It’s That Good! Renaissance, an Exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia
Twenty years ago, en route from Venice to Milan, we stopped with Edmund and Joanna Capon at the gallery in Bergamo, the Accademia Carrara. My taste for the Italian Renaissance, however, was not as developed as now. The galleries wearied me and I beat a retreat back to the car to read The Herald Tribune. I didn’t expect much, therefore, of the exhibition in the National Gallery, Canberra, of Bergamo’s paintings, brought here while the gallery is being renovated.
More fool I. Sure, it’s a provincial gallery but its holdings are deeply interesting if you’ve delved enough into the Florentine and Venetian traditions. I want to visit a second time, I would love to visit a third.
I didn’t expect to see a Giovanni Bellini of the quality of this Madonna and Child (c. 1488) so reminiscent of the serenity of the sacred conversation in the Church of San Zaccaria, Venice. Look at the landscape in the background, at the lake and the walled town and the castle, at the two seated pilgrims and at the aristocratic hunting party. A second Giovanni Bellini Madonna and Child 1475–1476) is notable for the struggling, mobile Christ child and the architecture of the Madonna’s blue cloak infused with lines of gold. For once you can believe that her downcast view reflects a pre-knowledge of her son’s fate. There are at least four paintings by Lorenzo Lotto, whose art I loved, displayed on the walls of the Accademia in Venice in December. There are two Botticellis.
There are opportunities to enter the medieval and Renaissance mind as with Vincenzo Foppa’s The Three Crosses (1450) in which the crucifixion of the two thieves, flanking Christ, achieves a unique prominence. One thief is converted and bows his head, which is illuminated as a symbol of his salvation. The other writhes and struggles while a small devil claws at his hair. As the catalogue tells us, “Christ thus stands symbolically at the axis between good and evil.” And it points out that the artist invites reflection on Christ’s triumph over death, and so on the Crucifixion as the means of human salvation.
Witness the Andrea Mantegna portrait Saint Bernadino of Siena (c. 1450) apparently one of the most charismatic of the wandering preachers in early Italy, a saint who could preach for hours and fill piazzas as he spoke. He condemned women’s love of finery, describing their elaborate headdresses as “the devil’s flags”, and blamed sodomy on the practice of young gallants wearing close-fitting hose that provocatively revealed their flesh. Mantegna draws our attention to a corner of Renaissance religion that might suggest how primitive and puritanical faith lived side-by-side with the revival of classical scholarship and fascination with the romance of the pagan world.
In a similar spirit, I was captured by Andrea Solario’s Ecce homo [Behold the man] (c. 1503-1505), a small, devotional painting that promotes an identification with the suffering Christ, which comes right out of the religious writing of the Middle Ages. The portrait of Christ has no narrative context: it is a dramatic close-up that reveals his tears and suggests the pain of the thorns gouging his brow and producing dark drops of blood; the goal being to arouse pity and enable the viewer to experience his suffering. Of course, “Ecce homo” were the words spoken by Pontius Pilate when he presented Christ to the public.
In the last rooms of the exhibition, one makes a transition from the glorious rich colours of North Italian Mannerism – no Bronzinos, though – to the sombre and subdued palette of the work of Giovanni Battista Moroni – realistic portraits of almost monochromal figures set against a grey-brown backdrop that seems to point to Velázquez and Goya. There is a room of Moroni portraits, their severity reflective of the tone of the Counter-Reformation.
Here I am, a sceptic, being led by painting into an appreciation of aspects of theology and other dimensions of Renaissance life.
Don’t turn away because you fear this exhibition will not include front-rank art. Don’t think you are simply being served up a mediocre collection from a provincial museum. Don’t suspect the commentary will be a routine once-over treatment. If you have a mind even half-open to the vision of the North Italian Renaissance, you must see this exhibition. It’s that good.
“Rendezvous with Destiny”
for narrator and chamber ensemble. Performed at the Art Gallery of NSW.
We remember, F.D.R.
We remember the bitter faces of the apple-sellers
And their red cracked hands,
We remember the gray, cold wind of ‘32
When the job stopped, and the bank stopped,
And the merry-go-round broke down,
Everything seemed to stop.
