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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

The Heartwarming Middle Ages

Yellow-glaze stove tile of a mounted knight, from Diósgyőr (c. 1370. Herman Ottó Múzeum, Miskolc).

“The Heartwarming Middle Ages” (Szívmelegítő Középkor) is the title of an appealing small exhibition running at the Budapest History Museum’s Buda Castle site until September.

 

The forerunner of the ceramic stove is thought to have originated in Alpine Switzerland sometime in the early Middle Ages, when simple clay pots were built into house chimneys to increase the surface area that could be made to give out warmth. In Óbuda, Budapest’s District III, excavations at Roman Aquincum have revealed rows of hollow bricks placed between interior walls to circulate warm air from the hypocaust beneath. This sophisticated early radiation technology had been forgotten after the collapse of the Roman Empire and—until the Swiss hit upon the clay pots idea—people heated their living spaces with smoky open fires, creating a constant risk of conflagration (not to mention a carcinogenic atmosphere). The Swiss innovation was almost as great a leap forward as the invention of the internal combustion engine in much later times.

 

The exhibition begins with a selection of images evoking the winter chill of northern climes. Among them is an etching by Dürer (c. 1498, from the Prints and Drawings collection of the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts) entitled The Philosopher’s Dream, showing a savant fast asleep beside a tile stove, dreaming of a visitation by a naked Venus. The stove he sleeps beside looks much like the tile-clad stoves that are still a familiar feature of Central European interiors.

 

Much as the first automobiles preserved the bodywork of the horse-drawn carriage, the first stoves were clad in tiles that retained the concave shape of the original earthen pots. Later, tile shapes became more elaborate and inventive. The exhibition traces this development. Ceramic is not perishable and in Buda—where so much has been destroyed—the tile survivals are some of the finest and most poignant reminders of the glory that once presided here. The material exhibited in this show comes from the rich collection of the Budapest History Museum as well as from further afield, in Hungary as well as Slovakia and Transylvania. The earliest tile finds are from the 12th century, although the technology probably predates this by some 300 years. It was a democratic technology: fired earth is not a luxury material and its application made warmth available to princes, prelates and peasants alike.

Siren stove tile and the Starbucks logo.

We know that underfloor heating returned to Hungary: the palace of Charles I (r. 1310–42) in Visegrád had it, while the upper floor was heated by a stove clad in cup-shaped tiles. Charles’ successor, Louis I (r. 1342–82) had stoves clad in flat, decorated tiles. By the mid-15th century foreign (probably Austrian) craftsmen were supplying the Hungarian court with high-quality, sophisticatedly decorated ceramic ware. Motifs include floral designs, bunches of grapes, knights in armour, biblical and other Christian motifs, heraldic devices, and royal personages. Fine examples on show include a Lamb of the Resurrection in green lead glaze from Banská Bystrica and a yellow-lead glazed crest of King Sigismund (d. 1437) with fine mantling and two badges of the Order of the Dragon (which Sigismund founded to combat Ottoman expansion; Vlad Dracul, father of the Impaler, is said to have taken his name from the Order). The image of a siren saucily parting her fishy tail is also popular. The exhibition has three of these, all from the collection of the Budapest History Museum (protoype of the Starbucks logo). There is also a splendid polychrome tile depicting King Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–90) seated in majesty. King Matthias, under whom Buda enjoyed a great flowering, seems to have been adept at using his own image as a brand.

Polychrome tile with King Matthias Corvinus (c. 1480. Budapest History Museum).

By means of its decoration, the stove became at once a means of heating a room and also a vehicle for imparting information about the householder’s lineage, prestige and religious faith, as well as entertainment (stories of chivalry, popular legends and fables), much like a painting or a tapestry. The final part of the exhibition shows how the royal lead in stove manufacture was quickly imitated down the social scale. Soon bishops and barons and well-to-do burghers wanted cosy, smoke-free living spaces, and to achieve them they copied both the technique and the tile designs. Like coins, medals or seals, made from moulds and dies, stove tiles could be mass-produced, allowing identical images to proliferate. As the exhibition points out, ceramic manufacture was far in advance of the printing press in its ability to standardise the conceptual vocabulary of the populace. The last tiles in the show are secular in their subject matter: we see an irate wife belabouring her husband, a young man with a tankard of beer, and a pair of lovers in flagrante.

Green-glaze stove tile showing a pair of lovers (c. 1500. Stredlovenské Museum, Banská Bystrica).

