Last week my husband and I had a few days away in our nation’s capital, Canberra. We had tickets to the Renaissance exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Advertised as 15th & 16th century Italian paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, it was a feast for the eyes.
There were 70 paintings spread over 6 rooms, catalogued as: From Gothic to Renaissance, Madonna and Child, Altarpieces and Portraits, The High Renaissance, Late Renaissance and Northern Italy.
Artists included Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini, Titian, Bergognone, Cavazzola, Mansueti, Caroto, il Vecchio, Lotto, Bassano, Moroni, Vivarini and more. Most had two or three works on display.
The Madonna and Child room was especially interesting because all were painted using roughly the same pose but the differences in style, facial features and garments was very apparent in each. I noticed particularly how the face of the Child was depicted. In the modern-day paintings I’ve seen, babies are almost always shown with round, chubby, fairly undefined and featureless faces (oh I can feel my critics dissenting, but after all this is MY opinion) whereas in these artworks it felt like the Child had more of a little boy face on a baby body. The features could be directly related to those of the Madonna in the same piece.
The exhibition traces the shift from the stiff images of the Gothic period to a new-found realism of the Renaissance. New techniques of painting in oil and the adoption of perspective bring brilliant colour and depth to the works. Most artists moved away from using tempera but Botticelli maintained this practice. The luminescence, depth and fluidity of his work grabs attention and leaves the viewer with a sense of wonder.
It was during this period that sacred imagery was no longer the only subject for art and humans became central to the paintings. As well as marking key events such as marriage, pregnancy or accession to power, portraits were used to document a person’s likeness for future generations.
The Altarpieces room had some huge polyptychs – multi panelled altarpieces – usually commissioned by the Church. Smaller scale diptychs and triptychs were made and could be transported or displayed in private residences. These centred on a key image, usually a Madonna and Child or a Crucifixion, with the lives of Mary or Jesus or individual saints incorporated in the side panels.
The paintings were beautifully set out in a very spacious venue. The lighting was appropriate and the ambient temperature was good. There was plenty of signage and reading material throughout and the subject matter itself was stimulating and engrossing.
However, my enjoyment was completely spoiled by the sheer volume of people allowed to view at any given time. The event is ‘ticket timed’ meaning that when you purchase your tickets you pre-choose a time to enter the exhibition and when the allocation is full no more may enter until a later time. I thought this a terrific idea until I saw how many the gallery deemed appropriate to let through together. Frankly it was an unending people-train. The public filtered through in a thick line and filed past the paintings in order, listening to their audio, and heaven help anyone who broke ranks and then wished to go back for a second look or dawdled for too long in front of any image. By the time people reached the second and third rooms they had got sick of this system and weren’t so regimented but it was still far too busy for my liking.
Overall, a fabulous opportunity for us to see some (mainly) religious artworks that rarely travel outside Italy but you need to be patient with the crowds.
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