Old Masters – Art & Antiques Magazine http://www.artandantiquesmag.com For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 09 Jul 2019 01:51:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/cropped-artandantiques_red_icon-32x32.png Old Masters – Art & Antiques Magazine http://www.artandantiquesmag.com 32 32 Bartolomé Bermejo: Beat the Devil http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2019/05/bartolome-bermejo/ Wed, 29 May 2019 00:41:44 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6686 Continue reading ]]> Astonishing works by the 15th-century Spanish painter Bartolomé Bermejo are on view at London’s National Gallery.

Bartolomé Bermejo, Resurrection, about 1470–75

Bartolomé Bermejo, Resurrection, about 1470–75, oil and gold on pine panel, 90.2 x 69 cm.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Bartolomé Bermejo, Ascension, about 1470–75 Bartolomé Bermejo, Saint Michael Triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antoni Joan, 1468 Bartolomé Bermejo, Descent of Christ into Limbo, about 1470–75 Bartolomé Bermejo, Resurrection, about 1470–75

Bartolomé Bermejo was arguably the greatest Spanish painter of the 15th century, and yet it took until 1926 for the first monograph on him to be written. And even then, the author, Elías Tormo, had to admit, “We do not know when he was born, educated or died. We do not know whether he managed, if indeed he did, to leave Spain. We do not know with what masters he trained. We do not know of any prince, prelate or magnate who protected him; we do not know if he had any patrons. We know hardly anything; we know nothing.” Today, while Bermejo remains, perhaps inevitably in the case of anyone who died over half a thousand years ago, a shadowy figure, much more is known. We know who at least one of his most important patrons was, something of his family background, and how he fit within the artistic trends of his time. And starting this month, visitors to the National Gallery in London will have the rare opportunity to experience his work directly in the exhibition “Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance” (June 12–September 29).

The National Gallery happens to own one of Bermejo’s greatest works, St. Michael Triumphant Over the Devil with the Donor Antoni Joan (1468), and it provides the occasion and the anchor for this exhibition, which follows on the heels of a somewhat larger exhibition at the Prado in Madrid that was on view in the fall of 2018 and winter of 2019. The St. Michael, an oil and gold on wood painting signed by the artist and depicting the angel preparing to drive his sword into a grotesque devil figure while the patron, a Valencian nobleman, kneels off to one side, is no mere pretext to do a show. It is an eye-popping, absolutely singular work that NG director Gabriele Finaldi says “is without a doubt one of the supreme works of art produced in Spain—and indeed in all of Europe—in the fifteenth century.” High praise indeed, but no hyperbole, as the viewer will doubtless agree after seeing it—not just for the first time but after looking again and again, because there is something to please, amaze, and challenge the eye everywhere on the surface of this panel.

The National Gallery purchased St. Michael Triumphant in 1995 from the estate of the South African diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher, who had acquired it around 1900 from the church where it had resided since its creation (originally as the center panel of a triptych altarpiece). The museum characterizes this as “among the most notable acquisitions made by the National Gallery in recent memory.”

The painting is an illustration of a passage in the Book of Revelation of the New Testament, (12:7–9): “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” In Bermejo’s vision of the event, the archangel Michael is an elegant, confident figure, decked out in purple-red silk and golden armor, about to strike the decisive blow that will conclude the “war in heaven.” The devil, on the other hand, is not very intimidating. Bermejo is known for his touches of humor, and here he depicts Satan as a cartoonish dragon with a big toothy grin, almost Muppet-like in its cuteness. The patron, on the other hand, is a somber figure kneeling piously while witnessing the divine drama unfolding.

We know who this patron was, because full documentation of the painting’s commission exists—and is on view in the exhibition. Antoni Joan was a powerful nobleman and merchant from the town of Tous in eastern Spain near Valencia, then under the crown of Aragon. He was a warrior knight himself, from a family of knights (his brother-in-law was one of the inspirations for Tirant lo Blanc, the hero of a 15th-century Catalan romance that is given high praise in Don Quixote), and the armor that St. Michael wears is modeled closely on real, contemporary battlefield armor that someone such as Joan would have worn—although minus the gold and jewels.

One of Bermejo’s most salient traits as a painter was his intricate, illusionistic depiction of detail, and in St. Michael it comes through most obviously in the way the garments are rendered—in the folds and textures of the patron’s gray jacquard robe and the angel’s cape (whose purplish color was a trademark of the artist), in the green velvet over the breastplate and scabbard, and above all in the chased surfaces of the armor itself. If you look closely at the lower part of the breastplate, you will see that it contains a reflection of a city skyline—that of the Heavenly Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. This amazing little detail affiliates Bermejo with the Flemish school of Northern Renaissance painting, whose major innovator, Jan van Eyck, reveled in reflections like this (for example, in the Arnolfini Wedding).

Bermejo’s Flemish-influenced style made him unique among Spanish painters of his era. Not that Northern influence was unheard of in Spain; far from it. But rather than giving general aesthetic nods to Flemish art, Bermejo completely internalized its extremely difficult technique of oil painting using glazes, in which layers of pigments thinned by linseed oil were applied one over the other to create a luminous, “transparent” effect. This was modern magic that no one else in Spain could supply, and it won Bermejo many commissions. It also earned him his place in art history.

Bermejo probably never traveled to the north but learned Netherlandish technique in Valencia, by studying works by such artists as Rogier van der Weyden. His name, Bermejo, means “reddish,” which could be a reference to his hair color. He also went by the name Cárdenas, which means purplish; that could be a reference to his favorite color, which recurs in his works. Current scholarship has it that he was likely either Jewish or from a Catholic family that had converted from Judaism; certainly his wife was Jewish. After the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain, life would have been difficult for him, and he had to move around a lot. Nonetheless, he continued to have a very successful career up until his death around 1501.

In addition to the St. Michael, the NG show features several major works by Bermejo loaned from Spanish museums—four panels depicting the life of Christ and two complete altarpieces, the Desplà Pietà and the Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat—for a total of seven works. All display Bermejo’s virtuoso skills, unique aesthetic, and sheer sense of vitality, in full. Considering the rarity of the artist’s work and the fact that all these paintings will not be gathered together again for a long time, the exhibition is not to be missed.

Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance, by Letizia Treves, is published by and copyright of National Gallery Company Limited 2019.

By John Dorfman

The Defiant One http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/09/edward-burne-jones/ Sat, 29 Sep 2018 13:53:00 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6228 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition on Edward Burne-Jones thinks outside the Pre-Raphaelite box.

Edward Burn-Jones, Adoration of the Magi, 1894

Edward Burn-Jones, Adoration of the Magi, 1894, tapestry, 2580 x 3840 mm;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Edward Burn-Jones, Adoration of the Magi, 1894 Edward Burn-Jones, Atlas Turned to Stone, circa 1878 Frederick Hollyer, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, 1874 Edward Burn-Jones, Love Among the Ruins, 1870-3 Edward Burn-Jones, The Death of Medusa (I), circa 1882 Edward Burn-Jones, The Doom Fulfilled, 1888

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones has long been the figure in the pantheon of British artists to present art historians with a conundrum. As a painter, Burne-Jones was an absolute outsider, having the audacity to experiment with tried-and-true media like watercolor and oil and painting “what he likes in defiance of what he is,” as his hero John Ruskin once said. As an insult, that sounds fairly innocuous, even inspiring, today, but in Victorian England it must have been a low blow in all its gendered disapproval, for Ruskin elaborated, “Jones, with all his power, paints still weakly as a woman—is essentially a woman.” As a designer and draughtsman, Burne-Jones was also misunderstood, partly due to the dichotomy between the fine arts and the “lesser arts”—as his lifelong friend and collaborator William Morris himself even called them—that had become more or less codified during the 19th century.

“Edward Burne-Jones,” a new exhibition at Tate Britain (October 24, 2018–February 24, 2019) tackles these notions and more, enabling us to reconsider and readjust our understanding of Burne-Jones, who was so often simultaneously lauded and disparaged. It is the first show in the United Kingdom to focus on the artist since 1975 and the first at the Tate since 1933. Organized by Alison Smith, Chief Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, and Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator at Tate Britain, the exhibition emphasizes that Burne-Jones’ artistic and literary skills were largely self-taught, stemming from his own deep personal interests, and thus bore no resemblance to those of his academically-trained peers. At the heart of the curators’ conception is the belief—nay, fact—that “Burne-Jones was not a fine artist,” as exhibition contributor Elizabeth Prettejohn, Professor at the University of York, puts it. “Art-historical interpretations fail,” she adds, “when they attempt to treat him as though he were.”

And so for much of the last century, scholars didn’t know quite what to do with him. Tate Britain (then known as the National Gallery of British Art) did acquire its first work by Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884), in 1900, two years after his death, but by then the artist had already fallen far from grace, and prices for his art had dropped still further. In 1904, his widow Georgiana attempted to rehabilitate his image with her two-volume Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, now considered the most important reference book for anyone writing about the artist.

The next decades were even less kind to him, undoubtedly due to the depreciation of the medieval and Renaissance revivalism—and any other historicist or “neo-” style—that had been central to (and had become the namesake of) the Pre-Raphaelite ethos, in favor of the clean slate of modernism. In his classic Pioneers of the Modern Movement, first published in 1936, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner blamed Burne-Jones for what he interpreted as the lack of simplicity or, in his words, “decorative economy,” of Morris & Co.’s stained glass—despite Pevsner’s overwhelming praise for those windows in his other writings. According to Pevsner, William Morris, the grandfather of all that ushered in the new, had been held back by Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones simply wasn’t modern enough.
Three years prior, in 1933, the Tate attempted to resurrect Burne-Jones in an exhibition held on the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday. Eighty-five years have passed since that centennial show, during which the critical reception of Burne-Jones has swung back around. The mid-century flatly saw Burne-Jones as old-fashioned, but the artist’s reputation finally began its full conservation and restoration when the Hayward Gallery in London presented a retrospective in 1975, at the height of England’s infatuation with Victoriana. This was followed in 1998 across the pond by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, not to mention a laundry list of international shows on the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement.

Burne-Jones never attended the usual art academies for designers and artists. In 1853, at 20, he enrolled at Exeter College, Oxford, where he met Morris. The two quickly gave up their study of theology and found other mutual passions. Within a few years, they had befriended their idols, Ruskin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the former shepherding the young Burne-Jones in Italy twice, the latter becoming his informal bottega master. Burne-Jones and Morris quickly reoriented their goals from religion toward the cult of beauty, working together as artist-designers with the establishment of the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.

As an untrained painter—with the exception of that self-imposed apprenticeship under Rossetti—he did not remain fixed in his ideas on sources for artwork; while other artists painted more conventional subjects from Shakespeare and 19th-century novels, Burne-Jones mined arcane classical and medieval literature. The same went for his use of varied media, leading to experimentation that may not have been possible for an artist working within the rigid parameters of a school. Going against academic art convention, Burne-Jones preferred to use oils as though they were a glaze to be built up and to thickly layer his watercolors to create opacity, most noticeable today in the bright highlights of zinc white. Very often his works in watercolor, already considered a forbiddingly feminine medium for a man, were mistaken for oil paintings and vice versa. Such criticism probably fueled his departure from the Old Water Colour Society in 1870.

He also designed across an extraordinarily wide range of arts: paintings, drawings, prints, books (including those for Morris and Rossetti), furniture, and musical instruments, to name just some. Lagter, these ventures were sometimes dismissed in favor of calling him only a painter. (Again, Pevsner comes to mind.) In reality, Burne-Jones was so prolific as a designer—he produced over 270 designs for stained glass between 1872 and 1878 alone—that his oeuvre remains nearly impossible to solidify in a single catalogue raisonné.

