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The Middle Ages on the Road

16th-century French tapestry of the story of Laureola and Leriano with, in the background, mules being saddled and packed for a lengthy journey.

At the Bargello museum in Florence a small and delightful exhibition in the two rooms off the medieval courtyard is running until 21st June. Il medioevo in viaggio is the result of collaboration between four European museums (the Bargello, the Musée du Moyen Âge in Paris, the Museu Episcopal of Vic in Catalonia, and the Museum Schnütgen of Cologne). The exhibition has already been shown in Paris and will move on in the summer to Vic. Here in Florence it also celebrates the Bargello's 150th anniversary and it is the last exhibition to be held under the excellent curatorship of Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, who has now retired as Director.

It has much of interest for Blue Guide users, and for all those who love travel.

 

The exhibition begins with a fascinating portolano (or portulan) of c. 1440. This is a parchment map showing coastal harbours (with the rulers of the day shown sitting in their tents). Also on show is the oldest nautical chart known, dating from the 14th century, which illustrates the behaviour of the winds. These precious parchments are both preserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale and the Archivio di Stato.

 

The history of pilgrimage is illustrated with more intimate artefacts, including a codex from Lyon showing a bishop blessing two pilgrims’ bags and staffs before they set out on their journey. Early medieval leather shoes and badges and brooches worn on hats and cloaks are on display, and tiny portable altars in porphyry (used when Mass was celebrated on the road) include one probably made in Winchester in the 11th century. Even baptisms could be performed en route, and a  little 13th-century wooden salt cellar, in the form of a church with a bell-tower, was evidently used to produce Holy Water for such a ceremony. One of the very few paintings in the exhibition (loaned from Vic) shows a 15th-century Flight into Egypt, clearly referring to contemporary travel, since the Holy Family are accompanied by a maidservant carrying their luggage on her head and a cow is being led along beside them so milk would be available for the Child, and there is another group of travellers in the background.

 

Crusaders and their horses are recorded with 13th-century bits and stirrups. A beautiful very well preserved 14th-century miniature from the Bargello illustrates a city being besieged by land and sea. An ivory plaquette is of twofold interest: its smooth back with traces of wax has proved it was used by a traveller to take notes, and its recto is carved with a scene of two crusaders holding their noses to block the stench emanating from the bodies of Christian soldiers killed in the Seventh Crusade to the Lebanon in 1253 after they had been exposed too long in the sun, but which the conscientious St Louis IX is happily burying. This saintly king of France reigned for 44 years and was a great reformer and founded the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris for his collection of relics: but he was no good as a crusader and died of dysentery on a voyage to Tunis.

 

Another extraordinarily precious possession of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence is a 1392 edition of the Il Milione of Marco Polo, one of the most famous travellers of all time. The ring with an engraved ruby, thought to have belonged to the Black Prince himself, made in England in the 14th century (lent by the Louvre), is appropriately displayed above a brooch made in France in the same century and now in the Bargello. They both have very similar enamel and gold decoration as well as identical inscriptions from St Luke, which indicate that they were considered talismans designed to bring luck to the wearer.

 

Caskets for valuables, trunks and bags and portable folding furniture are also part of the display. An octagonal table with Gothic carvings, dating from the late 15th century, was evidently taken on trips by its wealthy owner since it could be 'closed up' so it fitted snugly against a saddle. The exhibition closes with a wonderful tapestry made in France in the early 16th century illustrating a popular medieval legend but chosen for this show because it includes a charming detail of a mule being loaded with trunks as a group of travellers prepare to set out on a journey.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Hellenistic bronzes in Florence

The Boxer, lifelike portrait of a pugilist.

“Power and Pathos. Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” is the penultimate exhibition to be held under the mandate of James Bradburne, Director General of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi. Bradburne has succeeded in turning the palazzo into Florence's most important exhibition space.

And no more fitting show could have taken place to mark the end of his tenure: it is filled with great masterpieces, and accompanied by a scholarly catalogue. When it closes in Florence (on 21st June) it will travel first to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles  (until 1st November) and then to the National Gallery of Art in Washington (until 20th March 2016).

Perhaps the most striking feature of the exhibition is the consistency it reveals in the styles of masters working in the Alexandrine world of Greece and during the later Roman era. A map (also reproduced in the catalogue) records the extraordinarily wide geographical area where the pieces have been found, either underground or underwater. The exhibition has deliberately concentrated on the “explicitly ‘un-ideal’: the innumerable contingencies of real-life physiognomy” which are the feature of Hellenistic art. But the curators of course were faced with the fact that so little bronze sculpture (as opposed to marble sculpture) survives because it was so often melted down. A tragedy because the skill (and technical ability) of the sculptors was never again equalled until the Renaissance.

