by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Renaissance Flowers Again

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 8 September 2011


Italian Renaissance painters will be the subject of a series of major exhibitions north and south of the Alps this coming season, offering opportunities to compare works never before seen together. And more than four centuries after her birth, the Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who carved out a successful career against the odds, is given a landmark one-woman show.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. National Gallery, London. From Nov. 9 to Feb. 5.

Much of the attention given to Leonardo da Vinci in recent years has been devoted to his work as a scientist and engineer, and indeed it was primarily as an inventor of war machines 'and other engines of wonderful efficacy not in general use,' that he wrote to Ludovico Maria Sforza, il Moro (the Moor), the Duke of Milan in 1483 seeking employment. The Florentine mentioned almost as an afterthought that he was also a painter, architect and sculptor.

His paintings are few and as a consequence jealously guarded by those collections fortunate enough to have them. They are also typically in a delicate state of conservation.

So this show, which brings together nearly all of the artist's surviving works in this medium, is unlikely to be repeated. The captivating portrait of Ludovico il Moro's teenage mistress Cecilia Gallerani, 'The Lady With the Ermine,' replete with symbolic references to Ludovico and his lover, will travel from the Czartovsky Foundation in Krakow. It will be joined by other portraits from the Louvre and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

Leonardo spent two periods in Milan: an extended visit in the 1480s and 1490s, and a shorter one from mid-1508 until 1513. The second version of 'The Virgin of the Rocks,' owned by the National Gallery, is the only datable picture from the second period. It will be brought together for the first time with the first version from the Louvre. These images are among Leonardo's most mysterious, combining many of his interests, including his lifelong fascination with geology.

This historic juxtaposition will be followed by another one next spring, when to return the favor, the National Gallery lends its version of 'St. Anne' to the Louvre, to be placed beside the one in the French museum, for 'Leonardo da Vinci's St. Anne,' a show that will run from March 29 to June 25.

Filippino Lippi and Sandro Botticelli. Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome. From Oct. 5 to Jan. 15.

Money and Beauty: Botticelli,

Bankers and the Bonfire of the Vanities. Palazzo Strozzi, Florence.

From Sept. 17 to Jan. 22.

Two exhibitions opening in Italy this autumn will feature works by Leonardo's near contemporary Botticelli.

'Filippino Lippi and Sandro Botticelli' focuses on the ties between these two artists. The former's parentage was somewhat scandalous by the standards of the time: he was the illegitimate son of the Carmelite friar and painter Fra Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti, a nun. The boy was called Filippino to distinguish him from his famous father, who was his first teacher. Botticelli had been a student of Filippo Lippi, and after the father's death, Filippino was apprenticed to Botticelli's studio in Florence. As he developed, he became a serious rival to his master, both as a draftsman and a painter.

One of those to spot Filippino's burgeoning talents was the Duke of Milan's agent in Florence. He wrote to Ludovico il Moro that of the artists working for Lorenzo de' Medici, Filippino's style was sweeter, if less artful than Botticelli's.

The Rome show aims to cover the trajectory of Filippino's career spanning more than 30 years. Important loans obtained by the Scuderie del Quirinale include Filippo Lippi's 'Madonna, Child and Stories of St. Anne,' from the Galleria Palatina in Florence, Filippino's 'Adoration of the Magi' from the National Gallery in London, his 'Allegory of Music' from the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, the 'Strozzi Madonna' from the Metropolitan in New York and Botticelli's 'Adoration of the Magi' from the Uffizi in Florence.

The exhibition also aims to highlight Filippino's major frescoes in Rome, in the Carafa Chapel in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, a commission that Filippino won on the recommendation of Lorenzo the Magnificent over the heads of older and more established artists, including Botticelli. Filippino then returned home to complete what is generally regarded as his greatest single work, his fresco cycle in the Strozzi Chapel at Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

Filippino's patron at Santa Maria Novella was the wealthy banker Filippo Strozzi, whose imposing Palazzo Strozzi is the site for 'Money and Beauty: Botticelli, Bankers and the Bonfire of the Vanities.'

Making money out of money was viewed as sinful by the medieval and Renaissance church, and many of Florence's largest artistic projects were financed by the city's bankers, who on the one hand wished to project an image of worldly magnificence and on the other to leave behind them religious works that might go some way to saving their souls beyond the grave.

The intricate relationship between 'high finance, economy and art' is the subject of the Palazzo Strozzi show. More than 100 works will illustrate the theme, by Botticelli, Beato Angelico, Piero della Pallaiolo, the Della Robbia, Memling and other Italian, Netherlandish and German artists, from collections in Italy as well as from Bruges, London, New York, Nuremberg, Paris and Rotterdam, with an extensive itinerary designed to take visitors to other relevant sites around the city.

The Medicis were the most successful bankers, and reaction to their dominance led more than once to their expulsion from Florence before their dynasty came to rule the city and Tuscany as Grand Dukes.

Sandro Botticelli was in many ways the artist who became most closely identified with the Medicis and their image. Despite the sweetness and light that radiates from so many of his works, his association with these magnates obliged him to undertake the unsavory commission of a fresco recording the public hanging of the Pazzi conspirators, who had attempted to overthrow the Medicis.

The artistic extravagance and lavish festivities promoted by Florence's leading citizens gave rise to contrary reactions. The most dramatic was presided over by the Dominican hellfire preacher from Ferrara, Girolamo Savonarola. He promoted bonfires of vanities on which repentant citizens were invited to pile cosmetics, mirrors and other sinful luxuries. Even artists were caught up in this mass hysteria, adding their own artworks to the flames. According to Vasari, Botticelli became a follower of the Dominican friar and gave up painting as a result. Interestingly, Filippino Lippi, to judge by his works during this period, seems to have remained indifferent to Savonarola's oratory and influence.

Artemisia Gentileschi: Story of a Passion. Palazzo Reale, Milan.

From Sept. 22 to Jan. 22.

An exhibition devoted to the Baroque painters Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, father and daughter, was staged almost exactly a decade ago in Rome at Palazzo Venezia before going on to the Metropolitan in New York and the St. Louis Art Museum. Artemisia is at last to have a richly merited monographic exhibition to herself in Milan.

Born in Rome in 1593, she had a peripatetic life that took her to Florence, Venice, Naples and even London. She was the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia del Disegno in Florence, in 1616, and her pictures were much sought after during her lifetime. In more recent times she has understandably become a feminist icon. At the same time her reputation as an independent artist who forged a style distinct from her father's has been steadily growing.

One of her most famous images, 'Judith Beheading Holofernes,' was most likely a direct response to the experience of being raped by one of her father's collaborators, in 1611, an event that became public knowledge in the sensational trial that was held the following year. The first version of the painting was contemporaneous with these events. Both versions, from the Capodimonte in Naples (1611-12) and the Uffizi in Florence (1619-20), will be brought together for the Milan show. They will be joined by more than 40 of her other works, many from private collections, additional ones by other artists from the period and a number of previously unpublished documents relating to her career.

Artemisia was remarkable not only in making her way so successfully as a female artist at the time, but also in her determination not to confine herself to the kind of subjects then thought suitable for her sex, like still lifes, family portraits and small devotional pictures. From the outset, she depicted strong women and heroines and further defied convention by making a speciality of female nudes.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022