bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the RA

Posted in Art, Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 30 December, 2014

Chance meetings are one of the little pleasures that enrich life. As the streets grow ever more crowded and their occurrence thus rarer, they become all the more precious. And as, we are told, our population increase is, in part at least, thanks to immigration and so, as a society, we want to reflect on the benefits that brings, let us add this to the blessings it offers our island.

And so, stepping onto the pavement near Marble Arch in the days before Christmas, I happened to meet my friend of many years, now the reviews editor for History Today, Philippa Joseph. She was off to the office, while I was on my way to the Royal Academy and the exhibition on the mid-sixteenth century Bergamese artist, Battista Moroni. On hearing this, Philippa asked me whether I had seen the review of the show by Piers Baker-Bates – that I had not was not a surprise, considering it appears in the January issue of History Today at that point just being published. As we boarded the Underground, Philippa, with characteristic generosity, presented me with a copy of the magazine and left me to do my homework on the tube, during the short trip to Piccadilly.

This was a moment of triple serendipity – seeing Philippa, reading a review of an exhibition I was about to see, and that written by another friend, for Piers and I have crossed paths both in subterranean pizza joints in Cambridge and before the fire-place at the British School at Rome. His review (I hope this acts as no spoiler to those who have not read it) is effusive in its praise and I can certainly see why: there is much to enjoy in this densely packed exhibition. It has some gorgeous works on display, skilfully presented with a strong logic to the arrangement – in fact, too strong. That, as I will explain, is one reservation I have, but all my comments are intended not to denigrate what is there and, rather, to suggest how we can deepen our appreciation further.

As Piers points out, Moroni was once a painter in fashion – not only in his lifetime in Bergamo in the 1560s, but also when the Victorians bought up his portraits. That his name is less known now has made some newspapers call the decision to put on this show ‘brave’, though I am not sure the element of virtus that is courage has much to do with it and, certainly, on my visit, the subject’s relative obscurity did not seem to have dented the exhibition’s popularity. It had, though, affected some of the choices of how to present the material. It seems that, concerned to sell their painter to an audience that they appear to feel needed direction, the curators allowed the caption-writer to descend into an imperiously didactic mode which wreaks of old-style connoisseurship. ‘No detail in the painting can divert attention from the piercing gaze fixed on the spectator by the young woman’, the visitor is directed in front of the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Portrait of a Young Lady’. Well, for this viewer, there are details that capture the attention and – I submit – enrich the portrait. Bear with me for a while before I explain why.


‘The exhibition takes us chronologically through Moroni’s career and illustrates clearly how his artistic trajectory developed’ – thus Dr Baker-Bates in History Today. This does, indeed, seem to be the rationale, except that the last room, packed with impressive pieces, breaks the logic. It includes the portrait of a doctor or magistrate leaning back in his chair (there is something of Lorenzo Lotto here; it is now in Brescia); it dates itself by the ruse of a note on the letter the sitter holds to the year 1560 – that is, at a time when Moroni was the in-vogue painter of Bergamo, as shown three rooms earlier in the exhibition. The title for this last room provides another explanation for its organisation: it is called ‘The Beginnings of Modern Portraiture’. Here grand claims are made for Moroni’s achievement, explaining that in his ‘final decades’, when he had returned to the town of his birth, a few miles from Bergamo, he mastered the production of portraits ‘with [such] startling realism, tonal effects and strong characterisation [that they] anticipate the work of such seventeenth-century artists as Caravaggio and Velázquez, through to Ingres, Degas and Manet in the nineteenth century’. Is this sort of writing still acceptable in art history? It sounds more like journalese, where the newspaper has required an ex cathedra statement from an academic because that is what they are meant to say. It ignores causation – did Caravaggio, let alone Velázquez, study Moroni’s work? – and context – were there no artists from whom Moroni adopted techniques?

