by Roderick Conway Morris

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San Donato Church, Genoa
The Adoration of the Magi by Joos van Cleve, 1515

The 'Repertory of Dutch and Flemish Paintings in Italian Public Collections'

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 24 April 1999


Almost every museum in Italy, not to mention scores of churches, contain Dutch and Flemish pictures. Contemplating this fact in general and a previously unlisted Cornelis Verspronck portrait in an Italian collection in particular, the young Dutch art historian Bert Meijer first formed the idea of one day compiling a comprehensive catalogue of Low Countries paintings to be found throughout the country.

Thirty years later, Meijer, director of the Dutch University Institute for Art History in Florence, is finally seeing his youthful dream come to fruition in the monumental illustrated 'Repertory of Dutch and Flemish Paintings in Italian Public Collections,' a work that will be an invaluable tool in advancing our understanding of the complex interchange between the Italian and Low Countries schools, which between them dominated the development of European painting for centuries. The first handsomely produced volume of the 'Repertory' is devoted to Liguria and has now been published in a series that will eventually catalogue more than 10,000 pictures in more than a dozen tomes. It is soon to be followed by volumes on Lombardy, Piedmont and the Veneto-Friuli region.

Quite a number of the paintings are in undisplayed holdings of museums and thus are being published for the first time.

The 'Repertory' primarily lists works in museums and churches, although frescoes in private houses and villas - these being, in theory at least, immovable according to Italian law - as well as holdings in semi-public institutions, such as banks, are also registered.

To embrace the thousands of paintings in private hands would have been impractical since many private owners do not wish to advertise their treasures. Nonetheless, since it has become known that the project is under way, a number of individuals have contacted the Dutch Institute for help in identifying their pictures. This, said Meijer, has created a burden of additional work. On the other hand, it has alerted him and his team to the existence of previously unknown works, some of which they hope to include in special shows to coincide with the publication of future volumes. The first of these exhibitions is scheduled to take place in Lombardy in 2001.

'Flemish paintings began to arrive in Italy in significant numbers in the first half of the 15th century, through Italian bankers and merchants operating in cities such as Bruges and Ghent,' said Meijer. 'One of the first artists actually to come to Italy was Rogier van der Weyden, who was here in the Holy Year of 1450.'

'A principal reason why these pictures were so much in demand was that they were oils, which gave them a brilliance and freshness unseen before in Italy. The Italians were probably quite shocked to discover that there were painters painting just as well as they were and using a technique that they knew nothing about,' Meijer said.

'And the intense level of interest is shown by the fact that nearly all the sources we have about Flemish art in the 15th century are in Italian, and that even 15 or 20 years after Van Eyck's death, he was still being described here as the greatest painter of the century.'

'Oil painting was a real invention and a craft secret that northern painters were not going to part with easily. There was evidently a certain amount of industrial espionage directed at finding out how it was done, and even decades after Van Eyck, the Duke of Urbino was looking for a native Flemish oil painter to be sure of finding an artist who could provide him with the kind of pictures he wanted.'

In the 16th century, Dutch and Flemish painters came to Italy to study ancient art and the Italian masters, especially Raphael and Michelangelo, and to ply their trade. Some came on visits of varying lengths, but others stayed for good.

'In the second half of the 16th century, there was hardly an artistic center in Italy that didn't have one or more Dutch or Flemish painters in permanent residence. And during this time, the Northern and Italian schools became closer stylistically than they had ever been or would ever be again,' said Meijer.

One of the spinoffs of the 'Repertory' has been research on northern prints in Italian collections, which will be the subject of further publications. 'For a long time, Antwerp was the most internationally orientated of all print production centers, and the makers and sellers there had a network of agents all over Europe to distribute them,' said Meijer. 'Many found their way to Italy, where they were widely copied. Lucas van Leyden, for example, never came here but was extremely well known through his prints. The influence of northern prints was very widespread. And even Caravaggio drew on them for iconographic and genre elements.'

There is no historical cutoff date for the 'Repertory,' which will list Dutch and Flemish works up to the present day, a decision that has brought to light some interesting items from later periods.

One of the curiosities to appear in the 'Liguria' volume is a bizarre seaboard scene lined with famous monuments, from the Duomo in Florence and St. Peter's in Rome to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and St. Mark's in Venice, by the 19th-century artist Tetar van Elven. Meijer believes that it is a fantastical celebration of the reunification of Italy.

Meanwhile, the Cornelis Verspronck portrait that was instrumental in inspiring the entire project has since disappeared. And some pictures that had been confiscated by the Italian state for tax reasons and deposited in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, making them eligible, as public property, to be listed in the forthcoming volume for the region, have had to be dropped.

'We moved a bit too fast there,' said Meijer. 'Because the verdict has since been reversed and the pictures returned to private ownership. So we've had to leave them out.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024