Taking In the Renaissance

John Haber
in New York City

Painters of Reality: Art in Lombardy

One should never speak of Italian food. Trust me: New Yorkers know these things. Each region has its own riches, cultivated over centuries by family, tradition, sun, and soil.

So why will I end up taking in pizza again tonight? And why does an exhibition of art in Lombardy feel so thoroughly dishonest and dispiriting?

Savoldo's Tobias and the Angel (1520s or possibly 1540s, Borghese Gallery, Rome)

The region offers more than just northern Italian cooking, shopping in Milan, and the way trains heading south mysteriously fall an hour late once the French and German crews disembark. It also offers art, and the Met draws on painting's from the High Renaissance to the Baroque's breakthrough years. However, by denying the region's eclecticism, the Met robs it of its real history, as well as its best paintings.

A gateway to art history

Like foodies, art fans fall for snobbery. Those long museum halls of unfamiliar names come alive once one knows a bit about the personalities, working habits, aspirations, and beliefs. Even better, anyone can join the game. Increasingly, art historians are revisioning works of art as part of this world—shaped by where they were made, where they displayed, and for whom.

"Painters of Reality" hopes to recover a local tradition for north-central Italy. Surveys of the Renaissance often make Lombardy a kind of footnote to Venice. Yet Leonardo da Vinci spent almost twenty years there, a lifetime for such an impatient, peripatetic artist. He even popped back later for another five. Caravaggio grew up there, in the town that gave him his name. Lombardy thus has links to the origins of both the High Renaissance and Baroque, and it deserves an art history of its own.

The Met hopes to found that history on a single treacherous word, reality. The art of Lombardy, the show argues, began when Leonardo slipped through town, leaving behind The Last Supper. It held together through Mannerism, shifting empires, invasions that chased Milan's mercenary regime in and out of power, a growing national sensibility, and the international sweep of the Baroque. It was perpetuated, the argument continues, by the influence of Caravaggio, the lightning bolt that created Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Valentin de Boulogne, and the Baroque. Through it all, the curators insist, Lombardy maintained a distinctive style of unsullied naturalism.

Do not believe a word of it. One need not have experienced Postmodernism to distrust appeals to nature. The concept is too narrow for several hundred years of personal and religious convulsions. It is also too sweeping for one region alone. Back then, everyone used closeness to nature as the highest praise. In Giorgio Vasari's lives of Renaissance artists, it amounts to a mantra, so much so that he can ignore his own Mannerist eccentricities.

Yet the region does have a distinction—not as a stable influence, but as a center for artistic interchange. That may explain how during Mannerism, a period characterized by revisiting Renaissance models, Lombard art stayed more or less emotionally restrained. Despite themselves, the relentless hectoring of the dubious wall labels, and some second-rate painters, the curators sometimes put it on display.

Renaissance theorists distinguished between Rome's love of classical art and the north's greater naturalism. I might call it instead a peculiar mix of play acting and attention to detail. As a gateway to Europe, Lombardy drew on both the Italian and Northern Renaissance. It learned the south's rhetoric and a tradition of life drawing. At the same time, it inherited a sober, Germanic sobriety and domesticity. When the two collide, things can get clumsy—or electric.

Turning realism upside down

First come soft faces and simple pyramids, like Raphael Madonnas, but with an eye to their source in Leonardo. A drapery study by Boltraffio comes closer still to the main man. Boltraffio's life-size, color sketches after the Last Supper had me amazed that such a draftsman remains little known. The Met sees art like this as sensitive to a figure's innermost thoughts. Leonardo caricatures nearby made me see it instead as a theatrical performance. As Leonardo wrote, "That figure is most admirable which by its actions expresses the passions that animates it."

From outrageous gestures, one moves easily to supernatural visions. Savoldo's angels walk right up to the human actors, and his fluorescent hues anticipate El Greco or the Baroque. The Met again sees only the innocent eye. It asks one to forget the startling disjunction of earthly and heavenly realities. It mentions the wings kept as props, in the inventory of artists up through Caravaggio seventy years later. But then Caravaggio's angel snuggles into Saint Matthew's lap, and he later repainted Matthew without the angel and his white feathers, bringing revelation into this world for good.

An earthy side quickly appears as well. When Lorenzo Lotto paints the road to Calvary, one focuses on the cross's wood grain. When Lotto, Moroni, or Moretto da Brescia portrays a wealthy man, one remembers the dark, flat backgrounds, plain stances, and weary eyes more appropriate to peasant laborers. The awkwardness of northern woodcuts contribute as well to the cramped, cluttered compositions, as in the crowd behind Cariani's Saint Veronica. Of course, the Met sees only the human charm of Veronica and her veil.

Domesticity emerges with one of the first and most interesting professional women artists on record. Sofanisba Anguissola's sisters at a game of chess make me think of family snapshots today. The child smiles way too hard, and an older sister's holds out an open palm, as if falsity itself entails an endearing innocence. The Met briskly leaps ahead to Caravaggio's cardsharps, not even noticing how the delicate contest of innocence and experience has given way to bolder psychology and a more vibrant light, in which even the boldest of gestures may disguise the truth. Two more early works of Caravaggio's only emphasize the shattering change. A golden light sweeps in from one side, and objects and gestures tumble forward, pushing the confrontation between dark and light right into the viewer's lap—along with the confrontation between human and divine, art and nature.

A room of still life taught me about another woman artist, Fede Galizia, but again with exaggerated claims. Do the fuzzy reflections demonstrate her "love of optical experiment" or just the norm? The room also includes Giuseppe Arcimboldo, known for his fantastic arrangement of vegetables into faces. The one here even works fine as a still life when hung wrong side up. The Met sees only attention to the produce market, rather than a Mannerist who turned realism upside down. It should ask why Surrealism made him newly popular in this century.

