Warts and All: Giovanni Battista Moroni

Royal Academy of Arts

Not long before the Montagues and the Capulets were battling it out in Verona, the Brembati and the Albani were having their own problems 70 miles away in Bergamo.  The Brembati-Albani clash involved fewer star-crossed lovers and vials of poison, however, and instead turned on its protagonists’ opposing loyalties to Spanish or Venetian rule.  But if the Bergamo feud was less romantic than its Veronese equivalent, its end was no less bloody, and, in 1563, one of the Albani family’s servants killed Count Achille Brembati as he prayed in the city’s Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  After the murder, the Albani were forced to leave Bergamo forever; but today the two families have been reunited on the walls of the Royal Academy, where they again come face to face as part of Giovanni Battista Moroni.   Moroni was Bergamo’s leading painter at the height of the Brembati-Albani dispute, and by the mid-1550s had cornered the portrait market of the city’s high and mighty.  But mindful of his next commission, he was not one for taking sides: in 1553 he painted Isotta Brembati, two years later he was painting Lucia Albani and her husband, Faustino Avogadro, then in 1560 he took on Gian Gerolamo Grumelli, who soon after married Isotta.

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Isotta Brembati (c.1555), oil on canvas, © Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo/ Marco Mazzoleni

Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro (“The Lady in Red”) (c.1550-60), oil on canvas, © The National Gallery, London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isotta and Lucia hang opposite one another.  Resplendent in their Sunday best outfits, they drip with jewels, holding their fancy fans.  The aim is clear: to look as important and as rich as possible, and Moroni has risen to the challenge.  Who can miss the pink and white Ostrich feathers of Isotta’s fan, the golden-faced ermine around her neck, or the splendour of Lucia’s gold-shot silk?  The portraits of the husbands are no less flamboyant: Faustino is in his military gear, an enormous feather poking from his hat and an even more enormous plumage rising from the shiny helmet by his side, which must have seen as many battles as Lucia’s golden fan.  Not to be outdone, Gian Gerolamo is head-to-toe in pink, and holds a sword so long it cannot fit in the picture. Continue reading

The Science of Art – Making Colour, The National Gallery

The Sainsbury Wing is looking different. The walls are almost black and there are backlit photographs of vibrant explosions and placards with neon lettering. Is this the right place? Have I accidently come to the Science Museum? For an art show, there are a lot of mineral samples in cabinets and apothecary’s mounds of colourful powders. This is not South Kensington, but for its summer show, the National Gallery has turned to science or, more accurately, chemistry.  Making Colour, which runs until 7 September, is about just that, and in a collaboration between curators and the gallery’s science department, who have been given a rare pass out of their labs and into the exhibition space, the gallery’s paintings are being taken back to their elements. If the curators had to dust off their GCSE chemistry while putting together this display, so will you, with rocks and minerals (remember, they are different) and old friends from the periodic table, cropping up throughout the exhibition.

Natural System of Colours, Moses Harris (1769/1776), © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Natural System of Colours, Moses Harris (1769/1776), © Royal Academy of Arts, London

The show has been arranged anti-clockwise around the colour wheel, from blue to purple. A bonus room at the end looks at gold and silver which, with no place on the spectrum of white light, are not strictly colours; but try telling that to an International Gothic or Renaissance painter. It was Isaac Newton who devised the first colour wheel in the 1660s, although his circle was not that colourful, and so it is a later version by Moses Harris which the National Gallery has used to demonstrate the concept. Continue reading

Beyond Civilisation – Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation

If you are looking for Civilisation in Tate Britain’s Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, you will have to keep on looking until the sixth and final room of the exhibition.  And when you do find the 1960s television series, all you will see is a smallish screen showing clips on a loop, and a set of headphones.  The program’s success when it was aired both in Britain and then around the world, was huge, and its legacy has been lasting, so much so that it is not unusual to hear its presenter referred to as “Lord Clark of Civilisation”.  But before he wrote and appeared in the documentary, which was filmed in 1967-8 and shown in 1969, and before he branched into broadcasting at all, Clark had done a few other things, and it is these which are at the heart of Tate Britain’s new display.

