Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado
Reviewed by Katrina Grant
This exhibition tells two stories. The first is the story of Italian art from Raphael to Tiepolo and the second is the story of Spanish engagement with Italian art over this period. The exhibition highlights the close artistic relationship between Italy and Spain in the Early Modern period. It includes paintings that were directly commissioned by the Spanish Royal family from such artists as Titian, as well as works collected a century or more after they were painted, such as the Holy Family by Raphael. There are also works by artists who travelled to Spain to undertake commissions in various royal residences. And, of course, there are paintings by a number of artists who were not Italian by birth but who settled in Italy and whose work belongs as much to their adopted home as it does to their country of origin. Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain hailed from France but are key figures in the development of Italian landscape painting, while Jusepe de Ribera, was Spanish-born but spent most of his life in Italy, first in Rome and then in Naples. Indeed, this exhibition is a reminder that much of Italy, including Naples and Sicily, was under Spanish rule for most of the period.
The hang of the exhibition is chronological – opening with Raphael and Correggio and closing with Giaquinto, Batoni and Tiepolo – but the story of Spanish collecting is not. This does mean that there are some gaps in the history of Italian art –for example, there are no Mannerist paintings – but this doesn’t really detract from the exhibition’s narrative. It takes us from the turn of the sixteenth century through to end of the eighteenth century but not in a plodding decade-by-decade way; instead, the exhibition has been hung with an eye to how the paintings relate to one another and the chronological narrative allows clear visual and stylistic patterns emerge. Each of the seven rooms focuses on specific moments in Italian art over the period (High Renaissance, Venice, the Caravaggisti and so on) and most of these ‘moments’ have a clear Spanish connection.
The two sixteenth-century paintings that open the exhibition in fact reflect the tastes of a seventeenth-century Spanish monarch, Philip IV (reigned 1621-65). The Raphael was acquired from the English Royal Collection after the death of Charles I, while the Correggio was given to Philip IV by Prince Ludovico Ludovisi. The Holy Family (c. 1517) is one of Raphael’s final works. Unlike many earlier versions of this subject by Raphael, it is not set in a landscape but against a dark green, almost black, curtain. The effect of this is to propel the trio of the Madonna (swathed in bright primary hues), the infant Christ and St John the Baptist directly into the viewer’s space. Joseph, rendered in deep browns, recedes into the background and is a shadowy, tender observer of the scene. Facing the Raphael is Correggio’s Noli mi tangere (c. 1525), which was painted shortly after his visit to Rome, where he absorbed elements of Raphael’s style, amongst others. Correggio’s Magdalene, as noted in the catalogue, wears a dress that is closely based on the one worn by St Cecilia in Raphael’s depiction of the saint in his altarpiece for Bologna. Both paintings in this room were intended as altarpieces for private devotion and are meant to be viewed up close. It is relatively easy (crowds permitting) to wander from one to other to make comparisons. The room also includes several sixteenth-century drawings, including a seated nude by Bandinelli, a fine example of the Renaissance representation of the nude male form. The highly finished Head of a Man by Passarotti and the wonderfully whacky Chimaera by Ligozzi were both probably created specifically for collectors, rather than as preparatory sketches.
The second room is dedicated to sixteenth-century Venetian art. There are the five paintings by Titian, the favourite artist of Philip II, and you can observe his work across a range of genres, from portraiture to allegorical and religious subjects. It is particularly satisfying to be able to compare a very early work by Titian –The Virgin and Child with St Antony of Padua and St Roch, 1508 – with one of his latest –Religion succoured by Spain, 1572. One can appreciate the dramatic shift in Titian’s handling of paint and his treatment of colour. Up close you can really see his mature technique of laying wet glazes side-by-side, thus blurring lines and allowing areas of colour to bleed into one another. You can also see very clearly his way of using visible brushstrokes to create texture.
There are also several paintings in this room that highlight the different ways by which Italian paintings entered the Spanish collections. Two of the Titians are direct commissions: The powerful portrait of the future Philip II of Spain was possibly painted when artist and prince met in Milan in the late 1540s, while Religion succoured by Spain was one of the final paintings sent to the king before Titian’s death in 1577. Other paintings were collected by Philip IV or by members of his court in the seventeenth century. This incudes Tintoretto’s lively Abduction of Helen (c. 1578-9), which was in the Gonzaga collection in Mantua until the late sixteenth century. It then passed into the collection of Charles I of England and was subsequently put up for sale, along with hundreds of other paintings from the royal collection, after the king’s execution. Individuals and agents for foreign rulers descended on London to buy up this collection (for more on this I recommend the book by Jonathon Brown, The Sale of the Century). The Tintoretto was bought by an Englishman who then sold it on to the Spanish Ambassador, Alonso de Cardenas, who was working as an agent for the Spanish Prime Minister and who bought up dozens of the best paintings from Charles I’s collection, many of which quickly found their way into the possession of Phillip IV of Spain.
The next room takes us to the beginnings of Baroque painting and the impact of the Bolognese school. There are two paintings by the Carracci, whose teaching at their academy in Bologna was to have a dramatic impact on art in Italy, and by extension across Europe, in the seventeenth century. Annibale Carracci’s Assumption of the Virgin was painted around the time of his period of study in Venice during the late 1580s. You can stand in front of the Assumption and look back into the Venetian room and observe Carracci’s assimilation of the Venetian approach to colour. The pinky-red of the Virgin’s robe is echoed by the pink of Spain in the Titian, and to some extent by the robe of Veronese’s Magdalene. Carracci owes more here to Veronese than to Titian but in this exhibition it is the Titians that make for a more ready comparison.
