The Spanish collection of Italian Art can usually be founding lurking with glorious intent in the simply stunning classical precinct of the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
For the next few months, 100 or so paintings from their collection are on on loan in Melbourne, showcasing key trends and tracing the stylistic development of Italian art across three centuries.
The wonderful array of Italian Masterpieces making up the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces Exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, highlight the particular tastes and desires of royalty and aristocrats at the Royal Court of Spain between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.
Sixteenth century historian of art Georgio Vasari (1511-1574) believed antique art served not only as a model, but also as a source of prestige.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would rather confirm his hypothesis as popes, princes and aristocrats all over Europe and in England, competed to own magnificent collections. This is also when many works found their way into the collections of Royal circles in Spain, commissioned directly from artists in Italy.
Like those who will come to see this fabulous show in their droves, I was mightily impressed, not only by the scale and sheer size of some of the works, but also by the rarity of others and the now well-known names of many of the artists.
There were two I found more compelling than the rest. They were the sensational Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni (1575-1642) and a stunning portrait of a man with a clock by Titian. One is a portrait of man daily operating in real life, the other an aspect of the world of religion and early Christianity. The Saint as portrayed by Reni is a young, beautiful man martyred for his cause.
The Reni is very powerful. The subtle way in which he defines the light between the figure and landscape and showcases the beauty of the young man’s milky white flesh and the form of the human body in tension is remarkable. It’s a truly classical moment, one in which Reni challenges viewers to recognize the divine and to see “what is not visible,” and “to seek with intelligence, that which lies behind simple appearances.”
The Titian reveals a man with the white cross of a Knight of the Order of Malta on his clothing. This doesn’t mean he was a knight – just supported their cause.
The expectation or is it satisfaction on the gentleman’s face is captivating. He looks as if he’s secretly feeling very pleased about something, perhaps holding a secret close to his chest.
It is a brilliant example of how Titian painted from observation; he wanted to capture that fleeting ‘look’ on someone’s face. He didn’t really want a semblance or an appearance of truth, caring more for exactness.
With my passion for textiles I truly love the way Titian renders his ‘black’ clothing through the creative use of lines, shapes and subtle shadings. You need to see it in the flesh, so to speak, to understand what I mean. It reveals his complete mastery of oil painting techniques. The sitter is a gentleman of status, which is also revealed by the cut, cloth and style of his clothing.
Black was the colour of Gentleman; laid down by Count Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529I in his book Ill Cortegiano (The Courtier) (1528), which became the manual that formed the basis for the ideologies and actions surrounding the behaviour of gentlemen for centuries
As this ‘gentleman’ has only been identified in more recent times as belonging either a member of an important family of the time, or a known clockmaker, the likelihood is that we will probably never really know who he was in reality.
Scholars tell us Titian has recorded the clock in other paintings, suggesting this one may have been his own.
Placing a clock in paintings at this time was about it being symbolic of the passing of time and the transitory nature of life.
For me having the clock as a side focus seems to be more about the positioning of the hand for Titian following his eyes, thereby giving life and animation to this brilliant portrait, drawing our curiosity.
There are 61 works by Titian in the Spanish collection and three are on display at the NGV.
His portrait of Philip II wearing armour painted 1551 when he was still a Prince was completed in consultation with Philip.
Titian is again using the hand as a device to animate the image.
The King is standing in a relaxed pose, with Titian placing emphasis on the symbols of his dignity; column, buffet and armour.
Even though the artist himself was reported to be unhappy with the result, this striking portrait would become a role model for other artists rendering portraits of their clients wearing armour; it’s a fine example of the art of power.
Titian and Philip II reached a pinnacle of international fame together and critics today rank Titian among the great painters of all ages.
A great deal of integrity and sensitive careful consideration has been given by Prado curators Miguel Falome Faus and Andrés Úbeda de los Coos when making their selection of powerful paintings to send to Antipodean shores.
Having been infused with the passion and music of Opera Australia’s powerhouse presentation of the fiery Carmen, the night prior to this outstanding preview, you can appreciate that I was still in the right frame of mind to address and review a show from Spain.
Art is a powerful communication tool, providing a unique perspective on life as it has been lived over the centuries past, reflecting the attitudes and philosophies, the fashions and passions of the society and the people it was created for.
While we are talking religion it would be remiss of me not to mention there is some amazing Tiepolo’s in the show, including The Immaculate Conception rendered 1767-1769 as part of a cycle of seven altarpieces.
It’s a stunning very sophisticated example of religious art.
Tiepolo had a fine role model to follow, the painter Corrado Giaquinto (1703-1766), whom he succeeded as first chamber painter to Spain’s Royal Court.
