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Artist taken to Rome’s bosom

21 December 2012

Nicholas Cranfield reviews a southerly Vermeer exhibition



Inspired by Ficherelli:St Praxedes, 1655, by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), on loan from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection Foundation

Inspired by Ficherelli:St Praxedes, 1655, by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), on loan from the Barbara Pi...

THE reputation of the Delft-born artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) is now such that the inclusion of his name in the title of any exhibition is clearly intended to draw the crowds. From relative obscurity in the 19th century, his stock has gradually risen, partly because of the paucity of his known works. With no more than 34 surviving paintings securely identified as his, the catalogue of this show in Rome makes a virtue of reproducing all of them as a selling exercise.

It is perhaps, therefore, less surprising that the show currently on the Quirinal Hill can claim to be the first to showcase the artist in Italy. The exhibition is left in the capable hands of Arthur Wheelock and Walter Liedtke, who are both known as the leading scholars in the field within the United States.

Of the 57 paintings on show, only seven are by the elusive Vermeer, two of which are among the three paintings disputed in his oeuvre. A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals has only recently begun to find acceptance as an autograph work. It had been posthumously repainted, but tests carried out in 2011 show that it was painted on a similar panel to that of the Louvre's famed Lacemaker (1669/70). The other is a signed copy of a Florentine devotional work.

The eighth-century basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome traditionally marks the burial spot of the daughters of St Paul's first convert there, a senator named Pudens. The church, enlarged by the great reformer and pioneering pontiff Paschal I, houses the relics of other early saints and part of the column to which Jesus was tied when he was whipped in the Praetorium.

According to tradition, St Praxedes sought to offer Christian refugees a safe home during the persecutions of the emperor Marcus Antoninus. Her piety extended to gathering their mortal remains, and, in a Baroque painting by the Tuscan Felice Ficherelli (1605-1669?), she is depicted in the act of squeezing out a sponge containing their blood into an urn (private collection).

Ficherelli, who was born in San Gimignano, was of a somewhat retiring disposition (his nickname is "Il Riposo"), but his paintings have a sexual charge that palpably suggests the inescapable interplay between sexuality and religion, and between eroticism and chastity.

Londoners who know only his The Rape of Lucretia (Wallace Collection), will recognise this feeling all too well. On first visiting Savoie, I was amazed that the gallery in Chambéry displays his St Sebastian without even a word of warning.

The Ficherelli canvas of St Praxedes is here simply because Vermeer, in one of his first known works, seemingly imitated it slavishly; it has the same dimensions, and the composition is identical, as if it has been traced over. Vermeer's copy, which has been in the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection since 1987, seems to be a pale reproduction.

It may be that Vermeer, the newly converted papist, painted it only to satisfy his mother-in-law, the redoubtable Maria Thins, after his marriage to Catherina Bolnes (1653). Calvinist Holland tolerated Catholicism only if it was practised privately, and Mrs Thins harboured Jesuits; the Society of Jesus had a strong attachment to celebrating persecution, which may explain the particular choice of an otherwise seemingly obscure subject.

Whatever Vermeer's own credal persuasion (like three-quarters of the population, he had been Protestant until he married), religion rarely informed his work, although he did name his sons Francis and Ignatius. He is not known to have painted any altarpieces, and another early work, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, in the National Gallery in Edinburgh and not in this show, is equally problematic.

The Metropolitan in New York has loaned its painting Woman Playing the Lute. Given how often musical instruments, with the connotations of love duets, feature in Vermeer's genre scenes, it is interesting to note that none was recorded in the inventory taken at the time of his death. Wheelock's own institution has sent the delightful Girl with a Red Hat (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), a small work (22×18 cm) whose attribution has sometimes been questioned, although it is ubiquitous across the Eternal City on posters.

