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Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Christ and the Adulteress (ca. 1508–10), oil on canvas, 139.2 x 181.7 cm. Glasgow Museums; Bequeathed by Archibald McLellan, 1856 (181). © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection. Courtesy American Federation of Arts
Visitors to the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) are in for a treat this winter with Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums. The AGA is the only Canadian venue on the international tour of this exhibition, which traces the evolution of Italian painting over five centuries, from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century. Featuring 41 works by 35 artists—including luminaries such as Titian, Botticelli and Bellini—Of Heaven and Earth showcases work from numerous major artistic centres, including Venice, Naples, Florence and Rome.
Greeting the public is an exquisite panel depicting St. Lawrence holding his gridiron, by Niccolò di Buonaccorso. The accompanying text points out the painting’s battered areas, as well as sections where the gold leaf has worn away, making the story of the object as gripping as the image itself. This turns out to be the case for many of the pieces in this elegantly balanced and well-paced show.
The Annunciation by Botticelli immediately captivates. The viewer’s eye follows the golden rays from hurried angel to humbly bowed Virgin and back again, sliding over vibrant drapery and the angel’s soft, grey wings. It would be easy to overlook incongruities in the architecture, which could be evidence of a studio assistant’s hand, and possibly the reason Archibald McLellan—donor of approximately half the paintings in the exhibition—recorded this work as a copy.
The centrepiece of the show—Titian’s Christ and the Adulteress—also has a compelling story. Originally 50 centimetres (20 inches) wider, the painting has had a full-length male figure lopped off, most likely due to damage. In 1971—a century after the existing canvas was acquired—a preserved fragment of that excised section, called Head of Man, was obtained by Glasgow Museums.
In addition, the painting had long been attributed to Giorgione. Recent scholarship, however, indicates that the work is actually an early Titian, painted when the artist was only 20. The drama surrounding the piece fascinates, but in no way overshadows the young Titian’s brilliant technique. The National Gallery of Canada had a similar experience with a Titian in its own collection, which you can read about here.
Visitors to the exhibition will also be delighted by the works of other well-known Old Masters. Carlo Dolci’s Salome is a mild interpretation of the usual scene: the head on the plate is delicately wrapped in cloth, and the bloodstains could be mistakenly read as a decorative pattern. The text accompanying Giovanni Bellini’s gentle and soothing Virgin and Child notes its deteriorated state—some areas have become transparent and others have been painted over—but the work is nonetheless transcendent.
Equally appealing are gems from the 18th and 19th centuries. At the end of the exhibition, there are several charming works, including a genre painting by Federico Andreotti titled The Violin Teacher, in which the subject’s expressive eyes, the gesture he makes with the bow, and his open mouth, encourage us to await his instruction. Similarly engaging is a painting by Luigi da Rios, which depicts two Venetian women leaning over a parapet, gazing intently at something outside the frame. Their vibrant scarves and shawls are every bit as enchanting as the crowns and head coverings in the rest of the exhibition.
Those drawn to Of Heaven and Earth by names such as Botticelli and Bellini will be satisfied by the promise of heavenly paintings fulfilled. They will be similarly pleased with the more earthly offerings. In addition to providing an inspiring way to spend a winter afternoon, the exhibition offers Edmonton gallery-goers a rare opportunity to view five hundred years of Italian painting at its finest.
Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums is on view at the AGA until 9 March 2014. For more information, click here.
Shawna Lemay is a poet and essayist from Edmonton who has written about art forgery, still life and ekphrasis. Asking, a collection of poem-essays on art, beauty, and ekphrasis, is forthcoming in spring of 2014.
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