The final room is provided with a video screen showing a crackling fire. You have to work hard to imagine its warmth, though. To protect the fragile glazes, temperatures throughout the exhibition are kept low. Bring a light sweater!

Waves of Art Nouveau

World Art Nouveau Day this year is celebrated on 10th June. In part to mark the occasion but also to honour the centenary of the death of Otto Wagner and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marcell Komor, FUGA: Budapest Center of Architecture, in conjunction with the Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts and its partners, has mounted a small exhibition entitled Waves of Art Nouveau, dedicated to this ever-popular style of architecture in cities of the Danube region from Vienna to Constanţa. The material consists of a series of wall panels grouped thematically, with information and illustrations chosen by the participating cities (twelve of them in total).

Plastic scale model of Ödön Lechner's Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts

The show begins with Otto Wagner and his pupils and followers (notably Max Fabiani). After that comes the great Hungarian Secessionist architect Ödön Lechner. Lechner’s style is entirely unlike Wagner’s. Wagner was preoccupied with modernity and the question of how to refashion the architecture and urban planning of an imperial capital in a way that would reflect profound shifts in society. Lechner, on the other hand, was preoccupied with the distant past—even the subliminal—plumbing the depths of the Hungarian folk subconscious to create an entirely original and quintessentially Magyar idiom, part-European and part-Oriental. Lechner and his followers, particularly Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab, are well represented in this exhibition, with buildings in Budapest; Oradea and Târgu Mureș (Romania); and Subotica (Serbia), where the synagogue is very Lechneresque in feel, with a green-and-yellow-tiled lampshade dome and a façade articulated with symmetrical detailing in exposed brickwork.

The buildings featured in this exhibition illustrate the different ways in which architects of this period explored the relationship between structure and decoration. Sometimes the decorative elements entirely follow the physical lineaments of the building, picking out and enhancing cornices, bays and apertures. This is well seen in the work of the Serbian architect Branko Tanazević, who creates a sort of Art Nouveau version of the Renaissance in his former Telephone Exchange building in Belgrade. At other times the decoration masks the structure, obscuring it and playing hide and seek with it, as in Ivan Vurnik’s extraordinary, almost trompe l’oeilCooperative Bank building in Ljubljana (1923) or Vladimir Baranyai’s Bauda House in Zagreb (1905), where the balcony consoles are disguised as balls of laurel leaves. Occasionally the decoration is entirely gratuitous, most famously perhaps on Otto Wagner’s celebrated Majolica House in Vienna (1898–9), where the pattern on the ceramic cladding mocks a gigantic rambling rose. In some buildings, the decoration almost becomes the structure, as for example Daniel Renard’s memorable Casino in Constanţa (1910), whose huge windows are fashioned like displayed peacock’s tails. Renard studied in Paris, and though his work is filed in the same architectural compartment as that of Lechner or Komor, his aesthetic could not be more different.

It is always a pleasure to discover something new. For visitors familiar with French, Belgian and Austrian Art Nouveau the sheer delight here will be the number of exuberant, eye-catching and daringly original buildings in cities all across Central and Eastern Europe by architects whose names are entirely—and surely unjustly—unfamiliar.

Before you leave, spare a few moments to look at the FUGA building itself. It is a work of 1905 by the architectural partnership of Gyula Ullmann and Géza Kármán, architects who were also exponents of Art Nouveau but in a manner more closely allied to that of the Vienna Secession. Prime examples of their work can also be seen in Budapest’s Szabadság tér (three adjoining buildings now occupied by the US Embassy). The FUGA building preserves an imposing façade emblazoned with its original name, Hermes Udvar (Hermes Court). It was built for a firm specialising in safe deposits, a fact still advertised above the front door.

Waves of Art Nouveau. On show until June 18th at FUGA: Budapest Center of Architecture, at Petőfi Sándor u. 5. Open daily except Tues from 1pm. Free entry. There is a small café and an excellent bookshop.

Raphael in Bergamo

Raphael's 'St Sebastian'

There are two exhibitions in the two neighbouring Lombard towns of Bergamo and Brescia in northern Italy which are drawing crowds of visitors, especially from Italy itself. Bergamo has chosen Raphael since the town’s art gallery, the Accademia Carrara, owns one of his early masterpieces (St Sebastian), just restored. Brescia has chosen Titian in order to celebrate his beautiful polyptych of the Resurrection painted for the high altar of a church in the town and the exhibition illustrates the work of an important group of contemporary local painters (including Moretto, Savoldo and Romanino) whose production is seen in the context of the Venetian school. Brescia’s Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo reopened this year (on 17th March), after eleven years of closure.

