Category Archives: Renaissance

Notes on Palladio – Royal Academy – Spring 2009

The art history books put Andrea Palladio somewhere at the end of the Renaissance, but really, the architect sits rather uneasily in such a place. The narratives for painting and sculpture reach their crescendo with Titian and Michelangelo, and then they suppose that everything tails off for a while, at least until Annibale Carracci reboots the Florentine linear form at the start of the seventeenth century. But Palladio sits right in that age of elongated forms once labelled mannerism, even though there is not much about his art that could be considered mannered. Palladio is clear evidence that the Vasarian trajectory is not quite right.

The exhibition is dry. There are many drawing, prints and crinkly artifacts, which probably don’t do much to excite those new to architectural history. Neither will the beige models of his most famous buildings, however intricate and well proportioned their creation, fire the imagination. There was one innovation – a digital construction of Palladio’s rather heavy design for the Rialto bridge; but still how architecture shows cry out for more imaginative use of technology.

Andrea Palladio, conjectural drawing of Baths of Agrippa, Bath

But if you are prepared to invest some time in them, the drawings are fascinating, intricate yet precise. His drawings of the Roman Baths of Agrippa convey a sense of the building’s architectural brilliance, but without any concession to flashy stylistic devices. Equally, the plans for his own buildings convey precision and grandeur without any added devices – Palladio lets the architecture speak for itself.

Andrea Palladio, drawing of Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza: part elevation of the entrance facade and portico, 1550s/60s

In his studies, publications, observations and measurements Palladio belongs to a intellectual narrative different to the artistic spine constructed by Vasari and repeated with many variations by art history. Palladio seems to look forward to a more rational age; the impulses to study, measure and communicate makes me think more of a creature of the enlightenment. This is emphasised by his focus on the antique and the relative lack of religious motifs, thus divorcing Palladio the architect from the familiar religious context (the Council of Trent, the Catholic Reformation) of the time.

It’s also worth comparing his sparse clean designs – so different from the glamorous confusion of the baroque, a movement about to ferment further south in Italy. It’s not clear from the exhibition I don’t now how much spiritual passion Palladio had, but the clean grand lines that inform or even the interiors of churches, such as San Giorgio, seem a world away from the coloured marbles and gold leaf that would cover the churches of the succeeding centuries.


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Keeping Titian Here – National Gallery – Winter 2008

The National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland, suddenly thrown into panic by the Duke of Sutherland’s inevitable decision to sell Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, have not chosen a great time to try and raise £50m from, frankly, anyone who can stump up some cash. The year 2008 will always associated with a downward graph showing some vertiginous descents – a year when money evaporated. There is no jangle of spare cash for art.

Diana and Actaeon - Titian
Titian, Diana and Actaeon, Late 1550s, National Gallery of Scotland

And yet public opinion towards the gallery’s begging bowl has been, on the whole, largely positive. There have been the usual discussions in newspapers and television shows, as well as blogs and websites, and the expected comments about wasting-money-on-art-when-there-are-sick-children-to-be-cured-has-surfaced. But £10 notes continue to be stuffed into the boxes at the National Gallery.

In particular, the UK tabloid newspapers, generally accepted as the voice of the man in the street, have, in their own way, been supportive of the so-called Titian Campaign. One would expect a instinctive anti-elitism to kick in – the tabloid newspapers are usually the loudest voice to articulate the common sense pragmatism that is outraged when would see museums receive money instead of hospitals, and regards both old master and avant-garde art as elitist pretension wrapped up in the emperor’s new clothes.

Instead, the Daily Mirror happily showed the inventive recreation (commissioned by the Beeb I think) by the photographer Tom Hunter, and made some cheerful marks about the nudity on show with a typical red-top headline, ‘Nice Titians’.

Diana and Actaeon - Tom Hunter
Tom Hunter, Diana and Actaeon, 2008

The Sun made its lo-fi version of Diana and Actaeon, tailored to suit its readership

Diana and Actaeon - The SunThe Sun, Homage to Diana and Actaeon, 2008

A connoisseur may splutter about the irreverence – but it’s harmless stuff – and a million miles away from much more damaging headlines, e.g. ‘Arrogant art critics demand £50m during credit crunch’ or ‘Money diverted from dwindling health budget to pay rich aristocrat’ etc etc.

Does this reflect a change in dynamics of class and culture in Britain? Or are there some very bright people working in the Titian Campaign’s marketing office? Or is just the chance to embrace some gratuitous nudity (something the tabloids have been doing for years)?

