By Simon Holberton
Where does one begin? This exhibition is simply stunning. Multiple visits will be needed to eat your fill at this feast. A word about the illustrations included here. If you click on them they will open in a separate window at full scale, allowing you to zoom in and see incredible detail.
So, back to the exhibition. What is on offer? Tony Ellwood, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, has secured a vertical slice of the Prado’s collection of Italian paintings from the early 16th century until the end of the 18th century. But that’s not all because there are, in fact, two exhibitions in one to see: the first is a superb selection of paintings just mentioned; accompanying them is a second exquisite selection of mostly Italian old master drawings – on its own almost worth the admission price.
Among the paintings, the highlights are surely the mini-exhibition of Titian and other Venetians of the 16th century, and the selection of some of the best work done in Rome in the early Baroque period up to around 1650. Around the edges of these there are Raphael’s achingly beautiful Holy Family with St John (c.1517) and Correggio’s peerless Noli me tangere (c.1525), not to mention the exhibition’s poster girl, Tiepolo’s Immaculate Conception (1767-69).
The Spanish court’s love affair with Venetian art is as palpable as it is ellusive. Did the Spanish discover Venetian art via Titian’s equestrian portrait of his Emperor Charles V, the uncle of Philip II of Spain? A definitive answer lies beyond current knowledge. Besotted they were. Inducements were offered to Veronese (who refused) and to others, some of whom accepted, but it took until the end of the 18th century for the Spanish court to entice an Italian painter of the first rank, Gianbattista Tiepolo and his son Giandomenico.
Let’s start with Titian and the Venetians. The Spanish acquired 76 Titian’s and numerous copies and school works. Of Tintoretto they had 43, Veronese, 26 and the Bassano family, 26. Some of the Titian’s were given away and 14 perished in a fire at the Alcázar on Christmas Day, 1734. The depth of the Prado’s collection probably remains second to none. The earliest work by Titian shown here is The Virgin and Child between St Anthony of Padua and St Roch. It dates from the first decade of the 16th century and Titian was probably not even 20 years old when he painted it. Though it remains unfinished, it’s a picture that reminds us of his two great predecessors, Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione, in its colour and in its stillness and symmetry. The remaining Titian’s mostly come from the 1550s when he was at the height of his powers, while Religion succoured by Spain, (discussed below in the box) is from the last years of his life, a fitting reward for his Spanish patrons who had collected his work so assiduously. His Salome (right) is shown turning, as if the viewer has just got her attention. It brings out the coquette in her which is chillingly juxtaposed with what she’s carrying. Also, there are two of his portraits – Philip II and Nobleman with a clock – both from the early 1550s. The former is an image of kingship. Philip is in armour, and it’s curious to reflect that this is the man who launched the ill-fated Armada against his sister-in-law Elizabeth I. The latter is more intimate.
For me, the standout Venetian painting is Tintoretto’s Abduction of Helen, painted at the end of the 1570s. With this picture we are a million miles away from the Correggio and the Raphael. Where they possess a classical balance and harmony, the Tintoretto has a neurotic vitality and instability to it. Where in Correggio and Raphael we find repose; in Tintoretto we find disorder. Helen looks like she’s about to fall out of the picture. The thumbnail, left, does not do the picture justice. Click on it to see it in its awesomeness (not in the teenage sense). To the extent that labels are meaningful, this is a Mannerist picture. Nothing is contained within the nominal borders of the picture. And the action is forced up towards and almost through what’s called the ‘picture plane’, a sort of liminal line between us and what we view; while most of the action, as least from the point of view of the subject of the picture, is confined to the left side of the canvas. There’s very little conventional ‘perspective’ at play here; Tintoretto achieves the illusion of depth by sketchily painting the background in swirling strokes while giving the foreground figures much greater definition. This picture was previously owned by Charles I and sold at auction after his execution. His son, Charles II tried to buy it back but Philip IV declined. One can understand why! It’s a riot.