To set the tone of the display (which is not chronological), the first room has just two exhibits. The first is a bare limestone base with its statue missing, which is here because it bears the signature of the greatest Hellenistic sculptor, Lysippus of Corinth, who was Alexander the Great’s court sculptor and who is reported by Pliny to have made no fewer than 1500 bronze statues. Not one of these survives, but other statue bases like this one can still be seen in Greece. The other exhibit is the splendidly-displayed Arringatore, or Orator. Because it normally forms part of the collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence itself, it seems appropriate that it should be here to greet visitors, its right hand stretched towards us in a gesture usually interpreted as a call for silence. The Etruscan inscription on the toga tells us that the statue was made in Chiusi and it is dated to the late 2nd century BC.

The next room has another magnificent piece from the same museum, the Medici-Riccardi Head of a Horse. Examination of its copper-tin alloy during its restoration for this exhibition has confirmed its date of the second half of the 4th century BC. It belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and is to this day perhaps the most important classical bronze in Florence. Beside it is displayed a very well-preserved statuette (found in Herculaneum) of Alexander the Great mounted on his famous steed (the mane worked in just the same way as the larger head), with silver trimmings (one of many important pieces from the Archaeological Museum in Naples loaned to this exhibition).

Two very different but memorable portrait heads dating from the 3rd century BC are also in this room: that of Queen Arsinoë III of Egypt, and an unknown man, much less regal, wearing a flat leather cap (known as a kausia). He was fished up in the Aegean sea in 1997 and it has been lent by the local museum of Pothia on Kalymnos, in the Dodecanese. This is one of numerous underwater finds which have been made in recent years, and it is always good to learn, as in this case, that they have remained close to where they were found. This piece is an almost miraculous survival: its flashing eyes, made of alabaster and faïence, are still intact and it takes an honourable place alongside works of much greater fame and from much more accessible museums.

In the third room we come face to face with the famous, over life-size Boxer (from the Museo Nazionale in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome), as he sits to regain his strength, his hands strongly bound up in leather and with clear signs (made with copper inlays) of combat on his scarred face with its broken nose. Dating from the 3rd century BC and unearthed in the 19th century on the Quirinal hill, this would have been brought back to Rome as war booty and exhibited in a public place as an example of the highest expression of art known at the time, an accolade it holds to this day.

Close by, in strong contrast, is a little brown statuette from the Metropolitan Museum of Art of an elderly man in a short tunic with a notebook tucked under his belt: he only has one leg and an arm is missing but he is thought to represent an artisan. Also from the same museum comes an exquisite statue with a green patina of Eros fast asleep: depicted as an infant with exquisitely carved wings, this is the forerunner of many depictions of cupids, cherubs and putti in Western art. A statuette of Hermes in his flat hat is a beautiful work lent by the British Museum, somehow typical of that museum’s extraordinary collection of masterpieces, not all of them as well known as one would expect.

The ‘pathos’ of the exhibition’s title is summed up in the portrait of a man from Delos, one of the best-known of all Greek portraits, lent from the Archaeological Museum in Athens. He has a furrowed brow above piercing eyes made of glass paste and black stone. It is exhibited near two other portrait heads: one from an Etruscan votive statue thought to have been found on an island in Lake Bolsena in 1771 (and now in the British Museum) and the other from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, an extraordinarily refined work which retains even its eyelashes and its unshaven chin, also found in Italy (in 1847), and a very early example of Etruscan/Italic/Roman art (late 4th century BC).

The famous Greek bronze Apoxyomenos (the athlete scraping himself down with a strigil) from Ephesus is represented by a replica from Vienna (spectacularly restored in 1902 after it had been found in 234 pieces) and the head of an athlete purchased through Sotheby’s by the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth in 2000 (with a long pedigree including its presence in an 18th-century collection in Venice). A Roman marble statue the Uffizi here is also derived from the Apoxyomenos (wrongly restored in the Renaissance to hold a marble vase instead of a strigil).

Two more statues come from Florence’s Archaeological Museum: the Minerva of Arezzo, derived from a statue of the Praxiteles school (of which numerous copies have survived); and, in the last room, the so-called Idolino, which dates from around 30 BC and would have served as a lamp-stand at banquets. Its very beautiful head shows great similarities to that of the lovely small bust of an Ephebe from Benevento (lent from the Louvre and exhibited beside it) with red copper lips: this is dated a few decades before the Idolino.

Florence’s Archaeological Museum have been involved as partners in this exhibition and in fact have produced their own little show in conjunction with the main one (it also runs until 21st June). Entitled “Small Great Bronzes: Greek, Etruscan and Roman Masterpieces from the Medici and Lorraine Collections”, it shows some of the museum's most precious possessions, arranged by type

by Alta Macadam. Alta is the author of Blue Guide Florence and Blue Guide Tuscany, available in both print and digital format.

11.02.2015
13:11

A Michelangelo discovery?

What a difference an attribution makes. I saw these two muscular nudes astride a pair of panthers in the Royal Academy exhibition Bronze in 2012 but remember other exhibits much more vividly. Now, however, they are the centre of attention in an exhibition in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, basking in glory following their recent attribution to Michelangelo.

