Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Caravaggio. Lotto. Ribera

Caravaggio. Lotto. Ribera.
(Musei Civici dei Eremitani, Padova)

Those were the top-billed names on the dramatic posters around town featuring Caravaggio's Boy Bitten by Lizard (Ragazzo morso dal ramarro). In fact, that was the only Caravaggio, with three Lottos and Riberas. The show was the personal collection of Roberto Longhi, the pre-eminent Italian art critic of the 20th Century. Longhi was responsible for the revival of interest in Renaissance master Piero della Francesca, and his works on Piero and on Caravaggio set the bar for decades.

Longhi had what all great art critics need, an unfailing eye, and the collection is remarkable in many, many ways beyond Caravaggio, Lotto and Ribera. Although the headliners' works are brilliant masterpieces, so are many other pieces in the show, the difference being that they are less well-known.

But Longhi knew.

I realized right away that I was in for a treat in the first (poorly lit) gallery of trecento works (XIV Century). (All the galleries are poorly lit; in fact most of the museums in Italy are poorly lit.) These were works I had never seen by artists I had never heard of, each with a particular genius. Cristoforo Moretti, from Cremona, painted in the XV century. His "Santa Lucia" is an innocent young girl holding a plate with her eyes on it looking like a Carnevale mask dropped on a table.

Battista del Moro, who painted in the mid 1500s is represented by a Judith with the head of Holofernes; she is ripe, sumptuous, and calls to mind a Renoir Grand Dame in her opera box. Giovanni Luteria (Ferrara 1489-1542) is represented by a boy with a bunch of flowers who exuberantly bursts from the canvas like a Chagall lover with bouquet.

The Caravaggio is extraordinary in so many ways I won't even start, except to say that the point of view is filled with drama; we are looking up into the boy's expression of startled surprise and stupefaction. Caravaggio is photographically realistic down to the open window reflected in the glass vase of roses and violets. The lizard is tangled in a bunch of fruit. Was the boy reaching for a grape or a fig when he was bitten? And who is he, so portentious with his crown of dark curls and his grape-stained lips? Another sublime Bacchus devoured by his demons?

There are two small Lottos, each of a saint painted in a niche. San Pietro martire reads placidly in his niche, unperturbed by the large knife buried in the top of his bald head; the Praying Dominican Saint appears to be dancing out of his niche, his eyes rolled back, heavenward, his white robe a subtle swirl of motion.

Bartolomeo Passerotti's (Bologna, 1529-1592) Le Pollarole features two chicken vendors crowded between racks of live and dead poultry. The older one clutches a fat, fine, full-feathered rooster, her face against his, his eyes alert to the moment. The younger woman sits beside her in a green dress holding a large dead turkey, half plucked. Their juxtaposition is ironic. Is this a complex allgeory of youth and old age, or are they just a mother-daughter act?

Ribera's San Tommaso was almost Japanese in its simplicity, modern in line, concept and composition. It brought to mind the humble monumentality of Diego Rivera's Mexican peasants. The Mater Dolorosa is reduced to her upturned face and her hands clasped in prayer; everything else fades to black.

There were many more, each worth the time spent looking, and I couldn't help thinking about Roberto Longhi being able to hang any one he wanted in his living room or bedroom. Some people have all the luck!!

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