Ciao a tutti! Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, takes a look at some of the fascinating and beautiful Italian art that’s in Te Papa’s collection. Marco’s journey takes us from Venice to Naples, and through 300 years of history. Andiamo – let’s go!
I need zero excuses to explore and celebrate historical Italian art at Te Papa. Perhaps the only surprise is that I hadn’t thought of doing so up to now. Our Italian collection can’t quite offer you the origins and meaning of life – you need to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling to fully appreciate that – but we can nevertheless transport you on a fascinating visual, spiritual and intellectual journey…
I drink, therefore I am!
This could be the subtitle to Andrea Mantegna’s Bacchanal with a wine vat, one of Te Papa’s earliest prints (c. 1475). It depicts eight adult male figures and four putti, mostly carousing around an enormous wooden wine barrel and deeply under the influence of the noble grape. They are honouring the pagan god Bacchus, hence the term ‘bacchanal’. Two plastered foreground putti lie comatose. Immediately above them, occupying centre stage, is an unconscious youth in danger of falling into the barrel, who is supported by a gaunt, slightly tragic looking figure.
What does this mean? That alcohol taken in excess is a depressant? Maybe so, but it goes deeper than that. The youth looks very much like a dead Christ, as seen in Pietà themes. Learned Christians of the time made parallels between Bacchus and Jesus. Both were sons of god and a mortal mother; and both gave their followers promises of rebirth after death. Christians even borrowed Bacchus’s vinous attributes, with wine in the Communion ceremony symbolising Christ’s blood. So Mantegna’s print isn’t just about spirits, but about our spiritual condition.
The plague strikes
A generation after Mantegna, Marcantonio Raimondi (c. 1470/82–c. 1534) was really the first important specialist Italian printmaker, whose output largely consists of copies of drawings and paintings. Marcantonio’s collaboration with Raphael not only boosted his own career, but helped to spread the High Renaissance style right across Europe. This complex, disturbing print is based on a mirror image of an original Raphael drawing in the Uffizi, Florence.
If Marcantonio were around today, he’d be making movies. His multi-frame engraving reveals several simultaneous narratives. Front left, a man holding a torch illuminates a cow and a dead flock of sheep. If he goes upstairs, he will reach the bedchamber where an elderly man is being nursed by two veiled women. Front right, immediately outside the stricken house, a man crouches over to separate a child from its dead mother. The child must not drink the mother’s milk, otherwise he or she will surely die. The rescuer covers his nose and mouth with his left hand, while four other figures nearby are all recoiling.
Death, it was believed, was in the very air that people breathed in times of plague. The Latin writer Virgil refers in the Aeneid to how ‘suddenly the air was poisoned and a terrible, insidious sickness took possession of human bodies.’ If they were lucky enough to survive pandemics, people could recognise their own experiences in a print such as this.
Scratchy and irregular
With the mid-16th century Croatian-born Venetian artist Andrea Meldolla (also known as Schiavone), the print is no longer an illustration. Instead it becomes a vibrant work of art with a life, an emotional complexity, of its own.
His subjects and scenes are etched, as print expert Arthur Hind put it, ‘in a scratchy and irregular style’. They look odd and awkward after Mantegna and Marcantonio, but ‘there is a touch of fire and a sense of motion in his pictures and prints, which rendered them peculiarly attractive’.
A touch of fire: too right. Hind could have been thinking of this very print as he wrote these words. The startled young Moses, surrounded by his flock of sheep, lies prostrate as he beholds an angel of the Lord – and the voice of God – in the burning bush, calling on him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt into Canaan. This dramatic immediacy helps make Meldolla an artist’s artist: in the next century etchers like Castiglione – and in the Netherlands Rembrandt – busily emulated his technical experiments.
