There will be some in Canberra who find it ironic that Ron Radford is hosting a show devoted to the Renaissance at the National Gallery of Australia, when his first significant act as director in 2006 was to send the museum’s small collection of Old Masters on permanent loan to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. As a small reminder of that gesture, which stirred the ire of the local citizenry, for this exhibition he has borrowed back Giovanni di Paolo’s Crucifixion from the Art Gallery of South Australia, and Jacope di Cione’s Enthroned Madonna and Child with saints from the Art Gallery of NSW.
Six years ago apparently people didn’t want to see Old Masters, now, judging by the queues for this show, they can’t get enough of ‘em.
Apart from the two NGA pictures the works all come from the collection of the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, which may not be a renowned repository of Renaissance treasures, but this has not dampened the predictable flow of hype that accompanies all NGA exhibitions. The show is called: Renaissance – Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini, Titian. 15th & 16th century Italian paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo. It’s hard to say where the punctuation goes in this checklist disguised as a title.
While I’m delving into the past, as recently as 2008, one finds Radford telling an interviewer: “I’m glad that our obsession with blockbusters in now waning. We need to promote our own brilliant collections.”
Since then the director has had a change of heart. He has realised that audiences will only travel to Canberra to see a big exhibition. The blockbuster is alive and well, and it seems that every overseas exhibition is now described in this manner. The biggest, the best, the first, the most expensive, most important – you name it. The process reached its apogee with the Masterpieces from Paris exhibition of 2009-10, with its “record-breaking” attendances. There was less publicity given to the fact that the show did not turn a profit, but cost the NGA a huge amount of money. One need only look at the annual reports and do the math.
Renaissance is a more modest proposition. Although there are fees involved, it cannot match the crippling sums that made the Paris show such a hard-sell. Nevertheless, we have already read in a press release that this is “the first ever exhibition in Australia devoted to Renaissance painting.” This may come as a surprise to those who saw The Italians: Three Centuries of Italian Art at either the NGA or the National Gallery of Victoria in 2002, but – please note – that show covered the period from 1500-1800, while the current exhibition is confined to the 15th and 16th centuries.
The earlier show, which received dismissive reviews, at least in Canberra, boasted works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto, Giorgione, Tiepolo, Correggio, Lotto, Rosso Fiorentino, Veronese, Bernini and Caravaggio, which sounds impressive on paper. Because the Raphael was a drawing, the current exhibition can claim to have the first Raphael painting ever shown in this country.
All this sleight of hand is tedious. To be completely frank about Renaissance, it is an interesting exhibition with a handful of works that might be legitimately called masterpieces, and a good range of secondary pictures, notable for their eccentricities as much as their painterly qualities.
It’s worth travelling to see even one great picture, so I wouldn’t discourage anyone from trekking off to Canberra. The Bellini Madonna and Child alone is sufficient justification for the trip. Add the Raphael portrait, a small Titian, four paintings by that underrated master, Lorenzo Lotto, and you have a perfectly good reason to see this show. It doesn’t have to be the biggest, the best, the first and most important.
Neither should one expect a comprehensive overview of Renaissance art. The Italians in 2002 had a greater scope, and it is ridiculous to imagine a significant Renaissance survey with nothing by Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, and a dozen other indispensible figures.
Any Australian museum would be ecstatic to have paintings of the quality of those owned by the Accademia Carrara, but it is a very minor affair alongside the holdings of the Uffizi, the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, and so on. For instance, there is almost nothing associated with Florence, long viewed as the nucleus of the Italian Renaissance. The exceptions are the works of Raphael and Botticelli.
There is no disputing that Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child (c.1488) is the outstanding work in this selection. After making one’s way through a room of Madonna and child paintings in which the Virgin has all the animation of a cardboard cut-out, the naturalism of Bellini’s youthful mother is startling. She is absorbed in looking after the infant Christ in a way that is totally convincing. Every detail is beautifully handled, from the landscape to the velvet curtain backdrop; to Mary’s rich, blue robe with its silky, purplish lining. The puzzling addition is the pear in the right-hand corner. According to Jaynie Anderson in the catalogue, this is a reference to the Virgin’s role as the new Eve, come to redeem humanity.
It makes quite a contrast to Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child (1482-83), which looks as if the holy family has set up a fruit and vegetable stall. This overabundant symbolism is a trademark of Crivelli’s, but the most telling points of comparison with Bellini come from the inert faces of mother and child who are posing for the viewer, not interacting with each other. Mary’s stiff, gold mantle is a throwback to an earlier age, a lingering memory of Byzantine art.
Other versions of this motif, from Fra Carnevale (c. 1445), Neroccio de’ Landi (c. 1470-75), and Cosmè Tura (c. 1460-65) look like creatures from another planet. I’ve long believed that Tura was without peer when it came to making figures look ugly, but he has stiff competition in Nicola Giolfino, whose Madonna and Child (c.1530-35) appear to be overweight, grimy and depressed.
One of the great lessons to be learned from a show like this is that the Renaissance, like every other period in art, had a large number of hacks and dutiful artisans for every recognised master. The age and authenticity of a work does not ensure its quality, although these factors add a raft of historical considerations to the most damning judgements of taste.
Even in this narrow sample it is obvious that artists such as Bellini, Raphael and Titian were a long way ahead of the rest. The latter’s small painting, Madonna and Child in a landscape (c. 1507) has a freshness of colour and an ease of handling that makes the elaborate concoctions of other artists look horribly wooden.
Raphael’s Saint Sebastian (c. 1501-02) is not simply an exquisite piece of painting, it is a miracle of understatement. It is almost unthinkable that the saint should stand, with a serene look on his face, holding a single arrow between forefinger and thumb. In most depictions of the story, Sebastian is a human pin-cushion.
Raphael avoids the sadism and sensationalism, showing us there is nothing more poignant and mysterious than the human face.
The same cannot be said about Botticelli’s Christ the Redeemer (c. 1495-1505) – an affected, theatrical picture, in which Jesus appears to have had an unhappy time at the beauty parlour. Even though he turned to God late in life, Botticelli’s talents are more prominently displayed in his great pagan set pieces such as Primavera or The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi. While some artists are able to conjure a spiritual dimension from the humblest still life, Botticelli seems singularly unfitted for pious themes.
Although he does not get his name into the title, Lorenzo Lotto (c.1480 – 1556/7) is probably the star of this show. This is appropriate, because he lived in Bergamo from 1513-25, having relocated from his native Venice to avoid competing with successful artists such as Bellini. Lotto also lived in Treviso and in the Marches, and this restless existence may have undermined his later reputation. He was rediscovered by the legendary connoisseur, Bernard Berenson, in 1895, and has been in and out of the spotlight ever since; the last time being in 1998, when a retrospective was held to Washington D.C., Bergamo and Paris.
I saw that exhibition and it has remained lodged in my mind. What sets Lotto apart is the quality of his invention, his playfulness, and his willingness to flaunt the conventions. One does not normally associate Renaissance art with wit, but Lotto is the exception. In his Portrait of Lucina Brembati (c. 1518-23) he slips the letters CI into the tiny orb of the moon (luna), thereby spelling out the sitter’s name: Lu-ci-na. As usual, the portrait is packed with detail that prompts multiple lines of interpretation. What is unambiguous is the glint in the Signora’s eye, the wry smile, and a personality that speaks to us just as forcefully in Canberra today as it did to friends and family in old Bergamo.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 7, 2012
Renaissance. Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini, Titian. 15th & 16th century Italian paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until 9 April 2012.