May 2014

Essays

Luke Stegemann

Italy and Spain’s artistic exchange

‘Religion Succoured by Spain’ (circa 1572–75), Titian
‘Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

The 17th-century Spanish painter José de Ribera once described Spain as a pious mother to foreigners and a cruel stepmother to her own. His fellow artists might have had reason to agree. Unified under a Christian banner in the early 16th century, and with the new empire of the Americas beginning to bear colonial treasure, Spain’s cultured Habsburg royals sought to adorn their multiplying palaces, monasteries and churches with Italian art. This desire was born of the then undisputed centrality of cities such as Rome, Florence and Venice as repositories of classical style and form. Local Spanish artists were to learn from the Italian greats.

So began an interchange of masters and apprentices between the countries that was to last three centuries, coinciding with the high-water mark of Spanish colonial empire. It was the dominance of Italian artists, and the preference for them over local talent, that explains the extraordinary richness of Italian masterpieces that have come down from royal collections to Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado. Some 100 of these works constitute the NGV’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces: Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado (from 16 May until 31 August).

The artistic flow between the two nations was constant, manifesting itself variously in the work of the brilliant Spaniard Ribera, one of the first major followers of Caravaggio in his use of dramatic illumination; in the Venetian artist Titian’s close relationship with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son King Phillip II of Spain; in the influence of Neapolitan and Venetian artists on the life and aesthetics of the Spanish court while Spain governed Naples via a viceroy (1504–1707); in the acquisitions made by the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez on behalf of King Philip IV; in the decoration of Spanish palaces and monasteries by Luca Cambiaso, Federico Zuccaro and Luca Giordano; and, during the 18th century, in the work of Corrado Giaquinto and the Tiepolo dynasty. Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Immaculate Conception, painted near the end of his life for King Charles III of Spain, is a highlight of the exhibition. Titian is represented by five works, including the brashly titled Religion Succoured by Spain (1572–75), which depicts Spanish victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto where Cervantes famously lost an arm.

The NGV exhibition takes the viewer from early Italian Renaissance to late Spanish Baroque, highlighting the religious devotion so central to a time of profound questioning as the 16th-century Council of Trent set about opposing reforms to the Catholic Church. These works are above all a celebration of the power of the classical and biblical. In them, we see tribute paid to the glories of God, empire and war; we also see the difficult birth of humanism, the brief ascendancy of Mannerism (with its irregularity of form that broke away from the rigid perfection of the High Renaissance), and the limitless inventiveness of the Baroque.

Italian art of the period is alight with beauty; the path followed by many Spanish painters was to explore doubt and human flaw.

By the second half of the 16th century, the once nomadic Spanish court had settled in Madrid and the riches of empire were at their peak. Before decline set in, as it quickly did – the cost of running a modern empire with a feudal system of government was immediately unsustainable – vast building projects were undertaken, including the construction of the monastery of El Escorial and the royal palaces of Buen Retiro and Aranjuez, and major renovations to the palace of El Pardo. Italian master artists (more esteemed than Spanish painters at this time, who were still given the lowly designation of craftsmen) were drafted in. Here on boards, canvases, ceilings and frescoes were twinned heaven and conquest – high European classicism indulging its love of antiquity, mythology, invention, form, grace and beauty. Decorating the seemingly endless wall spaces was artwork that celebrated Spain in full Counter-Reformation glory, astride the world – Europe and the Americas – exalting the saints, confirming the faith. Gone was the earlier predilection of Spanish royalty for Flemish art that displayed, in bright chromatic palette, the grinding terrors of a plague-ridden, sin-wracked and fantastical Europe. For a brief period, the Spanish royal family could afford to buy or commission the best of the best, and to the royal collection were added jewels of Italian art – Raphael, Correggio, Tintoretto, Veronese, Lorenzo Lotto, Guido Reni – or of outstanding artists working in Italy, such as the Frenchmen Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.

Some of the works may have entered the royal collection via Diego Velázquez on his 1649–51 sojourn in Italy. Velázquez was essentially on a “shopping trip” on behalf of Philip IV but became sidetracked by an amorous adventure that led to him resisting a return to Spain until ordered back by an increasingly exasperated king.

The collection on display at the NGV is unique for its consistency, comments Laurie Benson, the gallery’s curator of international art. “The collection is formed by what the royal family loved, what they wanted to have, rather than as a view of art history. It’s not a museological construction. A lot of these works were commissioned directly from the artists, and acquired as contemporary art. Their tastes then had a great influence on other artists and collectors in Spain.”

As personal choices of Habsburg royalty, the collection has been together for hundreds of years, unaffected by passing taste or fashion; nor, Benson adds, have the works been moved around, and as such are in excellent condition. Now meticulously cleaned and restored, they are looking as never before, opening up new vistas for both viewers and scholars of the Baroque.

And yet how differently the painterly traditions of Italy and Spain evolved, despite the continual cross-currents between them. Italian art of the period is alight with beauty; the path followed by many Spanish painters was to explore doubt and human flaw. Deep conservatism throws up eccentric monsters: here from the Italians we find none of the swarthy misfits and curious mystics who people Spanish art. Cervantes had commented on the “free life” of Italy, with its dedication to beauty, refinement and pleasure. In direct contrast were the stern disciplines of Spain, a country bound by God and empire, committed to confirming the verity and quality of faith, serving as standard bearer for Catholicism in the world; it was also staggering under the cost of empire abroad, French wars in the neighbourhood, and the indolence of a society still based on concepts of chivalry rather than the practicalities of statecraft, diplomacy and industry.

Lost in its renowned fatalism, Spain fell sharply into economic decline after its golden 17th century, and the scientific and industrial revolutions largely passed it by. The glories of its artistic heritage, born of colonial treasure, imported skilled labour and native genius, became one of its lasting legacies.

By the second half of the 18th century, the Habsburg monarchs had given way to the Bourbons, and despite the best efforts of brilliant neoclassicists such as Anton Raphael Mengs and Vicente López, classical art and its world had been exhausted. For Spain, the modern world lay just over the horizon in the form of the Napoleonic invasion and its aftermath; meanwhile for Spanish art, a whole new future was dawning, for it was at this point that the young Francisco Goya – romantic, earthy, tragic and above all vernacular – took the stage.

Luke Stegemann

Luke Stegemann is the former general manager and editor of the Melbourne Review.

@lukestegemann

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