The whole big works of America,
Bogged down with a creeping panic,
And nobody knew how to fix it, while the wise guys
sold the country short,
Till one man said (and we listened)
“The one thing we have to fear is fear.”
Well, it’s quite a long while since then, and the wise
guys may not remember.
But we do, F.D.R.
It’s written in our lives, in our kids, growing up with
It’s written in the faces of the old folks who don’t
have to go to the poorhouse
And the tanned faces of the boys from the CCC,
It’s written in the water and the earth of the
The contour-plowing that saves the dust-stricken
And the lights coming on for the first time, on lonely
America will not forget these recent years.
We feared fear. That was why we fought fear. And
today, my friends, we have won against the most
dangerous of our foes. We have conquered fear.
Shall we pause now and turn our back upon the road
that lies ahead? Shall we call this the promised land?
Or, shall we continue on our way? For “each age is a
dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.”
Many voices are heard as we face a great decision.
Comfort says, “Tarry a while.” Opportunism says,
“This is a good spot.” Timidity asks, “How difficult
is the road ahead?”
In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens
who at this very moment are denied the greater part
of what the very lowest standards of today call the
necessities of life.
I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so
meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over
them day by day.
I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm
continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called
polite society half a century ago.
I see millions denied education, recreation, and the
opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their
I see millions lacking the means to buy the products
of farm and factory and by their poverty denying
work and productiveness to many other millions.
I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, illnourished.
It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I
paint it for you in hope—because the Nation, seeing
and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to
paint it out.
There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To
some generations much is given. Of other
generations much is expected. This generation of
Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.
Our earth is but a small star in the great universe.
Yet of it we can make, if we choose, a planet unvexed
by war, untroubled by hunger or fear, undivided by
senseless distinctions of race, color or theory.
We are all of us children of earth. If our brothers
are oppressed, then we are oppressed. If they
hunger we hunger. If their freedom is taken away
our freedom is not secure. Grant us a common faith
that man shall know bread and peace – that he shall
know justice and righteousness, freedom and
security, an equal chance to do his best, not only in
our own lands, but throughout the world. And in that
faith let us march toward the clean world our hands
I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.
Go play with the towns you have built of blocks,
The towns where you would have bound me!
I sleep in my earth like a tired fox,
And my buffalo have found me.
I died in my boots like a pioneer
With the whole wide sky above me.
I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
John Brown is dead, he will not come again,
A stray ghost-walker with a ghostly gun.
Let the strong metal rust
In the enclosing dust
And the consuming coal
That was the furious soul
Grow colder than the stones
While the white roots of grass and little weeds
Suck the last hollow wildfire from the singing bones.
Bury the South together with this man,
Bury the bygone South.
Bury the minstrel with the honey-mouth,
Bury the broadsword virtues of the clan,
Bury the unmachined, the planters’ pride,
The courtesy and the bitter arrogance,
The pistol-hearted horsemen who could ride
Like jolly centaurs under the hot stars.
Bury the whip, bury the branding-bars,
Bury the unjust thing
That some tamed into mercy, being wise,
But could not starve the tiger from its eyes
Or make it feed where beasts of mercy feed.
Bury the fiddle-music and the dance,
The sick magnolias of the false romance
And all the chivalry that went to seed
Before its ripening.
And with these things, bury the purple dream
Of the America we have not been,
Bury this destiny unmanifest,
This system broken underneath the test,
Beside John Brown and though he knows his enemy
He is too full of sleep at last to care.
Letter from Abraham Lincoln to the parents of Elmer E. Ellsworth.
My dear Sir and Madam,
In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own – So much of promised usefulness to one’s country, and of bright hopes for one’s self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great – This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse – I never heard him utter a profane, or an intemperate word – What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents – The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself –
In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child. May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power –
Sincerely your friend in a common affliction –
Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mrs Bixby of Massachusetts.
(Washington, Nov. 21, 1864)
Dear Madam, –
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1883-1945) was the only US president to be elected to a third and then a fourth term. The poet Stephen Vincent Benet, a great FDR supporter, wrote this poem in response to FDR election bid to the unprecedented third term in 1940. Benet invoked the unemployed who had been reduced to selling apples on street corners and Rossevelt’s famous rallying call, “We have nothng to fear but fear itself.” He reminded readers of the New Deal programs that saved farms, and generated jobs.