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933 Private collection

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933
Photograph: Marcus Leith, Private collection

In 1934 Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery.  By this point he had spent a stint revising Bernard Berenson’s catalogue of Florentine paintings at the Villa I Tatti outside Florence, catalogued the Royal Collection of Leonardo drawings, organised a blockbuster exhibition of Italian Renaissance art at the Royal Academy, curated the Ashmolean for two years, published a book on Gothic art and bagged a beauty by marrying Jane Martin, whom he had met at Oxford.  Not bad for a man who had only just turned 31.  Clark described the years 1932 to 1939 as the “Great Clark Boom”, when he and Jane lived in a grand house in Portland Place, entertaining London’s fast set and appearing in 1930s equivalents of Hello.  “We were borne along the crest of a social wave”, he later wrote of this feverish period.

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John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9 Tate; acquired by Clark for the National Gallery in 1935

It was not, however, as if Clark had come from nowhere, and the two portraits on display of him as a boy make it clear that his was not a story of rags to riches.  Continue reading

Bricks, Mortar and Paint – Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting

Saint Jerome had a pleasant working environment.  A well-lit, spacious L-shaped desk with generous storage space, beautiful views of the coastline, a (sleeping) pet lion and even a pair of slippers to hand.  His bench looks hard though, and is it a bit low?  This is Venetian artist, Vicenzo Catena’s Jerome, painted in around 1510.  Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome from 35 years earlier, also seems comfortable.  He has a loggia as well as a row of windows, plenty of shelving and better seating.  But the lighting is not as good, and his lion is awake and growling.  The two Jeromes are hanging side by side in the National Gallery’s Sunley Room, as part of Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting, the final episode of the gallery’s Renaissance Spring trilogy.  Saint Jerome has not always fared so well and these two depictions are unusual in assigning him such agreeable surroundings: more often than not during this period, he was given cramped, dimly lit digs in which there was hardly room for his halo, let alone the lion.

Saint Jerome in his Study Antonello da Messina about 1475, © The National Gallery, London

Saint Jerome in his Study, Antonello da Messina about 1475, © The National Gallery, London

Saint Jerome in his Study, Vincenzo Catena probably about 1510, © The National Gallery, London

 

The exhibition seeks, in the words of the curators, to put the “background into the foreground”, focusing on the architectural settings of a group of fifteenth and sixteenth century Italian paintings, mostly drawn from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, but supplemented with a handful of guest appearances from around the country.  Architecture in paintings, as opposed to architectural drawings, is uncharted territory and there has never been a similar exhibition in the United Kingdom or abroad.  Yet now this show has been put on, it seems such an obvious topic, with so many Italian paintings of the period set in some sort of built-up milieu.  And in a neat nod to the subject matter, the Sunley Room does not currently look much like the Sunley Room, and has been rebuilt as a labyrinth of passageways and squares, with each section devoted to a separate sub-theme of the exhibition.  There is even a mock-up of a Florentine street corner, complete with overhead tabernacle, blessing visitors as they pass through the display.

The early fifteenth century saw a fundamental stylistic shift in painting in Italy: gone were the piles of weightless figures tottering next to spindly, geometrically-suspect buildings that might topple at any moment; and in came solid, three dimensional people positioned in, on or aside coherent, sturdy and classically-inspired constructions.  Perspective had arrived and artists such as Masaccio looked to mathematical principles in order to place objects in real space and make backgrounds recede into the distance.  3D effects were being simulated on 2D surfaces.

Except that Building the Picture is not about this great artistic leap and do not expect, when visiting the exhibition, to receive an art history lesson in the basics of Italian Renaissance painting. Continue reading