which is a joy to visit (Incontri miracolosi. Pontormo dal disegno alla pittura), is running at Palazzo Pitti. In just one room and with only ten works on show, it is curated by Bruce Edelstein (and is on view until 29th July).

 

Here you can ‘meet’ two masterpieces by Pontormo, arguably the best paintings he ever produced: the ‘Halbadier’ from the Getty and the Visitation from Carmignano just outside Florence. The ‘Halbadier’ is now almost universally accepted as being the portrait of Francesco Guardi, a young Florentine nobleman determined to defend Republican Florence in 1528, during the famous siege by the Imperial troops in alliance with the Pope against the Medici. We know from contemporary sources that there were many young men eager to volunteer in the defence of the city and that they dressed up for their role. Guardi is memorably depicted looking directly out of the painting, proudly flaunting his magnificent costume, in the red and white colours of Florence. A delicately painted gold chain hangs around his neck, and his hands are particularly memorable. The only known preparatory drawing for the work (from the Uffizi) in red chalk is displayed beside the painting.

 

The Visitation has been restored for this occasion and beside it is displayed the small squared drawing (preserved in the Uffizi) which Pontormo used in preparation for the larger work. The street scene in the background is now more visible where the tiny figures of Joseph and Zacharias await their spouses on the stone bench at the foot of a typical Florentine palace (the ass which has been discovered peering round the corner of the building is, however, almost impossible to see with the naked eye). But of course it is the four female figures who are the protagonists of the scene, in their magnificently coloured dresses. In the excellent catalogue the several mysteries attached to this work and much discussed by art historians over the decades seem to have been solved. The presence of two female figures who accompany Mary and Elizabeth at this touching moment (described in St Luke’s gospel) are convincingly explained by similar iconographic representations of this subject in both the mosaics in the Florence Baptistery and in Giotto’s frescoes in Padua, where two ‘handmaidens’ are present. The curator also reminds us that scenes of marriage or farewell were common in Roman times (with emphasis on the gestures of the protagonists), and artists in the 16th century would certainly have been familiar with Roman reliefs of this subject. The likely provenance of the work has also been revealed: a commission from the Pinadori for a family chapel in a church in Florence which might have been damaged during the siege and so was instead kept in the family’s residence. The work is only documented in the church at Carmignano from 1720 onwards. There is also a fascinating hypothesis that Bonaccorso Pinadori, who is known to have supplied pigments to Pontormo, could himself have ordered this work.

 

The third painting is the portrait of another young man in a red hat, identified here as Carlo Neroni, also evidently dressed for the siege (in grey and black silk) and in a similar pose as the ‘Halbadier’ and also with a dark green ground. It comes from a private collection in London and only appeared on the art market in 2008 (it was last mentioned in London in 1827). It is more harshly painted than the ‘Halbadier’ and many may dispute the attribution. But it is of great interest to see all these three works together, painted at the same period (1528–30), a time when Pontormo was the uncontested protagonist of Florentine painting (his master, Andrea del Sarto, died of the plague in 1530).

 

Pygmalion by Bronzino (from the Uffizi) is also present in the exhibition since it has convincingly been shown to have been the ‘cover’ of the ‘Halbadier’ (it would have been in a frame to fit the greater dimensions of Pontormo’s painting). In the catalogue it is explained that many paintings during this period were provided with protective covers, very few of which have survived (or been identified as such). The very unusual iconography of Bronzino’s work, showing Pygmalion kneeling before his statue which has come to life, while a bull is being sacrificed to Venus on the flaming altar behind, apparently alludes to Ovid’s tale.

 

As so often occurs on occasions of this sort, art historians depend heavily on Vasari’s famous work, the Lives of the Artists. It is fascinating that this great Florentine art historian, who was also an architect (he built the Uffizi) and painter, remains such a fundamental source for our knowledge of painting throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries. Much is made of the fact that Pontormo, who was Vasari’s contemporary, was omitted from the first edition of the Lives and only included in the second edition of 1568 (on display). Also it is a mystery why Vasari never mentions the Visitation, whereas he does document two portraits by Pontormo of young men during the siege (identified with the two portraits on show), and even mentions the fact that Bronzino had provided a cover depicting Pygmalian for Pontormo’s portrait of Guardi. The curator suggests this omissis may well have been because the Visitation was destined for a church just outside Florence’s city walls which might have been damaged (or threatened) during the siege meaning that at the last moment the painting was not installed, so Vasari would not have seeen it.