The Spanish Royal family belongs to the House of Bourbon, a royal house of French origin that supported and worshipped the Roman Catholic faith for centuries.
Philip V (1683-1746) was Spain’s first Bourbon and Henry IV (1553-1610) of France the first Bourbon King in history.
He came from the Kingdom of Navarre, which occupied lands on either side of the Pyrenees, alongside the Atlantic Ocean between present-day Spain and France.
The southern part of the kingdom became part of Spain permanently in 1521.
Titian also recorded Religion succoured by Spain; carrying a shield with the coat of arms of Felipe II (1556-1598) and the flag of Victory, Spain rescues Religion from the Turkish threat that appears on a chariot in the sea. Religion is visible at the right of the composition, wearing only a blue cloth.
The Prado has generously shared their works by the great Italian artists with the Australian public in Brisbane in their arts precinct when Tony Ellwood was Director there prior to the NGV.
Now they have expanded their view and trusted his judgment and expertise once more, sending many more paintings, which have importantly not travelled outside Spain before.
The sheer quality of the painting or drawing by the select coterie of artists, who represented the crème de la crème of Italian master artists of their age is indeed impressive.
There are also some beautifully rendered old master drawings another passion of mine. Drawing is for me the single most accessible form of art. It’s a visual conversation between the artist and viewer, a tool for thought, creativity and cultural engagement.
The drawings on display are not as showy as paintings, but they are all beautifully rendered and thought-provoking; aiding the understanding and respect for cultural diversity as they stimulate the imagination.
They include the striking Head of a figure by Bartolomeo Passarotti, which for me is a complete exercise in beauty, with its glorious textural qualities and subtle shading.
There is also a small but appealing study of a right shoulder, breast and upper arm by Michelangelo. A fragment really, but nevertheless presents a scene of interlocking lines, forms and shapes, achieved quickly and cleanly with black chalk by the hand of the master of harmony.
Then there is the superb pen and brown ink and wash by the man who recorded the Lives of the Artists himself. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). The artist is shown sketching a Madonna and child.
This leads me to the wonderful Madonna of the Rose, a masterpiece by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) known as Raphael. He became known as a ‘master of the High Renaissance along with Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and so they are really a ‘holy trinity’ of art.
Vasari says of Raphael ‘that he was endowed with rich and inexhaustible treasures – all the favours and precious gifts heaven can endow.’ Vasari believed he had ‘grace, industry, looks, modesty and excellence of character’
Raphael may have not lived a long time on earth, but the work he produced was surely heaven sent. He painted a number of Madonna’s, for which he has become famous and The Holy Family with little Saing John, or The Virgin with a Rose as it is known, was painted in 1516.
This fine work is listed as being in the chapter of the Prior of the Monastery of El Escorial in 1667. It displays great reverence, revealing Raphael’s respect for it being a holy image. Scholars tell us that it is entirely by Raphael’s hand, not completed by others in his very large and busy workshop.
It’s easy to see why he was held up as a role model for other artists for a long time after his death. Raphael showed us how to combine virtue and art, which Vasari believed he brought to ‘a pitch of perfection that could scarcely have been hoped for’.
The sweetness, graciousness and modesty of the Madonna as she gazes gently down at St John and the attitude of her head, and that of both children, are a joy to behold.
The painting technique used to render the curls on their heads is truly divine, while the composition of the whole scene contributes to this works incomparable state of grace.
Corrado Giaquinto (1703 – 1766) was a prolific artist working during the first half of the eighteenth century and he benchmarked the rococo style in Spain.
The incredibly large stunning Allegory of Justice and Peace by Giaquinto is quite simply an amazing work painted for Ferdinand VI (1713-1759). It relates to Psalm 85, which announced ‘eternal peace between God and humankind.
Mercy and Truth are together atop of white fluffy cloud, surrounded by amorini, who are all part of the iconography. It’s full of secular allegory and religious references and is a captivating, mesmerizing painting in the last room of the display. It takes a great deal of time to look at its wonderful fine detailing, which is like so many of the works in this amazing show, incomporable.
As I was viewing it Ruby Strings a group of Melbourne’s finest string players, were providing an elegant very poetical musical accompaniment, which was highly appropriate to the setting. If I had been enjoying a glass of French bubbles at the time, it would have been the truly perfect moment for such an encounter in art.
Viewing this extraordinary loan exhibition was indeed truly memorable and I cannot but urge all Australians to start booking their own journey and enjoy the treasures of our combined cultural development and experiences.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
Melbourne Winter Masterpieces
16th May – 31st August, 2014
 Quote from Reni Scholar D. Stephen Pepper Guido Reni: A Complete Catalogue of His Works with an Introductory Text (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1984), 232 (cat. no. 48).