Saturday, 1 August 2009

Tullio Lombardo at the National Gallery

When we were in Venice, we went to the Ca d’Oro Museum for the first time and I was delighted to see so much Renaissance sculpture there, especially the important bronzes reliefs by Andrea Riccio, who worked in Padua in the 16th century in a style that recreated or at least evoked sculptures of antiquity. One important work was missing however: a Tullio Lombardo relief of a couple that was on loan to the National Gallery in Washington. So it was especially exciting to realize that I would be in DC to see the exhibition to which that sculpture had been lent, An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture.

Tullio Lombardo (1460-1532) was a very important Venetian sculptor, whose work is difficult to see outside Italy because so much of it is in monumental tombs or extremely large marble reliefs (for example the Tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin in SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, and reliefs in the Basilica of S. Antonio, called Il Santo, in Padua). And, of course, his large figure sculpture of Adam from the Vendramin Tomb at the Metropolitan Museum has been unavailable since it crashed to the floor a few years ago when its pedestal collapsed.

It’s a very difficult thing to organize an exhibition of Renaissance sculpture, because the works are fragile, they are disbursed far and wide, often relatively little can really be said about them with confidence, and people just aren’t as interested in sculpture as they are in painting. If an exhibition will not draw a large audience, it may not be considered worth the expense. The National Gallery for several years has mounted tiny exhibitions of important works of Renaissance sculpture, mostly borrowed from Italy, making it possible to see amazing works of art never available in the United States. This Venetian sculpture display is one of those exhibitions. Photographs of all twelve sculptures and their label information are posted at the National Gallery website. One of the relief heads was from Romania and many of the others are from Venice or Vienna. Nonetheless, I was surprised that the exhibition had so few objects. Even moreso, I was surprised that the works looked so diverse, even those that appear to be
quite securely attributed to Tullio Lombardo.

For example, take the two reliefs of couples from Venice (no. 1) and Vienna (no. 2) presumably created about 15 years apart. The labels in the exhibition describe the objects and suggest that Tullio’s later work from Vienna displays how his dreamy Venetian style matured. However, in photographs and in person, they are made so dramatically differently that the “Venetian imagination” doesn’t give me enough explanation for the change. In fact, the relief from the Ca d’Oro (no. 1) is completely different from everything else in the exhibition. The carving is deeper, the figures are more in the round. The skin surface is polished, in contrast to the hair, and the faces are more rounded. The eyes are cut deeper. The woman’s hair sits on top of her head in a rough mass, while the man’s is a cluster of short curls. The format of the work is also more vertical than that of the other relief, so the two figures seem in tighter juxtaposition even though their heads do not touch. If one were to compare this relief with a Roman portrait, something not possibly in the National Gallery, it would most likely seem quite similar. I suspect that the reason the relief is considered by Tullio Lombardo is that his name is carved into it below the man, a signature.

In contrast, in the other relief the skin, hair and drapery all have the same crystalline texture, the eyes are less deeply cut as is the relief altogether, hair falls in regular rolling ringlets and the format is wider and therefore somewhat more relaxed. And the two figures share expressions and facial types. Interestingly, in both reliefs the women are differentiated from the men by their bare breasts and their unarticulated necks, as well as their hairstyles. The Vienna relief figures both look heavenward, suggesting piety, while the Venice figures look in different directions, he up to the right and she straight out to the left, as if she might engage the viewer and he direct attention to something nearby. Not knowing where the reliefs were originally makes it difficult to explain these gazes. For the general audience, perhaps it suffices to suggest relationship issues and Venetian dreaminess. I suppose we should say that Tullio was really trying to imitate Roman portraiture in the first relief and that by the later one he had developed his own signature style, but even then it’s a real stretch from the first to the others.

One of the reasons to do an exhibition like this is so that scholars can seen a group of works together, in order to refine their understanding of an artist’s style and that of his followers. It is impossible to be sure of these things through comparing photographs. Bringing objects from diverse collections together enables one to get a picture of an artist that is more rounded and complete. The effect of this show for me has been to question exactly what is characteristic of Tullio Lombardo. The relief of a single figure (no. 6) from Venice is very close in style to the Vienna relief, and has a romanticism that almost seems 19th century, while that from Romania (no. 3) seems flatter and less evocative in comparison. The Romania sculpture is displayed in a separate gallery space from the others, perhaps so as to relieve it from comparisons. But the photographs may do the works a disservice, since the Venice relief is lit from above to create dramatic shadows and the one from Romania is lit far more softly from the left front.

Going to the National Gallery website gives one the chance to see these and several other works by associates of Tullio Lombardo, several really beautifully carved or modeled. The exhibition is lovely, but I wish it had acknowledged some of these connoisseurship questions so as to engage viewers more in thinking about influence and authenticity, rather than just asking questions about who these figures might be.

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