 

Another work by Bronzino, his Martyrdom of St Acacius of Ararat (an apocryphal story of a Roman in command of ten thousand soldiers who were martyred on Mt Arrat), is present in the exhibition not only because Bronzino was so close to Pontormo (and Pontormo apparently provided the cartoon for this work) but also because the background appears to have been ‘inspired’ by the destruction in the countryside around Florence to which Bronzino could have been an eye-witness (the painting dates from 1529–30 and is owned by the Uffizi). Pontormo also painted a work of the same subject (usually called the Eleven Thousand Martyrs) which hangs a few rooms away in the Pitti. Bronzino is also remembered for the design he provided to Jan Rost when he arrived from the Netherlands to establish the Medici tapestry manufactory for Cosimo I: the small and very well-preserved tapestry hung here representing Justice Liberating Innocence was made by Rost to demonstrate his skills in order to win his position. Although excluded from the catalogue, it gives us a taste of what lies hidden in the tapestry deposits of Palazzo Pitti, perhaps destined to be dusted off and given more importance in the future.

 

So this tiny exhibition, in the Sala delle Nicchie of the Palatina Gallery (which you can reach directly from the top of the stairs on the piano nobile) is a demonstration of the extremely high quality of the recent exhibitions, both large and small, in the Pitti and Uffizi. Exhibitions which involve serious academic research but which also provide the visitor with the chance to see great masterpieces from elsewhere (The ‘Halbadier’ was last in Florence 20 years ago; for anyone interested in this painter, this is an occasion not to be missed).

 

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

 

NB: Another magnificent exhibition, this one on a very large scale, has just opened at the Uffizi and the Bargello: Florence and Islam (running until 23rd September). It will be reviewed here soon.

Builders of Budapest

Construction workers on the Millennium Underground (1894–6), photographed by György Klösz

“Those who Built Budapest” is the title of an absorbing one-room exhibition currently on show at the Budapest History Museum (in the ex-Royal Palace on Castle Hill) and prolonged until September. The title of the show deliberately doesn’t use the word “architect”. The lens through which the city is viewed is emphatically that of the masons, carpenters, joiners, metalworkers and other artisans who collaborated to create the extraordinary Historicist cityscape that came into being during Hungary’s golden age: between the Compromise with Austria in 1867 (the foundation of Austria-Hungary) and the outbreak of World War One.

 

The artisans were trained explicitly via the precepts of the past. This exhibition looks at the models they were exposed to, the way their aesthetic taste was formed, the frames of reference they were given and the precedents they were taught to follow, all under the auspices of the Metropolitan Industrial Drawing School, which grew out of the old Buda and Pest drawing schools (founded in 1778 and 1788 respectively). The methodology was explicitly imitative. Students were taught to create by being trained to make precise copies, in drawing and sculpture, of exemplars from antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

 

If anyone has stopped to wonder why late 19th-century Budapest architecture was almost exclusively “neo” (Neoclassical, neo-Romanesque, neo-Gothic etc), here is the answer. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that architects began to think outside these boxes and strive to create a new idiom, the Secession or Art Nouveau.

 

The material available to the students came in two main forms: pattern books, which were essentially albums of prints of historic examples; and plaster casts. The Drawing School had almost 2,000 of the latter, organised in different categories: elements from Classical Greece and Rome, for example; plant and animal designs; anatomical models. A few of them are on display here. There is a scale model of an ancient Greek theatre, casts of temple entablatures and an (exquisite) reproduction of one of the Corinthian capitals from the 4th-century BC Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens.

 

The material that illustrates this exhibition comes from the Schola Graphidis collection of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts-High School of Visual Arts. The pattern books on show contain prints of architectural ground plans and façades of the buildings of Rome; of decorative paintwork in France; of architectonic elements from Classical antiquity.

 

But the most fascinating exhibits in this show are the works of the students themselves, ranging in date from the 1860s to c. 1920. There is apprentice stonemason Ferenc Dobrovits’s 1884 study of a façade, for example (it could almost be by Bramante); apprentice joiner János Szuchy’s 1899 study of varieties of brick bond (lovelier in its way than Carl Andre’s celebrated and controversial Equivalent VIII!); Mihály Kiss’s delicate watercolour study of different types of arch (1910) and Gyula Csík’s dramatic pen-and-ink wash drawing of a Tuscan Doric column capital and base (1870s). These and many others are works of Ruskinian beauty.

Study of brick bonds by an apprentice joiner

The show is rounded off by a short series of photographs by György Klösz documenting the construction of the cut-and-cover Millennium Underground in 1894–6, Budapest’s M1 metro line or Földalatti, which runs beneath Andrássy út to City Park and beyond. There is a shot taken outside the Opera House showing a cluster of construction workers, men, women and children, equipped with simple spades, not a hard hat or hi-viz jacket in sight. Also fascinating is the photograph of the underground station entrances on today's Vörósmarty tér. They have disappeared now, but Klösz’s photo shows them standing like twin jewel caskets, purely Italian in spirit, reminiscent of Pietro Lombardo’s 15th-century church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice.