It also, of course, assumes a ‘progress’ towards later-life perfection. How we all hope we can achieve that! Yet, the exhibition itself suggested something else to me. The captions repeated talk of the intense gaze of the person portrayed but I must say that it seemed to me that Moroni was a master of the dead eyes – there is rarely an attempt to bring the irises alive; his art is more in the posture, the inclined head and the hands. These are figures which are, most often, statuesque, painted as if they are patiently positioned very still. But not always – for me, those portraits which come alive are those that depict not as much the person but a moment: the second, for instance, at which the Lateran Canon turns to the painter and his lips being to curl in a smile. Or the portrait of the child (surely a difficult subject to keep in one position) which captures her playing with beads. Or – to return to one which we have mentioned before – the portrait of a young lady at the moment she is about to spread her fan to cool her face.

None of the three paintings just mentioned is firmly dated: the latter two are tentatively attributed to the early 1570s, while the Lateran Canon (now in Rotterdam) is thought to be about 1558. That is to say, there is no certain line of development: we are not necessarily seeing increasing skill or deepening insight over time, but rather an artist who can ‘do’ both the statuesque and the more informal, the more human. Even this dichotomy does not sum up a range which also, as this exhibition shows, includes altarpieces with at least one very striking ‘Last Supper’ (from Romano di Lombardia) where the servant pouring the wine – with all the theological implications invested in that vase – upstages the central figure of Christ. There is not a single style on display in these rooms – and there is not a single way in which they should be viewed.

This is a stimulating exhibition, for more reasons that I have had chance to explain here. It is about to close – so, go now, and help convince the Royal Academy that it is such a success they did not need to patronise the viewers with de-haut-en-bas captions and an over-simplified narrative. The curators and the Academy are to be thanked for arranging it – and, myself, I have to thank Piers and Philippa for increasing my enjoyment of my visit. And, of course, the benign gods that bring us immigration. Long may it continue.


The Art of the Margin

Posted in Art by bonaelitterae on 18 December, 2011

A few weeks back, following the close of the Warburg conference in honour of Tilly de la Mare and waiting to meet the ever-vivacious Sue Russell (whose laughter lights so many lives), I had a moment to step into the National Gallery and commune — along with the thousands others there — with art. Instead of entering, as I usually do, through the Sainsbury Wing, I went up the main stairs and, in the first room, was struck by Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of Giovanni Agostino della Torre.

I have an interest — I might have mentioned — in the depiction of books in painting and, indeed, the abuses of those parchment or paper repositories of knowledge in art. A plentiful number of books are on display in this portrait, on the desk and, all the more prominently, in the sitter’s hand. It is this in particular that caught my attention. A sitter holding a book is not unusual, not even a book held upright, as here. Nor is it uncommon to have a binding meticulously presented with a lunette on the back cover, here giving the title Galen, to represent della Torre’s medical interests. But this book is not just held — it is held slightly open, sitting on the palm of Giovanni’s hand, in a position which appears ungainly. Why do this? Surely it is to allow the edge of the pages of the volume to be seen, and what we see there is not pristine white paper but, instead, frequent handwritten annotations (but, sadly, no maniculae) presumably by the sitter himself. In other words, della Torre’s learning is suggested not just by the book he holds but by the fact that we can glimpse — no more than, just a teasing taster — his erudition in the margins. The presentation might act as a metaphor for the relevatory nature of the portrait itself, which can hint but not fully encapsulate the person depicted. Equally, it can be a metaphor for marginalia which itself can hint but can rarely provide complete insight into their author.

Are there — I ask you to tell me — other paintings that similarly play with the possibilities of marginalia?

When was the Renaissance?