Since the towns are so close together, both have advertised each other’s exhibitions and visitors to both are given a reduced-price ticket.

The exhibition in Bergamo, Raffaello e l’eco del mito (scheduled to close on 6th May but hopefully may be kept open for longer) is in the newly restored rooms on three floors of a former convent directly opposite the Accademia Carrara, which makes this an opportunity to visit the town’s picture gallery too, which was excellently rehung a few years ago.

The exhibition is particularly interesting in the sections which illustrate works by painters which Raphael must have seen as a young man. These include two panels by his cultivated father Giovanni Santi, loaned by the Galleria Corsini in Florence. Santi died when Raphael was only 11 years old but scholars agree that he must have started Raphael out on his career. Perugino, a decisive figure in the young Raphael’s development as a painter (although Raphael is not actually documented in his bottega) is represented with three masterpieces: his own St Sebastian (signed on the arrow!) from the Hermitage, his Mary Magdalene from the Uffizi (the pose very similar to Raphael’s St Sebastian, and also just restored) and his Madonna and Saints from a church in nearby Cremona. The first and last are works little-known to the general public and so this provides an opportunity to see them. The two painters from Umbria, Pinturicchio (whom Raphael knew in both Siena and Perugia) and Luca Signorelli (whose wonderful Crucifixion has been lent by the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino) are present to underline Raphael’s pride in his Umbrian origins (he signed his paintings “Raphael Urbinas”).

The comparison of Raphael’s St Sebastian with two works of the same subject by Leonardesque painters from Milan, Boltraffio and De Predis, is particularly interesting as they both portray the young saint with long golden curls, but holding an arrow as identification (instead of the more usual iconography of the nude figure of the saint at his martyrdom, pierced with arrows): they are thought to predate Raphael’s work of the same subject by a few years. They come all the way from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The autograph works by Raphael on exhibition, all of them chosen to illustrate his production between 1500 and 1505, include his famous portrait of Elisabetta Gonzaga from the Uffizi. The sitter, with her heavy eyelids, is not flattered by the artist, but the brown and gold tones of her dress and jewels provide a magnificent contrast to the countryside in the background, lit up by the sunset.

His exquisite tiny St Michael Archangel from the Louvre has extraordinary monstrous creatures accompanying the dragon. The scene, with a building in flames in the background, is derived from the Apocalypse. But the light, graceful figure of St Michael, who has just landed, seems unaware of any hindrances to his plan to banish the Devil. Still in what looks like its original frame, this is surely one of Raphael’s highest achievements in a painting of this size (31 x 27 cm). The small Prayer in the Garden from the Metropolitan in New York, is one of the most memorable of his works on show, since Raphael demonstrates how he can take a familiar subject and raise its significance to a level perhaps never reached by another artist.

But his very beautiful St Sebastian is certainly the most important work in the show and it has been specially restored at the Brera for the exhibition, with later accretions of yellow varnish now removed.

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, as well as a smaller version for just a few euro. For the Titian exhibition in Brescia, see here.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. Alta is currently at work on a new volume, Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes, to be published later this year.

Titian in Brescia

Titian's portrait of the doctor
Gian Giacomo Bartolotti

Tiziano e la pittura del cinquecento tra Venezia e Brescia is an exhibition curently running (until 1 July) in the Museo di Santa Giulia in the Lombard town of Brescia. The centrepiece is Titian’s Averoldi polyptych—although it is in fact only present in a dramatic video show as the curators wisely decided to leave it in situ the church of Santi Nazaro e Celso, for which it was painted and where it has been ever since the great artist delivered it there in 1522 (it is not far away from the exhibition venue). It is a magnificent work, unusual in the fact that it is divided into the form of a polyptych with smaller scenes around the central Resurrection which include a particularly beautiful Annunciation (the Angel and the Madonna in two separate panels), as well as a St Sebastian, which is a remarkable study of human anatomy: it has been recognised that the intrinsic drama of the nude figure shows the influence of Michelangelo’s Slaves as well as the Hellenistic statue of the Laocoön, which was discovered in Rome at just about this time.

