Visual arts review: Followers of Merisi

by
02 March 2018

Private collectors’ items enrich this show, says Nicholas Cranfield

musei di strada nuova, Palazzo rosso, Genoa, inv. PR106

Madonna with Child and the Infant St John the Baptist, 1620-22, by Bernardo Strozzi (1581/82-1644)

Madonna with Child and the Infant St John the Baptist, 1620-22, by Bernardo Strozzi (1581/82-1644)

ADMIRAL Andrea Doria (d.1560) was an Italian mercenary, who had re-established the Republic of Genoa and thereby founded his family’s fortune. His grandson, Marc Antonio Doria, was born in 1572, a year after Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and we meet him at the age of 78 in a formidable portrait by Justus Suttermans. Years earlier, in 1610, when he was resident in Naples, he commissioned what proved to be Caravaggio’s last painting, The Martyrdom of St Ursula (Intesa Sanpaolo Collection).

Marc Antonio’s brother, Giovan Carlo, who was based in Milan, was an equally astute patron of the arts, and is reckoned among the greatest early-17th-century collectors in the north of the peninsula.

Assembling a collection of some 90 paintings between 1610 and his death in 1625, he particularly favoured the Bolognese born painter Guilio Cesare Procaccini (1574-1625) and the younger Genoese Bernardo Strozzi. Procaccini’s family had moved to Milan in 1581 where he died and Strozzi is first reported in Lombardy in 1610.

Caravaggio had left Milan as a young man in the early 1590s to try his fortune in Rome. His later influence at home, and in Genoa, although less marked than in the south of Italy, resulted largely from the patronage of the Dorias. To explore this, Dr Alessandro Morandotti has brought together more than 50 paintings from Naples, Genoa, and Milan itself.

The present exhibition comes after an exceptional sold-out exhibition of 20 masterpieces by Caravaggio at the Palazzo Reale (”Behind Caravaggio”), to suggest the extent to which his penetrating style was taken up in the three decades after his death by other artists. It includes Neapolitan artists such as Battistello Caracciolo and the Spaniard Jusepe da Ribera, and Giovan Carlo’s other favourites, such as Peter Paul Rubens and his pupil Anthony Van Dyck.

Displayed in a former banking hall, it begins with three paintings of the martyrdom of the Romano-British princess. Ursula was allegedly put to death by the Huns with eleven thousand companions at Cologne in 383. Caravaggio invented a new iconography for the scene, which folds Ursula and her killer within the range of a single arrow and omits her innumerable handmaidens.

musei di strada nuova, palazzo Bianco, inv. PB 2201David with the Head of Goliath, 1621, by Simon Vouet (159-1649)

As if startled, St Ursula looks down with a mixture of surprise and resignation. Immediately behind her, one of the guards, an anxious self-portrait, looks out. Alongside this painting, a letter, dated 11 May 1610, explains to Doria the delay in the dispatch of the painting; an attempt at drying it backfired, and the painting needed retouching. Some of the canvas shows signs of that earlier wear and tear.

The composition was strongly echoed in a painting of 1615-18 by Bernardo Strozzi (Robilant + Voena), which may have been commissioned by Doria. Whereas Caravaggio’s looser style is predominantly dark, Strozzi’s palette of promiscuous pinks and blue suggests a rather grand theatrical piece. Ten years later, Procaccini’s canvas of the same subject is yet more classical.

The southern followers of Caravaggio kept to a darker palette and often heavier explorations of biblical scenes — as in Battistello’s 1610 Crucifixion and Baptism of Christ, or Ribera’s aching St Andrew painted for the Hieronymite oratory in Naples (1616) — whereas both Strozzi and Procaccini, as if compensating for the north, affected softer and lighter colours. Nor was Procaccini ever unnerved at painting on a grand scale. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the recently restored altarpiece The Last Supper (1618) from the basilica of the Annunziata del Vastato in Genoa. It measures more than eight metres wide, and is nearly five metres tall, and dominates the central banking hall.

In a church around the corner, on via Verdi, his 1625 Death of St Joseph painted for its eponymous church, designed by Richini in 1607, is currently being restored. To see it lying on its side gives some idea of its immense height.

With exceptional private loans, which include the Apostles Peter and Paul painted as part of a series of the Twelve by Rubens in the later 1610s for the Palavicini family and still owned by them, Giocchino Assereto’s Ecce Homo (1640s), and Matthias Stom’s haunting evocation Saul and the Witch of Endor, the show offers an excuse, if one is ever needed, to visit the former Duchy of Milan.

 

“The Last Caravaggio: Successors and New Masters” is at the Gallerie d’Italia, Piazza della Scala 6, Milan, until 8 April. Tuesday to Sunday 9.30 a.m.-7.30 p.m. (late opening Thursday to 10.30 p.m.). Closed Mondays. Phone 00 39 800 167 619.

www.gallerieditalia.com

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