This unique exhibition offers audiences an unparalleled chance to see Early and High Renaissance paintings by some of the greatest European artists. Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini and Titian are represented among an amazing gamut of talent and creative splendour. More than 70 works on canvas and panel will be on display, made between 1400 and 1600 by painters in northern and central Italy.
For the first time the National Gallery of Australia will give visitors the opportunity to experience Early and High Renaissance paintings by many of the greatest Italian artists. Raphael, Sandro Botticelli, Giovanni Bellini and Titian are some of the painters represented in our summer exhibition, which reveals an amazing gamut of talent and creative splendour. More than 70 works on canvas and wood panel will be on display only in Canberra.
These treasures are on loan from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy. Borrowing from its marvellous collection is only possible because the Accademia is renovating its display spaces, and the museum is temporarily closed.
The works in Renaissance were created between 1400 and 1600 by exceptional artists in northern and central Italy. Of extraordinary quality, the paintings were made in such centres of Renaissance culture as Venice, Florence, Milan, Bergamo, Padua, Ferrara and Siena, where the Church and private patrons commissioned religious scenes as well as magnificent portraits. Subjects range from poignant depictions of the Madonna and Child, Bible stories, the lives of the saints and moving renditions of the Crucifixion to insightful images of nobles and patricians.
These two centuries of Italian art are the foundation of the grand tradition of European painting. The genius of Raphael and Titian is known to all, but less famous artists such as Cosmè Tura, Carlo Crivelli, Lorenzo Lotto, Bartolomeo Vivarini, Vittore Carpaccio, Pietro Perugino and Giovan Battista Moroni announce their prodigious talents in Canberra. Paintings by Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini, Andrea Mantegna and Perugino have never been shown in Australia before; other works, painted by some of the most important and talented artists to practise in this formative period of European art, have rarely or never been shown here.
In Crivelli’s Madonna and Child 1475, an ornately dressed Mary is crowned the Queen of Heaven. She holds her Son protectively with elegant hands, her head tilted to Him as He nestles into her. The panel is shaped in graceful curved arches, reminding us of the earlier sources of Renaissance art, while beautifully executed fruit and a carnation symbolise elements of the Christian story. The landscape setting repays close attention, contrasting a verdant scene with a harsh one. Crivelli worked in the Marches of central Italy, away from the then modern cultural centres, so his art retains Gothic decorative features such as the relief on the Virgin’s clothes.
Lorenzo Costa’s Saint John the evangelist c 1480 was originally painted in tempera on wood panel and later transferred to canvas. His use of bright, clear colour enlivens the portrayal of the saint, who holds his attributes of the palm frond of martyrdom and chalice. The dead tree and live cypresses represent death and eternal life, while a severe marble structure locates the apostle’s life in the Roman Empire. Costa demonstrates his knowledge and love of classical architecture while providing a counterpoint to the lush folds of fabric.
Renaissance Europe saw bursts of invention and new technology, from the development of telescopes to the introduction of oil paint. The medium spread into Italy from Flanders in the second half of the fifteenth century, and its brilliant hues and depth came to its apogee in Venice in the sixteenth century. One of the earliest masters was Bellini, whose Madonna and Child 1488 shows a mother looking tenderly at her baby Son. Her deep-blue drapery dominates the image. The Christ Child stands on a marble ledge upon which rests a pear. Bellini proudly signs his work on a cartellino (small piece of paper) painted onto the canvas.
The Florentine artist Botticelli created The story of Virginia the Roman 1498 as a large panel. He narrates the tragedy of a young girl whose death saves the Roman republic. Reading from the left, Virginia’s fate unfolds: the assault on her virtue, trial by her kidnapper, murder at the hands of her father and her posthumous vindication. Botticelli presents the theatrical scene in three acts, rich in colour and rhythmic in movement, and set within grand Classical architecture. Saint Sebastian 1501–02 is depicted by Raphael holding an arrow, which would become the instrument used by his torturers. Instead of the traditional iconography of a partially draped man shown full length, the artist presents an elegant and richly dressed young man wearing gold-embroidered black brocade, a red cloak with gold edging and a gold chain. Raphael enjoys pictorial devices such as the saint’s oval face mirrored in the loop of his chain, the curved halo echoed in his eyebrows. Again, the early Christian subject is placed in an idyllic central Italian landscape of the Renaissance.
