The big names from Glasgow cannot tell the story alone

Peter Crack on “Bellini, Botticelli, Titian: 500 years of Italian Art”, Compton Verney, Warkwickshire, until 23 June

Titian, Christ and the Adulteress, 1510

This didactic display of 40 works on loan from the Glasgow Museums sticks to a well worn path. The organisers have chosen to trumpet the presence of three artists—Bellini, Botticelli and Titian—all born within 60 years of each other. Otherwise, the exhibition tells the story of Italian art from the 15th to the 19th century, in traditional, chronological order.

An isolated St Lawrence, of around 1370–75, by the Sienese artist, Niccolò di Buonaccorso, the start of the exhibition, represents the new dawn in Italian painting. There follows a whistle-stop tour of the major artistic centres of the Italian Renaissance. Representing Florence is Botticelli’s rather stilted Annunciation, around 1490–95, a modest all’antica altarpiece, typical of his late Savonarola period. From Venice we can enjoy a delicate and much imitated Virgin and Child, of around1480–85, by Giovanni Bellini.

Titian's Christ and the Adulteress, of around 1508–10, is one of the real coups for Compton Verney, and is followed by lesser known masters, including two Sacre Conversazioni by his illustrious pupil, Paris Bordone. The canon is upheld, and Venetian colours are seen to triumph over the mannered and over-elaborate central Italian works, such as Cavalier d’Arpino’s fleshy, Michelangelo-inspired Archangel Michael and the Rebel Angel, around 1592–93.

From developments in linear perspective to the emergence of domestic patronage, all the textbook Renaissance themes are presented here with an impressive economy of means. Efforts have also been made to address certain methodological issues, such as the dispersal of altarpiece fragments—illustrated by Francesco Francia’s Nativity, of around 1490, originally taken from the predella of the Santa Maria della Misericordia altarpiece in Bologna—and technical research, neatly summarised by a film about the newly restored Adoration of the Magi, around 1503–10.

The elite trio are left behind by the third room. Instead of Caravaggio or Annibale Carracci, the drama of the Italian Baroque is communicated through Antiveduto Gramatica and Carlo Dolci, whose second-rate Adoration of the Magi, of around 1633-34, hangs in stark contrast to his own triumphant and assured (but also much replicated) Salome, painted 50 years later, a real highlight of the exhibition, but one that reveals the inconsistent quality of the collection.

Things pick up again with the 18th-century, traditionally considered the swansong of Italian painting. Although Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Sebastiano Ricci are absent, Andrea Casali’s sensual Triumph of Galatea, of around 1740–60, and Francesco Zuccarelli’s tranquil St John the Baptist Preaching, of around 1740–45, give an enjoyable impression of the age. References to the Grand Tour abound, and the inclusion of Francesco Guardi’s View of San Giorgio Maggiore, around 1760, reminds the viewer that this exhibition is a also document of British tastes.

By comparison, the 19th-century paintings here are of relatively little interest. It seems that as Italy unified, “Italian art”, a term more pragmatic than accurate, lost its identity. Vincenzo Camuccini’s Neo-Classical Death of Julius Caesar, 1825–29, owes more to Paris than Rome, and Pietro Aldi’s A Painter and His Model, 1879, a work ostensibly looking to the early Italian Renaissance, has more in common with works of Ford Maddox Brown than Niccolò di Buonaccorso.

Loans of this breadth and quality are unlikely to be repeated and as such this exhibition is a real treat. The broad and somewhat artificial time span here reveals, however, both the limits of Glasgow’s resources and of our own ingrained perceptions of Italian art. The show implicitly reaffirms the decline of Italian painting after Caravaggio, but had the curators been able to stray into the 20th century and include artists such as Boccioni, De Chirico or Morandi, the story of art here would have had a very different complexion.

Peter Crack is a freelance writer and a MA of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, last year. He has written about 15th-century Tuscan panel painting and Venetian art from 1480 to 1800.

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 07:51:00 GMT

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