Church Times May 26, 2010

TIME and again, London can demonstrate that it is the sovereign capital for many arts, serving as the crossroads of culture, design, patronage, and commission. A glimpse at the daily updated reviews and calendar included in an in­valuable free site run by professional art critics, www.theartsdesk.com, is enough to make one feel giddy at the best of times.

This spring, the focus is on the Italian Renaissance. Three quite exceptional exhibitions offer the visitor a textbook analysis of a period that is so often appealed to but still uniformly misunderstood. For anyone who has paused for a moment in front of The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi and listened to the well-intentioned petty ignorances trotted out by guides for un­suspecting and uninterested tourists on 50 (or 500) dollars a day, this comes as relief for which much thanks.

The British Museum show “Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Ren­aissance Drawings” assembles more than 100 works on paper, showing 47 artists who span the 15th century. Half the works are in the Prints and Drawings gallery in Bloomsbury. The rest come from the Medici collections of the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe in the Uffizi, where this exhibition will be seen next year.

These help to “explain” where Michelangelo (1475-1564) was coming from, and the display leads inexorably to him, although the last word, in fact, goes to Titian, who is not usually associated with drawings at all, with a stunning portrait head of a young woman (c.1510-15).

The range of works assembled, at a time when paper became a cheap alternative to vellum, compre­hensively favours Florence, but the real surprises lie elsewhere.

A mouth-watering number of Raphaels are followed by the Venice of Carpaccio (drawings for his cycle in the Scuola di S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni there); and from Orvieto comes a drawing for the Last Judgement that Luca Signorelli seems to have rejected from the chapel of S. Brizio.

In the century, drawings emerged from being simply sketched designs by craftsmen, drawn either to show to patrons or to use in the studio, to become works of art in their own right, a transformation in the history of art itself of which Leonardo was conscious at the time, dating his landscape to the “Feast of our Lady of the Snows 5 August 1473”. It offers a bird’s-eye perspective of hills around his native Vinci.

That the 21-year-old Leonardo was mindful of the dedication of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome while out walking in the hills of home suggests that, for all the technological advances of his age (blue paper came with the import of indigo from Ottoman traders), men remained imbued with the old religion.

his landscape sketch is one of ten works by Leonardo in this show which might almost be seen to give him an unfair advantage over Michelangelo, represented by half that number; but Michelangelo has, of course (Arts, 16 April), been most recently championed at the Courtauld Gallery in an un­repeatable exhibition (to 16 May) that brings together his great presentation drawings from the 1530s, alongside a later crucifixion for one of the Spirituali, the so-called Viterbo circle, and a unique design for Christ before Pilate, in which Barabbas is seen kneeling before Pilate as the Jews point out their preferred choice of Jesus.

Seen in the context of what came after him (the secondary purpose of the show in the Strand), Michel­angelo stands head and shoulders above all comers.

Reputedly, Michelangelo des­troyed many of his own drawings in his own lifetime out of jealousy. Since it is almost impossible to see how a second-rate copyist such as his presumed noble pupil Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, with whom he was foolishly infatuated, turned out to be could have begun to learn from such finished works as the presentation drawings present, his true in­heritance was in sculpture rather than in painting or drawing.

As an exhibition elsewhere in London of Renaissance and Baroque sculptures amply shows, Florence had a long-standing tradition of sculpture by the 1550s, in part thanks to the patronage of the city’s Medici rulers. If Michelangelo is associated with large-scale works such as the David, smaller bronzes were popularised by the Flemish artist John from Boulogne, when he moved south to Tuscany.

Giambologna (1529-1608), as he became known, also sculpted life-size works as his Samson and a Philistine in the V, once part of a fountainhead (Arts, 15 January 2010), offers, but his smaller work informs much that followed; as John Pope Hennessy pointed out years ago, at any time between 1600 and 1800, persons of quality and distinction would automatically have named both sculptors as the greatest since antiquity.

Like David LaChapelle, the fashion photographer who has now rebranded himself as a classical artist — as The Rape of Africa (Robilant + Voena Gallery, first floor, 38 Dover Street, London W1, until 25 May), which is arguably the most sculp­tural work on display in London at the moment, even though it is a photograph subtly reworking a Botticelli painting, demonstrates — Peter Marino, too, first worked with Andy Warhol.

hereafter, as a designer and architect, he became known for crafting temples to Retail; where once artists worked for the Medici and the like he was on the payroll of Zegna, Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Chanel. Only the 2008 recession slowed down such excesses.

If he is better known as a fashionable architect and architect of fashion houses, he is also an as­siduous private collector. But his private passion for Renaissance bronzes has until now not been known to London or New York mu­seum staffs.

His trademark persona, as a leather-clad Tom of Finland-like biker, seemed out of place, and time, when I came across him at the opening of one of three exhibitions that this former art student (Cornell) is undertaking this year; a flagship fashion house round the corner in Bond Street is also opening, as if he has a foot in both camps.

It is something of a coup for the Wallace Collection, tucked in behind the understated father of all retail palaces — Selfridges — in an unremarked part of London, to be able to curate a show of 30 of his collection of bronzes that span 140 years from about 80 years after the death of Michelangelo to the rise of rococo in all its French madness.

London gets to see this re­markably full selection in a way that previously was glimpsed only by readers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, before it transfers to the Huntington (San Marino, Cali­fornia) and Minneapolis.

I worried at first that this might be yet another disastrous show, like the recent Hirst promotion staged at the Wallace, but Dame Ros Savill, the outgoing directrice of the Collection, has done better here by allowing Dr Jeremy Warren, her academic director, to rein in Marino, even though his is the design for each of the gallery rooms.

Alongside the works generously loaned by Marino, Warren has judiciously selected a couple of other works from the Wallace Collection itself, and attracted an exceptional loan from Birmingham, the Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Agostino Cornacchini (1686-1754), which was intended as a pendant for the great David Triumphant over Goliath (G. B. Foggini). Both works were commissioned (1722) for the last of the Medici rulers, Anna Maria Luisa (1667-1743), and might even serve as a parable for the wealthy patrons of things in this world.

Real scholarship married to flair has brought to life much of a show that is only half visible to the visitor since so many of the exhibits are stuck in display cabinets stuck up against walls. The catalogue alone does justice to, say, the Antonio Montauti Diana the Huntress or the Lion and Bull Hunts, here given to the Florentine Ferdinando Tacca (1619-86); if only they were dis­played in the round! Bizarrely, the flat-backed river gods, the most solid sculptures in the show (two pairs cast in France in the 18th century) are set on plinths.

One has to go back outside the gallery rooms to find a pair of vases with stories drawn from Roman history which tellingly enjoy natural light, as well as being freed to allow the viewer to walk all round them. Marino had obtained these as being from the Genoese workshop of Francesco Fanelli, who worked as king’s sculptor for Charles I, and was noted for a fountain at Hampton Court, and a fine portrait bust of the king himself, as well a series of St George and the Dragon.

Recent scholarship shows that these fine ornamental pieces, once at Waddesdon in the Rothschild collection, are more likely to be later and to come from Naples. Either way, I want them quite as much as the Verrochio study of a female head (British Museum).

By Nicholas Cranfield

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