Three of Vermeer's paintings depict a woman with a wineglass with the subtext of a lover's encounter. That on show here is the one from Braunschweig (the others are in Berlin and New York). The curiosity here is that, although there are two cavaliers in the scene, one of whom is paying court to the seated girl, she alone can drink. The table is stocked with a porcelain wine flagon and white napery, while a peeled lemon lies on a silver salver; but there are no other stem glasses for the gentlemen. A formal portrait on the wall (the only decoration in the room) is hardly glimpsed. Is it, perhaps, her absent husband, or a disapproving father?

The other cavalier is melancholy, seated as if he is bored by waiting for his friend to finish the business. The likely subtext of the picture is lightly airbrushed for an Italian audience, where it is explained that Petrarcan love, pure and unattainable, is transformed from a quasi-neoplatonic ideal into a reality that could be represented. In the stained-glass panel of the open window stands the figure of Temperance, but the woman turns aside to look at us, as if to ignore her own safety.

A much less temperate society of all-day drinking emerges in the Zurich painting Two soldiers and a chambermaid, c.1655 (Pieter de Hooch), and in Two Peasants Smoking and Drinking, painted in the 1640s by the Haarlem-born painter Adriaen van Ostade, who had studied with Frans Hals (Montpellier). Life was hard in Holland, and the grit was real. The Disobedient Drummer (Madrid) by Rembrandt's pupil Nicolaes Maes (1634-94), and Hendrick van der Burch's Woman with a Child Blow ing Bubbles in the Garden (Zurich) suggest simpler passions and pleasures.

The last painting in this exquisitely staged exhibition is, however, The Allegory of the Catholic Faith, from New York. A female form, personifying the Roman Catholic Church, in accordance with the Iconologia published by Cesare Ripa in 1603, stands in front of a painting of the crucifixion by Jacques Jordaens, next to a Flemish tapestry of the later 1500s. Ripa wrote of faith's having the whole world at its feet, and this gives the clue to Vermeer's including a Dutch globe dating to 1618 in a composition that also includes a Roman Missal, a chalice, and a crown of thorns, as well as an all too obvious serpent.

Vermeer may not dominate the exhibition, although it is impossible to ignore the bravado and sheer beauty of his 1658 Little Street, which is the first work to be shown (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), and which suggests a plausible link to the writing of Alberti on perspective.

From the Golden Age emerges a veritable treasury of works, many from private collections. Anthonie de Lorme was born in Tournai, and established himself as a Dutch painter, predominantly of church interiors in Rotterdam, where he died in 1673, aged 63.

The Chapel in the Laurenskirk with the Tomb of Admiral Witte de Witt (1667) is a painting of great social significance. St Laurence's Church (1449-1525) was the first all-stone building in Rotterdam. It had been gutted in 1572 by the Calvinists. De Lorme's view shows the south transept and the public monument designed by the sculptor Pieter van Rijck for Admiral de Witt (1599-1658), who had been killed fighting the Swedes at the siege of Copenhagen.

At the time, the Swedes under Charles X Gustav seized his body and displayed it at Elsinore Castle as a trophy of war, but it was later returned to Holland and buried on 7 October 1659 in the Rotterdam pantheon. De Lorme depicts a Hollander couple showing the monumental tomb to two Ottomans, while a mendicant looks on, perplexed and bemused. The dog that urinates against the column in the foreground is a harsh reminder of the ritual laws of purity; the Catholic church would have been defiled by the presence of the Turkish traders in the past, but the Calvinist church knew no such barriers.

It is somehow telling that it was de Lorme's paintings of this church's interiors which allowed it to be rebuilt accurately (1952-68) in the aftermath of the Rotterdam Blitz of 14 May 1940, when it became a national monument as, roofless, it had defied the worst of the Luftwaffe's aerial bombardments. In the city of so many Baroque churches, it is faintly unnerving to contemplate the progress of the Reformation and the power of Calvinism.

"Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Painting" is in the Scuderie del Quirinale, Via XXIV Maggio 16, Rome, Italy, until 20 January 2013. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays (and additionally 24 and 31 December to 3 p.m.), and late opening Friday and Saturdays to 10.30 p.m. Phone 00 39 06 39967500.



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