FOR most visitors to Florence, the great paintings of the Uffizi
galleries are so much the prime tourist destination that it is
often difficult to justify the time spent in queuing or the
patience needed in seeing individual works of art. This necessarily
means that many become so exhausted by the time that they reach the
terrace café that any further appetite for paintings or sculpture
is bound to be compromised.
Given the present re-hang of the collection, with formidable
works taken from the celebrated Tribuna and placed elsewhere, and
with all the Titians, Raphaels, Pontormos, and Caravaggios moved
down to the first floor, this is regrettable. More than before, any
serious-minded gallery-goer needs to think carefully about
priorities and to plan accordingly.
The temporary exhibitions also suffer from this rearrangement,
as they are only accessible after walking through the entire
gallery with all its inevitable distractions. Nor is it possible to
book solely for the exhibition.
The exhibition of Italian paintings by the Utrecht-born Gerrit
van Honthorst (1592-1656) is the first in a series to celebrate
2015 as "the year of art in Florence", as if an excuse was
Despite the strange subtitle, which looks better in Italian than
it reads in translation, but which proves to be irrelevant, of
which more anon, this is a significant retrospective of a
Caravaggesque painter from the Dutch Golden Age who was famed for
his ability to depict night scenes, gaining him his sobriquet
Gherardo delle Notti (Gerard of the Night).
In his lifetime, he was regarded with great esteem, and he
became, successively, a court painter for Charles I in London and
at Hampton Court, and in 1635 was commissioned for classical scenes
by Christian IV of Denmark. He is the later author of a series of
family portraits (1642-43) painted in The Hague of the exiled
Stuart Queen of Bohemia and her children, including Prince Rupert
of the Rhine and his brother Prince Maurice of the Palatinate, and
their sisters, now in the National Portrait Gallery and various
This acclaim followed an earlier period working in Rome, which
is the subject of this monographic exhibition, in which English
visitors will recognise the confrontation in the National Gallery's
Christ before the High Priest c.1617 as one of
the great 17th-century paintings in Trafalgar Square.
Perhaps his most celebrated commission for Florence was for the
Adoration of the Shepherds, which he painted while he was
still working in Rome for the Guicciardini chapel in the church of
Santa Felicità in the winter of 1619-20. The church served as the
parish church for the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and still nestles
under the Vasari corridor that links the Uffizi and the Palazzo
The painting remained as the altarpiece there until 1667, when
it was replaced by a Crucifixion by Lorenzo Carletti. In his 1832
Voyages historiques et littéraires, Antoine Claude
Pasquin, called Valéry, noted that both paintings were in the choir
alongside a Resurrection by Antonio Tempesta. Three years later, it
was sold from the church when it entered the Uffizi collection.
When the river Arno flooded Florence on 4 November 1966,
Honthorst's night scene of the shepherds crowding round the
illuminated Christ Child beneath four delightful cherubs that
tumble out of the dark night sky was used on the cover of the
exhibition appeal literature to help restore works. In the still
unresolved car-bombing of the Uffizi on 27 May 1993, when six
people were killed, the canvas was one of three destroyed. The two
other paintings were by Honthorst's contemporary Bartolomeo
What is left of the canvas has been painstakingly restored, and
bears the scars of the destruction. It is shown with justifiable
pride alongside some 40 paintings by the artist in an exhibition
that concludes by showing his influence as a painter of night
scenes on the likes of the Sienese Francesco Rustici (1592-1626),
Matthias Stomer (1600- c.1650), and the Arlesean Trophime
Far from being bizarre, as the subtitle suggests, although the
Christian iconography may be increasingly unrecognisable to many
visitors, the paintings are predominantly religious scenes. Two
feature the Nativity, one of which was long owned by the
Earls of Portland, but was sold off from Wellbeck Abbey at
Christie's in 2010 for £1.1 million. The other was in a Medici
villa and is now in the Uffizi.
An inner radiance from the Christ Child illuminates the night
scene in both, as the Virgin piously unveils her newborn for the
gaze of the angels (Uffizi) and the Shepherds (now in a German
It is suggested that this topos, in which the painterly radiance
is in stark contrast to the darkened stable, derives from a
Bolognese tradition such as found in the similar depictions of
Domenichino, Lanfranco, and Reni. A contemporary of Honthorst,
Giulio Mancini, recorded that Rubens painted a similar altarpiece
for the church at Fermo in 1608, drawing on the much earlier work
of Antonio da Correggio, a picture, now in Dresden, that dates from
the late 1520s. But the tradition is much earlier.
