Sunday, December 14, 2008

Goethe and Old Master Painting

Art and Love in Renaissance Italy is a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are three sections in the exhibition. The first, called "Betrothal, Marriage, and Childbirth," features wedding gifts like jewelry, gilded boxes, bridal chests, and (most splendidly) maiolica decorated with portraits or with narratives from mythology. In the second section, "Profane Love," the themes are often erotic, while the third, "Paintings of Love and Marriage," includes nuptial portraits and paintings for the bedchamber and private quarters. The above painting by Paris Bordone, of Venus, Mars, and Cupid Being Crowned by Victory, is clearly in the second section.

Goethe, on his first visit to the papal art collections in Rome, saw his first Bordone painting, though not the one of Mars and Venus. He had arrived in Rome on All Saints' Day 1786 and was disappointed to discover that it was not a special feast day in the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. The next day, however, the pope was celebrating the feast of All Souls in

"his chapel" in the Quirinal Palace (which was the papal residence until 1870). Goethe and Tischbein hurried to Monte Cavallo. As he describes his visit in Italian Journey, he was impressed with the square and the staircase designed by Michelangelo (here is Piranesi's engraving of the Quirinal Hill), and with the colossal statues of the Dioscuri. He found Pius VI an attractive, dignified figure, but, Protestant as he was, Goethe was uncomfortable with the Catholic mass. He and Tischbein instead investigated the galleries of the palace, which were open and free of charge to the public that day.

Goethe had bypassed Florence, such had been his hurry to get to Rome (and had also neglected the shrine of Saint Francis while in Assisi, with its frescoes by Giotto); thus began his immersion in the art of the Old Masters. The first major painting he saw was that of Saint Petronilla by Guercino, but he was most impressed by the Titian's Frari Madonna. He describes "a stately episcopal figure enveloped in a huge chasuble, which is stiff with embroidery and embossed gold stitching." The rapture on this figure's face -- as can be judged by the way he gazes upward -- is apparently the result of the divine inspiration imparted by the large book in his hand. Goethe goes on to describe the other figures, including the "lovely virgin" behind this main figure, the elderly man to his left, as well as the two monks and the young man wounded with arrows at the right. At the top, in the semicircular masonry, "in the highest glory," is the Holy Mother with the Infant Jesus in her lap, and angels on either side of them. Crowning the scene is the "threefold nimbus of the Holy Spirit, serving as central point as well as keystone."

What I find interesting is that Goethe (unlike any graduate student of art history today!) was unable to identify the figures in the painting: Saints Catherine, Nicholas, Peter, Anthony, Francis, and Sebastian. He thus makes the following observation concerning this scene: "There must be a sacred, ancient legend that explains why these different, inappropriate personages are brought together in such an artful and meaningful way. We ask not how or why; we simply accept that it is the case and are astonished at the inestimable artistry."

He found "much more understandable, if not less mysterious," a fresco painting by Guido Reni in the Annuziata Chapel, that of the Virgin quietly sewing, while two angels at her side wait to serve her. "The lovely image teaches us that youthful innocence and industry are watched over and honored by the angels." The Annuziata Chapel remains today in the Quirinal Palace. See the lovely images of the chapel by "Melancolia Celeste."

The last painting described in this portion of Italian Journey is that of Saint George and the Dragon, the painter of which he is unable to identify. He is informed by a bystander (who turns out to be Heinrich Meyer, a Swiss artist who will become a lifelong friend) that the work is by "Pordenone, a Venetian." That Paris Bordone stands somewhat in the shadow of his more famous contemporary, Titian, with whom he may have apprenticed, can be seen in this misattribution. According to Wikipedia, Bordone's paintings are of "unequal merit." Nevertheless, Saint George stands today, along with Titian's Frari Madonna, in Room X of the Vatican Museum.

Titian picture credit: Artilim Online Art Gallery

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