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Cranach – Royal Academy – June 2008

Where to start with such a fascinating artist? The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, in the first room of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, is a good place.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

It is an extraordinary painting, recording the moment just after the miraculous destruction of the wheel being used to torture the expectant saint, and just before the beheading that ensures her martyrdom. The canvas is divided up, each section turned over to distinct parts of the narrative. There is the massive dark blast at the top right, wrenching open a hole in the cosmos; there is the tranquil path leading to the distant monastery at the top left; there is the gigantic figure of the executioner just about to grab the chin of Catherine, who kneels in astonishment. And then there is the fantastic jumble of defeated pagans who are crammed into some indeterminate space behind the scene of Catherine and her killer.

In this strip of figures, Cranach manages to describe a sense of infernal panic. What is striking is that it is the entire area that is filled – there are no patches of grass, nor chinks of light, nor indeed any space between the figures. Demonstrating a truism about early Northern painting, Cranach has no clear idea of how to depict the gradually receding space of a three dimensional scene. Accordingly, the viewer’s sense of the characters inhabiting a realistic space is somewhat compromised. But does this affect the impact of the painting? Of course not!

Such an approach allows Cranach to release his extraordinary visual and emotive imagination, squeezing in humans and animals which enliven the narrative of the painting. Indeed, the very application of a rational sense of space could in fact diminish the effect of the canvas, providing a calming gloss to a storyline full of fear and confusion. It is precisely this confused conception of the painted arena that gives the painting its urgency; one is reminded of similar scenes painted over 400 years later.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

Pablo Picasso, detail from Guernica, 1936

See how the faces are varied – Cranach conjures up numerous ways of depicting the response to the miraculous and noisy intervention, we see shock, pain, trepidation and fear, and yet each face is different, of a distinct character. Particularly in the male figures, Cranach liked to paint their features in vastly different ways; look at how the three pairs of eyes just above Catherine’s head are documented.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

Facial hair is equally variegated. There is also an astonishing variety of clothes and head wear depicted. The knight behind Catherine is literally crestfallen. On the left, there are the puffed curls of the turbans of the philosopher-like figures and on the right the more simple red hat of the pickpocket. There is also the extraordinary arrangement resting on top of the executioner – it will take a knowledgeable dress historian to explain its genesis.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

The commitment to detail, to compressing each last drop of human emotion into the painting is incredible. Even where there is the most minute space, Cranach has inserted another individual gazing in awe at the heavens, or a pickpocket taking advantage the chaos rather than leave the canvas blank.


The Martyrdom of St. Catherine deserves a close reading. This is true in a more physical sense as well; to get to grips with the huge jumble of figures, one needs to get close to the painting and work through all its details. This is not a painting that can be swallowed whole. While the graceful form of, say, a Raphael can be appreciated instantly, Cranach produced paintings, particularly his larger ones, which need to be brought closer to the eye and then read through. Just in the way a page of text needs to be brought up to the reader and then its individual elements worked through, so one needs to approach a Cranach and perceive its individual elements before comprehending the larger whole. Cranach’s paintings are works that demand close readings.

The dimensions of Cranach’s paintings play into this as well, as the Royal Academy’s curators have observed, placing twin portraits beside each other like facing pages of a book. The open covers of the diptychs (and occasional triptych) only serve to enhance this.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Holy Family Altarpiece, 1509

But more telling of all is simply the number of characters engaged in reading or holding books or bound manuscripts in Cranach’s work. The Holy Family Altarpiece (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) shows all different types of people reading. Thus we have the Virgin Mary in the centre, temporarily distracted from her book. The bearded man with red stockings in the right hand corner rather pensively considers the outsize volume held in his long-fingered hands. And at the other end of the triptych a young boy is studiously engaged in the green book nestled between in his knees. In Cranach’s world, man, woman and child are all free to read. Note too that the grissaile saint on one wing of the manuscript is also clutching a bound book.


Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from St Valentine, date unknown

Never has an artist been so concerned with ugliness. Cranach has perhaps painted some of the least flattering images in western portraiture. He was concerned with beauty too (witness the numerous nude Eves, twirling their tresses in the garden of Eden), but he was much better at ugliness. The portrait of Saint Valentine (nowadays the patron saint of lovers) is an essay in grumpiness – the bloated nose, the triple chin, the close set eyes.


So passion, detail, beauty and ugliness – what more could you need? Surely, if Cranach can produce paintings like the Martyrdom of St Catherine, he touches greatness? Well, not quite. Save for the startling twin portrait of Jesus and Mary Magdalen (who may actually possibly the Virgin Mary) where all of Cranach’s deficits seem to have been shed in a painting which advertises an ambiguous similarity between the two figures, there is a lack of confidence in some of Cranach’s portraits that reduces their dramatic power.

