Fraternities and Frescoes: A Week in Arezzo

Arezzo Piazza Grande

Things have been a little quiet at The Idle Woman recently because I was away in Italy last week on the inaugural Arezzo Summer Course. This is aimed at doctoral students, curators and others with a professional or academic interest in prints. It offers the chance to hear from scholars in the field, who present lectures on their current research, as well as including field trips to various collections and print rooms. I imagine the feel will be different every year, depending on the scholars who come to act as ‘professors’, but this year the course was perfectly aligned to my interests. One of its themes was to look at the interaction between music and printmaking – specifically the way that prints were used to record ephemeral festivities, theatrical events and pieces of music like cantatas, which until the late 17th century existed only as part of an oral tradition.

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In Search of Hipermestra

Stefano della Bella: Apollo

Glyndebourne’s current production of Francesco Cavalli’s Hipermestra brings an ancient tale of love and duty up to date, with a powerful contemporary setting. Being a historian, however, I always wonder what it would’ve been like to experience these operas as they were originally performed. What would we have seen if we’d been in the audience for Hipermestra’s premiere in 1658? Fortunately, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Extensive visual and written documentation records the costumes and sets. Even more excitingly, the theatre where the opera was first performed still exists and is still functioning. During a recent business trip to Florence, I took some time out to visit the Teatro della Pergola and its remarkable archives, in search of Hipermestra…

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Canaletto and the Art of Venice (2017)

Canaletto: View of the Salute

(Queen’s Gallery, London, until 12 November 2017)

In 1762, the young George III purchased en bloc the collection of Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice. In doing so, he became at one stroke the owner of the greatest collection of Canaletto paintings and drawings in the world. These works have been in the Royal Collection ever since and now, gloriously, they’re brought together in a stunning exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, offering an abundance of Venetian delights. All in all, if you have any fondness for Venetian splendour, you must not miss this show.

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Michelangelo & Sebastiano (2017)

Sebastiano: Christ Carrying the Cross

(National Gallery, London, 15 March-25 June 2017)

The current National Gallery exhibition is a lovingly-crafted feast for the mind, focusing on a remarkable, though somewhat one-sided friendship. This is the tale of a talented young painter in search of new opportunities, who manages against the odds to become friends with the most difficult, most demanding artist of the age. Our painter is amazed when this great maestro decides to collaborate with him. But that collaboration must come at a price: the young man departs from the style of his youth and devotes himself to assimilating the master’s aesthetic. But what happens when the friendship sours? This is a story worthy of a novel, full of ambition, envy, manipulation and exploitation, Renaissance rivalry and tragically one-sided devotion. And some truly beautiful art.

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Sérénissime! Venise en fête de Tiepolo à Guardi (2017)

Longhi: The Ridotto

(Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris, 25 February-25 June 2017)

The Venetians went down dancing. As their commercial and military power ebbed away in the 18th century, they became famous for something else: their carnival. Visitors were drawn by the lure of the masquerade: by the temptation of anonymity, liberty and decadence. But Venice didn’t just come alive at that period between Christmas and the onset of sober, joy-killing Lent. On the contrary, there were festivals all year round: regattas to welcome distinguished visitors; state ceremonies staged like fabulous plays; and the theatre itself, finding its most sumptuous form in Venetian operas. This small-scale exhibition in an equally bijou museum focuses in on Venice en fête, a phrase for which there is, perhaps tellingly, no English equivalent. With the Royal Collection‘s Canaletto show looming on the horizon, like the Bucintoro hoving into view, I thought this would be an excellent way to whet my appetite.

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Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting (2017)

Vermeer: The Astronomer

Inspiration and Rivalry

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, 22 February-22 May 2017)

Vermeer is one of the few artists whose mere name can prompt a stampede. Nowadays he’s seen as a kind of lone genius, but this show restores him to the context of his age, showing him exchanging ideas and themes with his peers. It has proven to be one of the most popular exhibitions in the Louvre’s history, forcing the museum to introduce timed entry and forcing visitors to book in advance. Tickets cover both this and the Valentin de Boulogne exhibition and, though my heart lies with Valentin, I found myself captivated by these jewel-like pictures of the Dutch Golden Age.

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Le Baroque des Lumières (2017)

Jouvenet: The Magnificat (The Visitation)

Chefs-d’œuvre des églises parisiennes au XVIIIe siècle

(Petit Palais, Paris, 21 March-16 July 2017)

Spare a thought for French history painters of the 18th century. They’re overshadowed on one side by their glamorous 17th-century predecessors, bathed in the reflected glory of the Sun King and, on the other side, by the tousled, poetic 19th-century Romantics. If people associate anything with the 18th century, it’s frills, furbelows, plump putti and simpering shepherdesses. But this isn’t actually representative of what people would have seen at the time. The concept of the public national gallery hadn’t yet taken hold, but the French could still admire splendid works by the leading artists of the day – not in the secular cathedral of the museum, but in the literally hallowed spaces of Paris’s churches. This splendid show reunites some of the period’s great religious canvases, many of which have been restored. Vibrant colours shimmer on the walls, dismantled schemes are reunited, and a generation of virtually forgotten artists is brought back to the public eye.

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Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio (2017)

Valentin: David with the Head of Goliath

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, 20 February-22 May 2017)

Around 1610, a French teenager arrived in Rome, hoping to study as a painter. His name was Valentin. Although he was just too late to meet Caravaggio, his artistic formation took place in a community beholden to the sharp contrasts and uncompromising realism of the older artist. Valentin would become known as one of the most gifted of the ‘Caravaggisti’, but this exhibition gives him credit as someone who was able to develop and transcend his sources. We move from rowdy Roman taverns, full of cardsharps, fortune tellers and impromptu concerts, to face-to-face encounters with brooding saints. Every room testifies to this underrated painter’s flair and intensity.

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Académie Royale (2015): Hannah Williams


A History in Portraits

Published in 2015, this lavishly-illustrated book offers a engaging study of the Académie Royale, from its foundation in 1648 until its abolition in 1793 as part of the intellectual readjustments of the Revolution. While the Académie’s meetings and statutes are well-documented and have furnished much research over the years, Williams seeks to go beyond a simple chronological history of a great institution. Instead, she interrogates the Académie’s values and networks by reconstructing the lived experience of its members, as far as possible, through an examination of the Académie’s collection of official artists’ portraits. It’s an ambitious idea, but the book pulls it off remarkably well and is all the more appealing for its spirited accounts of machinations, alliances and rivalries in the corridors of the Louvre in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Beyond Caravaggio (2016-17)

Caravaggio: The Taking of Christ

(National Gallery, until 15 January 2017)

Dark black shadows are split by waterfalls of cloth, dyed in deepest blood-red crimson. Light falls starkly on white flesh from an divine source, or peeps warmly through the fingers of a hand that shields a candle. Saints become brooding youths or old greybeards with seamed, unidealised faces and dirty feet. Musicians and cardsharps preen in fancy brocades, carrying a rogue ace tucked into the backs of their belts. This exhibition at the National Gallery leads us into the underbelly of Baroque Rome and Naples, to explore the works of Caravaggio’s followers. It’s an absorbing journey, which emphasises just how good Caravaggio himself was, and how hard it was to equal him.

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