 

Lovers of Budapest belle-époque architecture should definitely see this show. After seeing it, it is impossible not to scrutinise every late 19th-century building in the city, looking for tangible application in bricks and mortar of all the artisans’ training. The rigour and discipline of that training was something quite extraordinary.

Crowded Times

“Crowded Times” is the title of an exhibition of posters currently running at the Hungarian National Museum (until 25th August). The works chosen all come from the museum’s extensive collection and span the period from 1896, the year of the Magyar Millennium (when Hungary celebrated 1000 years of existence), to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The exhibition's scope, in other words, is the birth and burgeoning of the consumer age, the heyday of the hoardings, when goods became mass-produced and more widely available, when services were allocated to all by a welfare state, and when information promoting each was disseminated by posters and placards, run off the printing presses in identical batches and plastered up on street corners or at bus stops, beamed from cinema and TV screens, invading the lives of everyone and creating a shared vocabulary of brand names, slogans and catch phrases. The poster becomes at once the mouthpiece of big business, the tannoy of the nanny state and a herald of the good life.

Posters, obviously, are designed to deliver loud, clear messages and this instantly enjoyable exhibition gets away with relatively few wall texts. The material is organised in three sections: consumer goods and services; leisure and entertainment; politics. The very first posters are pieces of domestic propaganda, celebrating national achievement and boasting of productivity. The posters from the Communist years do much the same (with the difference that in c. 1900, Budapest was second only to Minneapolis in the output of its mills, whereas half a century later the heroic worker is shown wielding a hammer that looks technologically Neanderthal). The posters in the first section include numerous advertisements for shops and products: some of the brands are still familiar (Dreher beer), others were done to death by nationalisation after WWII or privatisation after 1989. There are “Buy Hungarian” campaigns—often making a virtue of necessity, as in the case of the aluminium ads, extolling a material that was domestically produced in an age when imports were low. In almost every case, the division between advertising and propaganda is finely blurred. The posters are trying to tempt us (“Buy powdered egg—it never goes off!”) but also trying to control our behaviour and our thoughts (“Clear up trash to control flies!” “Down with the monarchy!”).

 

Some of the most amusing posters are those in the section on public health campaigns. A muscle-bound youth takes a bracing shower because cleanliness is the route to health (1939; illustrated above). A young man caught in the glare of the red light is sternly warned that “Penicillin can cure the clap—but watch out! You’re still at risk of syphilis!” (1949).

The poster is a democratic art form. In a way it is the contemporary era’s equivalent of the church altarpiece, a backdrop that is free for all to see and that we can’t help having to look at. Subtly, inevitably, it informs our attitudes and creates a collective conscious. Let’s not fool ourselves that ours is a non-religious age. A priestly class still governs us with their shibboleths and the promise is still elysian rewards if we do as we are told and misery if we don’t:

“Who may not be a Trade Union Member? He who exhibits anti-democratic behaviour, who lives an immoral life, who exhorts his co-workers to underproduce…” (Hungarian propaganda poster of 1948);

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners…” (St Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians).

We might scoff at these visions of the ideal and at the preaching, but after an elapse of time, on seeing those familiar images again, they provide a fund of bittersweet nostalgia. Visitors to this exhibition react with touching delight at the sight of so many once-familiar things, like being reunited with long-lost friends. I felt much the same when I saw the ad for the revolving cylinder washing machine made by Hajdu. I had one in my very first Budapest flat.

"Washday is child's play!"

In fact, what comes across very strongly across this entire, absorbing show, is how little in human nature and human behaviour has changed. Advertisers still target harassed housewives (convenience foods, miracle white goods), children (sweets and fizzy drinks) and the vain and aspirational (glamorous clothes that will turn heads, home furnishings that will impress the neighbours). Governments—despite overtourism—still try to mass-sell their capital cities using all the same old baited lines. The Fishermen’s Bastion and cruises up the Danube are as strong selling points for Budapest today as they were four or five decades ago.

 

The final room has a video loop of mass demonstrations, rallies and vigils, projected on a screen split into three separate strips to give a jerky image that perfectly imitates the scrapbook, snapshot nature of human memory. Ranged along one wall is a chronological series of political posters, beginning with Mihály Bíró’s powerful anti-war image of 1912. There is pro-Communist propaganda, pro-Horthy propaganda and an anti-Soviet poster which interestingly has no known artist, no printing house and no date.

 

Many of these posters are also superlative works of art. The curator has very properly credited every poster to its artist (where known) and at the end of the show there are brief biographies of some of them. Géza Faragó (1877–1928), who studied in Paris and worked for a couple of years with Mucha; Mihály Bíró (1886–1948), artist of the labour movement; Tibor Pólya, Imre Földes and others.

