The Italians: Three Centuries of Italian Art 1500-1800

The Italians: Three Centuries of Italian Art 1500-1800

Francis Young

Italy's Federation gesture to Australia, The Italians, offers a rare chance to experience a whirlwind tour of over one hundred paintings from some of Italy's greatest galleries - and without leaving home.

The exhibition commences at the Melbourne Museum on 7 July and continues until 5 October 2002.

This comprehensive exhibition sweeps the visitor through the styles of each region and period from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It is very well organised, and the groupings into artistic schools and regions aid understanding of Renaissance currents.

The most valuable work in the collection is not a painting at all, but Leonardo da Vinci's famous sketch of the Head of Christ, part of his preparation for the fresco of The Last Supper. The soft charcoal and pastel study conveys more than a visual impression, capturing compassion and sorrow in a rendering of great beauty. Two other sketches - both by Michelangelo - complete this antipasto.

In the 16th century, we first encounter the Florentine Mannerist school, with its highly muscular figures and foreshortened perspective. Artists include Rosso Fiorentino and one of the greatest Venetian artists of the Cinquecento, Jacopo Bassano, whose Martyrdom of St Catherine creates an unreal atmosphere by use of enamel colours.

Titian's "sacred conversation" depicts the Madonna and Child, St Catherine, the Donor and St Dominic in a landscape setting. The brilliant colour and fine detail in fabric, foliage and facial expressions form an intense composition. An anecdote in the audio notes relates Michelangelo's quip after visiting the young Titian's studio: "He paints well, but it's a pity he can't draw!"

Lorenzo Lotto's Annunciation is an attractive work, though seemingly indecorous for its depiction of the Virgin Mary with eyes downcast, and a frightened cat running across the floor. Recalling the angel's calming words, however, the artist's purpose becomes clear: "Do not be afraid".

A little dog found its way into the paintings of Veronese, including his Martydom of St Justina, and he found himself before the Inquisition. This was the Counter-reformation, and the Church was at pains not to give the Reformers any example of art disrespectful of its religious subject. Veronese easily justified the inclusion of a dog in a religious work as a symbol of fidelity, and misgivings at his artistic licence were allayed.

The influence of Dutch still-life painting is seen in many works, often incidentally. It is more direct in the large, colourful scene by Vincenzo Campi - L'Ortolana (The Fruit Seller). Campi's virtuousity is seen in his detailed cornucopia of fruit, looking as fresh and real today as in 1580.

The inclusion of a sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Bust of Clement X) in an exhibition of paintings reflects his importance to 17th century Italian art. The Pope died in 1676, and Bernini in 1680, but the bust was finished except for struts of marble bracing the right arm and fingers. It rewards close examination, revealing the way the master breathed life and texture into stone: wrinkled skin, starched fabric, fluttering lace. Simply breathtaking!

In three of Caravaggio's canvases, Narcissus, St John the Baptist and St Francis in Meditation, his trademark technique of chiaroscuro - literally "bright-dark" - is evident, as he picks out brilliant details with fine brushstrokes against pitch dark shadows. Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection in a dark pool in a dramatically-framed symmetrical composition. St Francis contemplates death, and we can but follow his gaze against the blackness of the cave, first to a skull, then a simple cross.

Pietro da Cortona was commissioned to make a huge Guardian Angel altar painting in 1656 by Pope Alexander VII, moved by the writings of St Francis de Sales, the great bishop of Geneva. There is great warmth between the angel, arm diagonally pointing heavenwards, and the wonder upon the child's face.

Luca Giordano deserved his nickname "Luca fa presto" ("Luke works quickly"), but his speed did not prevent him producing strikingly lit, theatrical scenes, such as The Rape of the Sabines and The Archangel Gabriel Appearing to St Zachary. In the latter, he shows his knowledge of Venetian painting, with monumental architecture and pale, gilded colours, despite working in 1650s Naples.

A number of panels for the vaulted ceilings of churches follow, with upward perspectives of richly-dressed figures ascending stairs and altars toward the heavens. Again, the beauty of bright colours and picturesque scenes serves to elevate the mind to God and the last things. (The 1943 Allied bombing saw the destruction of Naples' Church of Santa Chiara, and a Giuseppe Bonito canvas is all that remains of his 18th century frescoes).

'View of the Molo di San Marco from the Bacino' by Canaletto (1697-1768)
'View of the Molo di San Marco from the Bacino' by Canaletto (1697-1768)

A tour of Italy in the 18th century, as today, saw visitors seeking mementos of their scenic stopovers. Canaletto is by far the most famous view painter of Venice. After making contacts among wealthy English collectors through the British Consul, he produced and sold countless near-perfect canvases of the streetscapes - or perhaps "canalscapes"? His views were actually more perfect than the original scenes, as he used a camera oscura to give him the basic lines, then stretched already monumental buildings to ideal proportions for his customers. Whatever of this, his View of the Molo di San Marco from the Bacino is one of my favourite paintings in this most welcome exhibition.

I warmly encourage those who can to visit the galleries in a dozen Italian cities represented here. For the rest of us, don't pass up a rare chance to see the best works from Italy's artistic peak during their very brief visit to Australia.

  • Francis Young is the webmaster of

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