by Roderick Conway Morris

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Rescued from the Flames


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 1 March 1991

 

Four of the sixty-four pictures in 'European Masterpiece from Rumania' at the Doge's Palace are riddled with bullet holes, and one, a Sicilian Madonna and Child on wood, is split clean in half. All these were damaged in the same battle in December 1989 that toppled the Ceausescus and gutted the National Library.

Being shot-up, incinerated or abducted has been, regrettably, an experience all too familiar both to citizens and art works in Rumania in the present century. A fair number of pictures were lost during the First War, and in 1937 others went up flames in a royal castle. When Carol II was forced to abdicate in 1940, the deposed monarch's train is supposed to have been loaded up not only with a menagerie of poodles and peacocks, his mistress Magda Lepescu and wardrobe, but also four Rembrandts'. The artistic contents of Carol's baggage may have been somewhat exaggerated, but one thing is certain: by 1948, half a dozen El Grecos', a quartet of Lorenzo Lottos', a Tintoretto, and a host of other pictures had vanished from royal residences, whether by the hands of blue-blooded deposees, Buenos Aires-bound Nazis, Soviet commissars, or simple Rumanian chicken-thieves, will probably never be known.

To be fair, it was the first king of Rumania in its modern incarnation, Carol I, who was responsible for the core of the nation's present collection of western European art works. Born into the imperial house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Carol studied at Bonn University under Anton Springer, the doyen of German art-historians, and maintained a life-long friendship with him. Elected Regent by the Rumanian princes in 1856, Carol was crowned in 1881, by which time he was already systematically acquiring pictures.

From another personal friend, the diplomat and connoiseur Felix Bamberg, Carol bought many works, ranging from 15th century German and Italian pictures and El Grecos', to 17th century Flemish and Dutch and 18th century Venetian canvases. The royal collection was left to the Rumanian Crown upon the king's death in 1914. It was not until 1948 that the collection was combined with five smaller municipal and private ones to create the Bucharest National Museum of Art - a communist legacy that only chance and the courage of members of staff prevented the Ceausescus from taking with them to whatever infernal region they now inhabit. Even so, more than 20 pictures were burned and almost 50 damaged. Happily, since the museum's restoration workshop was destroyed by fire, sponsors and galleries in Venice, Amsterdam and Malibu have volunteered to pay for and carry out some of the work of repair.

With one or two exceptions this is the first time this century the pictures have been seen outside Rumania (the exhibition continues at the Doge's Palace until 2 June). Though the quality is not entirely consistent, among the works that have survived, there are fortunately some very good ones. Admirers of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lorenzo Lotto, Tintoretto, and El Greco will not be disappointed.

Also in the senior league are two Jacob Jordaens': 'Summer', a glorious group of lobster-pink, profusely-sweating Teutonic peasants, in which a straw-hatted yokel goggles pop-eyed at the accidentally exposed breast of one of his companions; and 'The Holy Family', a stunning candle-lit composition, in which a vignette of artless rustic domesticity is powerfully imbued with a profound feeling of mystery. And, among the works by lesser-known artists, there is a 'Deposition of Christ' by another 17th century Flemish artist, Pieter Van Mol: a dramatic scene of darkness and light, sombre and pale colour, in which a weeping Mary cradles the head and supports the sagging weight of her dead son, as she kisses him full on the lips, under the sightless gaze of his half-closed, glassy eyes.

Finally, one might mention an enormous 18th century canvas by the Neapolitan-born Jacopo Amigoni. It is an elaborate portrait of his friend Carlo Broschi, the famous castrato tenor 'Farinelli', accompanied by Fame and Glory in the form of a pair of buxom Venetian blondes, and a half-dozen riotous putti. The painting was probably done in England in 1735, and could well be one noted by a contemporary aristocratic diarist as 'a good picture of Farinelli the eunuch'.

More than one critic has complained that, though Amigoni was influential in inspiring the rococo style, there is all too often something about his own work that is slightly stilted and unconvincing. But here the portraiture of the elegant and garlanded singer, of whom Amigoni painted a number of pictures, engages our sympathy more than usual, despite the formality, indeed artificiality, of the setting. Farinelli seems somehow at once at home in, and slightly disengaged from his surroundings. And the semi-nude, well-rounded females and tumbling baby boys draw poignant attention to the sacrifice of the castrato's manhood to Art.


First published: Spectator