Nationalism is not always a good thing where understanding art is concerned, but in the case of Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado on show at the National Gallery of Victoria until August 31, this has worked to the Australian public’s advantage.
The Spanish are at least as preoccupied with national identity as Australians are, and so, understandably, prioritise their national artistic heroes – Vélazquez, Zurbaran, Goya — in their permanent displays.
Yet the Spanish art world was a small one and Spanish rulers, both Hapsburg and Bourbon, had to turn to other artistic centres, especially Italy, in order to decorate their vast palaces. Philip II employed Titian on a grand scale (there are no less than five Titians in this exhibition), while Philip IV turned to almost every good painter in Rome and Naples to furnish the Buen Retiro palace in Madrid in the 1630s.
As a result of those royal decorations, the Museo del Prado in Madrid (the successor to the Spanish Royal Collection) is faced with a situation that an Australian art museum can only envy: too many great Italian pictures, and not enough space to display them.
The curators from the Prado, Miguel Falomir Faus and Andrés Ubeda de los Cobos, are joined for this exhibition by Laurie Benson of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).
While quite a few works have come off the walls of the Prado, others have long been in storage or hidden away in inaccessible places, and have been newly cleaned and conserved. As a result, this exhibition is exceptional for the quality and range of the works exhibited, many of which will come as a revelation even to specialists in the field.
While the works by familiar names (Raphael’s Madonna of the Rose, Correggio’s Noli me Tangere, Titian’s Religion Succoured by Spain and Portrait of Philip II, Tiepolo’s Immaculate Conception, and Batoni’s Francis Basset) will not disappoint, it is the pictures by those less well-known that cause visitors to stop in their tracks.
Few will have heard of Corrado Giaquinto but will wonder why they have not, given the stunning colour harmonies of his Allegory of Justice and Peace (main article image).
Or Viviano Codazzi and Domenico Gargiulo, whose Perspectival View of a Roman Amphitheatre (above) is the arch-typical “Where’s Wally” picture — there is always some tiny incident to discover that you have missed.
There’s Andrea di Lione, whose Elephants in a Roman Circus (above) is both hypnotic and strangely evocative of the gaudiness of a modern circus. And Giuseppe Bonito, whose group portrait of the members of the Turkish Embassy tells us more about the diversity of the Ottoman Empire than any written account.
Sheer scale and physicality
The sheer size of some of these works is unexpected: the Codazzi and Giaquinto are more than three metres wide, and several other works come not far behind. According to a certain aesthetic, size does not matter; yet much contemporary art is heavily dependent on this property, and it is rare to have the opportunity in Australia to experience Baroque art (1600s-1700s) in the immersive way that the artists intended. (Thankfully, these works are hung sufficiently low for this to work.)
In the case of Tintoretto’s Abduction of Helen (above) this immersiveness is provoked not only by scale but also by a topsy-turvy composition, with Helen seen from above sprawled in the lower left quadrant, while at eye level in the middle are drowning heads and the scrolled prows of battling ships.
The engagement strategy of the 17th-century painters relies more on conveying the sheer physicality of the objects they represent, which one can never fully appreciate from reproductions.
In Matthias Stom’s Caravaggist Incredulity of St Matthew we are confronted at eye level with the hideous physicality of St Matthew inserting two fingers into the wound in Christ’s side, while rarely has the squishiness of a newly-landed squid been better conveyed than in Giuseppe Recco’s Still Life with Fish and a Turtle.
This physicality is sometimes at odds with the repressive morality of the era, as in the Pietro Negri, which is socially coded as modest by its subject (a Vanitas) and by the visual conventions employed (the Venus Pudica pose, concealing draperies), but is anything but when seen “in the flesh”.
Conversely, in the more overtly erotic images – Furini’s Lot and His Daughters, with its transgressive (but biblically authorised) subject, and Guido Reni’s languid Saint Sebastian, which has been a gay cult image for half a century – the sexually charged subject is kept in check by softening and idealising the forms.
It is difficult to convey the range of works in this exhibition, but in terms of art-historical categories it roughly breaks down into a room with two fine High Renaissance works (Raphael and Correggio) supplemented by drawings of the period, followed by a rich selection of 16th-century Venetian works (including an intriguing Lorenzo Lotto), the Bolognese school (including a brilliant little Guercino), the Caravaggisti, Roman and Neapolitan paintings of the 1630s painted for the Buen Retiro (including an interesting Poussin), an innovative room devoted to still-life paintings, and finally the 18th century, dominated by Giaquinto.
These are accompanied by a selection of drawings, some of which supplement the paintings and include names that would otherwise be missing. Among the best are Giorgio Vasari’s St Luke Painting the Virgin, an Annibale Carracci that may or may not be a study for the Farnese Gallery, and figure studies by Anton Raphael Mengs and Donato Creti.
For such a diverse selection the hang is unusually coherent: a nice touch is the inclusion in the Titian room of a mid-17th-century painting by Livio Mehus in which the artist inserts his self portrait into a scene of an infant “genius of painting” making a copy of Titian’s Death of St Peter Martyr, which sums up the attitude of many of the artists in the subsequent rooms towards the great Venetian.
There is a nice selection of other oddball works, such as Castiglione’s Diogenes Seeking an Honest Man and Giandomenico Tiepolo’s The Crown of Thorns. Among the drawings there is a Chimera attributed to Jacopo Ligozzi.
As is by now customary, works from the NGV’s permanent collection are discreetly inserted: the Ribera Saint Lawrence and the Amigoni Portrait Group. Both of these superb paintings look even better situated among friends.
Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado is on show at the National Gallery of Victoria until August 31.