Royal Academy 27 January – 15 April 2018
If you were born, like me, in Venice and raised in Florence by scholarly parents, you would love Renaissance art, and know a great deal about it. Or not. It could also work the other way. Overwhelmed by the cultural weight of the indisputable and unreachably perfect heroes of the brush and chisel, your heart might just switch off entirely, and search to connect with more approachable and spontaneous art forms. Whichever camp you belong to – and I let you guess mine – this exhibition is for you. Why? Because it’s an amazing journey through history and collecting, and it shows 140 glowing masterpieces, reunited for the first time since the seventeenth century.
In 1623, two years prior to his ascension to the throne, Prince Charles visited Madrid. Upon seeing the Habsburg collection, he fell in love with art and returned to England with a number of paintings by Titian, Veronese, and others. He then proceeded to acquire the Gonzaga collection, and commissioned important artists, notably Anthony van Dyck, who was appointed Court painter in 1632.
By 1649, the year of his beheading, the King’s collection comprised around 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures. Months after his death the collection was sold, in what went down in history as the “Sale of the Century”. While many works were later retrieved by Charles II, others are housed in museums such as the Louvre and the Prado.
The exhibition tells the story of Charles and his extraordinary collection, in a thematic and chronological sequence. We start by meeting the protagonists, in room 1: Van Dyck, in an exuberant self-portrait with a sunflower, the queen consort Henrietta Maria, and Charles himself, including a triplicate head painted by Van Dyck as reference for a bust by Bernini, later destroyed in the Whitehall fire of 1698.
Every room has a different atmosphere, cleverly enhanced by the colour scheme of the walls. While we admire the art, we also learn about the characters, and have an insight into their personalities, especially thanks to Van Dycks’ exploration of psychology and mood. We also learn about collecting, and collectors.
We then continue through the Northern Renaissance, Holbein, Dürer and a delightful “mini” Bruegel the Elder, Three Soldiers. Then Italian Renaissance, Bassano, Correggio, Titian. Spectacular is the Mantegna room, with the monumental series of nine canvases, The Triumph of Caesar, hanging on brick coloured walls. It could have done with better lighting, though, as you had to step back quite a bit to avoid the glare. But perhaps it was an impossible task.
There is so much to see and explore, including a book of drawings reproducing antiquities owned by the Gonzaga, an Italian sketchbook by Van Dyck, miniatures, sculptures, medals, and the stunning Mortlake tapestries, after Raphael’s cartoons.
Around ninety of the artworks are on loan by Her Majesty the Queen. Supposing that you experience a certain distance in front of Renaissance masterpieces, this is a reminder that these collections belonged, and sometimes still belong to real people, in their homes… well, palaces. It’s a treat to be offered a peak into this world of history, grandeur and immortal talent.
First published on the East Finchley Open Artists January 2018 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.