 

We may never see their like again. The conclusion of the exhibition is that the great age of the poster is over, not only because digital technology addresses us in different ways but because it has fragmented us, hiving us off into our own little circumscribed Snapchat groups and Facebook echo chambers. And yet... On leaving the museum and plunging into the Metro, I came face to face with a visual admonishment: “Never drink drive!” It was made in 2018 with the support of the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile). Identical in spirit to “Alcohol is dead—don’t let it come back to life!”, a message (featured in this show) from 1919.

"Never drink drive."

If you're in Budapest this summer, make time for this exhibition. It's a fascinating exposition of behavioural psychology (as well as being good fun).

Good news from Florence

Antique bronze head of a horse, once owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent.

It is well known that the famous Medici and Lorraine collections are housed in various museums in Florence, not just in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries (recently re-united under one director). The scientific collections are in the Museo Galileo, the musical instruments in the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Renaissance sculpture in the Bargello, the wax models in the Museo della Specola, etc., and the archeological material in the Museo Archeologico. But it is also a fact that all these ‘satellite’ museums are usually overlooked by visitors to the city, since it is the paintings that everyone seems to want to see (or at least that is what they are told by the tourist agencies).

 

It is therefore rare to encounter more than a handful of visitors in the Archaeological Museum (except when school parties are taken there). In fact throughout the many decades since the Arno Flood of 1966, when the entire ‘Museo Topografico’ of Etruscan finds from Tuscany was destroyed, it has had a rather neglected feel. But the exciting news is that with its new Director Mario Iozzo, under the umbrella of the ‘Polo Museale Toscana’, which since 2015 has been in the capable hands of Dr Stefano Casciu, the Museum has suddenly been spruced up and work is underway to open more exhibition space so that the works in the deposits can at last be seen.

 

Throughout the museum the display has begun to be renovated, with new stands for the pottery (and in some cases slowly moving circular bases so that you can stand still to see all the painted sides of certain vases). The garden, visible from many of the windows, is now beautifully kept with the fountain working again (but sadly still only open on Saturday mornings). The corridor with the Medici collection of precious antique gems and cameos is not yet regularly on view.

 

While work is going on, however (until March 2019), visitors can see a delightful exhibition, “The Art of Giving”, in the first hall. It documents recent donations including a huge collection of beautiful ceramics from burial sites and sanctuaries on the Ionian coast of southern Italy (the area known in antiquity as Magna Graecia). Many of the vases have scenes where the protagonists are exchanging gifts, making the title of the exhibition doubly meaningful. There is also a ceramic cup dating from the 6th century BC which has been recomposed using the missing piece which had found its way to the Akademisches Kunstmuseum in Bonn (in exchange, a fragment of another vase was given to the Bonn Museum so that it, too, could be reunited with the fragments they own). There are also some Roman marbles on view which have recently entered the collection (the sarcophagus with pairs of griffins between incense-burners is especially interesting).

 

In the permanent collection, the first room on the first floor is now used to exhibit the sensational Mater Matuta, an Etruscan masterpiece (c. 450 BC) showing a seated female god with a child on her lap. This is one of the treasures of the museum but has not been on show for decades. The famous bronze Chimera also has a room to itself, shared with a very beautiful bronze head of a youth found in Fiesole.

 

The Minerva, on the floor above, is now displayed without her right arm since it has been proved to have been an addition made by Francesco Carradori in 1784-5 in a mistaken restoration (the ‘modern’ arm is displayed close by, together with a cast of the statue as restored in the 18th century). The wonderful Arringatore is currently on exhibition in Karlsruhe but will be back here on 17th June. The bronze Horse’s Head (which belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and was restored in 2015) and the Roman portrait bronzes are all on show (in the past these were often in rooms kept locked). The famous François Vase, a huge Attic krater, has been given a room of its own with multi-media touch screens explaining all the details. The famous incident when a frustrated custodian seized his stool and smashed it is recorded by the presence of the stool itself (the vase was thankfully able to be restored, piece by piece). And for the first time, two more pieces of exquisite Attic pottery are displayed nearby, suggesting that they might have been part of the original hoard of artefacts found in the same tomb, placed there to accompany the deceased on his way to the underworld.

 

Further innovations are the scale model of the Chimaera at the entrance which can be felt by the visually impaired and stroked by young visitors, and a showcase before the ticket office displaying just three exquisite examples of the museum’s holdings to whet visitors’ appetites. One comes away with the feeling that at last the Museum is being well looked after and that there will be many exciting new developments there in the near future.

In this Florentine season of what has been termed ‘overtourism’, a visit to this Museum is highly recommended not only for the treasures it contains, but also for its peaceful atmosphere.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence

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