 

Or is it recent? They were attributed to Michelangelo when they were exhibited in Paris in 1878. Perhaps some distant tradition clung to them when they were transferred from an aristocratic collection (possibly that of the Farnese family) to Baron Adolphe de Rothschild in the 1860s. The attribution was doubted at the time and the booklet A Michelangelo Discovery, which accompanies the Fitzwilliam exhibition, shows how difficult it is to date bronze. Since their first public appearance in 1878 experts have confidently put forward dates across the breadth of the 16th century and have linked them to specific artists. The curator of the 2012 exhibition placed them as only ‘within the circle of Michelangelo’, in the middle of the century, when of course Michelangelo was still active.

 

Then Paul Joannides, Professor in the History of Art at Cambridge, noted a copy of some lost drawings of Michelangelo in the Musée Faure in Montpellier, dated c. 1508, and there was a man astride a panther in very much the same pose as that of the bronzes. This clue to their origins—by Michelangelo himself but perhaps much earlier than thought—focused the research in new directions.

 

When one sees the bronzes they are larger than the photographs suggest, both just over 90cm, and then it is noted how one, the panther carrying the younger, clean-shaven man, is much more roughly cast than the panther carrying his bearded companion. Casting was always a demanding business, as readers of Cellini’s account of the casting of his Perseus in his Autobiography will know, and here some of the crispness of the modeling has been lost. There are signs that this bronze was hammered to remedy its deficiencies, a common practice when a complete recasting would have been unfeasible. There is a clue to the date in the casting itself. While the Classical sculptors had mastered the art of thin casts, the long-forgotten techniques and skills were only revived in the 16th century. These bronzes have thick walls, more typical of the early than the later 16th century.

 

Michelangelo is not normally associated with bronze and this may account for the hesitancy with which these casts were attributed to him. Yet there is ample documentary evidence that he used the medium, and lost bronzes of David and the papa terrible, Julius II, are known, both dating from the first decade of the 16th century. What confirms the attribution is the drawings of nudes, many of them in poses similar to those of the men on the panthers. An anatomical study of the relationship between the bodies and Michelangelo’s drawings, by Professor Peter Abrahams, notes the many congruences. Even the public hair of the bronzes. luxuriant for this period, closely matches that on Michelangelo’s great marble David in Florence.

 

The size of the bronzes is unusual. Life-size bronzes from this period include equestrian statues and Cellini’s Perseus in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. More common are statuettes of both religious and mythical subjects and it is fitting that the Michelangelo bronzes help highlight the Fitzwilliam’s own fine collection of Renaissance bronzes. The size of the Rothschild bronzes falls between the two. Panthers are always associated with Dionysus, the Roman Bacchus, god of wine and disorder. A fine pair of panthers feature in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (National Gallery, London), its date 1520–3, only a few years later than the proposed date for these bronzes. The nudes would therefore be bacchantes, Bacchus’ raucous companions. While they look far too healthy, perhaps even too well-ordered, for a life of dissolution, the authors note how the late 15th and early 16th centuries was an age of ‘serene, if short-lived classicizing culture. . .with its accent on refinement and dolcesse’, and this may explain their idealised forms. They appear to have been designed to be part of a larger display of a Bacchic celebration, perhaps in a frescoed palace interior or beside an antique statue of Bacchus himself.

 

First you have one pair of Renaissance bronzes and then you get another four. As I was writing this it was confirmed that the Victoria & Albert Museum had raised the £5 million needed to buy the four bronze angels that had originally been destined for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey. Appropriated by Henry VIII for his own tomb when Wolsey fell, they were never put in place and their rediscovery, two of them on the gateposts of a golf club, was exciting. Wolsey commissioned  them in 1524 from the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano who, in an intriguing coincidence, was the very man who finished the lost bronze David of Michelangelo noted above.

 

The well-illustrated A Michelangelo Discovery is a model text for those who want to know how an attribution is made. In fact if I was a professor of History of Art interviewing prospective students I would make them read it for discussion at interview. A fuller study will follow a conference on the bronzes to be held in Cambridge this summer, but so far everything—the manner of casting, the supporting pictorial evidence, the anatomical details, the cultural background—fits to confirm the attribution. This is a good time for aficionados of early Renaissance bronzes.

 

A Michelangelo Discovery: The Rothschild bronzes and the case for their proposed attribution, by Victoria Avery and Paul Joannides and other contributors, is published by the Fitzwilliam Museum. The (privately-owned) bronzes are on exhibition until 9th August and entry to see them in the Italian galleries is free.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. Freeman’s own book on four famous sculpted animals, not of bronze but gilded copper, The Horses of St Mark’s, is published by Overlook.

Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age

Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest. Until 15th February 2015.

This ambitious and extraordinarily ample exhibition will be the last of the Szépművészeti’s blockbuster shows, as the gallery is due to close in spring 2015 for large-scale refurbishment and reorganisation. The exhibition proudly presents works from the Szépművészeti’s own exceptionally rich 17th-century Dutch collection alongside loan works from the Rijksmuseum, the Metropolitan in New York, the National Gallery in London, the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Getty and the Prado—to name only a few. “Over 170 works by some 100 painters”, we are told, and of those some 20 are Rembrandts and there are three Vermeers. A colossal show indeed.

