Among the great art museums of the world, the Prado in Madrid may not have the biggest or most comprehensive collection, but it has an exceptional array of masterpieces.
To view the greatest paintings by Velázquez, Goya and other Spanish old masters, a visit to the Prado is obligatory. It is also the place to see the eccentric works of Flemish master, Hieronymus Bosch; and an unparalleled collection of pictures by Titian (1490-1576), the so-called “father of the Prado”.
If the museum represents a handful of important artists in depth, and others not at all, this is because the Prado was originally the collection of the Spanish court, reflective of the taste of generations of Habsburg and Bourbon rulers. There was no attempt to be encyclopaedic – the Spaniards stuck with the artists they admired, and the themes they found appropriate.
Italian Masterpieces at the National Gallery of Victoria is Australia’s second show of works from the Prado within two years, following Portrait of Spain at the Queensland Art Gallery in July 2012. It’s widely assumed that the Melbourne show is much better than its Queensland predecessor, but this is unfair. The QAG exhibition concentrated on Spanish art, which is less celebrated than the work of the Italian old masters, the chief exceptions being Velázquez and Goya. The former’s Las Meninas (1656) has been the museum’s chief drawcard for the past century.
Both Prado exhibitions may be praised for the quality of the works included and the intelligence of the curatorship. At no stage did the Spaniards take the easy option of assigning secondary works to Australian audiences. Both shows included a high percentage of pieces from the permanent display, used to create insightful narratives about art history and the changing face of the Spanish monarchy.
One of the features of the current show is the interplay of paintings and drawings, with the works on paper revealing the thought processes behind the finished canvases and artists’ facility with different media. Another highlight is the way the exhibition starts with a bang, putting two of the major attractions in the first room: Raphael’s Holy Family with Saint John (c. 1517) and Correggio’s Noli me tangere (c. 1525).
Raphael’s painting exemplifies the humanistic ethos of the Renaissance in the psychological realism he brings to this scene – infants, Jesus and Saint John, fight over a banner while Joseph looks on with a troubled expression. The only jarring note is the rose at the bottom which was added by an unknown hand in the 19th century, perhaps as a signature that has lapsed into anonymity.
Correggio’s Noli me tangere has been a much admired work from the time it was painted, due to its dynamic composition, which includes diagonal sight lines that cross close to the left of Christ’s head; and a wondrous green and blue landscape. The locked gazes of Jesus and Mary Magdalene create a sense of drama, reaffirmed by their animated hand gestures.
A surprising aspect of this selection is the number of nudes acquired by a Catholic court that prided itself on its piety. Although the prudish Charles III had to be dissuaded from burning a group of suggestive pictures, it seems that most of the Spanish aristocracy were happy to accept the Biblical references that allowed such frankly sensual paintings as Guercino’s Susanna and the Elders (1617) or Francesco Furini’s Lot and his daughters (c. 1634) to enter the collection. Nowadays the erotic charge of such images feels very muted, but it would have been a different story in the 17th century.
If we are quick to admire the Italian works selected by curators, Miguel Falomir Faus and Andrés Úbeda de los Cobos, we are echoing the ingrained preferences of the Spanish court. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries Italian art ruled supreme in Madrid, being valued for its skill and sophistication. Most of the local product was considered a second-rate provincial art.
This was a source of frustration for Spanish painters, although it provided an incentive to travel and study in Italy. The most celebrated emigré was Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) who was born near Valencia, but moved to Italy in 1611, never to return. Ribera, who has three paintings in this exhibition, would have liked to go home, but knew he would be feted and soon forgotten. “I judge Spain to be a loving mother to foreigners,” he wrote, “and a very cruel stepmother to her own sons.”
The preference for foreigners is supported by a 1686 inventory of the holdings of the Alcázar palace quoted in the catalogue, in which the best performer is Titian, with 76 original paintings and 28 copies. Next best was Rubens, with 62 originals.
Those numbers have been thinned by disastrous fires and occasional gifts, but the Prado still has the world’s largest collection of oils by Titian. There are 25 in total, of which five have been included in this exhibition, ranging from an early Virgin and Child between Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Roch (c. 1508), which shows the artist still working through the influence of his master, Giovanni Bellini; to the complex late allegorical scene, Religion succoured by Spain (c. 1572-75). The group is completed by two male portraits and a picture of a sultry, blonde Salome holding aloft the head of John the Baptist.
Over the 65 years that separates the first painting from the last, we chart a transformation from crisp forms and bright colours, to a late style in which figures and landscapes become low-keyed and expressive. The dirty sky and broiling ocean in the last picture are the work of an old man who could please himself in the way he depicted the world.
As the favourite of Emperor Charles V (r. 1516-56), and his son, Philip II (r. 1556-98), Titian’s pre-eminence cast a long shadow over the artists who followed in his wake. The collecting passions of the monarchs would wax and wane over the next couple of centuries, leading up to the establishment of the Prado as a pubic museum in 1819, while the idolisation of Italian painting gradually diminished.
Titian rarely ventured far from Venice, and never visited Madrid, but as Spain’s wealth and power increased so did the scope for major projects such as the decoration of the New Hall at the Alcázar, El Escorial and the ambitious Buen Retiro Palace. The plans for the Buen Retiro which began construction in 1630, called for some 800 paintings – a bonanza for artists based in Italy who secured most of the commissions. These included up-and-coming French stars such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, who are both represented in this exhibition.
As work progressed it became necessary for Italian artists to relocate to Spain. Many were reluctant to do so, despite the financial incentives. The painter who made the transition most successfully was the Neapolitan, Luca da Giordano, who would reside in Madrid between 1692-1702, working with exceptional speed and versatility to complete a vast number of paintings and decorations. He has two oils and two drawings in this show, which provide a glimpse of his varied talents.
In time, Giordano would be succeeded by Corrado Giaquinto (1703-66) whose paintings reflect the Francophile tastes of the Bourbon dynasty. Giaquinto’s skills are phenomenal, but his paintings feel slightly shallow when one encounters them in the final room of the show, coming after rooms full of extraordinary works by artists influenced by the classicising tendencies of the Carracci, and the dark, crepuscular realism of Caravaggio.
The final Italian master to move to Madrid, was one of the greatest decorative artists of all time: Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), who would spend the last eight years of his life in the service of Charles III. His Immaculate Conception (1767-69) has a spacious, luminous atmosphere that seems startlingly modern compared to the work of his predecessors. In Tiepolo’s work we not only find a new approach to colour, but a spirituality allied to light rather than darkness. It would have been a happier future for Spain if life from this point onwards could have followed the example of art.
Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Until 31 August
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 21 June, 2014