This is the first of two traveling exhibits granting the public access to the Royal Collection’s stash of Italian works. The Baroque show arrives next year, but first we are treated to a look at the Queen’s Renaissance paintings and drawings, the majority gathered by Charles I, a keen collector, and Charles II.
The room devoted to painting is rather flat. There are good works here, sure, but few that are great, and, interestingly, it is the unfinished and unconventional pieces, many by lesser-known artists, that really draw the eye, with the more plodding portraits and religious scenes fading into the background.
Giulio Romano’s Portrait of Margherita Paleologo is the first of them. Ms. Paleologo was not, it seems fair to say, much of a looker, and made up for it with her frocks. Here she is wearing a loopy confection of an overdress, its interlocking ‘knot-fantasies’ riddled with gold thread, half-hiding a crimson gown. Romano, a pupil of Raphael, is not content with his masterly handling of these folds of fabric, adding a narrative element to the dimly lit scene: two less fashionably dressed women and a nun are peering through the doorway. One can’t help but imagine that the three have come for an audience with the dress, not the lady inside it.
Dosso Dossi’s The Holy Family is something of a revelation. The work is downright odd, with a feverish, almost hallucinatory quality, as if painted from a symbol-laden vision. Mary, rendered, unusually, as a decidedly plain young woman, bears a searing white corona - her mum, dad and boyfriend have to make do with dowdy metallic discs for their halos - and adopts a stylised pose, pointing, rather superfluously, at her son. The baby is clutching a cockerel like a favourite security blanket - preternaturally drawn to the bird as a symbol of the new dawn he’s set to usher in. The sky above the group sees a rather glum grouping of cherubim conjuring themselves into the grey clouds, parting them to light up a jeweled city on the plains behind. Then, up in the dim upper left corner of the painting, we see St. Jerome. He’s ignoring the cryptic business that surrounds him, and Dossi has captured a disarmingly real display of grandfatherly pride.
This unexpected flash of the ordinary in an extraordinary painting ties Dossi’s work to other decidedly domestic religious scenes on show. Across the room, Andrea del Sarto’s The Virgin And Child sees Mary checking Jesus’ mouth for signs of his first milk teeth - fully finished, the scene might end up on the wrong side of kitsch to modern eyes, but the chubby Christ is roughly sketched, retaining a tender quality. Falling between Dossi and del Sarto is another Virgin And Child, this one attributed to Pontormo, with Joseph, pausing on his way out the door to snack on a cherry offered by a boy, probably St. John the Baptist: domesticity and symbolism combined.
Titian tackles takes on the Virgin and Child, too. Or, rather, his workshop does. The Virgin and Child with Tobias and the Angel is clearly the work of many hands, and bears none of the compositional verve of the Venetian. Titian may have had a hand in it - the familiar deep pink and lapus lazuli blue are present and correct - but it doesn’t feel like a Titian. Nor does Boy With A Pipe, this time only attributed to Titian. The one work undoubtedly by Titian is a disappointment, too. The portrait of the humanist poet Jacapo Sannazarro is a staid little thing, one of many works executed early in the painters career, and only serves as a reminder of later, greater works. There are none of those here, sadly, only echoes in the work of followers like Vecchio and Bassano.
Thank goodness, then, for the second section of the show, devoted to drawings. It opens with a remarkable, scrappy little preparatory sketch by da Vinci, one of 600-odd in Charles II’s collection. Neptune sees da Vinci, with palpable frustration, drawing and redrawing the legs of rearing horses, until they look, of all things, like Muybridge’s photographic sequences. There are many such glimpses of the creative process, and almost all are more satisfying than the finished works next door. Some, like da Vinci’s, are quick, with loose markings made to set down a fleeting idea. Del Sarto’s The Head of St. Sebastian deftly captures motion, Polidoro da Caravaggio somehow manages, with a few concise strokes, to evoke the wonder in St. Thomas’ eyes as his doubt vanish before Christ’s wounds. Others are precise. A cartoon in metalpoint by Raphael showing The Conversion of the Proconsul - that odd episode in Acts where Paul blinds a man to convince him to convince his boss of Jesus’ power - is rich with both architectural detail and a lavish attention on every face in the crowded scene.
The most striking work here, though, is A Children’s Bacchanal by Michaelangleo. A delightfully perverse piece in red chalk, the level of finish is absolutely breath-taking, every inch of the paper a masterwork in miniature. And these kids are not the little angels of our post-Victorian imagination, but horrid, base creatures, devoid of reason. At the centre of the scene a gang of loutish toddlers lug a dead horse towards a cauldron. In the upper right corner, one lad appears to be vomiting into a wine butt, ignoring his pal, who is pissing into a drinking bowl, while down and to the left, a third suckles at the withered breast of a female satyr. That all this unpleasantness is rendered so perfectly, makes for a work that is little short of sublime.
This wonderful work flags up the fact that this is a rather patchy show, rescued by the gallery of drawings. Without them, it would be distinctly underwhelming, but their presence - and the presence of Michaelangelo’s little masterpiece alone - makes it a must-see.
This review was first published in The Herald on April 25th, 2008
Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: The Renaissance is at the Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh until 26 October.