Primo Cinque

by Mark Calderwood

Australian art galleries are no stranger to the splendours of Italian renaissance and baroque art. In recent years, exhibitions such as Three Centuries of Italian Art, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and his World and A Sensing the Sacred have enjoyed immense popularity. It seems the masters can still draw an appreciative crowd.

And little wonder: the art is iconic, shorthand for culture itself. Even leaving aside the fact that the Italian renaissance forged modern society, audiences respond to the weight of history and prestige the Italian Masters carry, and notions of craftsmanship and superior quality sought by discerning connoisseurs still resonate powerfully. For many, it is this kind of painting that still defines ‘proper’ art.

As more and more art museums place historic paintings front of house, they are finding that audiences respond readily to the art, engaging with it even without any kind of specialist knowledge. However grandiose, mannered or symbolically complex as the works might be, points of connection are as easy to find as points of wonder.

Yet this renewed appreciation for renaissance art isn’t necessarily an elitist reclaiming of a Western cultural tradition. Any art adds to the exchanges of contemporary culture; and however archaic or culturally specific their trappings may seem, the human condition at the heart of these paintings goes beyond miserly cultural proprietorship. The art of the old masters forms part of a wider, shared artistic heritage.

Rather than being consigned to dusty history, the Italian masters are staking out a place in contemporary culture. Artists are increasingly looking to the old to create something new: even though using very different media, leading contemporary artists draw inspiration from canonical art, articulating it afresh in breathtaking fashion.

And after centuries of wandering the world, marble halls and backstairs deals, the paintings themselves have their own tales to tell. With the art of the Italian masters enjoying a renaissance of its own, we uncover the intriguing stories behind five of the very best.

National Gallery of Victoria

Recognised as his finest easel painting, The banquet of Cleopatra epitomises theexuberant grandeur bathed in shimmering light that made Giovanni Battista Tiepolo the premier ‘modern’ painter of his day.

Initially purchased in 1744 by Augustus III King of Poland, the painting was subsequently acquired by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. It remained in the Hermitage until 1932, when it became one of several paintings sold by Stalin to finance the industrialisation of the fledgling USSR. In a scene straight out of a spy novel, representatives of the Gallery clandestinely bought the masterpiece from Soviet officials with a suitcase full of cash on the steps of the National Gallery in London.

The banquet of Cleopatra depicts the Egyptian Queen and Roman triumvir Mark Antony, two rulers destined to become lovers. Having wagered that she could stage a feast surpassing even Antony’s legendary extravagance, Cleopatra is caught at the moment of winning her bet in dramatic style – by dissolving in vinegar her priceless pearl earring, an after-dinner digestif fit for a Queen.

Senior Curator of European Art Ted Gott sees the painting’s historical liberties- such as setting the titular banquet in a cinquecento Venetian palazzo – as collapsing history to an essence: ‘the meeting of east and west, the wealth of a maritime empire and the lavish lifestyle that goes with it. It’s a celebration of the timelessness, wealth, and glory of Venice.’

But as Gott says, beneath the magnificence lies one of history’s iconic love stories. ‘It’s the moment of a clever woman triumphing over a clever man and a powerful man meeting a woman who is his match, that sparks a love that would shake two empires. It’s an epic yet intimate story that fascinates us to this day.’

Art Gallery of New South Wales

The crowning glory of the historical collection, Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici in Armour is an undoubted masterpiece by perhaps the most skilled Master of the Italian renaissance.

In 1993, media magnate and zealous collector James Fairfax AC gifted the Gallery with a significant collection of works by European Masters. ‘It completely revitalised our historic collection,’ beams Director Edmund Capon. So when the opportunity arose three years later to nab the stunning portrait- for less than a tenth of its actual value- Capon didn’t hesitate for an instant.

Often classed as a Mannerist painter, Agnolo di Cosimo (nicknamed Bronzino) was renowned for his precise technique and glass-smooth surfaces. As court painter to the Medici, he created portraits of austere beauty and aristocratic splendour that immortalised the military might, civic grandeur and shrewd patronage of the Florentine dynasty.

Yet Bronzino’s aloof likeness of the Duke is an equally intense character study, observed with pinpoint accuracy. ‘This is the promise of portraiture,’ Capon enthuses, ‘and this one leaves you in no doubt. This is no allegory or mythic figure, but the face of a real person of immense power, will, tenacity and personality.’