This room includes works by various artists who passed through the Carracci Academy, including Francesco Albani, Guido Reni and Guercino, and one can appreciate the different directions they took in response to the Carracci training. Reni’s St Sebastian (one of the stand-out paintings in the exhibition) hangs next to Guercino’s Susanna and the Elders and both show a style that blends Carracci’s naturalism with the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. The two Guido Reni saints are particularly fine. In the St Sebastian (1615-20) we see Reni in Caravaggesque mode, depicting a languid male body in almost monochrome chiaroscuro. His depiction of St James the Greater on the other hand shows Reni’s skills as a colourist and his eye for the natural appearance of colour, very different from the high tone primary hues in the Raphael and Correggio.
The drawings on display here and in the next room are well worth a pause to look at in detail (I have been in several times now and keep noticing drawings that I had missed on previous visits). They introduce a few other important artists of the period who are not represented on the walls, such as Pietro da Cortona and Baciccio.
The Caravaggisti room draws together a range of artists who were based mostly in Rome and Naples and whose work demonstrates the dramatic impact of Caravaggio on painters in these two cities. I have already heard one comment that there are ‘no real Caravaggio’s here’, as though what we have are some second-rate stand-ins for the real thing. But that is not the case at all. To those who go to an exhibition like this only to seek out, perhaps in vain, the most famous names of the period, it’s time to step away from an obsession with celebrity and embrace the lesser-known, but by no means lesser-quality artists. The paintings in this room adopt Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his gritty, violent and often confronting depiction of religious subjects. There are two depictions of the Martydrom of St Lawrence. One, from the Prado, is by Valentin de Bolougne, a French-born painter who moved to Rome in 1610. It depicts the saint spot-lit against a dark background filled with shadowy figures. The other is by Jusepe de Ribera and comes from the NGV’s permanent collection. The NGV regularly includes works from its permanent collection in relevant temporary exhibitions and it is a practice that should be commended. Seeing familiar paintings in new surroundings always prompts new observations. In this exhibition we get the chance to see Ribera alongside other artists who worked in Naples, such as Matthias Stom. We can also compare Ribera’s St Lawrence with two of his other works. The Women Gladiators Fighting (in the next room) reveals the way in which Ribera moves away from his more usual palette of browns, blacks and sharp whites to brighter colours (oranges, blues and purple), an indication of his interest at this time in the colours of Venetian paintings.
The fifth room draws together works that were commissioned specifically for the Buen Retiro palace in Madrid. The decorative scheme included three major cycles of paintings – the Hall of Realms, the Landscape Gallery and the History of Rome. Spanish artists such as Velazquez dominated the first, but it was mainly Italian artists who were commissioned to create paintings for the second two cycles. This room is thus more directly concerned with Spanish patronage than the previous galleries. The subject matter also illustrates Spanish imperial ambition. The images of Ancient Roman festivals – including the huge and densely detailed painting of the Colosseum by Viviano Codazzi and Domenico Gargiulo and Andrea di Lione’s cantankerous and rather intimidating elephants – demonstrate the desire of the Spanish monarchy to position itself on a level with the Emperors of ancient Rome. As well as depicting antique subject matter, the paintings here by Poussin, Lanfranco and Ribera also reveal the respective artists’ interest in imitating the style of antique images. The way that the brightly lit figures emerge from the dark background in the Lanfranco, for example, recalls low-relief antique friezes.
After moving through a small room of still lives and flower paintings also commissioned for the Buen Retiro, the exhibition concludes in the eighteenth century. Giaquinto’s Allegory of Justice and Peace is one of the stars of this room (and considering its constant presence in promotions for the show its appeal has been recognised). This is a painting to linger over, not so much for the subject, but for the detail and for the delicate handling of colour. The gauzy drapery over the breast of Justice is shot through with touches of yellow and blue against the soft pink of flesh that can be glimpsed beneath.
A very different use of colour can be observed in Giandomenico Tiepolo’s The Crown of Thorns. There is an unsettling strangeness about this this painting: the resigned, sad figure of Christ, and the onlookers who watch mostly without gesture and whose faces express only a quiet sadness, all create a sense of silence; perhaps the only sounds are the grunting efforts of the soldiers. In contrast, the colours are rich – the yellow pennant, the impassive figure of a Roman in green on the right, the orange turban of an elderly bearded man, the blue robes of the pointing man in the foreground, the delicate blue shot with light yellow on one of the soldiers and the sunny blue sky overhead. The skin of Christ is a pallid white – closer to that of the marble stone than the other figures – and contrasts directly with the rippling muscles and tanned skin of the two soldiers.
In conclusion, this is an extremely fine exhibition, and one that we are lucky to have in Melbourne. Visitors to the NGV have what is likely to be an exclusive opportunity to see these Italian paintings from Spain as a cohesive group. In the Prado the Italian paintings tend to play second fiddle to those by Spanish artists, such as Goya and Velazquez. But here in Melbourne we have the opportunity to trace the Spanish engagement with Italian art over three centuries and to enjoy some of the neglected masterpieces from one of the world’s finest collections of European art.
© Katrina Grant
NB The catalogue contains several essays by the Prado curators Miguel Falomir and Andrés Úbeda and the NGV curator Laurie Benson, as well as by several Melbourne-based art historians. It is a useful reference for the works in the show, with detailed page-long entries for most of the works as well as high-quality reproductions (a bargain at only $40 for the softback version). It is also worth noting that the NGV is now offering a season ticket that is well worth buying if you plan to visit more than once.