As demand for his work soared in the 1860s and ’70s, particularly the stained glass, Burne-Jones moved still farther from what history has come to understand as the archetypal 19th-century role of the artist and closer to an Italian Renaissance model of a workshop, employing artisans and students to work from his designs. Not unlike with Raphael and his sought-after cartoons for tapestries, Burne-Jones’s designs in wool proved enduring; Morris & Co. first executed the artist’s Adoration of the Magi tapestry in the late 1880s for their not-quite alma mater Exeter College, and over the next 20 years, the firm produced nine more tapestries, including the 1894 version later presented to the city of Manchester and now on view in London.

This practice probably is not surprisingly given that the artist-designer would return to Italy twice more. During these trips he learned to retreat from Rossetti’s painterly example, taking instead as his guides Botticelli, Mantegna, and Luca Signorelli, among other quattrocento and cinquecento masters, whose oeuvres underlie the intricate and mysterious iconographic program of works like The Golden Stairs (1880). Desiderium (1873), given to the Tate in 1910 by the artist’s son Sir Philip Burne-Jones, is an exercise in both Michelangelesque materiality and ethereality. The androgynous head of Cupid in profile (a prime example of the effeminacy critics often accused Burne-Jones’ subjects of having) rests on an impossibly long and strong Mannerist neck, yet the rendering is so delicate, even diaphanous, that Cupid might lift off the paper and float away.

In 1877, the Grosvenor Gallery displayed eight paintings by Burne-Jones to great fanfare, including The Beguiling of Merlin (1872–77). The following year, that canvas, along with the icon of post-troubadourian amour Love Among the Ruins (1870–73), traveled to the Exposition Universelle in Paris, opening the artist up to powerful, albeit brief, international accolades, especially among the Symbolists.

In many ways, the Tate show picks up where these admirers left off more than a century ago. In 1890, The Legend of Briar Rose had been a must-see for any Londoner when Thomas Agnew & Sons on Old Bond Street displayed the four canvases together. The ladies’ magazine The Woman’s World called it “the art-sensation of the season.” Alexander Henderson, 1st Baron Faringdon, immediately purchased the Briar Rose series (for the princely sum of £15,000, or nearly $800,000 in today’s terms) to be installed at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, with a series of custom friezes that tied the story together and integrated the scenes within Lord Faringdon’s music room. The canvases proved so popular, both in England and abroad, that Agnew’s Gallery published a widely circulated set of photogravures (a French technique combining photography and etching) after the four paintings.

“Edward Burne-Jones” is no doubt the art sensation of this season. At Tate Britain, where the artist’s drawings, furnishings, instruments, and even caricatures will receive due attention alongside his better-known and more often-exhibited watercolors and oils, audiences will finally have a comprehensive picture of this versatile artist. They will also have the opportunity, for the first time ever, to see together his two masterpieces of painting cycles—and probably his two most important private commissions—The Legend of Briar Rose and Perseus.

These two are exemplary of Burne-Jones’ mastery of the unconventional, both artistic and literary. Through his singular storytelling ability, by which passages and figures are dramatically duplicated—and further enhanced in Briar Rose by Morris’ added verses—Burne-Jones created visions of the fairy tale and the myth that seem both firmly rooted in Victorian England and timeless. In The Legend of Briar Rose, we witness the single moment of Sleeping Beauty’s repose from four perspectives—but all fundamentally the vision of Burne-Jones interpreting centuries of visual culture. The slumber of the kingdom and the Briar Wood encompasses three canvases, with the fourth, The Rose Bower (1885–90), culminating in the protagonist asleep with her attendants. Burne-Jones also paints The Death of Medusa from two distinct angles, essentially presenting the scene to the viewer in the round, lest we forget that the artist went to the trouble of making a wax model of the Gorgon. In the first version (1881), Burne-Jones depicted Perseus in the act, pulling Medusa’s head back while Pegasus looms over the body, which looks more like a Roman marble fragment of an Amazon warrior than a corpse so freshly decapitated that it has yet to hit the ground. In the second version (1881–82), Perseus reaches to place the head in a bag in order to avoid being turned to stone by her gaze.

In 1875, Arthur Balfour (who would in 1902 become Prime Minister of England) commissioned Perseus for his London home, but the artist’s grandiose and ambitious proposal for a 10-scene cycle was never completed. At Tate Britain, the Perseus cycle’s original four unfinished canvases, now at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, will be joined by the accompanying studies now preserved at the Southampton City Art Gallery and in the museum’s own collection, presenting for the first time Burne-Jones’s complex iconographic program in all its overwhelming glory.

The exhibition also boasts an incredible array of works that museumgoers rarely get to glimpse, including those from private collections like Love Among the Ruins and the Orphic piano (1879–80) commissioned by the Glasgow MP William Graham for his daughter Frances, as well as several artworks lent by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jimmy Page. Where such figures of pop-cultural appreciation are concerned, Burne-Jones has been at the center of a post-Victorian reawakening since the 1970s Anglo-American revival of interest in his circle. The curators even point to Burne-Jones’s modern influence in art and music, suggesting that the anti-Pre-Raphaelite mantle of yesteryear’s historians has finally been completely shed.

If the 20th-century reverence for anti-establishment art tells us anything at all, it’s that an artist of the untouchable caliber of Burne-Jones should probably receive the reverence due a demigod. Maybe museumgoers don’t need to go to quite those lengths, despite Burne-Jones’s own spiritual leanings, but the Tate’s exhibition does drive home that Burne-Jones—the painter, draughtsman, designer, alchemist—did not paint “in defiance of who he [was],” but rather in defiance of who everyone else was.

By Martina D’Amato

Chiaroscuro Prints: Lights and Shadows http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/06/chiaroscuro-prints/ Thu, 28 Jun 2018 18:27:36 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6073 Continue reading ]]> Revealing the subtle fascination of Renaissance chiaroscuro prints.

Niccolò Vicentino, after Pordenone, Saturn, circa 1540s

Niccolò Vicentino, after Pordenone, Saturn, circa 1540s, chiaroscuro woodcut from 4 blocks in light tan, gray-tan, dark gray-tan, and black, state i/iii, 12 5/8 x 17 3/8 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Attributed to Antonio da Trento or Niccolò Vicentino, after Parmigianino, printed by the Vicentino workshop, Circe Drinking (Circella), circa 1540s Ugo da Carpi, after Parmigianino, Diogenes, circa 1527–30 Niccolò Vicentino, after Pordenone, Saturn, circa 1540s Andrea Andreani, after Giovanni Fortuna (?), A Skull, circa 1588 Domenico Beccafumi, Apostle with a Book, circa 1540s

While to most art enthusiasts, chiaroscuro (Italian for “light and dark”) refers to the use of strongly contrasting lights and darks in a composition in any medium, the term has another meaning. To initiates of the hermetic world of print collecting and print scholarship, chiaroscuro is a technique of woodblock printmaking, most popular in the 16th century, that gave an effect of heightened three-dimensionality coupled with subtle gradations of hue, more characteristic of a wash drawing than a print. Since chiaroscuros required multiple blocks to make, they were labor-intensive, expensive, and aimed at a sophisticated audience of print connoisseurs. Comparatively few were produced, and a large percentage of those have not survived. As a result, chiaroscuro woodcuts are little known and little understood.

Now, thanks to an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), this refined and startlingly beautiful kind of printmaking is coming out of the dark and into the light. “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy” (through September 16), organized by LACMA in association with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is the first major exhibition on the subject ever presented in this country, gathering together over 100 prints from the collections of 19 museums. It also embodies important new research on chiaroscuro woodcuts. Naoko Takahatake, Curator of Prints and Drawings at LACMA and the organizer of the exhibition, says, “With its accompanying catalogue, the exhibition documents a decade of research that advances scholarly understanding of a broad range of critical questions—from attribution and chronology, to artistic collaboration, materials and means of production, publishing histories, aesthetic intention, and audience—forming a clearer view of the genesis and evolution of this captivating and complex medium.”

To explain it as briefly as possible, a chiaroscuro was made by using multiple blocks of wood to print a single image. One, called the key block or line block, usually bore an outline that would be printed in black or dark gray ink. A second, called the tone block, would print a background color, usually blue, green, or reddish-orange, with portions left blank so that the white of the paper beneath would provide highlights. Further tone blocks could be used, in different shades of the background color, to add more shading and modeling. The technique was invented in 1508 by a German, Hans Burgkmair, court artist for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, but it fell to an Italian printmaker, Ugo da Carpi, to launch chiaroscuro as an art-world phenomenon. In 1516, Ugo petitioned the Venetian senate for a patent on what he referred to as a “new technique” for printing “in light and dark.” While he may have inferred the method by looking at some Northern prints, rather than being taught it (and Ugo was, in fact, basically a self-taught artist), his pretention to invention was false, and he was probably as much pirate as pioneer. Nonetheless, he was a man of great skill and vision, and what he envisioned was a collaborative venture between artists who would conceive designs and himself, the printmaker, who would translate them into a reproducible medium with a whole new look.

Unusually for an artist, Ugo came from an aristocratic background, and he thought of himself as master, not servant. Unlike the reproductive printmakers who worked for artists’ studios making mass-produced versions of paintings, Ugo approached artists for original ideas that were not already paintings, paid them for them, and then took control of the process, signing his prints with his own name rather than that of the designer. He worked with such luminaries as Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino. One of Ugo’s most famous chiaroscuros, Diogenes (circa 1527–30), is from a Parmigianino design. Described by the discerning Vasari as a “most beautiful print,” it shows the Greek philosopher in a bold pose, modeled by shadows and light, in a style that seems to eschew the busy detail favored by most printmakers at the time in favor of broader strokes and a softer finish.

This effect of chiaroscuro printmaking led to some misconceptions about it in later eras. For various reasons, chiaroscuros fell out of fashion after the 16th century, and when they were rediscovered by print collectors in the 18th century, they were uniformly described as imitations of drawing or painting. This was partly because using printmaking techniques to “mass-produce” drawings was prevalent at that time, especially in England, where the interest in chiaroscuros was greatest. And some late practitioners of chiaroscuro, notably the Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius, did delight in effects that border on trompe l’oeil. But the truth, as the researchers involved in the LACMA show have discovered, is that during its heyday, the chiaroscuro print was intended to deliver a unique print experience, not an imitation of any other kind of art. This was a subtle, yet bold kind of beauty best appreciated by seasoned print connoisseurs, who could marvel at the technical aspects as well as absorbing the aesthetic ones.

While chiaroscuro has been called the first color printmaking technique in the West, that is also a bit of a misconception. In the Renaissance, there were color prints—that is, black-and-white prints that were hand-tinted with watercolors. Because these were intended for a mass audience, and many of them were devotional objects, color prints came to be seen as vulgar. While someone as ingenious as Ugo—or, for that matter, fellow Italian practitioners such as Niccolò Vicentino and Domenico Beccafumi—could probably have come up with a multi-block method for printing in full color, like Japanese ukiyo-e, there was at least one very good reason not to: The painters’ guilds resented any challenge to their business, and chiaroscuro printmakers trying to horn in would likely have faced legal action.

So they instead concentrated on perfecting a uniquely monochromatic approach to color. One of the delights of contemplating chiaroscuros is seeing the same design rendered in different colors—first in a cool greenish palette, then perhaps in a warm orange. And one of the challenges is figuring out how the printmaker did it; often the design is spread over more than one block, so that the dichotomy of line block versus tone block breaks down. “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy” could help create the next generation of connoisseurs.