Titian is again documented in Brescia as an old man in his 80s, when he accepted a commission to paint three large canvases for the upper floor of the famous building known as the Loggia. The subject of the central panel was the Apotheosis of Brescia, represented by a matronly lady magnificently dressed, and the other panels personified the age-old activity of the production of arms in the town with Vulcan in his forge, as well as the agricultural activity in the countryside around Brescia, symbolised by the goddess Ceres. Palladio, when on a visit to the town to advise on the architecture of the Loggia,recorded his admiration for these works, which were unfortunately lost in a fire which devastated the building only six years after they had been installed. For the exhibition they have been reconstructed as far as possible in a video, based on an engraving made in the 18th century.

Another connection the great artist has with Brescia is the Triumph of Christ woodcut owned by the Musei Civici. This is one of five versions, produced in five blocks, of a drawing by the artist based on the theme of a Classical ‘Triumph’. Rather bizarrely it shows Christ seated on a chariot pulled by the four symbols of the Evangelists and accompanied by the four Doctors of the Church (resembling the bodyguards who run beside the Pope’s car today). The procession which precedes and follows the chariot is made up of crowds of figures from the Old and New Testaments. The version preserved in Brescia has been recognised as a first edition (and dated 1517).

However the exhibition is perhaps especially interesting for its study of the three principal artists born in Brescia who were contemporaries of Titian: Moretto, Giovan Girolamo Savoldo and Girolamo Romanino. Their works demonstrate not only how closely they must have looked at Titian’s work, as well as that of Lorenzo Lotto (the Venetian artist who was least influenced by Titian), but who at the same time clearly managed to create a school of their own. We are shown a wide range of their production, which underlines their ability to produce paintings of religious subjects which often concentrate on naturalistic details, and intimate, almost cosy, settings, and even include night scenes, as well as portraits of great ingenuity. The curators have suggested that there is little doubt that the young Michelangelo Merisi, thought to have been born at Caravaggio in the Bergamasco in 1571, must have studied their work before leaving for Rome, where he was to became Italy’s most famous painter of the 17th century.

This exhibition is in many ways a revelation of the skill of the local painters but also an opportunity to admire great works by Titian, and in particular two of his male portraits (c. 1515–20): the famous Mosti Portrait (from the Pitti) and the much less well-known portrait of a man identified as the painter’s doctor Gian Giacomo Bartolotti da Parma, today preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is the most memorable work in the show.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. Alta has recently spent two weeks in and around Brescia preparing text for the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes.

Dürer in Milan

Dürer's first known painting (1490),
a portrait of his father.

A major exhibition is in progress (until 24 June) in the Palazzo Reale in Milan: Dürer and the Renaissance (between Germany and Italy). One wonders if the title was chosen rather to entice visitors than to explain the true content of the show: ‘Dürer’ without ‘the Renaissance’ may have been a good deal less of a draw. But in fact the works on show display above all the extraordinary artistic powers of Dürer, not only as an engraver and woodcutter but also as a draughtsman and painter in oil and watercolour. The works by his contemporaries, displayed alongside, are often put into the shade by the great German’s skills. The choice of these works is not always particularly logical. But (again, perhaps to be sure to draw the crowds?) the visitor is given a very special opportunity to see Leonardo da Vinci’s unforgettable St Jerome, lent by the Vatican Pinacoteca, as well as two of his drawings from Windsor.

The first two paintings on show are both by Dürer and both from the Uffizi: the Adoration of the Magi and a portrait of his father, his first known painting. In the same room is a drawing of a Battle of Marine Gods, divided into two parts since Dürer added a scene to an earlier representation of the same subject by Mantegna, a clear indication of the close relationship between these two artists and a demonstration of how Dürer studied the technique of the most skilled Italian engraver at work in his lifetime. These two sheets are here brought together, the first from the Albertina in Vienna and the latter from the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam.

One wall of this first room has a series of studies of horses, showing some of the very earliest known drawings by Dürer as well as his celebrated engraving of The Knight, Death, and the Devil, dated 1513 (this, like most of Dürer’s most beautiful engravings in the exhibition, comes from the Schȁfer Collection in Schweinfurt).

The exhibition also documents Dürer as a theorist, with his treatises on proportion and measurement and his clear fascination with Leonardo’s studies. A drawing in red chalk by Leonardo (one of the two on loan from Windsor) is a reminder of the famous artist’s sojourn in Milan: it is a view of the Alps as seen from the city (today, on a clear day from the roof of the Duomo, the mountains are still just as visible).

