Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: North Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was truly a connoisseur’s exhibition (closed the 3rd September). This was true not just for the choice works, the generally superb condition of these old masters or the occasional esoteric offering (Vincenzo Foppa, Bergognone, or Bartolomeo Montagna), but for the fact that the collections of the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, are based largely on the gifts of three early connoisseur collectors: Count Giacomo Carrrara, Giovanni Morelli, and Guglielmo Lochis.
The Accademia Carrara—currently undergoing renovation and reopening next year—is surely neither well known by American audiences nor frequently visited by even the most devoted museum-goers. More’s the pity, for Bergamo—situated in the region of Lombardy and northeast of Milan, near Lake Como—is quite a magical place. Despite its proximity to Milan, it came under the sway—politically and culturally—of Venice in the 15th century, which lasted almost four hundred years. Bergamo is crowned by the Città Alta—a medieval fortified city on a hill—while the newer parts—the Città Bassa—spread out below. The Carrara is a traditional picture gallery housed in a lovely neoclassical building, filled mainly with pictures by the great North Italian artists, but notable exceptions include a lyrical Raphael St. Sebastian of his early period in extraordinary condition and a large, dark painting of the Way to Calvary attributed to Albrecht Dürer. But the Carrara’s strength is the artists and indeed some of the very pictures included in the modest-sized but worthy Met show focused solely on North Italian Renaissance painting.
Despite the exhibition’s title—and indeed Bergamo itself—being dominated by the Venetians, one of the most arresting images in the exhibition was the portrait of an unknown young man by Giovanni Battista Moroni, a hometown boy of Bergamo. Indeed it was featured on the exhibition catalogue’s cover. While we don’t know who he was, because of the painting’s inscription along the bottom edge, we do know he was 29 years old when he sat to Moroni in the year 1567. Simple and direct, completely candid and authentic, it is a painting I fell in love with years ago during a visit to Bergamo. Compared to one of Moroni’s most famous portraits, The Tailor in the National Gallery, London (1565-70), so close is the resemblance to the Carrara’s picture that it must depict either the tailor himself (cloth merchant more likely), just slightly younger than his more mature visage in the London portrait, or it is his brother. Regardless, the painting here is potent evidence of the realism for which Bergamo and North Italy is so famous, the two great exponents being Leonardo and then Caravaggio, both based in Milan for periods at opposite ends of the century.
We must return to the Venetians, however, in more-or-less chronological order, the first two completely unconnected to Bergamo: Giovanni Bellini and his pupil, Titian. The former’s Pietà (1455-60) is stupendous in its blending both religious convention and spiritual pathos. While based in the highly formal Byzantine tradition in its icon-like presentation, the figures themselves—the dead Christ supported on either side by his mother and the young St. John—are moving and emotive. Furthermore, Bellini, as the most technically advanced painter of the Venetian Renaissance as well as possessing a probing intellect, fuses two compositional types—the Pietà, which shows the Mother Mary cradling the body of her dead son—and a related but critically different type, the Ecce Homo (or “Behold, the Man!”) where the battered and beaten Christ is presented to the populace, in this case, the viewer. Subtle cues of the ledge or fenestration and the spatially compressed, relief-like arrangement of the figures identify it as an Ecce Homo. On the other hand, Christ’s cadaverous skin, eyes closed in death, and Mary and John’s intense grief (note how the Virgin’s grief-ravaged eyes echo her red cloak and John’s hand clutches his face) relate it to the Pietà, a piteous picture. With his iconographical “mash-up,” Bellini develops a hybrid devotional image, conjuring up multiple meanings and emotions all at once.
His most talented student Titian turned out to be even greater in his ability to paint the human condition in a most poetic mode and with the most glorious color and brushwork. The Orpheus and Euridice in the exhibition seems a tricky attribution to the master, even for the early date of around 1508. But if any portion of the picture convinces that it was by the young Titian, it is the landscape. The left half shows a lyrical landscape in the best Venetian pastoral tradition and the right half, a Boschian inferno that reflects the Venetian interest in North European painting.
In turn, one of Titian’s followers, Giovanni Cariani, was featured in the show with his Portrait of Giovanni Benedetto Caravaggi (1517-20). Cariani was born in or around Bergamo (but early trained in Venice) and so provides a link between himself and the other significant portrait painter from Bergamo, Moroni. Generally, the contrast is pronounced between the former’s Titianesque portraiture and the latter’s much more intense naturalism and splendid (some might say more provincial) attention to detail, fabrics, props and the like. However, in this case Cariani’s treatment of the sitter has that earthy quality found in Bergamasque painting such as Moroni’s.
It is the third Venetian, Lorenzo Lotto, however, who truly stands out in the exhibition as he did in the artistic life of 16th-century Bergamo. He harked from Venice, but lived in Bergamo for over ten years. Three predella panels (individual paintings from the bottom part of an altarpiece) by him in the exhibition were produced for an altarpiece painted between 1513-16 for the Dominican church of SS. Stefano e Domenico. They are nothing short of sublime. These exquisitely preserved little paintings illustrate three scenes from saints’ lives which relate to those saints portrayed with the enthroned Madonna and Child in the main scene above (which is now housed in the church of San Bartolommeo, Bergamo). The first shows St. Dominic reviving the young Napoleone Orsini who has fallen dead from his horse (acted out in the extreme far right corner). The dramatic foreshortening of the sprawled Orsini is paired with a very noble group of Raphaelesque characters straight out of the Vatican Stanze (Lotto was in Rome while Raphael was working at the Vatican). Lotto’s use of Raphael’s marvelous manner of engaging the viewer through the direct gaze of particular characters coupled here with Bergamasque sincerity surely indicate the Dominican monk on the right as a portrait from life, perhaps a friend.
The center panel depicts Christ’s entombment. It is a symphony—if one can use such a word for such a somber scene—of Lotto’s trademark colors: his pinky carmine, brilliant blue and pale green really sing. The Virgin’s misery is plainly visible in her face set in a rictus as she pivots away from her son’s body and the man in the exquisitely painted turban hoists Him into the sepulcher. Finally, there is the extraordinary still life of the instruments of torture: crown of thorns, rope, nails, hammer and tongs. All in all, it is beautifully ghastly.
The balletic movement of this panel is echoed in the third panel, The Stoning of St. Stephen. Don’t forget that ballet had its origins at the Italian Renaissance courts and that the careful composition of figures in pleasing patterns was an important component in Italian Renaissance art. Here in the elegant figures of the two soldiers on the left—one armored and the other nearly nude—we see the Renaissance artistic conceit of figure come fratelli (literally, figures like brothers, one mirroring another, pivoting on an axis). This compositional device imbues a grace, a symmetry and balance to the composition. Likewise, the figures on the right stoning the saint—the first martyr of the Christian Church—are essentially the same figure repeated three times—in different dress of course—turning on an axis. Once again, the artist lends a harmonious beauty to an otherwise barbarous scene.
The exhibition was rounded out with the little portrait of Lucina Brembati painted by Lotto around 1518 to 1523. This voluptuous lady of substance—clearly in terms both financial and physical—is gorgeously rendered in that particularly Lotto-esque pinky flesh, which in turn reflects the silvery light of the moon in the sky above. As well it should, for the artist emblazons her name on the crescent moon with the syllable “ci” inscribed on what is otherwise the “lu-na” (“moon” in Italian).
These paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, presented a connoisseur’s selection from a venerable museum formed from the collections of connoisseurs. The double-down on quality here was nothing short of inspiring.