Among other exquisite images of the Madonna and Child is Titian’s canvas of about 1507, resplendent in colour, sensuous in its rendering of flesh and drapery and set in the countryside surrounding Venice. Such depictions of local scenery, bringing the sacred stories home to their audiences, signal the birth of landscape painting. The naturalism of the scene is underlined by the warm rapport of mother and baby, totally absorbed in each other.
The most charming portrait in the exhibition is Moroni’s Girl from the Redetti family 1566–70. She is dressed in her best clothes and jewellery, holding her pearl necklace in one hand and wearing a coral bracelet to protect her health. The artist captures the little girl’s patience, as it is about to turn to weariness with the hard task of sitting for her portrait. His rendering of the gold-and-black silk dress is a tour de force of oil painting.
The National Gallery of Australia is delighted to show great art from the Italian Renaissance. The exhibition will enrich the cultural life of Australia and reinforce our already warm bonds of friendship with the people of Italy, who have generously agreed to share their wonderful paintings with us.
Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture
Bergamo & the Accademia Carrara
The city of Bergamo lies in the province of Lombardy in northern Italy, between Milan and Lake Como. Its long and fascinating history ranges from Celtic origins and Roman settlement. In Renaissance times, from the fifteen century, it was ruled by the Republic of Venice, creating close cultural ties between the two centres. The Venetian conquerors fortified Città Alta on the hill; it remains a charming magical medieval town, enclosed within huge walls, with the modern city laid out below.
The Città alta or upper city of Bergamo remains largely untouched since the Venetians built fortified walls late in the sixteenth century. The architectural heritage of Bergamo reflects the wealth of its citizens who traded in textiles throughout Europe.
The elegant Neoclassical building of the Accademia Carrara was completed in 1810. Count Giacomo Carrara, founder and donor, wanted to build an art school in Bergamo to improve the standard of painting in the city, and to continue the great cultural tradition of the region. So he collected works of art as examples for the students to copy in the approved manner of art training at the time. Because of the high quality of his paintings, and those added by other donors such as Count Guglielmo Lochis and Giovanni Morelli, the picture gallery is more renowned than the art school it originally served.
The Renaissance—a term meaning rebirth or revival—was an era of transformation in the art and culture of Italy between 1400 and 1600. There was a renewed appreciation of Classical Antiquity, especially ancient Greco-Roman art and architecture, literature and science. The study of ancient texts was the basis for the development of the humanities: history, poetry and philosophy. The Renaissance was also a period of inquiry into the natural world, of experiment and exploration in the arts and sciences. New technologies such as the printing press, gunpowder, watches and lenses, as well as the exploration of the New World, helped to transform Renaissance society and led to the birth of modern Europe.
While the Catholic Church had always been the great patron of the arts in Western Europe, during the Renaissance there was a tremendous expansion of private patronage by merchants and noble families, such as the Medici in Florence and the Sforza in Milan. Great centres arose, notably the courts of Mantua and Ferrara, the republics of Florence and Venice, and the Papal States including Rome and Perugia. This ever changing patchwork of city-states and regions became the unified nation of Italy only 150 years ago.
Gothic to Renaissance
The Renaissance was preceded by International Gothic, a style of art and architecture that continued into the first decades of the 1400s. In Gothic art figures appear static, lacking depth, volume and pictorial realism. Artists favoured backgrounds of gold-leaf that embellished the image and accentuated its flatness. Figures become more three-dimensional, their movement fluid and natural. Detailed landscapes or Classical architectural settings demonstrate new theories of perspective.
Sacred imagery—Jesus, Mary and saints—was no longer the only subject for art. Spurred on by humanist concepts derived through the revival of Greco-Roman texts, Renaissance artists made humans central to their paintings. However, the shift from Gothic to Renaissance ideas was slow and, as a result, many paintings from the first half of the fifteenth century remain rooted in the older tradition.
Madonna & Child
One of most enduring images in Western art—a constant for more than a thousand years—is that of Mary with the baby Jesus. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the cult of the Virgin saw Mary cast as the Queen of Heaven, the personification of the Church, the Bride of Christ. She is regal, seated formally upon a throne, worshipped as an intermediary through whom humans seek salvation.