From a distance they seem to have that steely precision which illuminates Holbein’s meticulous portraits; closer up, however, they lose that precision and have a lifelessness about them. What can appear as an exacting portrait of heavy jowls and fattened cheeks can actually descend into a bland concoction of paint as if the painter did not have quite the conviction in his talents. It may not matter so much when looking at an individual portrait, but when one sees it repeated over several in a single exhibition, the tendency to blur and fudge becomes manifest and ultimately disappointing.

Similarly, his many renditions of Adam and Eve become repetitive, and the insistence on that round headed, doe-eyed version of female beauty, with golden tresses pulled back to reveal a rather prominent forehand is a little cloying.

Cranach is at his best when forced to engage complex narratives or is inspired to add seemingly unnecessary detail to standard narratives – true for paintings such as the Catherine martyrdom but also to the prints and drawings. An insistence on imagination, ugliness and confusion does not detract from great art; rather it makes it.


Note on exhibition space at Royal Academy

The Royal Academy, despite being typically busy, was an excellent forum for the exhibition. Cranach’s pictures are usually so small in dimension that the four rooms of the Sackler Wing were sufficient.

Although more label information would have been appreciated for an artist whose work was particularly sensitive to the social context – I suppose dump all that contextual stuff on the audio guides these days

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Renaissance Siena: Art for a City

Exhibition visited in January 2008

The contemporary art historian has a palpable fear of telling familiar old stories about the history of art. Her arguments need to be subtle, nuanced, sophisticated. They need to be methodologically and ideologically aware and sensitive to prior misconceptions. Playing to the crowd or giving in to tradition is to be avoided at all costs.


So much was evident in the National Gallery’s 2007-8 exhibitions on Renaissance Siena. The obvious boxing match that could have been set up – Florence in the blue corner, Siena in the red, is, save for the odd scuffle, studiously avoided. Siena its own thriving, independent city of art the exhibition tells us – simplistic comparisons with Florence won’t do anyone any favours.


Well, possibly. But I am not sure such an attitude allowed the exhibition to have had the effect it might have had. For the connoisseur, the differences between the two cities’ art may be self evident; for the rest of us, going around an exhibition in which one sees a city in isolation doesn’t really tell us if that city is special or not. Does Sienese art have patterns and nuances that make it unique? Was it developing its own view of the world? Without contrasts and juxtaposition, who can tell? (Maybe the pamphlet tells us – but galleries should be teaching people to look, not to read)


The first room is fair enough; a collection of panels recording certain historical events via the juxtaposition of narrow strips of images and captions – more painted documents than works of art but interesting nonetheless.


But the second room, presenting a long ribbon of silky sweet Madonnas, demonstrates this point well. The pictures are pretty but what distinguishes them from a Virgin Mary from Florence, Arezzo or indeed Milan or Venice? The specialist may glance at such paintings with a knowing eye; but there is precious little to assist anyone else.


I suppose a counter argument may be that the exhibition need not require such contrasts – the works are of sufficient aesthetic merit to stand but themselves. But the show had rather thin pickings. Until I arrived, it had not quite registered in my head that this was Renaissance Siena under view – not the Siena of luminaries such as Duccio, Lorenetti or Martini, but the slightly dimmer lights of Neroccio de Landi and Matteo di Giovanni. These latter artists are not unattractive, but one has to work hard to love them.


Certainly, there were still traces of the strangeness of Sienese medieval art – the almost wilful ignorance of the tricks of perspective, the thin, elongated figures punctuating the work of the Master of the Story of Griselda or the elements of the jumbled array of rich pastel colours evident in architectural elements like towers, bastions and keeps. And, at the tail end of the exhibition, there is the milky colouration of Beccafumi, and the haunting quality of some his more informal portraits, demonstrating an original, complex technique. But they are faded imitations of much brighter work of an earlier period.


A variety of media were on show. There were medals, plates for food, wooden pilasters, and tiled pavements beside the more familiar assortment of drawings, sketches, paintings and frescoes. Including such a variety of objects enables the curator to paint a more accurate portrait of any Renaissance city – art was not created simply for inspiring religious rapture or for coneoissurial discussion in the study but embodied as a practice in numerous every-day practices – eating, celebrating, marrying, building. But of course it has a strange effect in the art gallery, where one expects a certain sense of aesthetic refinement – as objects of delight, medals and crockery do not quite rank with paintings; just as the painters of Renaissance Siena do not quite match up to their medieval forebears.