One of the most intriguing protagonists of the exhibition is Jacopo de’ Barbari, whose bird’s eye view of Venice in the year 1500, printed by the German Anton Kolb at his shop on the Rialto from six wood blocks, has been lent by the Correr Museum (it is a pity they didn’t also send the six original blocks carved by De’ Barbari which, incredibly enough, have survived). It is interesting to note that this woodcut was, in the past, attributed to Dürer himself, since little was known about De’ Barbari, and his dates are still uncertain. He almost certainly met Dürer in Venice and he is also recorded as having visited Nuremberg, Dürer’s native city. One of the few other works known by him is also on display: a very fine engraving of Pegasus (on loan from Amsterdam). Both De’ Barbari and Dürer are recorded as having worked for Maximilian I. Indeed, the Habsburg emperor was Dürer’s most important patron and the huge triumphal arch he designed for him (in a series of no less than 192 woodcuts), with allegorical and historical scenes, is also on display (recomposed from the 36 surviving original blocks and supplemented with photographic reproductions of the missing ones). Maximilian died in 1519, so that another commission to produce a triumphal procession to celebrate the ruler, some 50m long (made up of 192 blocks, eight of which are on display) was interrupted: this was perhaps a blessing for posterity since it meant that Dürer could turn to other works and other media. On the wall close by, an exquisite small drawing of a procession (from Berlin) demonstrates how he could also work on a much smaller scale: ‘As I grew older, I realised that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.’

Another famous Venetian, Giorgione, whose influence on Dürer has long been recognised, is represented with his remarkable Old Woman (from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice). On Dürer’s two visits to Italy (in 1505–7; and earlier in 1494, though that visit is undocumented) he also came into contact with Giovanni Bellini and was particularly inspired by his portraits. In Dürer’s letters he writes of the great Venetian painter, now in old age, whom he felt was the only Italian who seemed to appreciate his artistic skills. He also boasts that when his Madonna del Rosario was completed for the church of San Bartolomeo at the Rialto, which served the German community in the city, both the Doge and the Patriarch came to see it. (When the church was renovated in 1610, the altarpiece was sold and is now in the National Gallery of Prague: it is sadly only represented in this exhibition by a copy—albeit a good one—made around the time it left Italy.)

The work chosen to represent the exhibition (and used on the cover of the catalogue) is Dürer’s Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman, a small oil painting known to have been made during his stay in Venice in 1505 (lent by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). It is exhibited next to his beautiful large Portrait of a Peasant Woman (with a bashful smile), in charcoal and green wash, drawn in the same year (the notable creases may indicate that it was made on the artist’s way to Italy so that he had folded it up during the journey). Another portrait, of a young woman with a jewel hanging from her red beret, painted two years later, is just as beautiful, but it could be argued that these three works have little to do with Venetian portraiture except in their format. A small group of portraits painted against striking green backgrounds perhaps demonstrate a reciprocal influence (particularly the portrait of a young man in a black hat by the Bergamo painter Andrea Previtali and that of a similar subject by Dürer, both painted in Venice in 1506). The best work in this group, though, a portrait of a woman by Lorenzo Lotto, is far distant in atmosphere from Northern European portraiture.

Bizarre elements in Dürer’s oeuvre include engravings of a chained monkey depicted beside a Virgin and Child, and a faun in an idyllic setting with his (human) wife and child. His skill in watercolour is demonstrated by images of a huge crab and a duck (hanging by its beak).

The curators have been careful to keep strictly to the short period in which Dürer made his two presumed visits to Italy and this adds greatly to the interest of the exhibition. Much magnificent art was produced in these few years from 1490 to 1510, by Dürer and his contemporaries, and examples have been gathered together here from many different parts of Europe. It is doubtful that we will see again for many years so many outstanding examples of Dürer’s work in one place. An occasion not to be missed, especially as a visit provides the added advantage of its venue: Palazzo Reale in Piazza Duomo in Milan.

By Alta Macadam. Alta has just returned from a research trip to Milan for the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes. She found the city vibrant and a wonderful place to visit, with much in progress on the contemporary front, new urban areas with innovative architecture, many museums opened in the last few years, and the historic ones (notably the Brera) keeping up with fresh ideas on display to increase the enjoyment of a visit. The new Blue Guide is due out at the end of 2018.

