by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Gallery, Parma
Madonna and Child with the Archangel Michael and St. Andrew, 1496-98

Ode to Cima From Conegliano

By Roderick Conway Morris
CONEGLIANO, Italy 10 April 2010


Although a resident in Venice for much of his life, time and time again Cima da Conegliano depicted in his paintings his birthplace on the mainland - the walled, riverside town with a winding road to a castle on a rocky prominence above, the surrounding meadows and hills and misty blue backdrop of the Alps.

This landscape, its key components appearing as in a dream from different angles and in constantly shifting combinations and permutations - no two versions of it ever the same - became familiar to generations of Venetians through Cima's luminous altarpieces in churches around the city and his numerous devotional pictures of the Virgin and Child in private homes.

The artist remained attached to Conegliano, where he was born in around 1459-60, not only in his art. He maintained a house here close to the Duomo, which contains one of his major altarpieces, and as he prospered in Venice he bought land outside the town walls. Now his hometown is for the first time playing host to a substantial show of his works, 'Cima da Conegliano: Poet of Landscape,' with some 40 panels from collections in Europe and the United States on display offering a welcome opportunity for a reassessment of the artist, whose qualities and significance have been underestimated.

No Venetian painter of the period could fail to fall under the spell of Giovanni Bellini's serene, light-saturated landscapes, some of the greatest in the history of art. And Cima understood how Bellini used light as the means of unifying an entire composition. Antonello da Messina, who was in Venice in the mid 1470s, was also an influence, as was Alvise Vivarini. Cima absorbed lessons, too, from the sculptors Tullio Lombardo and Andrea Riccio, in perfecting the striking three-dimensionality of his figures. Venice's artists and collectors much admired the works of the 15th-century Flemish masters and the rediscovery of landscape by painters in the Low Countries was a source of particular inspiration to Cima.

Cima was one of the first Italian artists to paint almost exclusively in oils, a medium which was also pioneered by Flemish artists, rather than tempera. Yet he continued to prefer wood panels to canvas, right up until his death in 1517-18, by which time in Venice canvas had become standard.

His renderings of classical architecture, decoration and mosaic were unsurpassed. Although we now think of him as a religious painter par excellence, Cima's illustrations of pagan legends also reveal his knowledge of the literary humanist scholarship of the age. Such images at this time appeared most commonly on wedding chests, backrests and other items of domestic furniture, so few survive. But the humorous examples here - notably those of Ariadne, Bacchus and associated revelers on the seashore of Naxos, from the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan and Philadelphia Museum of Art - show an engagement with these mythical themes that predates that of Bellini and Giorgione.

Cima was a consummate craftsman, lavishing as much attention on his landscapes and architectural features as on his realization of figures and draperies, achieving an unusually consistent harmony between these elements in picture after picture. His painting style changed little during his life not so much on account of an unthinking conservatism, but because he achieved so early in his career ways of expressing himself that were both sharply delineated and poetically eloquent.

But he was also an innovator and had more influence on the following generation of Venetian masters - Sebastiano del Piombo, Titian, Lotto - than has generally been appreciated. And, as evidenced by Giovanni Bellini's late 'Baptism of Christ' altarpiece at the Santa Corona church in Vicenza, painted several years after Cima's enthralling treatment of the subject for the San Giovanni in Bragora church in Venice, even the grand old man of Venetian painting was not immune to Cima's novel approaches to composition. Bellini's last altarpiece of 1513 in the San Giovanni Crisostomo church near Rialto, with its open arch giving onto a wide view of a mountain range and sky, also echoes Cima's panoramic backdrops.

In the 1490s Bellini was principally occupied with vast new decorative schemes for the Doge's Palace, during which time Cima became the leading local painter of altarpieces, making his mark on several of Venice's most prominent churches. Bellini's earlier altarpieces were typically set in closed, symmetrical church interiors. Cima took the opportunity of a commission for an altarpiece (still in situ) at Madonna dell'Orto to radically rethink such settings. He placed John the Baptist and accompanying saints beneath the ruined dome of an open-sided classical basilica against an huge expanse of summer sky and a distant view of a river, bridge and hill town. The artist not only symbolically showed the ancient pagan building in a decayed state, open to the sky to let the light of the new faith pour in from above, but also presented the architecture in an asymmetrical fashion, with a line of three pillars on one side.

This bold, unprecedented use of asymmetry was to prove a revelation to subsequent artists. Only Cima's earliest altarpieces - such as the panels from Olera near Bergamo that open the exhibition - have traditional backgrounds of gold leaf or conventional architectural interiors. The artist was soon opening up these backdrops to stretches of azure sky flecked with fleecy white clouds, tracts of verdant hills and majestic mountains. In his smaller Madonna and Childs, enticing landscapes can be glimpsed beyond traditional cloths of honor behind the Virgin's head, these hangings presently to be dispensed with altogether to offer unimpeded vistas of open country, watered by meandering rivers, dotted with woods, isolated churches, castles and little towns.

In these sunlit, rustic landscapes - especially but not only in the smaller devotional paintings - iconographic conventions were relaxed. The Madonnas dandling the Christ child on their knees no longer face us head on, but adopt more spontaneous natural poses, as though 'photographed' unawares, as can be seen in nearly a dozen such pictures in the exhibition.

In the 'Madonna and Child with SS Michael and Andrew' (from Parma), the Virgin props the baby Jesus on a ledge of a ruined pagan temple. In a 'Rest on the Flight into Egypt' (from Lisbon), a rock formation becomes the Madonna's throne, which protective angels and saints gather round, and as our eye is naturally drawn into the tranquil, encircling landscape beyond, a little way off we catch sight of the holy couple's donkey, turned loose to graze the green grass on the edge of a leafy wood.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023