‘Da Caravaggio a Bernini: Capolavori del Seicento Italiano nelle collezioni reali di Spagna’ (XVIIth Century Italian Masterpieces in the Spanish Royal Collection) is a strange exhibition because it aims at showing the ‘strong’ cultural ties between the Spanish court (Philip IV) and the Italian states in that period but achieves its exact opposite. In other words, trying to become a blockbuster by adding the name of Caravaggio to the marquee, it ends up showing that there was not much going on between Italian and Spanish painting in the XVII century.
The part of the royal collection displayed is composed by those diplomatic gifts from Italian rulers that were given in attempts to win favour with the Spanish monarchs, whose possessions –the viceroyalty of Naples and the State of Milan- enabled them to influence the evolution of the complex Italian political situation from the mid sixteenth century on. The show includes Guercino’s Lot and his Daughters (currently, I am in Bologna, so very excited about going to see the Guercinos here) and Guido Reni’s Conversion of Saul (who was also from Bologna).
The show includes the magnificent Christ on the Cross by Bernini from the Habsburg Mausoleum at the Royal Monastery of the Escorial which out of place is underwhelming and comes across as incomplete and fragmentary. The strongest part of the show is , however, composed by a series of amazing pieces by Jusepe de Ribera amongst them the ‘Ecstasy of Saint Francis’. The inclusion of Ribera (otherwise called ‘Il Spagnoletto’ is confusing because he was a Spaniard working in Naples and arriving in Rome in 1606 . Why including so many paintings by him in a show dedicated to ‘Italian masterpieces’ in the Spanish Royal Collections. Are the curators claiming that ‘Il Spagnoletto’ should not be considered as Spanish? The other confusing piece is The Escorial’s Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob by Diego Velazquez, allegedly painted after his first visit to the Italian peninsula. Nothing is mentioned about his job as an art dealer and as an agent for the kings’ purchases in Italy for decorating the Buen Retiro Palace which is the true connecting point between the court and Italian art. In other words, sculpture was by far more influential than painting at the spanish court.
The show is structured along ten rooms and the first one is by far the most impressive alowing the viewer to compare Federicco Barocci’s classicism (‘The Calling of Saint Andrew and Saint Peter’) and Guido Reni’s Saint Cecilia with Fede Galizia’s late mannierism (‘Judith and Holofernes’) and the most confusing piece in the whole show the tenebrist late Caravaggio’s ‘ ‘The Head of Saint John, the Baptist presented to Herodes’). The Caravaggio is the only piece by the artist in a show that, otherwise, claims to tackle the evolution from Caravaggio to Bernini in the Spanish royal collections. These two artists were, to give just one example, more influential in the Netherlands than in Spain. So what is this show about then? Are the Italian claiming a strong influence in Spanish painting (de Ribera and Velazquez through Caravaggio? Where is Ribalta, then?). Or are they claiming that Velazquez and Ribera adopted an Italian visual language when in Italy and if that is the case, why? (Was Velazquez more classical when at the Villa Medici and Ribera more Caravaggiesque when in Naples?). Unfortunately, the show does not give any answer to these questions and does not even encourage the viewer to ask alternative ones
The second room falls apart by showcasing the kind of works that were purchased in bulk to decorate the enormous walls of the sped up construction of the Buen Retiro Palace by the Count Duke of Olivares. Pieces by ‘Giovanni Lanfranco e bottega’ (sic) and Emilio Savonazi cannot truly hold themselves beside the one Velazquez and the many by de Ribera. Not allowing the viewer to know that the Lanfranco was painted by the ‘bottege’ (that is, his workshop) in order to help the Spanish crown to fill its walls makes the assessment of the fantastic Calling of Saint Paul by Guido Reni rather confusing. At this point, what at the beginning of the show came across as variety and eclecticism ends up being confusing and messy.
The third room is confusingly dedicated not to an Italian but to a Spaniard. I am talking, of course, about Jusepe de Ribera and although his paintings are indeed astonishing, one cannot help asking oneself what’s the point of including him in a show of ‘Italian masterpieces at the Spanish royal collection”? Having said this, the following room is even more confusing with the aforementioned classicist piece by Velazquez and a ‘Dead Christ’ by Charles Le Brun. What is Le Brun doing here being neither Italian nor Spanish?
The second floor is even worse although it starts with an interesting display of sculptures by including a series of ‘foreign’ crucifixes by Georg Petel (born in Weilheim, Germany!), Giambologna (born in Douai, France!) and (finally two Italian!!!) by Bernini and Algardi. These pieces are welll displayed but its incoherence does not allow the viewer to bear to any conclusion. After that the show is plain boring and falls apart, dedicating one of the last rooms to a mediocre artist like Andrea Vaccaro and at that point I just wanted to leave with the certainty that the Spaniards got very little from the Italians if of painting we are talking about. The people with whom I visited the show even felt that the way the show is marketed equates misselling. This is a dissappoing and dishonest show at the Scuderie del Quirinale. J A T