This winter’s international blockbuster at the National Gallery of Victoria is the Italian Masters exhibition, which features big paintings and big-name artists, even if it lacks some of the absolute cream of the crop (notably, Caravaggio – though his school, the Caravaggisti, features heavily). The fine paintings are balanced by a choice smattering of drawings, which make for a great contrast – the exquisite but static craftsmanship of the paintings against the human, seemingly dashed-off sketches. And in an exhibition of this sort, it is the fine details that are as interesting as the grand gestures. At the start of the exhibition are sixteenth century volumes of Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists. Vasari was also an artist himself, and the books are complemented by his sketches, notably, and fittingly self-referential, an ink and wash sketch of St Luke painting the Virgin Mary.
Religious themes abound, of course, and an exhibition of this nature – spanning three centuries – allows us to see the evolution of style and theme. From the rigid but luminescent (and the paint itself, lovingly lit, does luminesce in a way that reproductions don’t capture) Correggio through to the mannerist style of Michelangelo’s admirers, down to the more gothic Counter-Reformation painters, including the Caravaggisti, who revel in martyrdom and miracle, in a Bill Henson lighting scheme, and up again to the Italian Rococo style of the eighteenth century, all billowy drapery and clouds in pastel colours. In this last group is a striking Tiepolo (“the last breath of happiness in Europe”, according to Roberto Calasso in his book Tiepolo Pink), less vibrant but more dominant than its contemporaries, of the Immaculate Conception, with a chaste-looking Mary trampling a satanic dragon. It is lovely to compare the painting to Tiepolo’s drawings and note the wobbly (yet accurate) lines of his pen, in a striking and sparse drawing of Saint John the Evangelist, reproduced in the wobbly folds of Mary’s clothes (in contrast to the smooth, perfect folds of Correggio’s drapery).
There is a fine contrast also between an early and later painting of Lucien Freud’s hero Titian. The Virgin and Child between Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Roch from 1508 is a triptych-style composition, the three figures in a row with deferential air between them, and three corresponding panels of backdrop behind them. Religion succoured by Spain (1572) is a more daring composition, with the painting’s centre featuring the background (causing the viewer’s restless eyes to flit between the figures on either side) and the figures on either side acting like stage curtains, an effect enhanced by smoke billowing up the left side of the painting. The paint itself seems more freely applied and grainier. Across the room is his painting of Salome, carrying John’s head like a busy waitress, and here again Titian’s composition is arresting. We see her back, and she is turning to engage our gaze, with what looks like a mixture of sensuality and guilt.
One is at risk of being Italianed-out but there are plenty of things to grab one’s attention along the way. There is Ludovicco Carracci’s painting of the ecstasy of Saint Francis, with Francis kneeling at the bottom in earthy, peasant colours, and, further up the canvas, his visionary figures in El Greco pastels against a halo of light straight from Georgia O’Keefe. There is Matthias Stom’s The Incredulity of St Thomas (great title), in which, curiously, Christ has the spear wound in his side, but no nail marks in his hands. There is Cecco del Caravaggio (Francesco Buoneri), of whom little is known (except that he is from the Caravaggisti), and his tightly cropped painting Guardian Angel with Saints Thomas and Ursula, with its surprisingly sunny background and its strange narrow pyramidal composition. Saint Ursula has an arrow through her neck, but her facial expression seems to suggest it is only causing her mild irritation. Then there is Francesco Furini’s painting of Lot being seduced by his daughters, the theme of which provided renaissance painters with the excuse to paint sensual female nudes. Here the daughters are in particular soft-focus, in contrast to the intricately rendered decorative metal wine gourd one of them clutches.
There are some straight landscapes (and a fascinating cut-away painting of the colosseum) but a majority of these paintings feature biblical and mythological themes. While the obligatory, accompanying blurbs contain some explanation of themes, the rich allegorical elements scattered throughout the paintings – particularly the fruit and flowers, whose meanings mystify modern casual observers – are not necessarily explained, which only highlights the differences between the audiences of today and the (admittedly smaller) audiences of the Renaissance, who would have got most of the references at first sight.
Helpfully, the NGV provides a complete catalogue of the paintings online here: http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/italianmasterpieces/