The inspiration for such a striking popular composition, with
its shaded reminder of John 1.5 and 1.9, comes from the well-known
vision accorded to St Bridget when she visited Bethlehem on 13
March 1372. The record of her visions was translated from Swedish
into Latin soon after her death the following year. One of those
testifying in the process towards her canonisation in 1380
mentioned such a night scene being painted in Naples; and a
beautiful triptych by Niccolò da Tommaso, now in the Philadelphia
Museum of Art, also predates her canonisation.
A century later, Honthorst's (and Rubens's) fellow countrymen
Geertgen tot Sint Jans, who painted several scenes of the
Nativity by Night in the 1480s, one of which is a
much-loved painting now in the National Gallery, and Hugo van der
Goes popularised the scene of darkness and light.
Several pictures form a sequence of the Passion of Christ, a
theme emphasised in the Counter-Reformation preaching of the
period, and include a Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane
(St Petersburg), the Mocking of Christ from the Capuchin
church on the via Veneto in Rome, which is reckoned to date to the
artist's earliest years there (1610-15), and a later and more
horrifying depiction of the same scene from Los Angeles.
Christ in the garden had looked painfully resolute in front of
an angel, but, in keeping with the Northern Netherlandish tradition
of a Man of Sorrows, he is harrowed and greatly troubled by the
violence to which he is subjected. With downcast eyes, Jesus avoids
looking at his executioners, who mock him, and whose fierce faces
leap out of the darkness by the light of a flaming brand held by
one of them. The only repose now will come in death.
In an overdoor panel painted around 1612-13, we see the Dead
Christ with Two Angels (Genova, Palazzo Reale). Honthorst uses
strong models for his Saviour, so that the force of death is even
more overwhelming. Also from the former royal palace in Genoa, and
cut down to fit an identically reticulated frame, comes a less
widely known St Augustine of Canterbury.
Sitting at his desk, he looks in contemplation at a crucifix,
while he points to a map of England, where he would bring the
gospel. It is not clear why Honthorst was asked to produce such a
picture, but his own visit to the court of Charles I in 1628 may
have proved a satisfactory-enough excuse, and brought a reminder of
the need to encourage the conversion of a new Protestant
A dying Magdalen, supported by one angelic messenger while
another holds a light before her face (Milan, private collection),
offers us a chance to consider our own mortality and the comfort we
might seek in death, and is one of those canvases in which the
artist makes us pause alongside his subject, as in the earlier
(1611-12) frieze-like Judith's Prayer before Killing
Holofernes (Paris, Galerie Didier Aaron & Cie).
Holofernes sleeps heavily in upholstered luxury as Judith's
maidservant draws back the curtains from the bedside. Judith has
paused in the act of unsheathing her fierce-looking scimitar, and
offers a silent prayer heavenwards. All three figures spread across
the canvas (190×245cm). This is one supper party (the remains of
which are on the table behind the vengeful Jewess) not to forget.
The Cleve-land Samson and Delilah has a similar
apprehensive concentra- tion and silence as the Philistine sets
about cutting the Nazarene's locks.
Other religious pictures include Jesus in his Father's
Workshop, a scene Honthorst painted more than once, with the
Virgin helping the boy Jesus to hold up an oil lamp to provide
light as his father carves wood with an adze. After a long day in
his workshop, St Joseph Reading comes as a surprise. The
Carmelite devotion to the Virgin's spouse may explain the
commissions for such tender observations of fatherhood. A startled
St Luke Reading a Letter (Chambéry) and an ecstatic St
Francis reeling back as his hands and side are pierced with the
stigmata are painted with real assurance.
The tables set for lutenists, a wedding banquet, and a
mischievous fortune-teller show Honthorst as a painter of genres;
but the scene-stealer has to be the tawny-coloured rabbit pertly
leaping up to sniff the sole of Orfeo's bare foot, let loose from
the Palazzo Reale in Naples.
"Gherardo delle Notti: Most Bizarre Paintings and Merry
Suppers" is in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, until 24 May.
Open daily except Monday. Phone 00 39 055 294883.