 

How will order and sense be brought to this vastness? The scope of the exhibition is briefly set out at the beginning. Seventeenth-century Holland was a young country responding to great religious and social change as well as to inspiring, life-improving and sometimes disquieting scientific advances. Much of its art was commissioned by men who had made money from commerce. Thus new genres resulted: we can expect to see cityscapes, landscapes, scenes of civic and family life. Rembrandt is included as a sort of breakout display, alongside works by his master and pupils, for the sake of comparison.

 

The rise of Holland as a world power is dated to the time when the Dutch provinces, led by William of Orange, threw off Habsburg rule in the late 16th century. The very first work of art on show is a portrait of William (1579) hung alongside a naval battle scene showing an engagement between Dutch and Spanish galleys, then an allegory of peace followed by another of colonial power. With the scene thus summarily set, the themes of the succeeding rooms are as follows:

 

Faces of the Golden Age: The Building of a New Society

Wealth and Moderation?

The Influence of Protestantism on Religious Painting

Rembrandt and his Circle

Cities and Citizens

Landscapes

 

These themes are then illustrated, copiously. “Faces” shows us portraits of wealthy burghers, their wives and families. Members of a civic society are shown witnessing a dissection—though in fact they are all eagerly facing the viewer, just like any modern crowd jostling to be in the photograph. Members of another society are shown at a banquet. “Wealth and Moderation?” begins with still lifes (a lovely painting of tulips by Bosschaert) and domestic interiors (a superb Young Man Reading by Candlelight by Matthias Stom; 1620–32).

Matthias Stom: Young Man Reading by Candlelight.

Later manifestations of both these genres show a moralising message creeping in. An old crone short-sightedly squinting at a coin, for example, becomes Sight or Avarice? A young girl looking at herself in a mirror becomes an Allegory of Profane Love. Pre-eminent here is Jan Steen’s In Luxury Beware (1663). A chaotic household is brought before us, dominated by a drunk and debauched young couple. Food and debris are all over the floor with a symbolic deck of spilled playing cards, the baby has got hold of a pearl necklace instead of its rattle, an untended fire blazes offstage right while the dog eats the remainder of dinner in the background on the left. The still lifes, too, become more sinister. Not merely celebrations of nature or of painterly virtuosity, they turn into allegories of the transience of life, of ephemeral luxury. Painting after painting (including Steen’s) includes the stock image of the half-peeled lemon, a symbol not only of passing time but a warning of bitterness below the surface. Snails invade the bouquets of flowers by Rachel Ruysch and Jan Davidsz de Heem.

 

“Religion” contrasts the paintings of the Utrecht school (the only city in Holland which retained a majority Catholic population) with stark depictions of image-free Protestant church interiors. The 20 Rembrandts are hung alongside his master Lastman and his pupils Flinck, Bol, Arent de Gelder, Hoogstraten (his wonderful, hyperrealist Letterboard one of the works on display) and Dou (master of the genre scene; his The Quacksalver of 1652 is a supreme example). “Cities and Citizens” gives us cityscapes (De Witte’s important c. 1680 interior of the Amsterdam synagogue) and urban domestic interiors, including Vermeer’s Astronomer and Geographer and some representative works by De Hooch, one of them expertly rendering the sunlight as it falls on a courtyard wall and another delicately capturing the effect of sunlight falling on the further wall of a room, reflected through the panes of a window opposite.

 

The last room, “Landscapes”, has some splendid works by Hobbema, Avercamp, Cuyp, Ruisdael, Wouwerman and Berchem. “But this is a terribly big exhibition!” one lady protested to another as she steeled herself to tackle it, “It's impossible to take it all in!” Sadly, she’s right. There is too much to see. Partly the problem is that there is nowhere to sit and admire any of the works (except for two stools in the De Hooch room). Partly that the physical division of the exhibition spaces does not correspond to the thematic division of the exhibition itself, which is confusing. You pass through a partition which leads you to assume that you are done with “Cities and Citizens”, for example, only to discover that this is not the case. There are still two more sections to go.

 

The visitor is left with the problem of how to digest an over-ample meal, of the kind that leaves you replete but stupefied. Less would be more. A couple of choice still lifes; a single moralising genre scene. And if we had had fewer still lifes and genre scenes to work through, it would have been easier to notice (they are several rooms apart) that Stom’s Young Man Reading is as Caravaggist if not more so that Terbruggen’s Calling of Matthew. Stom was also from Utrecht. He spent most of his career in Italy. Thematically his work belongs where it has been placed; temperamentally it does not. The “Influence of Protestantism on Religious Painting” is one thing but what we see here, and what 17th-century Dutch painting so wonderfully illustrates, is the influence of Protestantism on ALL painting. With images banished from churches, the wealthy began to commission not altarpieces of their patron saints but portraits of their own selves. A still life with a skull and candle can serve just as well for personal devotion if there is no longer the opportunity to endow one’s local church with an expensive St Jerome in the Desert.

Hendrick Terbruggen: The Calling of Matthew (1618/19).