Charles I: King and Collector

This magnificent display of Old Master paintings from the royal collection amassed by King Charles I, many of them reunited for the first time since the mid-17th century at the Royal Academy in London (running until mid-April) has been met with frenzied enthusiasm. And rightly so. There are some stunning works on show here, by Titian, Veronese, Mantegna, Correggio, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and others. Many of them are from the Royal Collection. Others are from the National Gallery, London. Still others have been borrowed from international collections, to which they made their way following the Commonwealth Sale after the beheading of Charles I, when his collection was dispersed (from 1649).

 

Charles I, as is well known, was frail and diminutive of stature but magnificent in his own conception of what kingship meant. His ideas about the Divine Right of kings were to be his undoing: he met his death by beheading in January 1649. While alive, Charles made full use of his own image to create an iconic status for himself as God’s appointee. In Britain he was the first monarch to do this. With the aid of his court painter, Anthony Van Dyck, who was appointed to the position in 1632, he drew on Classical models, derived from the painting and sculpture of Renaissance Italy, to create an awe-inspiring image of a ruler somehow superhuman. Superhuman but not remote. Just as Roman imperial statuary was impressive in its ability to portray a natural likeness, so the portraits of the king and his family by Van Dyck show a real man, inhabiting and dominating the picture space in regal fashion, but a flesh and blood mortal nonetheless.

 

The paintings here, though ‘reunited’ in a sense (King Charles exhibited them throughout his palaces and the two great equestrian portraits of the king in armour would never have hung side by side in his lifetime as they do now in the Royal Academy Central Hall), cannot, in the exhibition space offered by the RA, replicate the effect they would have produced when seen at the end of carefully contrived vistas at Whitehall, for example. What they do show is the way Van Dyck, inspired by Rubens, reached constantly back into the world of the north Italian Renaissance (and through that, back into antiquity) for iconographical models to convey divinity and power. These models were made available to the artist by his royal patron, who bought wisely and well, with the express aim of setting up a collection to rival those of the great courts of Europe. His desire to do so appears to have been kindled during a visit to Spain in 1623, in an attempt to secure the hand of the Infanta Maria Anna. The marriage negotiations failed but the young prince had seen the magnificent portable trappings of the Spanish Habsburg court and his baggage train on his journey home to London creaked and groaned with masterpieces by Titian and Velázquez. After 1627, when the House of Gonzaga, rulers of Mantua, became extinct in the male line, Charles purchased the bulk of the family’s stupendous collection, which included masterpieces by Mantegna (the Triumph of Caesar cycle) and Correggio (The School of Love, which fetched a particularly good price in the Commonwealth Sale. Young men loved Correggio’s semi-suppressed salaciousness).

 

Rubens, who first visited London in 1629 on a peace-keeping mission from Spain, was to dub King Charles ‘the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world’.There are many highlights in this show. To choose just two, it would be Titian’s Supper at Emmaus (c. 1534; sold for £600 in 1651, now in the Louvre), a magnificent scene with calm mountain peaks of the Veneto dolomites in the background and a cat and dog duelling under the table; and the deliciously self-satisfied self-portrait by Van Dyck, in which he looks complacently out at the viewer, holding up the gold chain that he received upon his knighthood in 1632, and pointing with his other hand at an outsize sunflower, surely a symbol of gilded royal patronage.

 

This is a triumph of a show, not least for the extraordinary borrowing power it demonstrates. Many of the works on display here are not readily lent. It also reminds us how intrinsically interlinked are all the strands of human endeavour and human progress. There has always been a great symbiosis between artists, of course. Antonello da Messina was influenced by Netherlandish painters. Dürer was influenced by Bellini. Without the great allegorical celing paintings of Venice, by Veronese and Tintoretto, or of Rome and Florence by Pietro da Cortona, or of Parma by Correggio, could we ever have had the Banqueting House in London by Rubens? Not likley. And the art of Rubens was brought to foggy Albion by Charles I. The canvases he painted for the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace, between 1629 and 1630, celebrating the power and wisdom of Charles’ father and predecessor James I and culminating in the apotheosis of the monarch, had brought allegory, monumentalism, grandeur and godliness to the art of Britain. It came to a squalid end. It was through a window of that very Banqueting House that Charles I climbed onto the scaffold. His cosmography, his taste, his spirit and his vision were extinguished at an axe-stroke.

 

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

A full official exhibition catalogue is available on Amazon, check the links below.

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