By John Dorfman

A Treasure Trove of Images http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/04/maiolica-pottery/ Thu, 26 Apr 2018 00:56:40 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5944 Continue reading ]]> In the Italian Renaissance, mythological and historical iconography found its way from paintings to prints and finally to maiolica pottery and bronzes.

Workshop or follower of Francesco Xanto Avelli, lustered in the workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, Shallow bowl on low foot with the death of Laocoön and his two sons, 1539

Workshop or follower of Francesco Xanto Avelli, lustered in the workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, Shallow bowl on low foot with the death of Laocoön and his two sons, 1539, tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica), diameter: 27 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Francesco Xanto Avelli, Pilgrim Flask with Mercury and Psyche, 1530 Agostino de’ Musi, called Agostino Veneziano, The March of Silenus, circa 1520 Workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, Shallow bowl with Hercules overcoming Antaeus, 1520 Workshop or follower of Francesco Xanto Avelli, lustered in the workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, Shallow bowl on low foot with the death of Laocoön and his two sons, 1539 Giovanni Antonio da Brescia, Hercules and Antaeus, circa 1490–1500 Deruta or Faenza Basin with geometric patterns and dragon, circa 1480/1500

In 1770, a German amateur art historian by the name of Christophe de Scheib hypothesized that the maiolica plates and tazze (footed bowls) made in Faenza were simply too beautiful and too close in composition to prints and drawings by Raphael not to have been painted by Raphael himself. Scheib’s thoughts on maiolica came a half-century before the Renaissance would begin its ascent toward a rediscovery and romanticization of epic proportions and some 75 years before French historian Jules Michelet would even coin the term “Renaissance.”

Scheib’s hypothesis was quickly, and rightly, denounced. It was already well known that maiolica vessels were the products of workshops distinct from those of painters but working from circulating printed images of painters’ masterpieces. More than two centuries earlier, Giorgio Vasari had already explained the use of prints after Raphael by potters in Urbino. Nonetheless, 19ht-century historians noted that even if these wares weren’t painted or designed by Raphael, their beauty and historical importance made them worth careful study. “They preserve what we do not have elsewhere; that is, the many different thoughts of Sanzio [Raphael] himself,” wrote French archaeological and architectural theorist Quatremère de Quincy in 1835. “We have in them an infinity of other things by Raphael and his school that no longer exist.”

With that in mind, one cannot forget that the very sources from which 16th-century potters were drawing inspiration had been attempts by contemporary artists to surpass the ancient masters. And what better way to do just that in a relatively new medium like maiolica than to mine the circulating imagery of classical antiquity as reinvented by those modern Renaissance masters? After all, as “the pottery of humanism,” as art historian Bernard Rackham called it in 1930, maiolica was capable of breathing new, polychromatic life into the recently reprinted texts of antiquity and the monochrome lines of copperplates and woodblocks.

The National Gallery of Art’s latest exhibition, “Sharing Images,” surveys this translation and transmutation of humanist, as well as biblical, ideas by painters and printmakers in Italy and northern Europe from print to pot and from print to bronze. The result of the 2015 acquisition of the William A. Clark maiolica collection from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the exhibition draws on the National Gallery’s formidable strengths in Italian and Northern Renaissance prints, drawings, ceramics, and bronzes in order to provide a focused window in on the interactions between print culture and workshop practices. “Sharing Images” and its accompanying catalogue focus in large part on the Gallery’s own impressive stores of maiolica, which make up about one-fourth of the exhibition and which actually reflect more on the taste for istoriato (history-painted) and heraldic maiolica among American collectors of the Gilded Age and beyond, such as William Clark himself, as well as Joseph E. Widener and Samuel Kress.

In “Sharing Images” Jamie Gabbarelli, Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the National Gallery of Art (2015–17), has found a surprisingly little-explored area in the otherwise well-trodden path of study of early modern prints and their influences on maiolica and bronze production. He considers the movement of pictures and ideas from the decorative arts back to prints, rather than only the other way around, in addition to the use of multiples as the primary source for creation of a common visual language across media in the Renaissance. He asks which prints were used most often and how fast these images were integrated into the repertoires of bronzemakers and potters. The exhibition catalogue’s preface by Jonathan Bober, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Art, provides a cogent synthesis of Gabarelli’s detailed study in the chapters that follow.

At the center of these questions are the many varied representations of subjects from prints in istoriato maiolica. Other 18th-century writers, evidently better informed than Scheib, had called istoriato vessels “libri dipinti” (painted books), because the depicted literary and artistic scenes were often so detailed and complex. Istoriato was the term given in the 16th century to the richly and delicately painted narrative-style maiolica that was widely collected throughout much of the 16th century and provided evidence that these ceramics should be viewed as a legitimate art form beyond the “applied” or “minor” arts. Unsurprisingly, istoriati were prized not only by later collectors enriching museums but also by elites and the bourgeois alike in the Renaissance, because of the level of technical skill required of their painters.

Before the rise of this type of painted decoration, maiolica had for the most part maintained a mostly muted palette of blue, yellow, orange, and purple-brown, as in one 15th-century plate depicting a whimsical dragon basking in a cool-hued sun surrounded by concentric guilloche bands on the rim. (Italians only figured out a recipe for iron lustre, used for centuries in the Islamic world, around 1460.) The rainbow spectrum and nuanced gradients of color on “historiated” wares would have been especially hard to master. Mistakes were nearly impossible to correct, as glazes were quickly absorbed into the unfired surface and their colors could not be seen until after firing. In his circa-1557 treatise The Three Books of the Potter’s Art, perhaps the most important surviving source for information on maiolica production, Cipriano Piccolpasso gave specific recipes for mixing pigments when painting istoriati.

One famous example of istoriato is the set presented to Isabella d’Este by her daughter, Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino, in 1524. Executed by the celebrated painter Nicola da Urbino, who was known as “the Raphael of maiolica painting” and who occasionally even signed his wares, the set depicts scenes from Ovid and Virgil, as well as other mythological and biblical events. A plate from the series, now in the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reproduces the drunken carousing of the coterie of a sleeping Silenus as seen through the eyes of printmaker Agostino Veneziano. But the painter, who was known to freely interpret and combine sources, truncated Agostino’s scene to fit the rounded, concave surface by moving two figures; at the far left, a man pours wine from the spout of a wineskin, unmistakably phallic in shape and location, into another drunkard’s mouth. Nicola framed the whole scene with the huge, gnarled trees from which the families’ stemme (coats of arms) hang.

The exhibition also highlights the varying approaches to print sources used by potters in different regions and even workshops, as in one plate in the Smithsonian probably made in the workshop of perhaps the second-most important maiolica painter, Orazio Fontana. Known from numerous extant maiolica versions, the composition depicts the contest of song between the Muses and the Pierides recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and taken from an engraving by Gian Jacopo Caraglio after an oil by Rosso Fiorentino. Unlike painters in the Casteldurante workshops of Fontana and his father, Guido Durantino, who illustrated the entire grouping, Urbino painter Francesco Xanto Avelli extracted Rosso’s nudes for use in other istoriato compositions in what Gabarelli calls “his cut-and-paste approach.” Though not explicitly addressed in the catalogue, the extent of Avelli’s method makes for a fun game of spotting sources. On a 1532 plate from the Clark collection that shows the obscure tale of the sinking of Seleucus’ fleet, commissioned as part of the Pucci Service, Avelli included a hunched-over nude male from the pornographic woodcuts and sonnets of I Modi (The Sexual Positions or “The Sixteen Pleasures”) by writer and satirist Pietro Aretino, after Giulio Romano and Raphael’s engraver and printer Marcantonio Raimondi. (Luke Sysan and Dora Thornton previously identified the figure as such from its appearance on another plate by Avelli at the British Museum.)

This use and reuse across media, from print to bronze to ceramic and back again, is a theme throughout the show. Artists who are known to have possessed maiolica themselves, like Andrea Mantegna, were copied by potters and bronze-makers. Mantegna’s workshop engravings enjoyed particular success. Likewise, the Laocoön and its finding in 1506 was a seemingly endless source of inspiration among artists, spurring not only the famed 1510 contest to create new arms for the main figure but also countless spinoffs in other media. Versions in ceramic and bronze in “Sharing Images” take from two engravings of the group by Marco Dente, which provided the models for Christ in the bronze relief of The Flagellation by Galeazzo Mondella, called Il Moderno, as well as for the clothed and unclothed father figure in tin-glazed variants from the workshop of Francesco Xanto Avelli. Other maiolica painters depicted the sculpture without extremities, in its found fragmentary state. In fact, the marble’s image was so enduring in the early 16th century that Titian caricatured it, turning the father and sons into a family of monkeys; the woodcut after Titian is attributed to Niccolò Boldrini. Print, the ape of fine art!

Although the show focuses on these istoriato maiolica and bronzes, it also explores the sources of unusual non-narrative imagery, including music. Ritual was often an important aspect of displaying or utilizing maiolica, be it to adorn a credenza during a banquet or as presentation pieces given to a new mother during her convalescence (and often containing prescribed foodstuffs for her). Gabarelli discusses one extant bowl containing in a central cartouche meticulously transcribed music and verse of a song from a songbook printed in 1507. Scholars surmise that the set originally included four vessels, with musical notation for four different voices, and may have been used during or after dining, not for food but instead as entertainment, to engage guests and bring song to the table.

“Sharing Images” speaks as much to these 15th- and 16th-century traditions and trends as to those in our own current moment in history, when word and image are infinitely reproducible and more accessible than ever. The connections to the present, and particularly to consumer culture, resonate even more when we think of the ways in which Renaissance artists embraced or rejected the transmission of their designs in the early days of print, and even dealt with the subsequent copyright issues. Raphael was no doubt aware of the big business in the still-young print industry when he began his collaboration with Marcantonio Raimondi in 1508, while Albrecht Dürer, whose engravings were widely used by potters in Faenza and Gubbio as well as bronze-makers, famously sued Raimondi for the transalpine success of copies of his engravings, monogram and all. Copies in other media, or illegal copies, may not have brought financial security to artists, but, as Quatremère de Quincy noted, it ensured that their compositions had a lasting and memorable impact.

What comes across in “Sharing Images” is how thoroughly modern the conception and execution of maiolica and bronzes could be during the Renaissance, when these arts were still in the process of being reshaped by the medium of print. One might even liken the two-way street of the transmission of print culture to the viral impact of new media and consumerism today. Just as people of all tax brackets today are keen to own the latest gadgets, 16th-century consumers strove to acquire the newest technological advancements. While bronzes may have been out of reach to anyone not among the cultured and moneyed elite, print and tin-glazed earthenware provided two relatively affordable and increasingly accessible examples of true novelty and ingegno (invention or genius). “Sharing Images” suggests that, through the acts of transmission and translation, copy and commodification, and going far beyond iconography, maiolica and bronzes may have still more similarities to the prints that inspired them than scholars have yet considered.

By Martina D’Amato

Masters Old and New http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2017/10/johnson-collection/ Wed, 25 Oct 2017 22:42:11 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5629 Continue reading ]]> The Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibits and reassesses the collection of a great patron.

