Perusing 17th century Italian 'schools' of art

Now and then, I suppose, it's not a bad idea to take a look at one of the less notable corners of art history. Of two exhibitions staged in London the year just ended, it isn't altogether easy to decide whether the Royal Academy's "Painting in Florence, 1600 to 1700," at the beginning, or the National Gallery's "Venetian 17th-century painting," at the end, took the prize.

One shouldn't, of course, judge something too harshly for what it isn't. But it is easy enough to regret that this Venetian exhibition is of the 17th and not the 16th century. Even the lighthearted 18th-century slightness of the Pellegrini that concluded the show is a relief after such a parade of oratorical allegory and dark religiosity.

Argue as enthusiasts might (and as the organizers of this show did), this period of Venetian painting was nevertheless one of decline and uncertainty, made even less impressive by the giants of the preceding century -- Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto -- not to mention such contemporary giants in other places as Bernini, Rubens, and Rembrandt.

Seventeeth-century Venice managed to produce Bernardo Strozzi. This exhibition showed him to be a telling and percipient portraitist and to be accomplished in a variety of other genres and decorative departments. He has a happy enjoyment of paint and of fresh young complexions, and an opulent color sense. But (as is the case with a number of the figures in this exhibition) his talent wasn't fostered in Venice at all, but in Genoa. He spent the last 13 years of his career in Venice, but when he arrived in 1631 his style was completely formed, under the influence of Rubens, with a little help from Van Dyck.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the art of this period and place, though it has been previously underrated to the point of being virtually ignored, is painting that fed on painting rather than on nature -- on some fresh sources of observation and inspiration. Even this scrupulously researched and pleasantly displayed selection, largely from British collections, proved unpersuasive. You look more or less in vain for that sudden rise of visionary power that lifts an artist higher than his influences, that is actually transforming instead of echoing Ribera, Caravaggio, or the early Titian (and there is here a rather intriguing return to the more classical and ordered pre-Baroque era of early Titian).

It is significant that the one startlingly original, in fact stunning, painting in the exhibition, a workm by Sebastiano Mazzoni, is Theatrical.m It even looks as though it might represent some wild moment in a drama. It is viewed strikingly from below, as if from an audience, and is of running figures, fleeing into the picture space from some unseen terror in one concerted panicky rush. The architecture is no mere backdrop, though; it contributes vigorously to the action. The figures are seen dramatically from below, and there is nowhere any wasted energy, no mere gesture or overwrought expressiveness. Once again, though, Mazzoni is an artist whose style was formed elsewhere, this time in Florence. (He was included in the earlier Royal Academy exhibition.)

Venice at this time seems to have been a place where artists (some in this show are even from Germany) strayed, and sometimes stayed. Some merely passed through. The exhibition points to a number of internal cross-currents and influences, but it never really amounts to a "school." As with other minor 17 th-century paintings, religious sentiment runs high on the one hand, and a kind of rough realism on the other. A kind of toughness emerges when both sides meet.

Then there are the moral lessons to be taught. My favorite here is Domenico Fetti's "The Mote and the Beam," in which an old man is arguing with a young one , a great hefty beam pointing at the first and a splinter angled off it toward the second. Surprisingly, this pictorial fable, painted in an unfussed manner, is quite effective. As effective, say, as some lesser-known Victorian morality picture might be.

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