And how did the artists themselves fare? In Rome a landscapist like Claude could find favour with popes and cardinals. Was there a similar network of protection and patronage in Holland? Still lifes commanded less money than a genre scene, less by far than a vast canvas of scrubbed and beaming members of a city guild crowded around a banqueting table, each face a portrait from life, the whole to go on public display. Such a work could make a painter’s name and fortune. But the exhibition does not deal with this aspect of the subject.

It does, though, show us some wonderful paintings. Here are a few more of them:

Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606–84): Still Life (detail).

A lovely example of the Vanitas school of still life painting, showing the abundance of nature and the things money can provide while at the same time hinting at transience and decay. Oysters are swift to putrefy; the snail will devour the flowers; the butterflies are but fleeting flashes of pied beauty (or allegories of the soul?); the taper (seen glowing in the far left of the crop) marks the passage of time; the earwig hastens corruption; the china bowl is an epitome of fragile beauty.

Vermeer. Allegory of the Catholic Faith (1670/2; from the Metropolitan Museum, New York).

The setting is a “house chapel”, a room in a private home where Catholics were permitted to worship (public worship in churches was forbidden to them). A rich curtain patterned with a secular scene of a horseman and fruit, normally drawn across the chapel to screen it, is pulled back to reveal an altar on which are placed a chalice, crucifix and Bible. The backdrop is a large-scale painting of the Crucifixion. Beside the altar sits the personification of Faith, her foot upon a terrestrial globe, clutching her heart in ecstasy as she contemplates the pure sphere of Heaven symbolised by the crystal ball suspended from the ceiling by a ribbon of bright blue, the symbolic colour of the spirit, matching Faith’s shawl. On the floor is a snake, crushed and bloody, its life knocked out of it by the heavy masonry block, a symbol of Christ the cornerstone (as he is described in St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians).

Cuyp: River Landscape with Five Cows (c. 1650; Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest).

The Dordrecht painter at his very best.

 

And what of Rembrandt? Many of his works in this exhibition are early paintings, including a wonderful stock character study of a turbanned man (1627–8), the gold threads in his white headdress glisteningly picked out, the face half in deep shadow. Also here is his splendid penitent St Peter (1631), toothless and full of remorse in a Roman prison, his heavenly keys cast uselessly aside on a heap of stinking straw. Rembrandt seems much less at home in the Classical world (his stout Minerva and his Cupid with a Soap Bubble are two examples of a genre to which his genius was ill suited). Much more successful is his The Kitchen Maid, a scene of life as it is lived, without symbolism or allegory. This is art for art’s sake; the meaning is what the viewer finds in it.

Rembrandt: The Kitchen Maid (1651; Nationalmusem, Stockholm).

Rembrandt’s famous self-portrait of 1640 is also here (on loan from the National Gallery in London), the image of an artist at the peak of his career and fame, confidently signed with his name writ large at the bottom. Contrast this with his much later self-portrait (late 1660s; on loan from the Uffizi). The eyes, like those of the Laughing Cavalier, follow you wherever you turn, but not with a merry gleam. Instead they fix you with an unsettling, almost cynical scrutiny. What went wrong in Rembrandt’s life and career? This exhibition is not going to tell us. For that, we have to turn to the show of his late works currently running at the National Gallery in London.

Giovanni Battista Moroni

Moretto da Brescia: Count Martinengo (c. 1545–50)

At the Royal Academy, London until 25th January.

 

For anyone who loves Lombardy, Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520/4–1579/80) will be a familiar name. He is one of the finest portraitists of 16th-century Italy. This small and beautifully curated show at the Royal Academy attempts to demonstrate that he can stand with the finest portraitists of any time or place.

 

Moroni’s reputation outside his native Lombardy suffered from the fact that he never left it, except for visits to Trento at the time of the famous ecumenical council. The city of Bergamo, in whose district he was born, was a part of the Republic of Venice. But Moroni never went there, as others did, to become a star in its serene firmament. He stayed at home and painted portraits of local nobles and tradesmen, altarpieces for local churches, and panels for the personal devotion of local patrons. He was famous and much appreciated in his lifetime, but faded from view thereafter—at least, outside his homeland. The blame for this is traditionally laid at the door Vasari, whose Lives of the Artists does not mention him. And yet Moroni was only producing his best work around the time that the expanded edition of the Lives was published, in 1568. And when Vasari travelled to northern Italy in search of material in 1566, he did not visit Bergamo, or Albino, the little town to its northeast where Moroni was born and to which he returned to work in his later years.

 

Vasari does however mention Moroni’s master, Moretto da Brescia. He was “a delicate colourist and of great diligence,” we are told, “fond of imitating cloths of gold and silver, velvet, damask and other kinds.” The exhibition opens with a selection of his works: some portraits and an altarpiece. His portrait of the haughty young Count Martinengo (from the Museo Lechi in Montechari) shows the technique that his pupil Moroni would adopt with such success: a three-quarters tilt to the head, eyes fixing the viewer, the sitter’s face the focus of the artist’s efforts, background elements at a minimum (though you will start to recognise some studio props: the gloves, the chair, the leather-bound book). The best portraits are not showpieces of wealth and consequence. They are likenesses—psychological studies—of ordinary human beings. That, to our modern eye at least, is what is most absorbing.