Claude Monet, Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874

Claude Monet, Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874, oil on canvas, 21.375 x 28.875 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Conrad F. Haeseler, Portrait of John G. Johnson, 1917 Joos van Cleve, The Descent from the Cross Giovanni di Paolo, Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Shipwreck Mary Stevenson Cassatt, On the Balcony, 1873 Claude Monet, Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874

The first use of the term “Old Masters” in reference to a European painter who was working before 1800 can be found in John Evelyn’s diary. This multi-volume work, which was published early in the 19th century under the title Memoirs Illustrative of the Life and Writings of John Evelyn, comprises the diaries of a 17th-century English writer, gardener and, you guessed it, diarist. The book, although not 100 percent verifiably true, gives a contemporary view of art, culture, and major political events of the time. Evelyn was a gentleman and traveled through Europe both for study and leisure, and as was the fashion among the gentry, he spent time with other gentleman, enjoying their hospitality and exploring their gardens, stately homes, and their collections of fine art. On one such visit was to Thomas Herbert, the 8th Earl of Pembroke, a statesman and the dedicatee of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, who had inherited his title in 1683 from his brother, “The Infamous Lord of Pembroke,” so called for his notorious bouts of homicidal mania. Evelyn made the following entry: “11th. Dined at Lord Pembroke’s, Lord Privy Seal, a very worthy gentleman. He shewed me divers rare pictures of very many of the old and best masters, especially one of M. Angelo of a man gathering fruit to give to a woman and a large book of the best drawings of the old masters.” Strange to think that even before the Old Master period had come to a close, the term was already in use. This seems to evince that it the usage has to do with more than simply time.

At one point the term “Old Master” was used to identify works by European painters from 1450 onward, appearing to coincide roughly with the use of oil paint by Netherlandish painters such as Jan Van Eyck, whose handling of the material would open up a new chapter in European painting made possible by the medium’s color, luminosity and versatility, and which eventually led to oil paint’s adoption as major medium throughout the continent. This original distinction, however, closed the door on the likes of Cimabue and Giotto, medieval through Early Renaissance painters whose work not only led the way for later artists but warranted its own appreciation for its considerable beauty and stylistic idiosyncrasies. Now the term Old Master commonly refers to any European work before 1800. In a sense the phrase seems to be the direct result of, more or less, too much of a good thing—so many masterly works, so little time. The implication is that a 500-year time span was so rich in visual invention, beauty, and perfection that one could believe it is united by unparalleled quality alone.

However, the works, artists, and schools that fall under the umbrella of this far-reaching term do share pedagogical and cultural affinities. Painters employed apprentices in the fashion of other artisans, and painting was a skill which was equal parts natural ability and technique and style passed down from master to student. In this sense, “old master” implies a standard of quality, an ideal that could be sought and achieved through education and practice. Inspiration and vision had their place as well, but with the emergence of modern art’s abstraction and heavy conceptual concerns, the perfection of perspective, physiognomy, anatomy, and narrative which typified pre-modern works became only one path among many that an artist could follow.

Visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition “Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection” will now have the opportunity to follow a wondrous path through the collection of John G. Johnson, a prominent corporate lawyer and art collector. The Johnson Collection was donated to the Museum in 1917 and comprises the core of the institution’s collection of early European paintings. Now, 100 years later, the collection is getting another look as the public is invited to view works from some of the most important moments in European painting through the lens of ever-evolving scholarship and continual conservation.

The conservation, restoration, and study being done on the Johnson Collection has yielded many new discoveries about its impressive works. Mysteries have been solved in regard to paintings such as Rogier van der Weyden’s The Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, which historians have recently determined to be shutters from possibly one of the largest altarpieces of the Northern Renaissance rather than an independent work, as it was previously thought to be. New discoveries about the works in the Johnson Collection include not only technical and historical discoveries but new insights into the meanings of certain works, such as Dutch artist Judith Leyster’s 1629 painting The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), which portrays two drunken men carousing while a skeleton (presumably Death) looks on. The skeleton, whose fleshless visage seems to smile knowingly while holding a candle and an hourglass, was only discovered after the painting was compared to another, earlier, version by Leyster. After cleaning and restoration, the skeleton reemerged in the Johnson collection’s version. The grim humor of the painting seems to invite such a discovery, somehow allowing the informed viewer to have a similar experience to the two revelers—the realization that death has been there all along. Technically the painting is a stunning exercise in rendering light realistically. The sands run and the wax melts as the two men cavort. The candle the skeleton holds illuminates the drunken men’s bodies and faces from slightly below, giving them a ghastly appearance, the rest of the small room falling into darkness. The overall effect is both blackly comedic and moralizing.

The Last Drop is only one of many Dutch masterworks in the Johnson Collection. The Dutch Golden Age represents one of the European tradition’s greatest reckonings with naturalism and genre painting, which included innovations in still life and landscape, and renderings of light. It produced one of the greatest Old Masters of all, Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt’s oil on oak panel painting Head of Christ, which is dated between 1648 and 1656, is a gently realistic depiction. The play of light on the face of Christ is highly detailed, illuminating individual hairs on the savior’s head and in his wiry beard. The background seems to fall away into a shade of brown just distinct enough to differentiate it from the figure’s clothing, a nondescript robe which symbolizes Christ’s poverty and humility.

The Johnson collection boasts enough Dutch paintings to rank among one of the world’s largest caches of Flemish masterworks, including a number of paintings by genre painter Jan Steen and Jacob van Ruisdael, widely considered the preeminent landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age. Johnson was also one of the first Americans to collect the work of Hieronymus Bosch, whose oil on panel Adoration of the Magi is included in the exhibition. Bosch’s depiction of the theme is filled with the type of detail and figures one has come to expect from his work—the donkey and the cow in the stable behind the main action seem to invite as much consideration as the Christ child himself.

Another Dutch masterwork depicting a common theme from the Catholic lexicon is Jan Van Eyck’s oil on vellum on canvas painting St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, dated 1430 and 1432. The painting represents a sumptuous use of oil, achieving with the versatile medium an extraordinary range of shades and level of detail. The square format of the work has a focusing effect, and Van Eyck’s composition works with the shape, mostly filling it with his figures but leaving enough space for a background filled with dazzling renderings of rock with highly realistic depth and color.

The exhibition also includes some of the most recognizable names among Italian Old Masters, including Titian, Botticelli, and Fra Angelico, whose St. Francis of Assisi provides visitors with an Italian vision of the animal-friendly icon to compare with Van Eyck’s depiction. The works of the Italian Old Masters have also benefited from contemporary conservation and scholarship. Titian’s 1558 oil on canvas Portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto is one such work, its colors, faded over time, having been discovered and interpreted in terms of their original significance in the artist’s time. The painting depicts the Archbishop sitting behind a semi-transparent curtain. The image is unusual and highly symbolic; the curtain represents the Archbishop’s political troubles, which prevented him from accepting the archbishopric of Milan. The figure seems almost like a gleefully self-imposed obstacle course for Titian. Half of it is rendered with the detail and clarity one would expect from a direct view, and the other half, obscured by the curtain, is blurred. The optical reality of seeing is masterfully handled, and the play between the surface of the curtain and the figure visible behind it causes the eyes to run back and forth along with the viewer’s mind. In this portrait Titian seems to prefigure both the Impressionists and Gerhard Richter’s optical explorations of soft focus over 400 years later.

The Johnson Collection also includes works made during John G. Johnson’s life including paintings by Manet, Monet, and Courbet, some of the most significant emerging—for lack of a better term—new masters. Courbet’s 1866 oil on canvas on gypsum board painting Marine is a moody seascape in which menacing dark clouds fill the canvas. The clouds are economically rendered with long unbroken brushstrokes that herald the painterliness that would come to further prominence in later modern works and achieve ultimate freedom in pure abstraction. Claude Monet’s 1874 oil on canvas Railroad Bridge also includes a waterscape, as well as a bridge over which a train is passing. Smoke billows from the train, filling the the flat gray sky with man-made clouds. Johnson’s apparent taste for the nautical and the gray are present in both the Courbet and Monet paintings. Something else is present as well—originality. The contemporary works Johnson collected display innovation which both extends from and breaks with the works of the Old Masters. Seeing both together allows these similarities and differences to shine through and gives visitors to the exhibition a more complete story of European painting’s evolution from the old to the new.

The more Johnson’s collecting is considered, the more his spiritual fraternity with the likes of John Evelyn and other art-appreciating gentleman of the past becomes clear. He traveled, practiced law, and collected beautiful works of art, and the exhibition includes a gallery dedicated to the man himself, documenting his life and career. It serves as a nice addition to an impressive collection of masterworks. In the end, however, seeing the art Johnson collected during his life allows the viewer another way of seeing the man through the precious gift he left.

By Chris Shields

Botticelli: The Cult of Beauty http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2017/03/botticelli-paintings/ Tue, 28 Mar 2017 20:46:07 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5230 Continue reading ]]> An unprecedented group of Botticelli paintings comes to the U.S., giving occasion to reflect on the Florentine quest to unite the carnal with the spiritual.

Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist

Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist, about 1500, tempera on panel.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Sandro Botticelli, Venus Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Youth Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Book

How can wealth and education find expression in a public space dominated by an obsession with good and evil? It’s a question to which the Florentine Renaissance of the 15th century might be seen as a comprehensive answer. At the heart of that Renaissance was the Medici family; bankers of no special prominence at the beginning of the century; magnates, dictators, and cardinals toward the end. It was their money and to some extent intuition that guided and provided for the many artists, writers, and architects they gathered around themselves to transform not just the look but the whole ethos of the town they lived in.

Born in 1445, Botticelli outlived that first period of Medici dominance—which ended in 1494 with the expulsion of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s son, Piero—and died in 1510, just two years before the illustrious family would be reinstated as dukes on the back of Papal and Spanish power. Whether the artist ever really got over the collapse of the dynasty that had so often employed him is one of the questions visitors to “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine” will be bound to ask. Scheduled for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston from April 15–July 9, the show (organized by the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Virginia in partnership with Italy’s Metamorfosi Associazione Culturale) will be the largest-ever exhibition of Botticelli’s works in the U.S., featuring 24 paintings from museums and churches in Italy, important loans from Harvard and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and one painting, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist, from the MFA’s own collection The show also includes paintings by Botticelli’s teacher Filippo Lippi, his student Filippino Lippi, and other contemporaries.

Certainly, some sense of the ideas and politics of the period will be useful if you are to understand what you are looking at. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church had insisted on a metaphysics whose supreme expression was to be found in depictions of the Last Judgment. Humanity was divided into the blessed and the damned; your overriding concern must be the salvation of your soul, to which wealth was a serious obstacle. As Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

The Florence baptistery, the religious heart of Florence, was emblematic; a Last Judgment in rigidly Byzantine style looked down from the ceiling, while the bare walls were divided into an austere pattern of black and white. Everything was vice or virtue. Nothing else mattered. It must have been disquieting for the city’s bankers, since lending at interest was a mortal sin, and hardly encouraging for the manufacturers and merchants of a town renowned above all for its luxury textiles. You could think of the Renaissance, if you like, as a process of making that austere sacred space rather more comfortable for the rising mercantile class.

A crucial turning point was the funeral monument to Baldassarre Cossa, a Pope who was later judged a heretic, sodomite, and fornicator and declared never to have been pope at all. But he had been a close ally of the Medici family, and on his death in 1419 a young Cosimo de’ Medici managed to arrange for his burial in the Baptistery. Other tombs in the church were plain stone sarcophagi lined against the wall. Strict rules forbade any ostentatious projection into the congregation. Observing the letter of the law, but ignoring its spirit, Cosimo had the architects Michelozzo and Donatello build upward, placing a reclining Baldassarre in gleaming bronze above sinuous female representations of faith, hope, and charity and beneath a lavish bedroom canopy carved in marble. For the first time, worshippers found themselves confronted not by a symbol or emblem, but by a beautifully depicted individual who represented nothing but himself, a man of evident character and intellect, neither in heaven nor hell, but simply asleep. It was as dangerous a moment for medieval Christianity as the day a certain poet had ventured down into the Inferno and begun to find some of its inhabitants worthy of compassion.

