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Of heaven, earth and Italy

Kat Murrell, Contributing writer

Italy. Glasgow. Milwaukee. Together, the cities make for an interesting diversity of geographic points, and they all come together via Milwaukee Art Museum’s current exhibition: Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Paintings from Glasgow Museums. Included are a variety of stylistic periods, from the Renaissance to Realism, explored with an inherently Mediterranean sensibility. 

It’s a show that broadly traverses the territories of “heaven” and “earth” suggested in its title. The exhibition’s opening is particularly strong, with works by important Renaissance artists representing some of the most popular types of painting from their day. 

Giovanni Bellini’s “Virgin and Child” (c. 1480–85) satisfies the need for images depicting Mary and the infant Jesus, a conventional genre for the period. But the artist’s feeling for somber beauty and his intensity set his hand on the subject apart.

Sandro Botticelli is known as a patron of the powerful Medici family who painted works inspired by classical mythology. A man of his times, he also created traditional religious paintings, such as the exquisite “The Annunciation” (ca. 1490–95). Botticelli enlivens the angel Gabriel with a flurry of rippling drapery, as though he were overtaken by divine energy as he appeared before the Virgin Mary to announce that she would be the mother of Jesus. Botticelli sets the event in a hall architecturally designed in a way that would have been familiar to contemporary Florentine audiences, giving the biblical myth a humanistic tone.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) is another famous Renaissance figure who looms large, especially for his vibrant color palette. The exhibition includes his very early “Christ and the Adulteress” (ca. 1508–1510). What is most curious about this painting is its condition. At some point, damage occurred to the right edge of the canvas. The affected portion was removed and the painting “corrected” to cover errant remainders of a removed figure. However, a happy reunion has been achieved with the painting of a man’s head, which was originally part of the composition, now displayed next to the monumental painting. 

While religious painting is prominently featured during the initial centuries of the exhibition, more secular subjects appear from later dates. That shift starts with a pair of works by Salvator Rosa, which include scenes involving Jesus and John the Baptist. They are huge paintings that allow the viewer’s eyes to meander vicariously through a dramatic landscape of cliffs, trees, hills and streams. The religious figures are diminutive, incidental details rather than the primary focus of these canvases.

Other landscapes are more conventionally realistic. Francesco Guardi, who was active during the 18th century, is important for his paintings of Venice, such as “View of San Giorgio Maggiore” (c. 1760). The Grand Canal shimmers with light and the activity of boats on the busy water. Guardi’s pleasure in the details of bustling daily life is apparent, and the details recreate the quotidian experience of the tourist, particularly those who had been on the Grand Tour. That rite of passage was a finishing touch in the education of wealthy young men, introducing them to the artistic and cultural wonders of the continent.

The pace of artistic and stylistic change accelerated during the 19th century, especially with developments in the practices of French painting in Paris. Italy yielded to those developments, as most of the works in the concluding gallery attest. They are not, however, without interest or skill. 

Vincenzo Camuccini’s imagining of the “Death of Julius Caesar” (c. 1825–29), is replete with suspended motion that makes it feel like a Neoclassical action movie. Antonio Mancini takes an approach that draws inspiration from the realism of Edouard Manet, with heavily worked paint, dramatic contrast and opulent pouting in the expressive “The Sulky Boy” (1875). 

Of Heaven and Earth is ultimately a selective survey, following the conventional path one might find in an art history textbook. But it’s a textbook you’ll enjoy paging through, and one with a great many lessons to teach.

On exhibit

Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums continues through Jan. 4, 2015, at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive. Visit mam.org for more details.

Photos: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection Courtesy American Federation of Arts

“Death of Julius Caesar,” by Vincenzo Camuccini, is an excellent example of
Neoclassicalism, a major 18th and 19th century movement competing with Romanticism.

“The Annunciation,” by Sandro Botticelli and possibly an
assistant, blends classical subject and contemporary setting.

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