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Italian Masterpieces

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40 DEGREES SOUTH

Italian Masterpieces

Catherine de Boer

Great art enriches us...and the recent Italian Masters Exhibition, hosted by the NGV,  links two great institutions: the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and the Museo del Prado in Spain, marking 300 years of inextricable links and patronage in the arts between Spain and Italy, during the Renaissance period.

'Renaissance’, meaning rebirth, is the name given to a cultural movement that occurred in Italy during the years circa 1200 to the end of 1600’s. This rich period followed the fall of the Roman Empire, where much knowledge and artwork was lost. The exhibition was curated, room by room, according to patronage, artist, subject matter or movements - each with a striking regional diversity.

What appealed to me most from this selective Prado collection, are the Italian religious paintings. The serendipity moment for me was when I realised that I first saw some of these religious artworks at a very young age, on prayer cards. These prayer cards were often given, as part of a century old Catholic custom, to mark either a visitation by a religious family member, or a significant religious family event, such as First Holy Communion or Confirmation. The cards usually bore a religious painting on one side of the card, and on the reverse was a devotional prayer. They were often dedicated to the Virgin Mary, an icon of the Catholic Church.

 Carlo Maratti 'The Virgin and Child in Glory' c1680

Carlo Maratti 'The Virgin and Child in Glory' c1680

As I moved around, I began to recognise some works from early childhood years: Annibale Carracci's "The Assumption of The Virgin' which depicts the mystery of The Assumption, where the Virgin Mary ascends into heaven. At Christmas time, prayer cards were also popular gifts from my religious relatives, and often depicting The Virgin Mary and babe, such as in Carlo Maratti's painting, 'The Virgin and Child in Glory'.

In this collection lies a heady feast of religious symbolism and mythology: painterly sunsetting clouds, hovering guardian angels and cherubs, starry halos and heavenly skies: all painted with a clarity and a mastery of perspective, with absolute perfection in technique. 

My emotive response is enhanced by a soloist playing chamber music, that wafts like a cloud through the gallery space.  I like that there are headsets provided, where I can sit, and immerse myself in the works of musicians of this period; de la Torre, Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrielli. The flautist’s melody reminded me of a time long ago, when I climbed the summit of a remote mountain, Mount Anne, in south-westTasmania.  Whilst resting there, my friend started to play her flute – its notes echoing across the entire valley, resonating through the silent stratosphere. 

 Annibale Carracci 'The Assumption of The Virgin' c1587

Annibale Carracci 'The Assumption of The Virgin' c1587

 Giambattista Tiepolo 'The Immaculate Conception' 1767-70

Giambattista Tiepolo 'The Immaculate Conception' 1767-70

 Raphael Holy Family with St John c1517

Raphael Holy Family with St John c1517

As well as the Spanish Royal Court, the Catholic Church played an important role as patron to many Renaissance artists, and thus influenced moral and spiritual aspects to be conveyed in a painterly manner. The artists of this period often painted to intentionally convey feeling and emotion. 

I pause in deep contemplation, at a work that most stirs my soul, in this exhibition: Giambattista Tiepolo's ‘The Immaculate Conception’. I soaked up its magnificent scale, the nuisances and purity of colour palette and rich symbolism.  Mesmerised, I was moved by its sheer beauty and technical perfection. It evokes in me serenity and peace, and fathoms my appreciation of its Rococco style.

Appreciating this Prado exhibition is perfectly paced with my own journey of rebirth: revisiting of my classical upbringing, and the re-igniting of passions once lost to the busy-ness of life in the past decades: classical piano, curating collections, writing, art and photography.  I ponder what is it in these masterpieces that causes me to recalibrate? The planets of my thoughts align: I synthesise what I am looking for… and I understand.

Experiencing this curated art collection was not, for me, solely an intellectual exercise. Nor is it memorable because of the powerful and moving religious events depicted. The meaning and value of these works of art lay not only within each work itself, but also in my response.

Although I bring to my experience other ideas and memories, it is my ability to appreciate on a deeper level, the artworks themselves- to appreciate the qualities that elevate these works, into a subjective realm of great art. I perceive the aesthetic qualities, which reflected a common human condition, and respond in a way that moves me.

Understanding great art through this lens is not a rare exotic flower, that chances to emerge under elaborate hothouse conditions. It is nurtured by experiencing great art over a period of time, and in many different contexts- viewing, reading, contemplating, and reflection.Visiting collections such as this one- as part of our world's cultural heritage, inspires, enriches and feeds our souls.  And in an exponentially advancing technological age, this is one cultural habit that should be nurtured to bloom perennially.