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Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design, Victoria and Albert Museum

Victoria and Albert Museum

Most exhibitions lead you somewhere, taking you through a series of rooms that trace some kind of artistic development. Early years, maturity, late style etc.. You can wander through at leisure, going back and forth, and decide what you like best. Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design has none of that. The entrance queue snakes through a small foyer, and then wham! You’re there, right at the heart of things. One glowing room, two long, long display cabinets, encrusted with Leonard’s manuscripts, whirring animations of the drawings projected overhead, and the faithful processing past in silent reverence, much as they would pass by the tomb of a much esteemed monarch. With Leonardo, one is getting to the very heart of things.

Leonardo, Manuscript in Queen's Collection - more info needed!

Leonardo, Manuscript in Queen’s Collection

This is hardly surprising. Leonardo’s up there with Michelangelo and Raphael, the cornerstones of a Renaissance that established a framework for human creative aesthetic achievement. Fragments, excerpts and sketches from the exhibition are familiar because Leonardo is so often cited as part of this achievement. But then the exhibition reminds you how strange this arrangement is. Leonardo has astonishing artistic facility, but what we see is the engineer, the stage designer, the mechanic, the biologist. Of course, we all know Leonardo’s abundant skills in these areas, but one is jolted into asking why Leonardo is placed within the artistic canon. Surely we should see Leonardo in other canons relating all the other subjects he covered? But of course it is an institution like the Victoria and Albert that has the links with the Queenís Collection and the British Library; the administrative grease that lubricates such an exhibition.

Exhibitions tend to show finished works, professional studies, work done for dukes, merchants, banks, rich aesthetes. Here we see a personal world of notebooks, thoughts, sketches, investigations, and unfinished moments of fantasy. Itís a raw, unpolished form of communication, and one can see Leonardo trying to formulate a swarm of intellectual sensations as ideas. Itís a far distance from the artistic impulse to creating objects that others can admire and appreciate. The communication here is not with others, but with the self, as it experiments, ponders and defines. All of us, I suppose, conjure up and toy with ideas, shift them around in our heads or make rapid jottings on paper, and then leave them half-finished. But to see this done with such invention and facility is strange and moving.

But more than providing the means for seeing Leonardo go through mental motions that everybody else does, the exhibition highlights his individuality, his strangeness, and his quirkiness. There’s the secretiveness, the insistence on the compact, small dimensions, the refusal to expand. The mirror writing and the neat margins tell one story but then the drawings tend to break into their own universe, fracturing the tight lines of text. There’s the ambiguous sexuality, familiar through his portraits, but also visible through his intriguing portrait of the mechanics of sexual desire – the phallus standing to attention – although the exhibition is at pains to point out that this may be a later addition. The tiny cinematic figures crouching, jumping and stalling are remarkable for the physical dynamism they exhibit, despite being crushed within such tiny dimensions. I’m not quite sure how to interpret such an array of minuscule figures decorating the page – maybe Leonardo just made them small so that he could fit plenty on one piece of paper.

Such incongruity is part of his drawing style as well. While Leonardo the proto-empiricist trumpeted the wonders of observation, there was an obviously stylistic bent to his drawing. Spirals and curves appear everywhere, in eddies of water, in storm clouds, in handrails. While the content of Leonardo’s work can be used to frame him as a symbolic forefather of mechanics, science and progress, the manner in which it is expressed tells of a very distinct, and peculiar, individual.

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Holbein in Britain, Tate Britain

Hans Holbein was the supreme geographer of the sixteenth-century face. The procession of Tudor aristocrats on show at Tate Britain demonstrates how precisely the Augsburg artist mapped the contours of diplomat, courtier, princess or king. His pen, chalk and brush capture fragile countenances, furrowed lines, healthy jowls, forbidding eyes, producing portraits of a brooding intensity.

The luminous paintings are good; but it is the drawings that steal the show, carrying with them their own marvellous gravity and yet executed with a breathtaking lightness of touch. The same formula is used for nearly all the drawings. Sharp but well-defined lines mark head, eyes and nose; a few curt marks delineate other facial features. And then the almost intangible application of smudges of black chalk defines the contours of each individual face. Despite (or maybe because of?) this economy of touch Holbein is able to record a panoply of distinct personalities, giving each sitter an individual stamp. He may use the same tools over and over again but he employs them with a precision that allows him to capture the infinite variety of human appearance.

Of the sitters, there is very little artfulness about their poses. There is no attempt to place them in a higher drama. Lips are sealed; limbs are tucked in; eyes are looking somewhere and nowhere in the distance. There is rarely sense of action or reaction – these are portraits in a very forensic sense of the word. On first witnessing the exhibition, many of the sitters’ emotions appear to be drawn from a shared well of experience. Prince, poet and merchant all appear calm and dignified yet forbidding and haughty. At times it seems as if their vitality has been repressed. And yet with repeated viewing, and I think it is this is what makes Holbein’s art so great, characteristics materialise in each sitter, making themselves known in the most subtle ways.

Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More, 1526-7, Queen's Collection

Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More, 1526-7, Queen’s Collection

Tiny deviations in how Holbein records the face produce these extraordinarily fertile results. The humble eyebrow is a rich example. Thomas More’s eyebrows are hunched over his eyes, a pair of eyes that are deeply set yet never withdrawn; they have a clear, determined focus. The eyebrows slope downwards towards a central, invisible point around the bridge of the nose. A couple of creases also feature, possibly extra strands of eyebrow, similarly emphasising this same spot. The concentration on this area, allied to More’s strong, pointed nose, gilds the sitter with a clear sense of single-minded resolution. The casual viewer may not observe this precise calibration of features but it is such artistic dexterity that helps Holbein to convey the impression of a man driven by determination and a sense of righteous direction – a fact any viewer will witness.

Detail from Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More, 1526-7, Queen's Collection

Detail from Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More, 1526-7, Queen’s Collection

Detail from Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen's Collection.

Detail from Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen’s Collection.

Now compare this to how other eyebrows are depicted in Holbein’s art, and one will see how the manipulation of such a mundane feature, interacting with the other features of the face, played such a valuable role in relaying a sense of character. Unlike Thomas More’s close-set eyebrows, Sir Richard Southwell’s eyebrows arch upwards; they indicate mild surprise at the words of a non-existent interlocutor. See also how this visual pattern of the arch is repeated elsewhere in the face. In the pursed lips arching upwards, the rising cut of his fringe, the curved peak of his hat; all trace the same ascent and descent that help define Southwell’s character.

But there’s more to the matter than this. Southwell’s look has a severity to it as well. In actual fact his quizzical aspect is somewhat rhetorical, as if he has little time for the imagined other that questions his authority or knowledge.

Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen's Collection. Right hand views

Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen's Collection. Left hand view

Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen’s Collection. Left and right hand views

How does Holbein achieve this effect? Look at the left-hand side of Southwell’s face. The size and the arch of the eyebrow are rather exaggerated, thus emphasising the quizzical look. The line of the lips is neutral. Taken all together, the face is more neutral, perhaps more innocent. Then take a look at the right-hand side. Here, the mien is much more different. The eyebrow is still rising but is sharp and more pointed. The lip curls downwards in deep disapproval. The expression on the right is much different, much more combative from that on the left. Holbein, like his other great Renaissance contemporaries (Bellini, or Leonardo for example) conveys the complexity of human character not by depicting a single emotion, but by a much more emotionally complex palette, suggestive not of one static emotion but a more fluid, dynamic character.

One could continue elsewhere; the polished eyebrows of the urbane John Colet or the quivering features of Bishop John Fishers, brow undulating in controlled panic. And the eyebrows are just an example. One could trace similar expressive richness in haircuts, chins, ears or eyes. Holbein’s portraits use the most subtle means to tell us about the sitters. And it is the fact that we do not immediately notice this is happening that makes them such valuable works of art. The viewer sees a portrait, a likeness, and not the fiction, the creation; not the way in which the artwork has been manipulated and a particular character evoked. Holbein smuggles in all the psychological traits he wishes to, without ever having to sacrifice physical likeness. Holbein is art’s silent assassin.

The sole religious painting in the exhibition is informative. A rather mediocre rendition of Noli Me Tangere, it clarifies the fact that Holbein was not a painter in the broad, romanticised sense of the word. He was not an instinctive painter. While there is an obvious abundance of natural skill, one gets from the exhibition a stronger sense that it had been an awful lot of training and practice that had established and perfected his talent. (And for this reason it would have been interesting to witness the exhibition on Holbein’s earlier work in Basel). This exhibition seems to indicate that a sudden switch to a different genre of painting would not have been something he would have appreciated; it may also have been that following the predetermined scenario of a religious narrative stymied his creative expression.

And yet he did nurture his talent in so many other areas. He was a portraitist, draughtsman, designer and a diplomatic businessman too – developing contacts with goldsmiths and merchants as well as courtiers and kings. The exhibition does an excellent job of highlighting Holbein’s fluid position within the flourishing English artistic environment (an environment certainly flourishing more than I appreciated), and how he was very much both its commander (in his ability to secure the most important commissions) and its servant (in that his work was always directed to the concerns of his patrons.) A whole range of related work is on show – cartoons, designs for swords, salt-clocks.

But it is the portrait drawings that remain in the head and the heart – deep, meaningful artistic communication via the elegant economy of his chalk, pen and ink.


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