A return to order
In the early 1970s, the National Art Gallery purchased a number of so-called ‘Old Master’ drawings. They were more affordable than equivalent paintings, but at the same time they were unique works, unlike repeatedly reproduced engravings and etchings. History has vindicated these acquisitions, not least the red chalk drawing, The Madonna nursing the Christ Child, by Agostino Carracci.
Agostino was a member of a highly significant family and dynasty of late 16th /early 17th century artists that also included Annibale and Ludovico Carracci. They represented a backlash against the perceived frivolity of the dominant Mannerist style of the period (high camp angels and Madonnas with weirdly elongated necks!) Based in Bologna, the Carracci established the Accademia degli Incamminati (Academy of the Journeying) to restore art to its right path, following the role model of Raphael.
There are accordingly no distractions from the central subject matter in Agostino’s beautiful drawing. The emphasis on breastfeeding – occupying the very centre of the composition – is evident. Whereas Protestantism suppressed the cult of the Madonna, the Catholic ‘Mother Church’ sought to humanise and celebrate her at the same time.
Get out of my light!
The Neapolitan Salvator Rosa was one of Italy’s most famous 17th century artists. Although best known for his dramatic and romantic landscape paintings, he was also a musician, playwright, actor, poet, satirist and, here, etcher. This etching depicts a famous episode in the life of the young Alexander the Great, his encounter with the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope in 336 BCE.
A cynic, contemptuous of material wealth and its ostentatious display, Diogenes was happy to live in a barrel. Encountering him there, Alexander asked whether he could do anything for Diogenes. ‘Yes, get out of my light!’ came the decisive reply.
Rosa seizes the moment and the change in expression in Alexander’s attendants from amused mockery to aghast consternation at the philosopher’s brilliant impertinence. Alexander himself was evidently much impressed, saying ‘Truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes’. Donald Trump take note! Art historians have read Rosa’s own sympathies and professional pride into the etching as well: he had no false modesty and believed himself the equal of any nobility.
A colourful life: Marco Ricci
The lives of artists can sometimes be as compelling as their art, and Marco Ricci (1676–1730) is a case in point.
The nephew of the famous Venetian artist Sebastiano Ricci, he fled to Dalmatia after murdering a gondolier in a brawl. After working in Milan, Florence and Rome, he then visited the Netherlands where he studied landscape painting. During his two years in London, Marco created opera sets and decorated private houses for aristocrats.
His final 13 years were spent back in Venice, where he united the Dutch landscape aesthetic with the fantasies of the Baroque stage. Marco may have committed suicide dressed in a bizarre costume, hung with a sword, so that he could die ‘like a cavaliere’ (courtly gentleman).
This picturesque and atmospheric depiction of an imaginary town by a river is one of 20 etchings in a posthumously published series, whose Latin title can be translated as ‘Several experiments by the excellent artist Marco Ricci’. It’s easy to envisage on a far larger scale, either as a stage backdrop or even as a tapestry. Marco might have died prematurely – and weirdly – but he left a legacy appreciated by later topographical and scenic artists, such as Marieschi, Canaletto and the Venetian-born Piranesi.
A recent acquisition: Novelli’s Marriage of the Virgin
Pietro Antonio Novelli (1729–1804) brings our brief journey through some 300 years of Italian historical art to a lovely conclusion with this drawing, Marriage of the Virgin. The main motif is the tender embrace of Mary and Joseph as they exchange vows, with a distinguished bishop-like figure acting as the celebrant.
A typically Venetian sense of magnificence is conveyed in the priest’s vestments and the setting of classical columns, festooned with drapery, together with the chandelier. Two figures to the left regard the happy couple with gentle sympathy. There is a real sense of historical and emotional continuity between Novelli and earlier Italian artists, such as Leonardo, Correggio and Barocci, and nearer his own time, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. His art represents no ‘wannabe’ historical revival (that would be a 19th century phenomenon) but rather a valued cultural inheritance. Sadly, Novelli himself witnessed its death when, in 1797, Napoleon brought down the Republic of Venice. That, however, is another story…