And indeed, they keep the viewer riveted. The show was crowded when I went, and visitors were stuck fast in front of the portraits, audioguides clamped to their heads, whispering to each other in rapt admiration. The altarpieces commanded far less attention. This is not necessarily fair, because if Moroni’s sacred subjects fail, they fail for a reason. The Council of Trent, which abjured the Protestant Reformation, called for a return to the precepts of the past, an establishment of rules and method, a forsaking of invention and novel interpretation. Later it was to shake itself free and find its own Counter-Reformation style, the sensual, ecstatic, exuberant Baroque, charged with a direct emotional appeal. But this had not happened yet. Painters of religious subjects in Moroni’s day were rigidly stuck with old themes and old poses, not wanting to be archaic but unsure how to be modern. This predicament is brilliantly illustrated by two large-scale altarpieces of the Trinity, the first by Lorenzo Lotto (1519/21; Museo Bernareggi, Bergamo) and the other by Moroni (c. 1552; church of S. Giuliano, Albino). Both show pale clouds parting to reveal the primrose-yellow dazzle of Heaven. Christ appears in the centre, upon a rainbow, with the dove of the Holy Spirit above his head. Behind him, in looming shadow, is God the Father. But in Lotto’s version God appears in shadow only, as a suggestion of immanent power, hands upraised. In Moroni’s Trinity, God has been humanized. He has a face, a blue robe. His arms encircle Christ in a gesture of protection. But the overall effect is stilted, bizarre. The rolled up sleeves make him look like a strongman about to perform a feat of heavy lifting. “Is that supposed to be God?” someone asked incredulously, “You don’t normally see pictures of God, do you?” “Of course you do,” his wife testily reproved him, “Michelangelo did one.” Yes, Michelangelo did, in sophisticated, neo-pagan Rome on the Sistine ceiling. A God looking like an ancient Zeus touching fingers with Adam in the guise of a body-perfect ephebe. But that was Rome and that was then. This is Lombardy. One cannot do portraits of God.

Lorenzo Lotto: Trinity
Giovanni Battista Moroni: Trinity

Portraits of men and women, on the other hand, are another matter. Nowhere is this dichotomy better revealed than in Moroni’s sensational Last Supper (1566–9), painted for the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament in Romano di Lombardia, where the faces of Christ and his disciples are stock character heads, in sharp contrast to the man standing at the back. An intruder into the scene, he plays the role of host or servitor at the supper party, holding a flagon of wine in his hand and looking us straight in the eye. This is a portrait of a real person; perhaps, it is thought, the parish priest of the little town. The dimension he inhabits is perceptibly different from that of the staged actors in the famous dinner drama, who are all playing prescribed parts and have no existence beyond them.

 

Moroni, like his master before him, was fond of painting fabrics. What Vasari does not tell us is that Moretto painted the first ever Italian full-length portrait, in 1526 (London’s National Gallery has it). His pupil borrowed both the full-length and the three-quarter-length style and took them to new heights. There are some superb portraits in this exhibition, shown to dazzling effect in the third room, where nine works have carefully been chosen to complement each other to perfection. Two seated ladies (opposite each other), three full-length men (opposite each other and opposite the door) and four three-quarter-length men are hung with careful attention paid to which direction their gazes face. Yet the hang is both complementary and antagonistic. The two women, both poetesses, were from opposing factions in the Bergamo of the day, the bloodily feuding Albani and Brembati families. The Brembati belonged to the imperial, pro-Spanish faction: the striking Man in Pink, Gian Gerolamo Grumelli (from Palazzo Moroni in Bergamo, the home of the artist’s descendants), was the husband of Isotta Brembati (the second of the poetesses). It is signed and dated “Jo. Bap. Moronus p. MDLX” and features a Spanish motto: “Mas el çaguero que el primero” (Better to hang back than to rush to the front; an admonition to prudence?). Behind the sitter is a ruined wall. Damaged masonry over which ivy creeps and into which weeds intrude—and beyond which blue sky and cirrus clouds can be seen—is a favourite Moroni backdrop. It occurs in five of the nine portraits in this room and again in the final room. The architectural background with blue sky behind was used by Moretto in his first full-length. Again, Moroni adopts, adapts and carries forward: the warning of ruin and decay, it seems, was his idea.

Moretto: Portrait of a Man (1526)
Moroni: Man in Pink (1560)

In the final room we come face to face with Moroni’s famous Tailor (c. 1570; National Gallery, London), and other mature works which show, in the curators’ judgement, his role as a foreshadower of Manet and Ingres. The Tailor shows a finely-dressed young man in fashionable slashed pantaloons, looking up from his worktable where he was about to cut a length of black cloth. Black, the exhibition catalogue notes, became the favoured colour for men’s costumes, replacing the sumptuously coloured stuffs of earlier years. The tailor himself is obviously a successful artisan. Tailors, according to the wall caption, often dressed well—perhaps as a way of making themselves walking advertisements for their trade. But it was not the tailor’s eyes that stayed with me, as I walked out onto a rain-washed Piccadilly. It was those of the Lady in Black, whose portrait (c. 1570; Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo) is a model of minimalism and a seeming effortless skill at capturing not just a likeness but a personality.