In 1434, Cosimo de’ Medici asked Pope Eugenius how he might be assured of God’s mercy for any wrong he had done. A sum of 10,000 florins to restore the Monastery of San Marco might do it, the Pope thought. Cosimo had the crumbling pile splendidly restored with a dazzlingly airy library designed by Michelozzo, lush paintings from Fra Angelico, and, in a cell reserved especially for the banker himself, an Adoration of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli—the Adoration being one of the few occasions when the Bible gives rich men a positive role. Cosimo also insisted that the monastery be turned over to the most austere religious order of all, the Dominicans. So the bourgeois bankers and ascetic monks would mingle together and cease to be enemies. But someone wasn’t pleased with the arrangement. In a dormitory corridor, on a scroll in a painting only the monks would see, an unknown hand had written: “I invoke God’s curse and mine on whoever introduces wealth into this order.” It was a warning of things to come.

Botticelli, the nickname for Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, started work in the mid-1460s in the workshop of Fra Filippo (Lippo) Lippi, a monk turned artist who had recently run off with a novice nun. By this time, bankers’ money had not only revolutionized church interiors, with the multiplication of family chapels featuring frescoes where patrons and their families mixed freely with figures of scripture, but transformed votive images in the home into luxury items. So Botticelli’s Madonna della Loggia (circa 1467), the earliest of the paintings in the Boston exhibition, seems to validate the thesis Richard A. Goldthwaite puts forward in his 1995 book Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300–1600, that artists’ workshops were deliberately stimulating demand for devotional paintings by making changes in iconography and painting style.

Here the Madonna is dressed up in the best fabrics Florence could offer, while Baby Jesus is unusually affectionate as he balances on a parapet to throw his arms around Mom in the shelter of an elegant portico. Virtue no longer lies in a mystical virginity but seems to emanate from a deep melancholy, or simply thoughtfulness, an absorption both mental and physical that would become the hallmark of Botticelli’s mature work. As your eye moves from this to the more or less contemporary Madonna of Botticelli’s master, Lippi, and then the later Madonna of the Book (circa 1479), one can perfectly well understand how a sophisticated public was being enticed to desire new versions of the same product. It was an early form of fashion-driven consumerism, certainly a long way from the simple icon one contemplated as an aid to worship and prayer.

Books are important, and indeed learning in general. Three of the Botticelli paintings in the exhibition show books, while others—Pallas and the Centaur (circa 1480), for example—required the viewer to draw on a certain erudition. Clearly these paintings appeal to an elite rather than to the general public. After all, how could new money, without nobility, distinguish itself if not by buying education, developing refined taste, and putting it on display? “Money alone could not compete with what has been done here,” marveled the Duke of Milan’s son, Galeazzo Sforza, when shown around the treasures of the Medici household in 1459.

At the end of the previous century, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who founded the Medici bank, had had no education beyond accounting. But his son Cosimo, who vastly expanded the family’s wealth, was educated by humanists, and just as the works of art he commissioned shied away from a strict opposition of vice and virtue, so, without ever being anything other than a devout Christian, Cosimo oriented his reading away from the scriptures toward an exploration of the ancient world and classical philosophy. In the early 1460s, as Botticelli was beginning his apprenticeship with Fra Lippo, Cosimo commissioned the scholar Marsilio Ficino to translate the entire works of Plato into Latin for the first time.

Plato’s notion of a universe divided into brute material on the one hand and refined ideas on the other was old hat of course, long appropriated and Christianized by the medieval church. But in his commentaries Ficino added his own Neoplatonist twist: man was at the mid-point between material and spiritual, pulled downward to the one and aspiring upward to the other. And his aspiration was reflected in learning, in art, in love, which perhaps began with erotic love but tended to the divine. So Venus wasn’t a whore; she was the seduction of the beautiful and the good. All at once, simply by virtue of being beautiful, art could think of itself as necessarily pious; it no longer needed to depict religious scenes to assume the aura of the sacred. No artist in all history has more determinedly cultivated beauty—a thoughtful, absorbed, at once vaporous and human beauty—than Botticelli. No one more than him succeeded in reconciling, at least in the framed space of the painting or fresco, the luxuriously carnal and the innocently spiritual.

All the canvases from the mid-1470s to the late ’80s, whether it be the naked Venus herself, or Pallas Athena taming the centaur, Saint Augustine in his study or the Madonna with a book, or simply a beautiful young man in scarlet cloak and black hat, fall under this Neoplatonist spell. The figures are absolutely human, believable, but drawn away into some place of contemplation that is as pure as the decorative background against which they move. Venus is an object of physical yearning (Botticelli painted “very naked” women, remarked Vasari) but simultaneously an ideal. Saint Augustine is surrounded by the instruments of earthly science, but his gaze is toward another dimension.

And there were hidden messages that only educated initiates could grasp. Was Athena’s taming of the centaur to be understood as Reason subduing Carnal Desire? Or is she, as some supposed, Lorenzo the Magnificent calming Florence’s violent enemies? It’s worth noting that two of the paintings in the exhibition show Baby Jesus way ahead with his reading skills. The virtuous are learned, the learned virtuous, and both of them beautiful. Augustine is a saint, but virile and handsome. This is a world of immense optimism, wonderful drapery and conveniently long blonde hair, all drawn upward, to heaven.

There is a certain comedy, then, in seeing, in the death mask of Lorenzo il Magnifico, just how ugly the artist’s great patron was. It is the only thing on show in this exhibition that is not enchanting. Great poet and Neoplatonist as he was, Lorenzo was also extremely divisive. Unlike his grandfather Cosimo, he boasted of knowing nothing of banking, took his wealth for granted, and when the money ran out, largely due to his own mismanagement, robbed the state he had usurped to prop up the family’s declining fortunes. For those who yearned for the monkish austerity of the past, Il Magnifico was emblematic of sinful decadence.

Girolamo Savonarola became the spokesman for this groundswell of resistance to wealth, luxury, and secular beauty. Invited to Florence by Lorenzo de’ Medici himself for the quality of his fiery preaching, Savonarola in 1491 became prior of San Marco, the very monastery Cosimo had paid so much to restore and adorn. But if Lorenzo thought he could collect the friar as his family had collected so many priests and artists in the past, he was disappointed. Savonarola was an early manifestation of what we now call Christian fundamentalism. In a society buzzing with too many ideas, a Church cluttered with pricey bric-a-brac, he stripped his Christianity down to the naked crucifix.

Without repentance, catastrophe was imminent, he declared. “Oh priests, oh prelates of the Church of Christ, leave your pomp, your splendid feasts and banquets.” Spiritual renewal could only come through poverty. And the only good art was the old medieval art that concentrated the viewer’s mind on God, not human beauty or painterly genius. When Lorenzo de’ Medici died relatively young, and two years later the French invaded Florence, it seemed his prophecies had come true. Appointed Gonfalonier, a kind of prime minister, Savonarola ordered all luxury goods and profane images to be burned in the so-called Bonfire of the Vanities in the Piazza della Signoria, where in 1498 he would himself be burned, at the stake, for heresy.

What was Botticelli’s response to all this? There are two post-Savonarola paintings in the exhibition, Mystic Crucifixion and Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist (both circa 1500). The crucifixion suggests a regression to pre-Renaissance styles, the flattened figures of Christ, a prostrate Magadalena, and an angel beating a wild beast seem detached from any realistic background, while above the city of Florence, in the distant background, an aerial battle of angels and demons suggests a metaphysical showdown. In the other picture, all perspective is annulled as a strangely elongated Virgin stoops to stay inside the frame and hand the young Christ into the arms of an infant John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence. The sense of suffering and contraction is extremely powerful as the whole threesome seem in danger of toppling over to the right.

These regressive elements and the evident stress on spirituality and pathos have led critics to suppose that Botticelli underwent a personal crisis and became a supporter of Savonarola and his apocalyptic vision. But there is no documentary evidence for this, beyond a reported comment that the artist felt it had been a mistake to execute Savonarola. And despite their gestures to an older vision, these paintings remain very much luxury items offering a decidedly sumptuous piety, where every figure is breathtakingly beautiful. It is more as if, in his constant search to reconcile the bourgeois and the spiritual, Botticelli had been forced to shift the point of equilibrium away from optimism toward suffering and sadness. Certainly, having lost his patron and seen his own financial security evaporate in the upheavals of the ’90s, there was plenty to be sad about. His work no longer in fashion, the artist was largely ignored in later years and died in poverty, aged 65, leaving considerable debts.

By Tim Parks

On a Grecian Urn http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2017/03/the-berlin-painter/ Wed, 01 Mar 2017 21:51:56 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5125 Continue reading ]]> The Berlin Painter, one of the oldest masters of all, gets his first solo show, an occasion to reflect on the meaning of personal style in ancient art.

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure stamnos of special shape

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure stamnos of special shape: A: Peleus and Thetis, fleeing Nereids; B: Chiron, Nereus, and fleeing Nereids, ca. 480–470 B.C. Ceramic.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure stamnos of special shape Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure neck-amphora with twisted handles Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure bell-krater Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Black- figure Panathenaic prize amphora Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red-figure amphora Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure hydria of black- figure shape

The Berlin Painter wasn’t from Berlin, and he wasn’t a painter. What he was, though, was one of the greatest artists of the ancient world. An Athenian of the 5th century B.C., he (or possibly she, since the Berlin Painter’s anonymity includes gender) was a specialist in the decoration (with liquefied clay rather than paint) of ceramic vases, which happened to be the main vehicle for graphic expression in ancient Greece. On various forms of pottery, Greek artists depicted, with tremendous grace and precision, events such as athletic contests, musical and dramatic performances, drinking parties, and religious rituals, as well as the stories of mythology, of which the vases constitute a massive, though fragmentary, visual corpus.

Some of the painters and potters (always two different people in ancient Greece) signed their work, but usually the vases were unsigned; therefore most of those that survive are by anonymous hands. But that doesn’t mean that they were anonymous in their own time. Athens, where the best vases were made, was a small community, and in the circle of elite patrons, everyone was well aware of the artists and their various styles, so vases did not really need signatures. We should not infer from the fact that most vases come down to us without names attached that that the art form itself was the product of some sort of group mind that eschewed personal style and individual expression. Far from it. In fact, the distinct touch and vision of many of the vase artists has enabled scholars to identify them as individuals and attribute works to them. Absent a name, they are generally identified by one of their most famous works (known as the name-vase), and that work, in turn, is usually named after some pictorial element in it or after the museum or collection that owns it. The Berlin Painter was named by the English scholar Sir John Beazley in 1911 for a stunning amphora in the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, depicting a satyr and the god Hermes, that had been found in an Etruscan tomb near the central Italian town of Vulci in 1834.

Though one doesn’t usually think of ancient artists as having one-man shows, our knowledge of Attic vase painting and the herculean attribution efforts of scholars like Beazley make it possible. This month, the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, N.J., is opening “The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.” (March 4–June 11), which brings together 84 objects—54 vessels and fragments by the Berlin Painter plus 22 other vessels and fragments and 8 statuettes by other Attic artists, for purposes of comparison and context. Pieces from the Princeton Museum’s collection are joined by loans from museums and private collections around the world, including the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Vatican. The exhibition, curated by J. Michael Padgett, curator of ancient art at the Princeton University Art Museum, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many works together by a great master of antiquity and to get a sense of what qualities make a visual artist shine as an individual through the intervening haze of 25 centuries.

