Saturday, 9 April 2016

Painting with Big George.

My one experience of Venice is hardly of the picture postcard variety. I saw no gondolas. I saw no canals. I didn't see the Palazzo Ducale. Nor the Rialto bridge. I simply sat around Venice coach station for an hour waiting for a shuttle to take me to Treviso airport so Ryanair staff could be rude to me.

Had I been in La Dominante 520 years earlier maybe I'd have crossed paths with Giorgio Barbarelli de Castelfranco, better known as Giorgione, who was born 40 miles inland in the town of Castelfranco Veneto in 1478 and spent most of his life in the City of Bridges. A short life it was too as he died in 1510, possibly of plague, in his early thirties.

Such brief floruit causes problems of attribution for art historians and very few works have been confirmed as being by this master's hand. Because of this the Royal Academy's new 'In the Age of Giorgione' show also contains works by contemporaries like Sebastian del Piombo and Lorenzo Lotto.

Despite his relatively small output he's seen as a vital cog in the chain of High Renaissance artists. Inspired by Bellini, virtually contemporaneous with Titian, and an influence on both Leonardo and Durer. It was a changing art world Giorgione operated in. New, wealthy patrons were commissioning works and the artists, themselves, were attempting, via their portraiture, to not simply capture a likeness but to convey something of the mental state of the sitter.

This exhibition kicks of with two rooms of such portraits. A lot of them don't half look like fey, androgynous, indie boys.

The work by Giorgione himself, above, for example. There's also a striking Giovanni Carini, a Lorenzo Lotto sketch that my Royal Academy enabler and friend Kathy particularly took a shine to. Equally shiny is the future Duke of Urbino's helmet in which you can see him reflected. My smutty gag aside it's a very homoerotic portrait. Kind of how I imagine the decor to a Chariots sauna looks.

We're also introduced to lutenists, a sad man cradling a citrus fruit, a bizarre selection of fingerless gloves, and Titian's Goldman portrait.

On reaching the tertiary chamber we find landscapes. At last. Both in exhibition and art historical terms. Domenico and Giulio Campagnola's pen and inks set the scene for del Piombo's Birth of Adonis and also his Death of Adonis which fans of both boars and togas will not find disappointing. Giorgione's Il Tramonto has got a lot going on. It's strange how he's allowed a spindly tree to dominate the centre of the painting whilst relegating St George on horseback, engaged in spearing some woodland creature rather than a dragon, to the background.

His Trial of Moses, above, is even more hectic and odd. The guy in the feathered helmet appears to have moobs and be wearing a mini skirt showing off a rather fine set of pins. There's more codpieces than a Cameo fan convention and the infant Moses is depicted as opting for hot coals over gold coins. Each to their own. It's a fascinating study in how the art of the time served to both instruct and entertain.

Next up is a meeting with old gallery favourite St Jerome courtesy of Lorenzo Lotto. The lion in the background almost camouflaged against the rocks and a secondary sanctified hermit hovering in the middle distance. Another glimpse into the strangeness of the time.

Walking into the next room it's like someone's switched the lights on. The devotional works are a riot of colour. There's a lot of virgins and children, obvs, and plenty of chances to examine Mary's impressive drapery. Which isn't a euphemism.

Titian's Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented By Pope Alexander VI To St Peter impressed both Kathy and I with the masterful effect of light on his holiness's cope. I almost wanted to reach out and run my hands over it which I imagine would be considered a serious breach of papal etiquette. Infallible ambassadors of supreme and non-existent beings are probably not there to be fondled by godless heathens such as myself.

Despite the painstaking detail given over to vestments etc; it's instructive to note that the fleet of Cypriot warships departing to partake in a crusade against the Turks is so lightly applied. I wondered if perhaps Giorgione employed people to do the backgrounds for him. I don't know.

Other details were vague too. It didn't really bother me as I didn't feel a desire for a closer look at the blurry cherubim with their tiny willies out but it was interesting that the detail of the lutes was more precise than that of angelic beings. We got distracted at this point by a discussion about the difference between lutes and ouds. Once balalaikas and bouzoukis got involved it was time to return to the art. Saint Peter, again, and Christ's Blessing by Carini where, it has to be said, Jesus looks a bit of a dick.

The concluding room is given over to allegorical portraits. Some of belles which were idealised female portraits. Perhaps an early example of the male gaze. Tullio Lombardo's marble relief of Bacchus and Ariadne stood out by virtue of being the only three dimensional exhibit in the entire show. But most strange of all was a portrait of Saint Agatha carrying a pair of tits on a plate. A helpful gallery goer explained these were her 'attributes' and she was normally portrayed with them. Man, those biblical times were, er, biblical weren't they!?

Nearly as bloodthirsty is Carini's painting of Judith's maid after the killing of the drunken Assyrian general Holofernes. It's not explained why during this act she decided to flash a pert bosom. There's a couple of pastoral Titian shepherding portrayals and a work by Dosso Dossi whose name satisfies me greatly before we reach the final painting.

After the idealised women and fetishised gore it's a crone. A crone on loan. A crone on loan from the Galleria dell'Accademia reminding viewers at the time, and us now, that all beauty dies, all youth dies, everything dies. On that cheery note we strolled off down to Waterstones for a coffee and to fill our pockets with their complimentary chocolates. Thanks La Vecchia.

Col tempo.

Col tempo.

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