The great dialectic in Italian 16th century painting was that which posed colore (colour) on the one hand and disegno (drawing) on the other. Venetians were famous for colore and this was the chief distinction that was made between them and Tuscan painters who held to the doctrines of disegno. The torch carrier for the Tuscans in the 16th century was Georgio Vasari, today much more famous for his multi-volume compendium of artists’ lives than for his own painting. Yet in this exhibition we have a fine drawing, by Federico Zuccaro, of Vasari being knighted by Pope Paul V for his service to art and church. Yet the drawing worth lingering over is by Vasari himself. Done towards the end of his life in the early 1570s, it shows St Luke, patron saint of painters. Legend has it that St Luke painted the Madonna and Child, and here Vasari has drawn him sitting at his easel just about to execute that very subject. On the Saint’s canvas you can clearly see he has a preparatory drawing of the subjects. A Florentine to the last, Vasari wanted to show that drawing precedes the application of colours.
The 17th century pictures and drawings on show are marvellous, and very much underline the importance of Bologna to the creation of the new Baroque style. Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni were key. Their reputations lasted 200 years before falling foul of the 19th century’s rediscovering of the mediaeval, and ‘primitive’ early renaissance painters. The Annibale Carracci (left) exhibited here is an early painting, before his classicising tendency really took hold. It’s a super picture, though, full of invention, and dramatic gesture as the Virgin takes off heavenwards on a boiling shaft of cloud (not unlike an ecclesiastical Mary Poppins). Reni had studied with Annibale at the Carracci academy in Bologna, and his cool, otherworldly St Sebastian, show reverence for figure drawing and close observation of form together with a touch of desire thrown in. The selection of 17th century pictures also underlines the importance of papal patronage. Guercino’s early Susanna and the elders (1617) is a tour de force, capturing the old lechers as they come upon Susanna naked, and washing her feet. They are wonderfully rendered, all beards and bald pates, with the one closest to us stretching his arm towards us. Guercino’s drawings were celebrated among collectors. The Prado has parted with two for this show – a pen and ink study of a prophet that seems to anticipate Brett Whiteley at his most meandering, and a lovely red chalk Saint Agnes from the last decade of his life where he uses the texture of the paper to great effect. The Ludovisi pope Gregory XV was Guercino’s patron, and the Susanna may well have been painted for him when he was Cardinal Alessandro. The Barberini Pope, Urban VIII, was Pietro da Cortona’s patron. Whenever you see bees illustrated in a building in Rome it’s a sure sign the building was once occupied by the Barberini, and possibly Urban VIII. A marvellously finished Cortona drawing here is about the Metamorphosis of Florilla and Melissa in bees and flowers (1631) and the Roman residence of the Barberini is in the background.
Sex and religion were never far apart in Baroque Rome – think Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Theresa. Aside from the Reni above, taste for flesh is served by Francesco Albani’s Judgement of Paris. A beefy Paris assesses the beauty of Athena, Hera and Aphrodite – a subject that licences nudity. Spain’s Charles III wanted it destroyed because of its sensuality. Lucky he wasn’t aware of Francesco Furini’s Lot and his daughters. Set against a luminous blue background (quite abstract and not really seen again until the Symbolists of the late 19th century), Lot’s two daughters ply him with wine ahead of their seduction of him. Probably not the sort of subject an artist could tackle today with such unabashed appreciating of young women’s bodies, or, in the understatement of the exhibition catalogue, so “devoid of moralistic censure”.
There is more. Towering over the 18th century are the Tiepolos. They left their mark preeminently in Venice, in Bavaria and, of course, in Spain. The Prado has sent a single Gianlorenzo Tiepolo painting and a drawing – he was a master draughtsman, so facile and precocious – and two by Giandomenico of Venetian street scenes, and a drawing. Both painters had complete understanding of light and how it bounces off surfaces. There are interesting curiosities. A delightful group portrait by Jacopo Amigoni featuring the noted castrato Farinelli. And a cool, accurate, academic, but still surprising drawing by Anon Raphael Mengs of the dead Christ. Mengs, a leading neo-classicist of his day, is the polar opposite of Venetian.