Capon even feels there is a Modernist sheen in the hyper-reality of the sitter and minimal accoutrements, especially the glittering, mesmerising planes of his amour. ‘In that sense, it bridges the Gallery’s collections. Great paintings don’t date- they are always contemporary.’

Art Gallery of South Australia

At the turn of the seventeenth century, Naples became the centre of a striking new fashion in art.

Profoundly influenced by Caravaggio’s brief sojourn in Naples, Giovanni Battista (called Battistello) Caracciolo transformed the soft chiaroscuro of northern Italy into dramatic tenebrism, defining his figures by light rather than perspective. Emerging from the densely shadowed background almost as if a relief sculpture, the narrative even of sacred and Biblical stories is projected into the audience’s own space.

Painted around 1605, Two youths with grapes is among Caracciolo’s most enigmatic works. Intended for private rather than public display, the small painting harks back to the pagan traditions of indulgent sensuality that existed in tension with the public religious dramas more common to baroque art.

Often associated with Christ, the plump grapes here more readily suggest Bacchus, while the stark shaft of light, which in a religious work would symbolise divinity, plays against the concealing shadows. The androgynous, Caravaggio-like youth glancing languidly out of the frame plays on that same ambiguity, ivory skin wrapped in cloth that could be a shirt, a toga or bed sheet.

‘It’s an arresting painting, in every sense’, comments Jane Messenger, Curator of European Art. ‘People are struck by it, without needing to know about renaissance mythology or iconography. It’s mysterious and tantalising, and people engage with it immediately.’

Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Painted by Florentine artist Felice Ficherelli in 1638, Antiochus, Prince of Syria, and Stratonica his stepmother reaches the height of baroque fashion.

Wearing its influences on its richly coloured sleeve, Antiochus belongs to the popular genre of history painting, scenes from history that pack an improving moral. Ficherelli depicts the Antique story of Antiochus, son of King Seleucus I Nictator of Syria, physically stricken with passion for his aged father’s young bride Stratonica.

Senior Curator of the Mackelvie Collection of International Art Mary Kisler points out the subtle details that tell the emotionally wrenching story. ‘It’s a portrait of longing. Antiochus’ gaze toward her is openly seductive, and his sensuously depicted, almost feminine body is unusual in baroque art. So too Stratonica’s face, hidden in shadow, indicates that she discreetly returns her stepson’s attraction.’

Kisler also notes the wrought silver ewer by Antiochus’ bed, subtly suggestive of bathing the lover’s body- and adorned with figures of the Goddess of Love and her son.

Yet Antiochus does not merely relate a curious tale. In an era when paintings carried clear social messages, and where women were married young to men many years their senior, the painting served as a moral exemplum of correct behaviour between fathers and sons, as well as warning of the dangers of taking a youthful bride- especially when there is a handsome young son in the house.

Queensland Art Gallery

Cristo risorgente (The risen Christ) is a trumpet blast sounded by the baroque, a consummate statement of Catholic majesty and triumph.

Believed to have been part of an altarpiece, the painting resounds with the furious energy and painterly style of Jacopo Comin, better known as Tintoretto. Unusually for the sixteenth century, Tintoretto was never apprenticed to a painter’s workshop; instead, he developed a distinctive style combining Michelangelo’s disegno with Titian’s colore. But it was his own daring quality of prestezza, or quickness, that was admired by contemporaries and broke new ground in Venetian art.

Curator of International Art David Burnett points to Cristo risorgente’s vibrant reds and lead-based white, hallmarks of the Venetian school. ‘Tintoretto is a complete contrast to the meticulous Flemish handling of light,’ he says. ‘Instead of a symbolic ray, Tintoretto creates a shimmer that leaps off the canvas.’

That immediacy brings even the traditional symbolic elements theatrically to life- Christ’s scarlet cloak is as weighty as the sarcophagus from which he springs, limned in supernatural radiance; the banner he carries fluttering lightly as the dawn clouds behind.

Burnett disdains the idea that baroque religious art is irrelevant in a secular contemporary world. ‘Faith and spirituality underlies a great deal of contemporary arts and culture, be it European, Asian or Indigenous. By showing how symbolic stories were told in the past, old Masters can inspire new ways to understand our own stories.’

Published Il Tridente, Winter 2011