The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection : Renaissance & Baroque

London, Queen’s Gallery, from March 30, 2007 to January 20, 2008. Then Edinburgh, Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, from April 2008.

1. Ascribed to Caravaggio (1571-1610)
The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew
Oil on canvas - 140 x 176 cm
Royal Collection
© 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

We have spoken twice about the painting in the British Royal Collection attributed to Caravaggio by Sir Denis Mahon (see on La Tribune de l’Art, in French, News of February 20, 2004 and November 13, 2006 ; ill. 1). The exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London, which is currently showing part of the Italian paintings and drawings of the XVIth and XVIIth CC. belonging to Queen Elizabeth, presents it as being by the artist without any doubts. However, although the composition is surely due to the master, many experts are less unanimous about the execution itself. The work is certainly a fine piece but it is difficult to believe in such an attribution.

2. Carlo Dolci (1616-1687)
Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, c. 1665-1670
Oil on canvas - 126 x 102 cm
Royal Collection
© 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The initial disappointment after seeing this canvas is quickly dispelled by the exceptional quality of the works surrounding it. Does it really matter if the Caravaggio (or two, since A Boy Peeling Fruit, of rather mediocre quality and one of many similar compositions, is considered by many to be a copy) is not totally convincing when one has a Baglione such as An Allegory of Charity and Justice Reconciled, a Caracciolo such as Cupid Sleeping or the sublime Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist by Carlo Dolci (ill. 2) ? Almost all of the Seicento paintings displayed here are on a standard with those found in the finest museums and the perfectly classic presentation, on a red velvet background, shows them off splendidly.

We could have started this review at the beginning, that is with the XVIth C. in the first gallery. Although there are some masterpieces here, the general effect is disappointing, not so much because of the overall wear of some of the canvases-as is, alas, so often the case in works of this period-but rather due to the lighting which is too strong thus harshly revealing any flaws. Among the most well-known are the Portrait of Andrea Odoni by Lorenzo Lotto (ill. 3) and Pallas Athene by Il Parmigiano. Two paintings by Andrea del Sarto which are too worn (Portrait of a Woman in Yellow and a Virgin with Child), a Portrait of a Lady in Green assigned to Agnolo Bronzino, here also with no hesitation (except in the catalogue) and in spite of some critical reservations, are no match for an extraordinary painting by Dosso Dossi representing the Holy Family in a very unusual way, with the child Jesus holding a rooster in his arms.

3. Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-c. 1556/1557)
Portrait of Andrea Oil on canvas - 104,6 x 116,6 cm
Royal Collection
© 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

4. Luca Giordano (1634-1705)
Psyche Is Exposed on a Rock, c. 1695-1697
Oil on copper - 57,2 x 68,3 cm
Royal Collection
© 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

In between these two rooms, the twelve canvases painted by Luca Giordano after the Story of Psyche (ill. 4) will enchant art lovers. It seems that the series was originally supposed to have twenty-four compositions but that it remained incomplete, a surprising fact for such a painter known for the speed with which he worked. As is, the beauty of this ensemble alone is worth the trip to London. The colors are so cheerful and fresh (on copper), the myriad details so charming that one cannot seem to get enough. They are all equally outstanding. Luca Giordano proves here that he is one of the greatest painters of the XVIIth C., in a less serious tone than Poussin of course, but who, although he often finds inspiration in many of his predecessors and contemporaries (Castiglione, Pietro da Cortona,…) has perfected his style and foreshadows the lightness of the Rococo period.

5. Polidoro da Caravaggio (c. 1499-c. 1543)
Head of Saint Thomas (?), c. 1527
Red chalk - 20,9 x 26,8 cm
Royal Collection
© 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Several rooms are devoted to drawings, offering a complete survey of Italian art of the period. It is unfortunate that certain documents appear to have been poorly restored, the paper being too white and the texture flattened, making them seem almost like facsimiles. Works such as The Burial and Reception into Heaven of Saint Petronilla by Guercino, the Design for a Fountain of Neptune by Bernini (in which the black chalk strokes are strangely fuzzy) or Joseph Sold by his Brothers by Primaticcio are proof of this drastic treatment. Several magnificent drawings make up for this : a Head of Saint Thomas in red chalk by Polidoro da Caravaggio (ill. 6), Six Horse Heads by Bertoja (ill. 7) an amusing group that give the impression they are drunk or drugged, The Calling of Saint Matthew of Barocci and a grisaille in oils on paper by Giuseffo dal Sole representing Susanna and the Elders. Poussin and Claude are included in the Italian school here, justifiably so, although our French pride cannot help but suffer. Each is represented by a beautiful drawing : The Saving of the Infant Pyrrhus by the first and Acis and Galathea by Claude.

6. Jacopo Bertoja (1543-1573)
Six Horse Heads, c. 1570
Pen and brown ink on red chalk - 26,2 x 42,6 cm
Royal Collection
© 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Although the works are often lent for exhibitions — some are even deposited in museums — many of the paintings and drawings in the British Royal Collection are not always accessible because they are scattered throughout different castles. It would thus be a shame to miss this exhibition which assembles, for just a few months, a series of masterpieces displayed normally only in books and, more recently, on Internet thanks to a very complete database, with an entry for each work.

Lucy Whitaker et Martin Clayton, The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection - Renaissance & Baroque, 2007, 384 p., £45. ISBN 978-1-902163-291.

Didier Rykner, mercredi 12 septembre 2007

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