Finally, the Baroque settles in, and things only get worse. Polidoro da Caravaggio had to leave for Rome to find out what his more famous namesake did, and he spent his career there. Two more supposed works by the Caravaggio date from his years all the way in southern Italy. The exhibition then leaps ahead without warning, to conclude with Giacomo Cerati, whose beggars allow the curators to trot out the word realism one last time. Unfortunately, Cerati offers sentimental realism of the eighteenth century, influenced by the art of France and Spain.

Blood and soil

Florence thrived in its identity as a city, whether as a republic, under the rule of bankers, or as the forum of Savonarola's fiery sermons. Venice's position as a coastal trading center gave it considerable independence, as well as opening it to oil painting from northern Europe and, by the later Renaissance, patronage from Spain. Rome had its classical heritage, a High Renaissance drive for papal glory, and a renewed modernization that coincided with the birth of the Baroque. What did Lombardy have? A position at once off the beaten path and at the boundaries between Italy and the rest of Europe.

Leonardo came to Milan from Florence, as the most widely admired and copied artist since Giotto. He painted The Last Supper for a convent refectory, but he also worked directly for a petty tyrant on armaments and pageants. As city states gave way to shifting empires, northern armies briefly drove out the duke, shooting a Leonardo monument to pieces. On top of that, the duke's family earned its fortune and power as mercenaries. Talk about regional loyalties.

Leonardo headed off, but he was not alone. Lotto, perhaps the finest northern Italian painter after Titian, finished his career in Venice. Arcimboldo made his mark as a court painter in Vienna and died in Prague. They understood a region's limits. As Leonardo wrote, "he is a poor disciple who does not exceed his master."

No one knows Caravaggio's birthplace for certain, and no one can date a painting to his hometown years. He depends on his encounter with the works of Michelangelo in Rome. Then he helps forge the Baroque, influencing even Rembrandt so far to the north, but with plenty of assistance from the Carracci brothers in Bologna and others in Florence. For the first time since the Middle Ages, art had a truly international movement. Caravaggio later died six hundred miles from home, on the run from the law. At least he had the chance to try Sicilian pizza.

Artists, like food, travel. Climate changes, and even tomatoes may have spread as invasive species. A wine from Italy may have Austrian grapes. Immigrants came to New York, intermarried, shared recipes, adapted to the market, and started to go out for Italian food. National politics gets involved, too. Italy has long designated wine regions by law, without conceivably keeping up with actual quality, and I hear it is about to legislate the meaning of pizza as well.

Food and art are human products, and art is definitely not a product of the soil. Indeed, culture supposedly born of blood and soil has a name, Fascism. Moreover, of the great Italian art centers, Lombardy has an especially slippery history. So does the exhibition's time span, marked by two hundred years of social and political turmoil.

An institutional history

Recent exhibitions have looked precisely to transience, turmoil, and cross-pollination for keys to Mannerism's strangeness and the transition to the Baroque. The Frick has watched El Greco hold on desperately to an idea, while each version grows wilder and wilder. It has traced Parmigianino from city to city and in and out of prison, on his way to the portrait known only as Antea. The Met has shown El Greco as darn near mainstream, able to assimilate Renaissance art from the Byzantine empire to Rome, Venice, and Spain. It has watched Goltzius achieve a more empathetic realism on the streets of Rome.

Why the dishonesty now? Plain and simply, the Met has a dishonorable habit of promoting a curator's career at the expense of museum-goers. For instance, it has used a great Baroque artist and feminist icon, Artemisia Gentileschi, to puff up her father. In shows about Giotto and the Northern Renaissance, including Petrus Christus, it has stated controversial attributions as plain fact. Now it might as well be handling the marketing for private collections.

A good show needs a strong agenda to bring fresh understanding and to bring the past alive. As in this very exhibition, ideas like history and realism cannot speak for themselves. A region, too, deserves a chance to boast, and this show originated in Italy, in honor of a pioneering art historian. However, an institution as powerful as the Met has an ethical obligation to lay its agenda on the table. It should also acknowledge the doubts of a majority.

Bad attributions return, with two late Caravaggios. One of the two is gaining acceptance, but older scholars shunned it. I myself see a confusing background and dry, harsh drawing far unlike from the painter's usually fluid darkness. The Tooth Puller is roundly condemned for its atypical comic subject, incompetent anatomy, and mistakes in foreshortening. In any case, the two works have nothing to do with Caravaggio's best work, and they come years after his origins in Lombardy. And the show never once lets the public know the issues.

Does any of that matter, the Met might reply, when The Tooth Puller rings the changes on that elusive word reality? Sure, one can enjoy those changes. The Met supplies a rare Old Master exhibition, with down-to-earth pleasures. It discovers two remarkable women. It finds a distinctive Lombard take on the Renaissance, defined by the very international melting pot that the theme dismisses out of hand. It asks how Caravaggio's achievement in Rome—from the actions of men and women to their sharply etched, asymmetric space—follows an eclectic century.

Too many, however, will leave, discouraged from ever caring about Caravaggio and his age again. They will have their own prejudices reinforced about art's innocent appeal to nature. They will not know that the show mixes art literally from all over the map. A museum of critical importance to America's cultural life is behaving in a manner that is petty, dishonest, and irresponsible.

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"Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy" ran through August 15, 2004, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Related reviews look at Caravaggio's last paintings and a younger Caravaggio.


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