Go and see this show if you can. The ticket price is not cheap (£12) but I think you will feel it was worth it.

Moroni: Lady in Black

Reviewed by Annabel Barber. The Royal Academy, its history, role and exhibitions, as well as the architecture of its home, Burlington House, are all described in detail in Blue Guide London.

The first collectors of 'Primitives'

'Descent from the Cross' (14th century) by Pietro da Rimini.

The Popularity of the Primitives, an exhibition which runs at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence until 8 December, is concerned with the fascinating subject of when 14th- and early 15th-century Italian paintings (and other early art treasures) came to be considered worthy of notice and were, as a consequence, incorporated in public and private collections. Up until the late 18th century, only works from the time of Raphael onwards were in vogue: besides Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, collections featured paintings by artists such as Correggio, Guido Reni, Federico Barocci and Rubens.

The exhibition tells the story of 42 collectors, almost all of them little-known, who lived in the late 18th or early 19th century. And an impressive amount of scholarly research has gone into it—which is heartening to see, in an age when fewer and fewer museum directors are still art historians, and curators are increasingly put under pressure to devise shows that will make money. To each collector a section is dedicated, depending on the region of Italy where they lived: besides their (for some reason usually unflattering) portrait, there is a display of a small selection of the works they are known to have acquired (and which are now in private or public collections). We discover that these erudite individuals, whether prelates or cardinals, noblemen or tradesmen, shared an interest in the cultural value of these early works and that by obtaining them they rescued them from oblivion and possible destruction. In later times when they fell into the hands of antiquarians and dealers, their monetary value steadily increased, although it is interesting to note that today the ‘primitives’ are worth far less than modern and contemporary artworks.

By looking at the provenance of the works one can see how many of them ended up in the great museums of the world: a certain Agostino Mariotti, who amassed 600 works and who was mentioned by travellers on the Grand Tour, was to leave his collection to the Vatican Picture Gallery. In 1780 Cardinal Stefano Borgia (who almost became pope) acquired St Euphemia by Mantegna, which is on show, and most of his collection is now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. This great Renaissance artist is included as a reminder also that it was not only the ‘primitive’ gold-ground paintings which had been neglected up until this time but also those by artists now considered of fundamental importance. The Ranghiasci family of Gubbio in Umbria, whose large romantic park is today open to the public, owned an exquisite Descent from the Cross by Pietro da Rimini, lent to the present exhibition by the Louvre.

Marchese Alfonso Tacoli Canacci, who died in Emilia in 1801, is represented by four of the best Tuscan works in the exhibition: a Madonna of Humility by Agnolo Gaddi, which ended up in a private collection in New York; another Madonna of Humility by Fra’ Angelico; a very unusual long predella panel by Giovanni di Paolo of Christ carrying the Cross surrounded by a crowd of saints all holding a Cross; and a tiny Entry of Christ into Jerusalem by Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio. The three latter works went to the national museum in Parma.

Fra’ Francesco Raimondo Adami, a Servite friar at the convent of Santissima Annunziata in Florence, collected important early works which are now part of the collection of the Galleria dell’Accademia itself: on show are St Mary Magdalene with stories from her life, by the Master of the Magdalene (named from this work), and paintings by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, Andrea Orcagna and Fra’ Angelico. Other works acquired at this time by Tuscan collectors (and also included in the exhibition) were to form the nucleus of the earliest works in the Museo di San Matteo in Pisa and the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena.

Only two of the collectors are well-known today since their collections survive on public display under their own names: Angelo Maria Bandini of Fiesole (whose exquisite museum is still in that little town above Florence) and Teodoro Correr (1750–1830) of Venice (the huge Museo Correr is in Piazza San Marco). For this exhibition a relief of the Madonna and Child by Domenico Rosselli, once owned by Bandini, has been loaned from the V&A so that it has been reunited with other works still in Fiesole; and the Correr has sent two of its masterpieces to Florence: a Pietà by Cosmè Tura and another, unfinished work of the same subject, by Antonello da Messina. A superb small St Nicholas of Bari, also by Cosmè Tura, in a section towards the end of the exhibition, illustrates some of the works acquired by French collectors while in Rome.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence's pious grand duchesses

Maria Magdalena of Austria as a widow, painted by Justus Sustermans.

The former summer apartments of Palazzo Pitti are playing host (until 2nd November) to an exhibition of many of the treasures which used to be in the Chapel of the Reliquaries, on the palace’s first floor. Founded by Maria Magdalena of Austria (wife of Cosimo II) and numbering some 1,000 pieces, the collection used to be one of the most important in Europe, but it was broken up from 1784 onwards. It has been painstakingly reassembled for this occasion, and these precious devotional objects are displayed more or less chronologically.