Before discussing the special traits of the Berlin Painter, we need to understand something of what Greek vase art was. First of all, though he and his fellow artists are called vase painters, their rich imagery was not created by any process of painting as we know it. Instead, the artist would incise or draw the lines of his composition on unfired wet clay that had begun to harden, so that it had a leathery finish, and then use something like a pastry bag to apply slip, a mixture of clay and water, to the appropriate areas. Once the vase was fired, with air and smoke being allowed into the kiln in several stages, the areas coated with slip would turn black, while the rest of the vase would retain the original reddish color of the clay. There are two main kinds of vase painting technique, called black-figure and red-figure. On black-figure vases, the background is red and the figures are black, while on red-figure vases, the scheme is reversed. These two styles were not reversed approaches existing side by side as choices for an artist to make; the black figure was a cruder style that predated the red, which offered more expressive possibilities, and the Berlin Painter flourished at a time when red-figure painting was rapidly overtaking black-figure.

With black-figure, there was very limited ability to depict detail within a figure (and bear in mind that Greek vase art is overwhelmingly an art of the human figure). All the artist could do was to incise a few lines that would show up light within the blackness, and the effect ended up being rather schematic. So while black-figure was undeniably bold, it conveyed a mechanical, almost robotic effect. In red-figure, on the other hand, the slip makes the background back while the red clay ground becomes the figures’ flesh tones. Because of the resulting lightness, the artist can use additional slip in small quantities to fill in very fine detail within the figures, for facial expressions, musculature, hairstyles, and so on. This technique was very difficult, in that the artist had to work—very quickly—with a nearly transparent medium, the slip, and often could not be sure of exactly what he had drawn until the vase was fired. And many times the vase would not survive the firing, emerging from the kiln cracked or shattered. Nonetheless, it was worth it; in red-figure pottery, the figures truly come to life, and in them we can see the birth of a naturalistic, emotionally expressive graphic art, the likes of which would not appear again until the European Renaissance.

The Berlin Painter did make some black-figure works, such as an amphora (two-handled jug for olive oil), shown in the exhibition, that was intended to be given as a prize to victors in the Panathenaia, the great quadrennial athletic festival held in Athens. Out of reverence for tradition, Panathenaic amphorae continued to be painted in black-figure well into the 4th century B.C., long after red-figure had won the day. On one side of the vessel, which stands two feet tall, the goddess Athena, patroness of the city, is depicted, flanked by columns topped by cocks. On the other side, two wrestlers struggle with each other while a judge looks on, holding a long staff that indicates his authority. The wrestler on the left assumes a posture typical of the Berlin Painter—moving in one direction while twisting his head to look in the opposite direction, which gives it a dynamic effect.

But red-figure was his forte, and that was in keeping with the times. The Berlin Painter belongs the Late Archaic phase of Greek vase art, when a new, naturalistic style had overcome the rigidity and formulaic nature of the Archaic style, but the supremely balanced, serene quality of the Classical style had not yet taken over. There is a dramatic tension, an intensity to Late Archaic painting that is unmistakable. The first Late Archaic vase painters who worked in red-figure are known as the Pioneer Group, which the art historian John Boardman has described as the first self-conscious artistic movement in Western art. (One member of the Pioneer Group is Euphronios, famous today for the exquisite circa-515 B.C. calyx krater—or vessel for mixing wine and water)—painted with a scene of the death of the Homeric hero Sarpedon, which was looted from an Etruscan tomb at Cerveteri, Italy, in 1971, bought by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and in 2008 repatriated to Italy after criminal trials and extensive negotiations.) The Berlin Painter belongs to the generation immediately after the Pioneer Group.

His achievements are on full display in a red-figure neck amphora with ridged handles, Amazonomachy with Herakles (circa 485–480 B.C.), on view at Princeton. Departing from the convention that a vase have two separate illustrations 180 degrees apart, this fantastic composition wraps entirely around. It depicts the battle between Herakles (Hercules) and his companion Telamon and 10 Amazons (female warriors)—three archers and seven hoplites or foot-soldiers. Herakles, with a bow in one hand, waves a club with the other hand to menace an Amazon who has fallen, injured, at his feet and lifts up a supplicating hand for mercy. All around the vase, between two rows of floral decoration, the crowd of combatants runs, bristling with spears and circular shields, figures and weapons alike curving gently with the contour of the vase—a reminder that Greek vases are always flat art on a curved surface, a requirement that places additional challenges on the spatial capabilities of the artist. The details of the garb of the warriors, their tendrils of hair, and their strangely cheerful, peaceful-looking eyes are exquisitely rendered by the painter. This composition, the Berlin Painter’s most complex, is most likely modeled on one made by Euphronios about 20 years earlier, and Euphronios himself may have been the potter for this one.

Most of the Berlin Painter’s vase designs are less busy than the Amazonomachy. Usually he favored simple compositions with one figure or small figural group on each side, obverse and reverse. His name-vase itself (in the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin) shows on the obverse two figures intertwined, facing opposite directions, with a spotted fawn rubbing between their legs like a cat. The black-bearded figure on the left is a satyr, whose name is spelled out as Oreimachos, or “mountain-fighter.” The muscular, animal-eared creature holds a lyre in one hand and its plectrum in the other. The other figure, whose face has a more-than-human dignity and refinement, contrasting with the beastly satyr, is none other than the god Hermes. He holds his herald’s wand and a kantharos, a type of wine cup. Beazley speculated that this vase depicts a scene from the myth in which Hermes and Dionysos bring the blacksmith god Hephaistos back to Mount Olympus after his expulsion by Zeus—a favorite subject for vases. In the story, Hephaistos refused to return, so Dionysos got him drunk, and then he and the satyrs and Hermes brought the recalcitrant god back on a mule. The presence of the satyrs and the wine cup on this amphora suggests the myth, but the figure of Dionysos is conspicuously absent. The Berlin Painter worked with many vessel shapes, but he apparently avoided doing wine cups and rarely depicted drinking parties (symposiums), a subject popular with patrons. Perhaps his choice to allude to Dionysos rather than showing him was an expression of his distaste for bacchanalian topics. Whatever the reason, the painting is an example of a salient fact about Greek mythological vase painting: A given vase only presents a fragment of the full myth, which was no problem to the original audience, which would have known all the plots and characters inside out. For us, much is opaque, and between the glancing allusions of the vase painters many details have to be filled in, which even the experts are often uncertain about.

The Princeton show is a celebration of a different kind of modern expertise, connoisseurship. The term—which originally referred to a method of identifying Old Master paintings pioneered by the 19th-century Italian scholar Giovanni Morelli and taken up by the American Bernard Berenson—refers to the attribution of works to artists based on subtle, often tiny, bits of visual evidence. Beazley, whose career began before World War I and extended into the ’60s, is the great figure to be contended with in Greek vase connoisseurship. He catalogued thousands of vases and fragments and named many artists, including of course the Berlin Painter, to whom he attributed some 200 vessels and fragments. As Princeton archaeologist Nathan Arrington explains in an essay in the catalogue that accompanies this show, there is something slightly conservative or perhaps even contrarian about doing an exhibition on a single vase painter, because the trend in Classical art studies has turned against the Beazley approach and toward methodologies that focus on factors other than the personality and identity of the artist. Those factors include how the objects were consumed rather than how they were produced, how and why and where they were traded, and what they can tell us about the socioeconomic forces at work during the time and place of their creation. Traditional connoisseurship relied on analysis of stylistic points that can seem incredibly picayune: In search of the little unconscious giveaways of an artist’s hand, more like fingerprints than like anything an artist would be proud of or even aware of, Beazley and his students scoured the vases for idiosyncratic renderings of tiny details like an eyebrow, an ankle bone, or a nipple. These little hints, combined with other pieces of information, would enable them to achieve a level of confidence in attributing a given vase to an artist known from other vases. When enough of these could be put together, an artist was born—or rather, reborn, resurrected from oblivion.

But these vanishingly small though telling stylistic points are not what make us feel the personality, the vision, and the skill of the Berlin Painter or any of his Attic peers. The mixture of grace, subtlety, and delicacy on the one hand and Late Archaic boldness on the other are what make the Berlin Painter stand out and speak to us down the millennia; they, as well as his choices of subject matter and the way he poses his figures, are what make him seem like a real person with an artistic vision to impart. His name and life story will likely never be revealed to us, but through this exhibition and its catalogue, the most essential part of him is vividly present, his designs as fresh and alive as if they were made yesterday.

By John Dorfman

Taken at the Flood http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2016/11/1966-florence-flood/ Tue, 29 Nov 2016 01:43:00 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4936 Continue reading ]]> Fifty years after a catastrophic flood, the last of Florence’s damaged artworks have been restored and returned to their rightful places.

Conservators at the Opificia delle Pietre Dure in Florence

Conservators at the Opificia delle Pietre Dure in Florence at work on the painting.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Conservators at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure Giorgio Vasari’s Last Supper (1546) Conservators at the Opificia delle Pietre Dure in Florence Piazza del Duomo, 1966

Rainfall in the Appenine Mountains of Italy was torrential in the autumn of 1966. On November 3, the waters cascaded into the usually serene Arno River, which divides Florence, and exploded above its banks. Water roared through the medieval city’s narrow streets and broad squares, rising 20 feet above the ground. Over 100 people drowned or were battered to death. Fiats and Vespas floated away. Mud and sewage seeped into every building. Thousands of paintings and sculptures—any artworks on the ground floors of museums and churches—were damaged or destroyed by the worst flood suffered by Florence in four centuries.

I was a college student in New York and vividly remember the black-and-gray scenes from the disaster on the grainy television screen in our dormitory’s lobby. And in subsequent days, I was riveted by the frantic efforts of a battalion of volunteers—dubbed “mud angels” by the media—to pull masterpieces out of the floodwaters.

This year marks 50 years since the catastrophe. The last of the damaged masterpieces have been restored in time for a commemoration, held in November, of the flood and the city’s heroic response. Some months before the festivities, I visited Florence to get a closer look at the repairs being done to the remaining masterworks and to figure out why in some cases it has taken so long.

First stop is the laboratory of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones), or the OPD, a public institute of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage, that has been in charge of the restoration work. The OPD dates back to the 1500s when, under the patronage of the Medicis, it was famed for fine mosaics and inlaid stonework. Over the last century, the OPD has focused on the conservation and restoration of artworks. So it was natural that it would be asked by the Italian government to assume the leading rescue role after the flood. Besides public subsidies, the OPD has been able to draw on generous contributions from foreign philanthropies, such as the Getty Foundation and the Friends of Florence, among others.

The OPD laboratory is located at the Fortezza da Basso, a squat 14th-century fort with daunting gray walls and ramparts. I’m greeted at the entrance by the longtime OPD director, Marco Ciatti, who invites me into a cavernous former storage room. At center stage is Giorgio Vasari’s monumental The Last Supper (1546). The most important remaining artwork still under repair from flood damage, it hung on the ground floor of the Basilica of Santa Croce.

During the catastrophe, Vasari’s masterpiece was under water and muck for more than 36 hours. The five panels—altogether over 8 feet high and 21 feet long—sustained two types of damage: the first was to the wood, and the second to the painting, particularly the layer of gesso and animal glue between the artwork and the wood.

The water made the panels expand. But it could not be allowed to evaporate too quickly because it would destroy the layers of paint and gesso, and shrink and crack the wood. A decision was made to store the waterlogged masterpiece in a room in which humidity levels were carefully reduced from 90 percent down to nearly zero over the course of two years.

Staunching the damage to the painting itself was more complex. Over 20 percent of paint was lost. To hold the remaining colors in place, the painting was covered with a thin layer of adhesive resin. Paper was then placed over the resin.

