Renaissance And Baroque At The Queen's Gallery, Edinburgh

By Noelia Martinez Castellanos | 15 July 2008
shows a drawing of a mans head seen from the side

The head of St Thomas (?) c.1527, Polidoro da Caravaggio (c.1499-c.1543). The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Exhibition review: Noelia Martinez Castellanos enjoys the riches of Renaissance Italy - in Edinburgh.

Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo Da Vinci are four of the greatest Renaissance artists – but they are, of course, not the only ones.

Many more Italian masters of the Renaissance can be seen in The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: The Renaissance and Baroque at The Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh until October 24. The show, which includes not just wonderful paintings but also incredibly beautiful drawings, comes to Scotland in two parts in 2008 and 2009.

The history of the collection is a story of love, intrigue, academic interest and refined taste. In 1623 the Prince of Wales, in those days Charles I, travelled to Spain with the aim of wooing Philip IV’s sister, the Infanta María, and creating an Anglo-Spanish Alliance. Unfortunately, he returned with neither bride nor alliance, but with a growing interest in art. He had seen one of the finest and most extensive collections of Italian paintings in existence and he was determined to create something to rival it in Britain.

shows a painting of a woman in a green dress

Portrait of a lady in green, c.1528-32, Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72). Acquired by Charles I. The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

“Portrait of a Lady in Green” (1528-32) by Agnolo Bronzino was one of Charles I' acquisitions. The portrait, which is the headline image of the exhibition, dates from early in Bronzino’s career when he was strongly influenced by his master Jacobo da Pontormo (The Virgin and the Child, 1534-40). There has always been some uncertainty about the authorship of this portrait but the direct gaze, simple pose and precision of technique are typical of Bronzino’s portraits.

Charles II, whose taste and liking of art were profoundly influenced by his father Charles I, was the first monarch to collect artist’s drawings. Examples in the exhibition range from studies for altarpieces, decorative frescoes, to portraits, sculpture and architecture.

Although just preparatory drawings, they meet all the requirements of many more ambitious and highly finished works of art. They demonstrate how Renaissance artists could take an empty piece of paper and, with a few swift strokes in chalk or ink, create something that will last forever in history.

Head of St Thomas (?) (1527) by Polidoro da Caravaggio (image seen at the top of this page) is one of the most engaging studies in the show. The figure in this painting, which appears with an utterly believable expression of fear, is a good example of a red-chalk study taken direct from life.

shows a painting of the virgin and child

The Virgin and Child, c.1534-40, attributed to Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1556). Probably acquired either by Frederick, Prince of Wales, or by George III. The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

As we’ve heard, this show reveals more than the usual suspects in Italian Art: in fact, more that 20 different Italian artists can be enjoyed, and cleverly it outlines the Renaissance as a period of enormous development in all cultural areas, not only in art, but also in architecture, literature and philosophy.

Why was this such a rich period of change and creation in art? One factor could be that artists were freer from their patron’s whims and fancies than in the past and they consequently enjoyed more freedom in the creating process.

At the same time, there was a sense of pride in Italian culture. Masters of art, philosophy and science developed a desire for knowledge, a curiosity to discover and understand more about the mysteries of nature and the secret laws of the universe.

shows a drawing of naptune, seen in very elaborate form

Neptune, c.1504, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Probably acquired by Charles II. The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

In turn, this caused an enormous and world-changing explosion of knowledge and wisdom. Artists were able to enhance the realism of their work by using techniques such as the newly formulated mathematical theory of perspective to represent three dimensions in two-dimensional art more authentically.

Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci can be held up as the paragon of these Renaissance ideals. He was, of course, a genius, excelling in everything he touched. Unfortunately, “Neptune” (1504), a drawing, is his only work at the Holyrood exhibition.

At this time, there was a revival of many concepts from classical times, and mythology became one of the favourites. In the drawing “The Fall of Phaeton”, (1533), Michelangelo Buonarroti depicted the myth of Phaeton, who begged his father Apollo to be allowed to drive the sun-chariot for a day.

shows a portrait of a woman in a yellow dress

Portrait of a woman in yellow, c.1529-30, Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530). Royal Collection by 1830s. The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Most experts agree that it was the city of Florence that gave birth to some of the leading minds of this period. However, this show demonstrates that there were also great painters in the North of Italy and Venice.

In Florence and Rome, Pontormo and Parmigianino promoted a style known as Mannerism, rebelling against the idea of taking inspiration from classical artists and thinkers. The figures in their paintings and drawings appear out of proportion with strange and difficult postures and the cold and artificial colours show little reference to nature.

Andrea del Sarto, who became the most important painter in Florence after Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael left the city by around 1508, stands out because of his colouring and sensitive expressiveness. “Portrait of a woman in yellow” (1529-30) is a good example of a work-in-progress in a Renaissance studio. Because it is unfinished, Sarto’s painting demonstrates how the artist worked in the tones of the sitter’s face and the dress, and the many different techniques he utilised to bring the subject as close as possible to reality.

In the north of Italy, and specially in Venice, artists like Titian, Lorenzo Lotto, Palma Vecchio and Jacobo Bassano were re-evaluating pictorial priorities. Thanks to the sensuous and naturalistic possibilities of the oil medium, colour and light became a principal characteristic of their works.

Venetian painting is filled with the soft, muted, reflected light one encounters in Venice. The Virgin and a Child in a Landscape (1535-40) by Titian, Portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) by Lorenzo Lotto, The Virgin and Child (1527-8) by Palma Vecchio are noteworthy examples of the Renaissance in Venice that can be found at the Queen’s Gallery.

Somebody once said: “Everything that seems normal today was once a revolution”. Maybe all the discoveries and advances that the great masters of the sixteenth century achieved do not seem so revolutionary to us anymore. But, it is true that with their legacy we have reached where we are nowadays.

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