Posted in Exhibitions, Historiography by bonaelitterae on 6 August, 2008

When was the Renaissance? It is an old question which came to mind as I was walking around the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood House last week. The temporary exhibition ‘The Art of Italy: the Renaissance‘, is one half of a larger show of works from the Royal Collection, previously presented in London, where it also covered the Baroque. In the smaller but elegant space available in Edinburgh, the display allows us to muse on some memorable paintings, as well as drawings and a very few books. What struck me was that nearly all the items are datable to the sixteenth century: they include well-known portraits by Parmigianino, Agnolo Bronzino and Lorenzo Lotto, as well as more enigmatic images by Titian and Lodovico Pozzoserrato (whose Italianised name hides his Netherlandish identity); the oldest work was a copy of the masterpiece published by Aldus Manutius from his Venetian press in 1499, the illustrated Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Where, I wondered, was the Renaissance of the quattrocento, the fifteenth century, that is home to me?

It is not as if the Royal Collection lacks art from fifteenth century Italy. I remember, about fifteen years ago now, having, in effect, a private view of Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar at Hampton Court – they had, at that point, been removed from the public rooms, but, being a pushy student, I asked to see them. It was a memorable half hour in front of images remarkable for their classicising style and sheer magnitude, with an equally interesting history to tell as one of the purchases of Charles I from the sale of the Gonzaga treasures. Perhaps the Mantegna are considered too frail to travel for exhibitions, but there are other quattrocento works available as well in the Royal Collection. The Queen can feast her eyes on a work by Benozzo Gozzoli, best known for his lively frescoes in the Medici Palace in Florence. Up the road and to the right from there, the convent of San Marco hides within its tranquil, contemplative walls the work of Fra Angelico, also represented among Her Majesty’s artworks. The exhibition could also have branched out into ceramics and included the bust by Guido Mazzoni of a laughing child, owned by Henry VII as one of the first Italian Renaissance items in the English royal collection. But all were absent, leaving out at least a century of what I would consider Renaissance art.

The Royal Collection’s decision implicitly to define the Renaissance as sixteenth century is in many ways a return to an old fashion. Many would now use the terms High Renaissance and (though highly problematic) Mannerist to describe the trends in art of the generations of Michelangelo and his followers. But, to the nineteenth century, this is where it truly was: the art of the quattrocento – Masolino and Massaccio, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna himself – constituted ‘the Primitives’, before the grace and supposed perfection of the early cinquecento so influentially by Vasari. Few, however, would consider that we should return to those designations or that periodisation.

The real question, of course, is whether it matters. After all, the Royal Collection have provided a pleasurable exhibition which fits into the space available. In many ways, it does not matter or, rather, should not – but there are two current issues which do give it some import. In the first place, it relates to the academic division between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’, which, in history departments tends to fall around the year 1500. As someone who studies both sides of that divide and who sometimes describes himself an expert in that part of the Middle Ages called the Renaissance, this is one more example of a tendency which reinforces an unfortunate separation which we should be working instead to undermine.

This, though, is about more than the relatively unimportant matter of how academic departments choose to organise themselves. What is also at stake is how we perceive historical ‘progress.’ There are surely few, if any, historians who would admit to believing that there was some definable shift from ‘medieval’ to ‘early modern’, a moment or simple process moving from one era of society to another. The passage from past to present is more complex, and much less about a linear vector of development, than that would suggest. But I would want to take this further and to warn against making too close an association between different cultural ‘movements’ or phenomena. Historiography can provide many ‘Renaissances’, particularly clustered in the sixteenth century but – as the case of Italy shows – not confined to that time-period. In popular textbooks, the impression can be given that those Renaissances, usually defined by country, share an identity, as if it were a baton-race from nation to nation. It is wise to be aware of the evident links between these phenomena, but all the more essential to appreciate the disconnections and the distance between them. In the end, we can use the concept as we wish, either confining our own use to the sixteenth century or allowing to range from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries in chosen contexts – just as long as we recognise we are always constructing ‘Renaissances’ for ourselves rather than expressing some ineffable reality.

In short, it is tidier to have a Renaissance confined to the sixteenth century and certainly less complicated to imagine it was a single phenomenon which manifested itself across Europe. But, in this case, I am on the side of messiness.