Three exquisite works made in Germany are the earliest pieces, dating from the 14th–15th centuries: they were sent as gifts to the Grand Duchess Christine of Lorraine. The later works in the main room include a Cross and pair of candlesticks made in 1632 for the high altar of Santissima Annunziata: the rock crystal is by Matteo Nigetti and the bronze work by Pietro Tacca. In the centre of the room is displayed a large reliquary Cross made for the relic of the True Cross kept in the Duomo, decorated with a huge topaz—it is the work of Cosimo Merlini the Elder and Bernardo Holzmann (1618). Around the same time the silver coffin was designed by Giulio Parigi to display the body of a certain St Cesonius, dug up in the catacombs of San Sebastiano in Rome and sent to Maria Magdalena of Austria after she had ordered a ‘saintly body’ for her collection. The bones of the unknown saint were accompanied by a parchment declaration of its authenticity, today on display beside it. Two reliquaries of the same date by Andrea Tarchiani were presented to Maria Magdalena by her husband.

The adjoining three rooms contain ever more elaborate works commissioned by Maria Magdalena, many of them in amber, ebony and ivory, and later pieces made for Vittoria della Rovere (wife of Cosimo’s sucessor Ferdinando II). The last room has the most astonishing early 18th-century pieces, such as the reliquary by Giovanni Battista Foggini and Massimiliano Soldani Benzi made to preserve the thigh bone of St Casimir (patron saint of Poland).

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Marvellous and Macabre: the art of Jacopo Ligozzi

Ligozzi's drawing of a gerbil

An exhibition devoted to Jacopo Ligozzi (c. 1549–1627) is open until 28th September in Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

But who was Ligozzi? Born around 1549 in Verona, he spent most of his life in Florence and is especially known for his scientific drawings from nature. But as the exhibition also illustrates, he had great success at the Medici court as he could turn his hand to designing all kinds of things for them: from decorative harnesses for their horses to pietre dure table tops and embroidered head-dresses for the duchesses. But in order not to depend on the favours of the ruling family at any one time, and to ensure he could always earn his bread and butter, he also produced numerous paintings. This exhibition illustrates the diversity of his talents as well as his eccentricities.

It opens in the magnificent Sala Bianca, the Pitti’s 18th-century ballroom, with a small selection of watercolours of fish, plants, birds, mice and moles, commissioned over a period of some ten years at the end of the 16th century by Francesco I, who was famous for his interest in the natural sciences. The second half of the room has drawings made by Ligozzi for the apparatus used on ceremonial occasions, and two paintings by him of ladies of the court proudly wearing the paraphernalia designed him (that of Margherita Gonzaga is on loan from Lisbon). The designs for bizarre goblets, including an entire album of them, become so intricate that some of them begin to resemble the crazy inventions of Heath Robinson. In contrast, the exquisite pen-and-ink wash drawing of Portoferraio shows what a great talent Ligozzi had for landscape.

Ligozzi's Pietre dure portrait of Pope Clement VIII

There are some magnificent examples of  pietre dure work on show. Tabletops closely covered with inlays of precious stones portraying all manner of flowers and birds are displayed without their pedestals and can be seen to full advantage.

A small room contains some very macabre works, two of them on the verso of painted portraits of a lady and of a boy, both from the private collection of Lord Aberconway in Bodnant, Wales. These memento mori fully deserve the description of them given in situ as ‘repugnant’ and ‘savage’. Also here are four drawings of the Cardinal Sins, reunited from Paris (the Louvre) and Hanover. A small allegory of the Redemption from a private collection in Madrid is similarly disturbing. The dark atmosphere is only alleviated by the music provided in this room (and close by, one can go out into the little loggetta, which has a charming ceiling frescoed in 1588 by Alessandro Allori of wash day in the palace).

The last four rooms display Ligozzi’s oil paintings, which vary greatly in interest and quality. Those painted in the 1590s for the little-visited Florentine church of San Giovannino degli Scolopi (in Via Martelli, two steps from the Baptistery) are among the best: Jacob’s Dream and The Fall of Lucifer, which form a pair, and St Jerome Comforted by an Angel, with exquisite details of his piles of books and the angel in a beautiful dress. Ligozzi is known to have been a deeply religious man and his son became a Dominican friar, but his best paintings are those with an element of eccentricity, either in the composition or the details. His Madonna of the Rosary has a rather mundane Mother but a delightful Child, and they are set in a garland of roses of varieties which go from cream to deep red. Next to it hangs a Transport of St Catherine which shows the Saint stretched out comfortably (the pose has faint echoes of Mary Poppins) as she floats aloft with the help of angels. There are also some much larger altarpieces, one of the best of which is Mary Magdalen in Adoration of the Crucifix set in a wood, which is over 3 by 2 metres, painted in 1607 for the church of San Martino in Pisa. Also displayed here is a guide book to the convent of La Verna, written and illustrated by Ligozzi and complete with keyed plans: it seems that he wanted to turn his hand to everything!

The small last room has arguably his best oil paintings: four Passion scenes. They show Ligozzi’s imaginative creativity in their composition and use of colour, as well as fascinating details in the hats, armour, bejewelled costumes, and landscapes.

This is the first time that due attention has been paid to all aspects of Ligozzi’s work. It is an exhibition well worth seeing.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

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