During the Renaissance such hieratic images are replaced by less formal representations. Increasingly images of the Madonna and Child become convincing portrayals of a mother and her baby. The relationship between the two is emphasised by touch or tender glance. They are depicted in an architectural setting, often with a landscape beyond, sometimes accompanied by everyday objects. The Madonna and Child is the subject of small-scale works, for private devotion in the home or as portable altarpieces. The figures are placed in the front of the picture plane, physically closer to the viewer, to elicit a heightened emotional response.
Altarpieces & Portraits
Spectacular multi-panelled altarpieces, known as polyptychs, were commissioned by the Church or private donors. Centred on a key image, usually a Madonna and Child or a Crucifixion, episodes from the lives of Mary or Jesus were depicted in the side panels or lower registers of the altarpiece. Individual saints, or scenes from their lives, were often incorporated. Diptychs and triptychs (works with two or three panels) also followed a set format, and their smaller scale allowed for their transportation or use in a private residence. While the panels of earlier Gothic altarpieces were decorative, usually crowned with pinnacles, during the Renaissance altarpieces became less elaborate, sometimes reduced to a single panel.
Before the Renaissance the portrait as a discrete image was rare in Western art. During the late Middle Ages portraits were reserved exclusively for royalty or historic figures. Sometimes images of donors were included in altarpieces but theirs was a subordinate role—they were shown in profile and kneeling, usually smaller than the sacred figures, and often in a lower register.
In the Renaissance individuals become the focus of paintings. As well as marking key events such as marriage, pregnancy or accession to power, portraits document a person’s likeness for future generations. Early Renaissance portraits represent the subject in profile like the image on a Roman coin or medallion. Later a greater range develops, from head-and-shoulders and three-quarter images to large, full-length depictions.
The period from the late 1490s to the 1520s, known as the High Renaissance, is regarded as one of the greatest in the history of art. The experiments and innovations of early the Renaissance achieved their pinnacle, especially in Florence, Venice and Rome. Artists prized harmony and proportion as ideal values. The art of perspective was perfected and the human figure scrutinised closely. There was a greater emphasis on realism, an expanded range of expressions, gestures and poses. Novel subjects such as landscapes and complex historical scenes were achieved.
The technology of painting also changed. Raphael and Titian revelled in the new medium of oil paint, using transparent glazes to achieve modelling and depth of colour. Botticelli, on the other hand, continued to work with his favourite medium of tempera, a mixture of pigment and egg yolk. Wooden panels, as supports for paintings, gradually gave way to canvas since it was lighter, cheaper and more malleable.
The artists of the late Renaissance adopted a variety of strategies and styles. They were influenced by, and reacted to, the naturalism and harmonious ideals of three masters: Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. As Raphael’s glorious Saint Sebastian demonstrates, by this time many painters had embraced the medium of oil, using strong hues and layers of transparent paint to build forms.
Many artists used dramatic lighting, theatrical, often irrational perspective. The stance of figures becomes twisted and exaggerated, their necks, fingers and other physical features elongated. Compositional groups occupy such a large area of the canvas they almost burst out of the frames. Portraits emphasise an emotional intensity and give a strong sense of the individual.
The regions of the Veneto, Lombardy and Piedmont produced remarkable artists who often moved to the cities of Venice, Milan and Turin for their training. As their skill and fame grew, some travelled to specific churches or palaces to paint altarpieces, frescoes or portraits. Cities with cultivated rulers were magnets for painters—the Sforza family, Dukes of Milan, built palaces and chapels, and famously invited Leonardo da Vinci to create the fresco of The Last Supper. Leonardo’s disciples adopted his technique of building volume through sfumato, the smoky shadows that both define and blur the forms.
Bergamo itself became a centre for artists. Lorenzo Lotto remained there for thirteen years, his longest time in one place, fulfilling many important commissions. Lotto’s altarpieces, as well as those by followers such as Andrea Previtali, are still found in Bergamo’s churches. The following generation of painters was dominated by the great Giovan Battista Moroni. His quiet yet eloquent style of portraiture fulfilled the requirements of the Counter Reformation for a more austere art in response to the Protestant criticisms of excess in the Catholic Church.
The original website for this exhibition was published in 2011 and has been archived for research purposes.