After the two-year, humidity-controlled storage, two further problems arose. Each wood panel had shrunk by almost an inch, which meant that the surface area of the painting was slightly larger than the surface area of the panels. And the resin holding the colors in place had hardened to a glass-like consistency. “It took decades to come up with new techniques to restore the paintings over the shrunken panels and to safely remove the resin,” says Ciatti.

With funding mainly from the Getty Foundation, graduate students in art, chemistry, and physics were asked to devote their doctoral theses to explore possible solutions. Their research eventually created techniques to stretch the wood back to its original proportions while preserving the paints on its surface. A gel was concocted to dissolve and absorb the resin through the paper overlay without damaging the original colors and gesso.

Even after these techniques proved viable, putting them into practice was a painstaking process. “To precisely match the wood and paintings, we had to work one millimeter at a time,” says Ciatti. “Only then were we able to move on to the stage of esthetic restoration—the cleaning, filling in of lost portions, and retouching.”

On a scaffolding some eight feet above us, a young woman using an oversized magnifying glass and the thinnest of paintbrushes was applying color to the elbow of a disciple to the left of Jesus. “Our theory of conservation here in Italy is that we don’t want to completely restore the original colors because we believe that retouching must indicate that restoration has taken place,” says Ciatti. To illustrate this, he shows me a panel at ground level that is closest to full restoration. At the bottom of the painting, he points to an urn of water or wine below the table where the Last Supper takes place. Up close, I can see faintly etched lines that mark the restoration spots. The paint has a slightly different pigment than the original.

Work at the OPD laboratory isn’t confined to flood-damaged art. Close by the Vasari panels, cleaning and restoration proceeds on masterpieces from Florentine museums, including paintings by Anthony Van Dyck, Annibale Carracci, Fra Angelico—and even Jackson Pollock. But my jaw drops at the sight of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, one of the top draws at the Uffizi Gallery. Under restoration here since 2011, it will be returned to the Uffizi in 2016.

Nature had nothing to do with the damage to this masterpiece. It was left unfinished by Leonardo when he moved from Florence to Milan in 1481. The painting passed through several owners, finally entering the Medici collection sometime in the 17th century. The Uffizi has owned it since 1670. “Over those many years, a lot of varnish was applied to the painting, probably to hide the fact that it was unfinished and instead pretend it was done in a monochromatic style,” says Ciatti. As evidence he points to the azure and white sky that Leonardo had just begun to paint before abandoning the work; it also was covered by a honey-brown varnish.

The OPD lab is in the process of slowly thinning the layer of varnish, though not removing it entirely. “We want the artwork to have the patina of an old painting,” says Ciatti. “This is the traditional Italian philosophy of conservation.” The British approach, by contrast, tends to take the cleaning process further, leaving a newer sheen.

Across town from the OPD lab, I pay a visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce where Vasari’s Last Supper will be returned. I am here to see Cimabue’s Crucifix (circa 1288), another masterpiece heavily damaged by the 1966 flood and returned to Santa Croce a decade later. This large tempera-on-wood crucifix (176 by 154 inches) represents a break from the Byzantine style that showed Jesus as aloof, regal and triumphant. He is instead depicted as a suffering, dying man—victim of a fate shared by ordinary mortals. He is the Christ who would become the universal symbol of Christian spirituality.

The Cimabue work now hangs much higher than before—some 20 feet above the Basilica floor—to guard against any future cataclysmic flood. Even after the OPD’s efforts, the damage from submersion in the muddy waters a half-century ago left portions of Christ’s face and his thighs discolored. But considering the near obliteration of the paint and the cracking of the wood, it seems a miracle that the masterpiece survived at all.

Another near-miraculous event occurs on my walk back to my lodging on a hillside across a bridge over the tranquil Arno. Just as I arrive at the river’s edge, a police convoy slowly drives past, with the Popemobile at its center. I had forgotten that Pope Francis was visiting Florence. In a city of only 362,000 inhabitants, and at the low point of the tourist season, everybody in his path had a front-row view. To my astonishment, I am no more than nine feet away from Francis as he smiles and waves back on his way to deliver a homily at Santa Croce.

By Jonathan Kandell

Life and Light http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2016/09/venetian-renaissance-painting/ Wed, 28 Sep 2016 20:49:31 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4816 Continue reading ]]> Venetian Renaissance painting is as distinctively beautiful as the city that nurtured it.

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, The Archangel with Tobiolo and Two Saints

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, The Archangel with Tobiolo and Two Saints (L’arcangelo con Tobiolo e due santi), 1414-1415, oil on canvas, 64 x 70 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Vittore Carpaccio, Portrait of a Lady with a Book Vittore Carpaccio, Annunciation Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, The Archangel with Tobiolo and Two Saints Bartolomeo Veneto, Portrait of a Gentleman Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child Blessing

In Giorgio Agamben’s essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of Living Among Specters,” the Italian philosopher writes, “If we compare Venice to a language, then living in Venice is like studying Latin, like trying to pronounce every word, syllable by syllable, in a dead language… It must be remembered, though, that one should never declare a language dead provided that it still somehow speaks and is read…The truth is that a dead language, just like Venice, is a spectral language that we cannot speak but that still quivers and hums and whispers in its own special way, so we can eventually come to understand and decipher it, albeit with some effort and the help of a dictionary.”

Most visitors to Venice have experienced the legendary city’s “spectral” quality, the feeling of being outside of time, straddling the present (navigating labyrinthine streets filled with tourists and vendors) and the glory of the past. Venice’s striking character is unique in Italy, however; it is without a doubt dazzling, but at the same time its architecture and charm differ from the overwhelming monumentality of Rome and Florence. Instead, it is strangely familiar. Venice is uncanny—as if everyone has visited the city before in a collective dream. This dream, however, may be the shared experience of language and culture which finds deep roots in Venice’s humanist tradition and proto-modernity. In this sense Venice holds a past we hope will teach us something about ourselves and where we come from, if we can only learn to speak and understand its distant tongue.

The Denver Art Museum’s exhibition “Glory of Venice: Masterworks of the Renaissance” (from October 2—February 17) provides the dictionary Agamben alludes to. In the masterpieces of the Venetian painters on display, visitors can begin to understand the language and concerns of Renaissance Venice, its particular brand of humanism, and how it influenced and guided the expressive work of the city’s painters. By viewing the colorful gems of Venetian painting from the late 15th to the early 16th century, visitors will be able to experience what is unique and enduring in Venetian painting, how it began, and its arrival at a synthesis of perspective, naturalism, landscape, light, and color. At a glance, these elements evoke a definition of realism (if brought together in the service of achieving fidelity to reality), and this is part of Venice’s contribution to painting, the optical realism light and color can create, a mission later embarked on by the Impressionists. Somehow, it is more though, and like all great art there is a deeper dimension to work of painters such as Bellini (the painter who gave the Venetian style its first full utterance), Giorgione, and Titian (whose work signals the end of the show’s time frame), where color and realistic perspective serve humanistic and compositional concerns as well as the divine.

“Glory of Venice” presents more than 50 major masterworks of Venetian painting, the core of which are 19 paintings on loan from the prestigious Gallerie Dell’Accademia in Venice. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to trace the development of the Venetian style, its sensitivity to color and light and its deep humanism, in a collection of paintings which rarely travel, including Christ Carrying the Cross by Giorgione (on loan from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice), The Annunciation by Vittore Carpaccio (from the Fondazione Magnani Rocca in Parma), and culminating in the refined early works of Titian, which signal the beginning of a new era in Venetian painting that included Veronese.

The humanism of the Renaissance found a particular expression in Venice. The Venetians celebrated their city and their lives in a glorious pageantry of finery and ceremony which put the human being and society at the center of things. Venice became the most prosperous city in Europe during the 13th century (although the 15th and 16th centuries were the time of the city’s decline in power) and this allowed the Venetians to enjoy and examine life and the world of beautiful things that surrounded them, as well as to enjoy the influx of culture and ideas which made their way to the privileged city. The scholarly obsession with antiquity was less present in Venice, and the brand of humanism that developed there reflected the concern with the here and now and the city’s geographic place at the crossroads of east and west. Works were commissioned for government buildings, and artists included details of their city in works depicting biblical subjects, opening the door to landscape painting.

In Giovanni Bellini’s oil on wood Virgin with Standing Blessing Child (circa 1475–80) the naturalistic landscape emerges behind the Madonna and Child, both rendered with deep sensitivity to shape and color. This feature became a mark of Bellini’s followers and opened the possibility of realistic depth and perspective and led to the landscape being approached as subject in its own right. As the show’s curator, Angelica Daneo, describes it, “Landscape really lends itself well to explorations of light and color. As you go through the exhibition, the landscape becomes the protagonist. In the Renaissance of Florence, the human figure is at the center, the prominent subject of the painting, but in Venetian painting landscape dominates the composition. If you see an Italian Renaissance painting where you are so attracted by the landscape, it’s a good chance it’s Venetian.”

The Venetians drew (or rather colored) from life, filling their work with sumptuously lifelike representations of holy figures, humble and glorious. Long gone were the alien Christs and Madonnas of the Byzantine era, but the Venetians also avoided the hard, idealized statue-like figures found in painting elsewhere in Italy. What emerged was something uniquely Venetian—beautiful and familiar works unified by color and composition. In the work of the Venetian masters of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the line begins to become blurred in favor of color, and this diffusion leads to a soft beauty but also to optical realism and new possibilities for shape and depth. Titian’s Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Dominic, and a Donor (circa 1513) creates shape, depth, and life with color. The oil on canvas depicting the Virgin and Child being adored by saints is a triumph of Venetian painting, soft and hazy, full of movement, with the scene set against a landscape with character and depth. The folds of the Virgin’s garment are free of hard shadow or rigid line and instead are created with precise attention to light and shade. It is clear why the early period of Venetian Renaissance painting culminated in the deep sensitivity of Titian.

The Venetian painters’ visual language creates the phonemes that constitute our own contemporary visual language of verisimilitude in which realism (in figure, landscape and the relationship of the two) forms the bedrock from which an endless procession of artistic augmentations are able to proceed. By adding dimension and depth, the Venetians were able to represent space and figures that were empirically recognizable as “real” and manipulate them into glorious and colorful compositions. The humanistic tradition of Venetian painting echoes down through Italian art, finding perhaps its last great expression in the golden age of Italian film, in which filmmakers and writers such as Roberto Rossellini and Giuseppe De Santis used life to create great works of soaring beauty and deep humanity. Luchino Visconti’s 1943 masterwork Ossessione (shrouded in its own brand of Venetian atmospheric haze) is a wonderland of diffuse light and sensuous shape, and in Michelangelo Antonioni’s revolutionary 1960 film L’Avventura the landscape gains a dominance and psychological character it had never before enjoyed in cinema. These works achieve a humanistic power in much the same way a Venetian masterwork would by using the recognizable and reorganizing it into perfect artifice with graphic and emotional sensitivity.

Venetian painting is characterized by pictorial excellence and sensitivity to light and color. Light is what makes possible the language of Venetian painting. This explains the Impressionists’ attraction to the Venetian painters, whose attention to the effects of light and atmosphere they studied and sketched in the Louvre. The realistic representation of space and light is a phenomenon the contemporary world takes largely for granted due to the ubiquity of cameras, and as late as the 15th century this feat was something very special. As important as Giotto’s discoveries were in the realm of perspective and the return to sketching from nature, over the next two centuries they were refined and supplemented by the work of Giorgione, Bellini, and Titian, which brought forth new advances in dimension and depth, made possible by the introduction of oil paint. Light and shadow and their Janus-like relationship to the dimensionality of figures in space create even greater realism and emotion. It leads one to ask, why were the perfection of and sensitivity to light effects in painting so particular to Venice? The answer could be la nebbia—the fog.

