Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Musee Jacquemart-Andre and its Exhibition Giotto to Caravaggio: The Passions of Roberto Longhi

It appears that I had never been to the Musee Jacquemart-Andre despite the fact that it houses not only a significant collection of Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture but also lots of medals, plaquettes and bronze statuettes of the Renaissance, all subjects I studied much in the past. I had diligently used the catalogue of its medals and plaquettes as references my own publications, but am sure I would remember the building if I had been there. It is a splendid museum, built in the late 19th century as a residence, with wonderful rocaille decoration, a gorgeous conservatory and extensive galleries. I suspect it as a model for the Frick Collection in New York, although it is somewhat grander. We were there on Easter and the beautiful café was full or we would have lingered longer.

Aside from the masterpieces of Renaissance art in the permanent collection and the spectacular eighteenth-century works - including a Tiepolo fresco of the Arrival of Henry III in Italy, purchased from the Villa Contarini in Italy in 1893 and transported to Paris to decorate the staircase, with the ceiling from the same cycle, which adorns the café ceiling - the Museum offers exhibitions.

At first when I saw the publicity for the exhibition in the Metro, I was not enticed. "Giotto to Caravaggio" sounds like a generic exhibition drawn from some private or public collection. However the subtitle referred to the art historian Roberto Longhi, who died in 1970 and I became curious as to how a museum might create an exhibition around an art historian. The show is a fascinating entrée into the world of connoisseurship and the history of how the reputations of works of art can be changed, in this case by the enthusiasm and dedication of a single scholar. The link above goes to the exhibition website and some very helpful accompanying information in English.

Books on art historians and historiography have proliferated in the past couple of decades, but I don't recall exhibitions celebrating the discoveries, connoisseurship and reinterpretations of art historians. I imagine that the fact that there is a Longhi Foundation in Florence that houses his collection of mostly Caravaggist paintings may have been an incentive to this project. In any event, the objects are absolutely wonderful and the information gives one a sense of how Longhi during his lifetime actually changed how we understand the history of Italian Renaissance and baroque art. I wonder what other art historians might merit the same attention.

The exhibition celebrates Longhi for reviving, or creating interest in Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio and a host of Ferrarese painters (who are still actually relatively unknown - Cosimo Tura, Francesco del Cossa, Dosso Dossi) and for his new discoveries about Giotto and Masaccio. His promotion of the artists influenced by style of Caravaggio - the Caravaggisti painters - is also significantly represented.  Having studied art history beginning shortly before Longhi's death, I was unaware that their reputations had needed reviving; they were central to the curriculum by the time I was taking courses.  And the exhibition, of a rather small and manageable size, contains several wonderful works of art that one could study at length in comfort and with informative educational materials around them.

I was first struck by a Caravaggio Sleeping Cupid, 1608 from the Palazzo Pitti, not completely different in pose from antique and Renaissance Cupids, but I became fascinated that the flesh on his chest was uneven with cellulite, a disturbingly realistic detail that only Caravaggio would have emphasized in the early 17th century. Of course the strong contrast of light and shade modeling his figure, the highlights on the edges of his wings and the dark background also identified the artist. Many other works in the exhibition were by Caravaggio or his imitators and followers, and one could compare the master with his imitators and with those he inspired, such as Jusepe de Rivera. Longhi is credited with reviving Caravaggio's long reputation and with documenting his widespread influence in 17th century Europe.

In another room a small Masaccio Madonna and Child from the Uffizi of 1426-27, caught my eye. Longhi was the first to attribute this charming small work to Masaccio, in 1950. In 1940 Longhi had published Fatti di Masolino e Masaccio, in which he distinguished their styles and identified Masaccio as a key figure in the foundation of the Renaissance style.  Masaccio's paintings are rare and this small example glows with the red and blue of the Madonna's robes. Her face is softly modeled as she gravely looks down at the infant Christ, tickling his chin with two fingers (also interpreted as a gesture of benediction) as he giggles slightly and clasps her arm. It seems very simple and straightforward, but the three-quarters turn of her body, suggestion of a light source, human gestures and soft handling of flesh were enormously innovative at the time.

The next work worth some time is a pair of Saints, St. John the Evangelist and St. Lawrence, attributed to Giotto by Longhi in 1930, then disputed and re-attributed to Giotto in 2013. One can understand the dispute, since the St. Lawrence is not what I would expect from Giotto; it's somehow clunky and stiff, either poorly restored or just clumsily designed. But the St. John is wonderful, with the beginnings of individuality, the sense of volumes, and even the handling of the eyes and ears one sees in Giotto's work.

Longhi published several works on Piero della Francesca, including a 1927 monograph on this great painter and mathematician of the mid-15th century. It is hard to imagine that Piero was not considered one of the major painters of the Renaissance (even the painter of the small masterpiece featured in several Downton Abbey episodes) until Longhi revived his reputation. The exhibition includes St. Jerome and a Donor (ca. 1460, Venice Galleria dell' Accademia) by Piero, a small painting that demonstrates Piero's luminous light effects, carefully structured compositions including landscape, and interest in geometry.

Longhi had wide ranging interests and friendships. He was a fan of Courbet and impressionism, collected Giorgio Morandi's work, and was a friend of the avant-garde film director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. Longhi wrote on the importance of studying works of art in their full context, not just in relation to other paintings but to history, biography and broader culture. This was a strikingly informative exhibition that opened my eyes to some wonderful objects and to the evolving nature of art history through the work of someone I had only known by a name.

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