Benét – John Brown’s Body
John Brown was the most polarizing possible figure in American history: a fanatically religious farmer, he believed slavery was evidence of Satan’s rule in America. With sons and supporters he attempted to provoke a slave uprising with what we today would call a terrorist raid. His conviction and hanging expedited the Civil War when a mobilized North followed in hi footsteps, making war on slavery. Benet insists that the old slave-owning south is buried with John Brown.
Art and Power: From “the World’s One Super-Power”
The horse sculptures that dominated the funerary objects – they were used to line the corridors of tombs – are now familiar symbols of the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD). The horse symbolised the power of the state, the defence of China from outside invasion. But even more remarkable in this collection are paintings on wood and woven ox hair from the Tang dynasty that show the familiar Tang scenes: women of the court, acrobats on horseback, men forming yoga exercises, virtually a room full. Now these are extraordinary. Can you imagine paintings – and these were used as interior house or temple decoration – from 600 AD in Europe surviving to be exhibited? I can think of none.
The curator of the Kingold museum Mr. Lei Shansheng talked about the Tang dynasty as the period when China was the world’s only super power. That is, a time when people from around the world came to see the emperor in Xi’an. It was a time when China learnt from the world and the world learnt from China.
Mr Shansheng’s observation is an extraordinary insight into the cultural confidence of a people who know their land was once the Middle Kingdom and, like the rest of the world, see signs of its achieving that status again.
A footnote on the above. Some of the objects from the Kingold museum are still in dusty khaki cardboard boxes in which they were placed in Nanjing in 1947 by Kuomintang troops. But, intercepted in Szechuan, these vases never reached Taiwan. The boxes are now significant historical symbols in their own right.
Room eight, high Renaissance and Mannerist, is one of my favorites with the two Michaelangelos, both unfinished, and the Bronzinos especially the defiantly pagan and erotic, Allegory with Venus and Cupid. One face in particular looks out at us, Andrea del Sarto’s Portrait of a Young Man, as if to say I’m dead but immortalized on this canvas…what about you? It, too, is a favorite and a familiar.
But then you could linger in rooms devoted to the Renaissance and baroque for a very long time . You have two Leonards, Lucas Cranachs and – of course – with Renaissance painting arriving in England, the Holbeins, especially The Ambassadors, with its savage, half-hidden memento mori.
But apart from Bellini, I’ve skipped the early and Florentine Renaissance, back in the Salisbury wing where in one room devoted to the Netherlandish you come face to face with the husband and wife in van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage.
You could almost call this collection one of royal and religious patronage – I mean, the bulk of the gallery’s paintings. Inspect the magnificent Rubens and van Dycks and on your (indispensable) audio guide listen to the story of how the former’s allegory, War and Peace, came to be painted or the story of the young nephews to Charles 1 captured for all time by the latter, making his name painting the luminaries at the Stuart court.
The cramped canal houses and their people,created by the of the Dutch school, are a relief from this flamboyant royal and religious propaganda and one of the gallery’s two Vermeers is set between two Pieter de Hoochs. The grey-white walls, the Delft tiles, the checkered floor and, above all, the light streaming from cobble-stoned street besides a canal…here is a secular, bourgeoisie universe that lives in the minds of all, thanks to these painters.
There are some breath-taking perspectives from one gallery to another, like the long view to George Stubb’s 1762 Whistlejacket, a portrait of a leaping racehorse anchored in the long English gallery with its companions – Gainsborough, Turner, Constable and Reynolds. And you are panting as you enter the Impressionist rooms….
The tradition of Western painting is one of the several things that makes life very worthwhile.
Thank God for all these dead white males and the creative urge to catch fleeting existence with paint on canvas or wood and become famous and rich at the same time. It’s mad and glorious, often insincere and utterly commercial, and infinitely absorbing.
Art is one of the best things about the damned human species and the tradition is thrillingly captured in the loot that fills these revered corridors.
I will go a step further, and call the National Gallery a sacred site for Western culture.