The autumn fog which envelops Venice is part of its spectral myth. How do we see light when it is what allows us to see? Shadow provides negative evidence of light’s presence but this allows us to see only its absence. In fog we see light struggle through atmosphere. By living in a city sometimes shrouded in fog, Venetian painters may have become acutely aware of light and its reality, its sculptural character in atmosphere. This is speculation, but perhaps also a key to the past. If you are fortunate enough to stand in Venice in the early morning fog of autumn, stop and think of what Bellini may have seen when he stood in the same spot 500 years earlier, and attempt to think what he may have thought. Imagine the haze that characterizes some of his most affecting works. In this way it may be possible to decipher the language of Venice, to cross the bridge of time and see ourselves and our human world a little more clearly through the fog.

By Chris Shields

A Rage for Ruins http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2016/09/hubert-robert/ Wed, 07 Sep 2016 19:16:08 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4782 Continue reading ]]> The 18th-century French painter Hubert Robert catered to the aristocracy’s fascination with the ancient world and the eroding effects of time, with works which continue to astonish.

Hubert Robert, Le Panthéon avec le port de Ripetta, Salon of 1767

Hubert Robert, Le Panthéon avec le port de Ripetta, Salon of 1767, oil on canvas, framed: 141.5 x 168.5 x 7.5 cm (56 x 66 x 3 in.) unframed: 119 x 145 cm (47 x 57 in.).

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Hubert Robert, Studio of an Antiquities Restorer in Rome, 1783 Hubert Robert, A hermit praying in the ruins of a temple, c. 1760 Hubert Robert, The Old Temple, 1787- 1788 Hubert Robert, Le Panthéon avec le port de Ripetta, Salon of 1767 Hubert Robert, The Obelisk, 1733 -1808

If ever there was a social butterfly at the Royal Academy in France, it was Hubert Robert. During his artistic domination in and around Paris during the second half of the 18th century, Robert cultivated countless relationships with a veritable Who’s Who of ancien-régime Paris, floating through the city’s circles of intellectuals (particularly members of the fashionable Republic of Arts and Letters), antiquarians, and amateurs, as well as fully realizing his lofty aspirations as a painter of architecture, landscape, and antiquities.

His friend and eventual colleague at the Royal Academy, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun, wrote extensively not only of his talent but also of his charms, which were many. Two oft-quoted passages from her Souvenirs are worth repeating here: Robert “excelled above all at depicting ruins … It was fashionable and a great luxury to have one’s salon painted by Robert.” She went on to write that he also “cut the best figure in society, of which he was moreover very fond. Loving all pleasures, without omitting those of the table, he was generally sought out, and I doubt that he dined at home more than three times a year. Plays, balls, dinners, concerts, visits to country houses, nothing was declined by him, for all the time he did not employ working, he spent in amusements.”

Realizing his ambitions and climbing France’s social ladder were made possible no doubt thanks to his innate skill as an artist and draughtsman. The canvases of which Vigée Lebrun spoke, and which were Robert’s trademark for nearly 50 years, were known as capricci, a term denoting the decorative convention for depicting picturesque architectural ruins that had developed in baroque Rome and reached its apex among the Italian painters with Giovanni Paolo Panini, for whose work Robert felt a deep affinity. Robert’s charisma, coupled with his artistic ingenuity and his ability to create those arresting and novel capricci for which he was—and still is—amply praised, made for an ideal combination and brought him the praise for which he had hoped.

Robert was considered one of the most important painters by patrons, critics, and artists alike in the 18th century and was acclaimed well into the Belle Époque. Paeans to him peppered the writings of some of France’s most important literary figures, from Denis Diderot—who gave him the nickname “Robert of the Ruins”—to Edmond de Goncourt and Marcel Proust more than a century later. But the 20th century has been less kind to him, and more than 80 years have passed since he was the subject of a major retrospective. This year’s exhibition, “Hubert Robert, 1733–1808,” serves to remedy that. The show first graced the walls of the Louvre, the very institution where Robert himself was installed with his own studio and apartments in 1779, and is currently on view across the Atlantic at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (through October 2).

The son of the valet and the chambermaid of the Marquis de Stainville, Hubert Robert received the privilege of a trusting patron, the foundation of a master’s early education since the Renaissance (as in the legendarily celebrated cases of Leonardo and Francis I and Michelangelo and Lorenzo de’ Medici), even while in his youngest, formative years. Stainville and his son, the Comte de Stainville, had evidently had spotted talent, refinement, and social adeptness in the budding artist. In 1754, at just 21, Robert was invited to join the entourage of the Comte de Stainville in Rome, where Robert internalized as much of the Eternal City as he could, as the numerous notebooks of sketches sold at his posthumous auction attest.

His relationship with Stainville not only provided him with an opportunity for this ever-important artist’s Grand Tour, it also made possible his admission to Rome’s French Academy, a distinction generally only given to winners of the Rome Prize, which he in fact never received. He remained in the city for another 11 years, and it was during that Roman holiday that the cornerstones were laid for Robert’s career, cornerstones that would quite literally appear and reappear on the architectural ruins that populated his drawings and canvases throughout the rest of his life.

His portrayals of artists in their own dilapidated, romantic surroundings suggest that the worlds of fantasy and reality straddled a fine line for him even beyond the well-known capricci. In The Artist in His Studio, painted in 1765, during the last year of his Italian sojourn, an artist—possibly Robert himself—draws from a marble bust on his work table. On the walls, drawings and a framed painting are hung without much care, one having turned 90 degrees. The sunlight shining in from the open windows is the only illumination, while the only other living creature is his loyal dog sniffing curiously in the foreground.

This meta-narrative runs through his career, as with the somewhat romanticized chalk drawing of the sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, best known for his restoration on Roman marbles, at work in his studio in the mid-1760s, and, 20 years later, the lively and vibrant Studio of an Antiquities Restorer in Rome (circa 1783). Here, the entire workshop has become a capriccio in itself, with eroded Corinthian columns pulled from a decrepit portico in the recesses of his mind that he very likely faced in person two decades before. The structure supports a much later wooden roof sheltering sarcophagus fragments, marble statuary like the allegory of the Nile that today sits in front of the Palazzo Senatorio, and bronzes such as a larger-than-life-size Minerva. It is a clear and sunny early morning on which these men work and visitors, notably mostly women, look on in wonderment, dwarfed by the beauty and the antiquity surrounding them.

These fictitious vistas of Roman monuments, set outdoors more often than indoors, had by the 1780s become Robert’s specialty, and much of the show is devoted to the genre that he more or less singlehandedly popularized. For Diderot, painted ruins translated to poetry, and Robert’s compositions highlighted the “beautiful horror” that Diderot felt was paramount to the power of these works. Likewise, it is almost impossible to ignore the similarities between Robert’s fantastic depictions of the detrimental effects of time and nature on the creations of man and Edmund Burke’s 1757 tract on the sublime. The melancholic, idealized beauty of Robert’s compositions proves to be a perfect visualization of Diderot’s sentiments toward ruins as filtered through his own reading of Burke. In 1767, at the time of Robert’s Salon debut, Diderot famously wrote, “The ideas ruins awaken in me are big. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes. Only the world remains. Only time endures.”

Though he has been canonized for these almost ubiquitous ruinous views, Robert was in fact so prolific that it is easy to forget the sheer scope of his oeuvre. But one thread remains, and that is Robert’s striking understanding and interpretation of mortality and life’s fragility, from timeworn, fragmentary architecture to laundrywomen performing the labors that would mark their lives daily. This sense of looming death might well have fed into Robert’s own need for constant sociability and what Vigée Lebrun might describe today as a “fear of missing out.”

In this extensive exhibition, with over 100 artworks in total, we see in Robert’s art of the second half of the 18th century his personal trajectory and France’s as well, from his movement alongside the ranks of nobility, his academic upbringing, his reliance on Italian masters like Giovanni Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, his involvement in interior and exterior artistic projects, his consideration of other media (in the form of stone folies and painted porcelain), to the effects of the Reign of Terror under Robespierre as seen through the artist’s own imprisonment at Saint-Lazare and through the post-Revolutionary destruction of châteaux and ecclesiastical monuments (and even their rehabilitation under Alexandre Lenoir with an 1801 interior of the Museum of Monuments).

One unusual example that stands out is Robert’s extant work for Jean Joseph, marquis de Laborde, the tax collector under Louis XV. In 1786, under Robert’s scrupulous supervision, his capricci were reanimated in three dimensions in the gardens at the Château de Méréville (View of Méréville in the direction of the château). Laborde acquired the property, located about 40 miles south of Paris, in 1784, hiring the architect Jean-Benoit Vincent Barré to transform the medieval structure and Robert to conceive interior painting schemes and garden follies. Surviving drawings provide us with visual evidence of the scale of the massive landscaping project, which was recently restored. The château itself, the interiors of which included six paintings by Robert installed in two rooms, is today still unvisitable, having fallen into disrepair after the building was abandoned in 1897 and its contents sold in Paris three years later.

Four of the canvases Robert painted for Méréville—The Fountains, The Landing Place, The Obelisk, and The Old Temple—are today preserved at the Art Institute of Chicago. (The location of the other two is unknown.) Each reads as yet another tribute to Robert’s Roman holiday, truncating the wonders of that city into a series of complementary paintings destined for a thoroughly northern building. In The Landing Place, the viewer must look up to a most unexpected angle to glimpse one of the Quirinal Hill’s Horse Tamers precariously perched atop the remains of an equally incredible temple-cum-portico-cum-arch. The composition is somehow still open and airy, as nearly half the canvas is given over to a cornflower-blue sky with wisps of cumulus clouds, while in the foreground, gondolas await the figures lounging on stairs that lead to nowhere. Robert’s nonchalant and unorthodox rendering of reality shines here and in the three pendant paintings specially designed for Méréville’s petit salon.

Thus the sprezzatura that clearly defined Robert’s persona also characterized his art in Rome and beyond, and he and his close friend and fellow member of the Academy Jean-Honoré Fragonard together championed a new form of painting, marked by quick, loose brushwork and a seeming effortlessness. But that rapidity and slackness later became his academic downfall. In 1796, after that style of painting had ceased to be all the rage at the Salon, one observer noted, “The weakness of fa presto is the weakness of this facile and ingenious painter.” Nearly 20 years earlier at the Salon, Diderot had been among the first to predict that Robert’s supremacy would wane due to his painterly style: “If this artist continues to sketch, he will lose the knack of finishing, his head and his hand will become wayward….he is extravagant, his wife is a woman of fashion, he has to work fast.”

Vigée Lebrun’s 1788 portrait of the painter, which opens the exhibition catalogue, gives the sense that such criticisms probably did not much discourage him. His appearance is as casual as his sometimes slapdash brushstrokes, with wild, unkempt hair; a broken-in and wrinkled woolen coat; and a self-assured expression as he leans on his left arm to casually support his palette. Vigée Lebrun painted him in the act of looking, but she also painted him in the act of painting. His wide-eyed gaze and mien even suggest the very term that literally translated into his art, and that only a close confidant like Vigée Lebrun could have captured: capricious. Here we have a man of conviction, a man who would not change his favored artistic style for anyone, even if his refined upbringing might suggest otherwise. Evidently, despite his incarceration and the deathly chill of the Terror, Robert was not deterred from continuing to create the ruinous, saturnine world that had brought him fame among the aristocracy decades earlier, from being the artist and socialite he wanted to be, and, in short, from living his life.

By Martina D’Amato