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A Tale of Two Tassels - Raphael and Holbein in The National Gallery, London

March 3, 2017

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Visiting the Brera Picture Gallery, Milan

 

The Brera Picture Gallery in Milan Lives in a building that dates back centuries. I looked up the history of the building and can’t tell when it was originally erected (at least the 1500's); just that the Jesuits were suppressed and disbanded in 1773 so in 1776 it became an Academy dedicated to the teaching of art, sculpture and architecture. The first acquisitions were marble busts intended to provide training to young artists at the Academy of Fine Arts and that 'school' quickly became the central training ground for successive generations of Milanese artists.

 

The modern-day incarnation, as a world class museum, was envisioned during the Napoleonic era (when Napoleon crowned himself King of Italy and Emperor of France). Intended to lionize Napoleon’s name and his rule, and to rival the Louvre (another of his creations), the Brera received an influx of art treasures from all over Italy thanks to the looting and pillaging of churches for which his troops were so well known.

 

The museum was opened on Napoleon’s birthday in 1809 and, for nearly a century, it shared space with the Academy of Fine Arts. The collection grew exponentially in it’s first few years with the addition of several massive murals - entire walls (and wall-sized canvases) removed from cathedrals and monestaries by Napoleon’s soldiers throughout the region, along with over 1,000 ‘acquisitions’ (most notably of work by Venetian and Lombard painters).

 

The Museum and Art Academy, both, served to advance the skills of the artists who trained there and it wasn’t until 1882 that they split into separate entities; and even then they continued to rely on one another in a symbiotic relationship.  Although each owned major parts of the collection it was agreed the museum would continue to display it all, in the same space. 

 

So what are the major works? Well first and foremost there's the BFD (the Big Frikkin' Deal): The Lamentation of Christ by Mantegna. This is a very famous work by Mantegna. It’s well known because at the time it was painted, which was around the year 1480, it was a bold and original use of foreshortening:  

 

Art historians point out that he made the feet of Christ much smaller than they would appear in actuality so that he could fit in all the other details he wanted to show. In reality the feet would be so large they’d block our view of the body.  I found it interesting that the center of the composition is the genitals of Christ. It seems even to our modern sensibilities that putting a dead man's scrotum in the literal center of your composition - even covered with a sheet - might be just a touch blasphemous. Right? Believe it or not there’s actually quite a bit of precedent for the genitals of Christ being depicted in paintings from the Renaissance, although ordinarily, it’s in depictions of Christ as an infant. But it was definitely “a thing” to associate Jesus with his own genetalia.  I believe it was meant to symbolize Christ’s humanity in some way; his base carnal instincts as a flesh and blood man. Yes folks, having a cock and balls really humanized Jesus (at least for Renaissance Italians).

 

There are some fantastic paintings from the Venetians here; massive canvases by the likes of Veronese, Bellini, Tintoretto and Titian. But the highlight for me, personally, was almost an entire gallery of large panel paintings by Carlo Crivelli.

 

Crivelli was one full generation before Leonardo da Vinci, born some 20 years earlier, and therefore all of his paintings are in tempera on panel instead of oil. Had he been born 10 years later he’d undoubtedly been an oil painter but the technique was new and was just gaining popularity in his lifetime. His paintings are wonderfully and carefully observed tour-de-forces of detail and ingenuity. Here for instance is a SMALL detail of fruits and pickles from the bottom right side of the painting above. Note the equisite hatching-technique he uses to give fullness, depth and shadow to all the rounded forms:

 

One of the hallmarks of his work is decoratively punched gold foil, which is used lavishly. All the works I’ve ever seen are devotional/religious in nature but are nonetheless some of my favorite illustrations in existence. He paints like an Early Renaissance Norman Rockwell so that the subject matter, whatever it is, seems somehow more inviting and approachable than it would be if it were painted by someone else. And he misses nothing; every little detail is captured.

 

Also a big deal at the Brera is "The Kiss" by Francesco Hayez:

 

The Kiss is probably the most famous painting of the Italian romantic era and (from what I'm told, I promise I'm not making this stuff up) it symbolizes the relationship of France and Italy at the time; reflecting the colors of their flags in the billowing clothes. Hayez was one of the preeminent Milanese painters of his generation. He was both educated at the Brera and later taught there and this painting is considered one of his great masterpieces.

 

Other notable artists whose works you will see at the Brera include Caravaggio; Guercino; Raphael; The Carracci (both Annibale and Ludovico); Titian; Bellini; Tintoretto; Veronese; Rubens; Van Dyck; Rembrandt and many, many others. Definitely a worthwhile visit and a world class museum!

 

 

 

 

 

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