The poetry of landscape
The stylistic development of Cima da Conegliano’s painting is well illustrated in this succinct exhibition, writes Peter Humfrey
Peter Humfrey, Sunday, 1st July 2012
Cima da Conegliano: Maître de la Renaissance Vénitienne
5 April–15 July 2012
Musée du Luxembourg, Paris
Catalogue by Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa
ISBN 9782711859900 (paperback), €39
(Réunion des Musées Nationaux)
This is a somewhat reduced version of a 2010 exhibition, likewise curated by Giovanni Villa, titled ‘Cima da Conegliano: Poeta del Paesaggio’ and staged in Conegliano, the birthplace of Giovanni Battista Cima (c. 1459/60–1517/18). The 40 or so works in the original exhibition have been trimmed to 27; now there are only four (rather than nine) paintings depicting Cima’s favourite subject of the half-length Madonna, and only two (rather than five) of his various representations of St Jerome in a Landscape. The latter group – typically offering extensive vistas through woods and meadows, past rocky hillsides toward distant, blue mountains – formed a particularly attractive aspect of the approp-riately subtitled Conegliano exhibition. But there are still plenty of landscape backgrounds in the paintings shown in Paris. Characteristic of Cima (as opposed, for example, to his older Venetian contemporary Giovanni Bellini) is a topographical element, whereby the hilltop citadels, with walled towns nestling beneath them, are clearly based on Conegliano itself. The surrounding countryside also irresistibly evokes that of the Trevigiano, while at the same time being poetically transfigured by elements of fantasy and a pervasive radiance.
In Conegliano limitations of space meant that the hang was rather too crowded, whereas in Paris the paintings gain greatly from being able to breathe in the much more spacious surroundings of the Musée du Luxembourg. Other pluses are the addition of a number of works not seen in the previous showing, in particular two important altar-pieces from French collections (Figs. 1 and 3) and the Lamentation from Modena. Another impressive addition is the great Sacra Conversazione (1492–93; Fig. 4) from the cathedral in Conegliano which in its usual position, hung high above the main altar, is difficult to see properly (under-standably it was not moved for the exhibition of 2010, being only a few hundred yards away). Although the picture surface is not in good condition, at least one now has the opportunity to examine at close quarters Cima’s meticulous, quasi-Flemish attention to detail. Also more clearly visible than usual, in this altarpiece as well as in the Incredulity of Thomas from Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia, are the marks made by the capitals of the now lost original frames. These marks confirm that in both cases the missing frames were of an architectural design and probably carved in stone, thereby providing a visual complement to the fictive architecture in the paintings and enhancing the effect of illusionistic, three-dimensional pictorial space.
In one case, that of the Sacra Conversazione (1489) from Vicenza, an altarpiece is displayed to great advantage in its original wooden frame, the faux-marble of which echoes the muted colours and marble surfaces in the painting. Dated 1489, and still executed in tempera, it is one of the artist’s earliest works; despite the reduced quantity of works in Paris, the present show succeeds in illustrating Cima’s stylistic development over a career of about three decades. Though this development is hardly dramatic, there is nonetheless a clear difference, for example, between the bright polychromy of the Conegliano altarpiece, with its ostentatious foreshortenings (as in the broken spokes of Catherine’s wheel) yet cramped space, and the Louvre altarpiece of c. 1513 (Fig. 1) with its greater range of texture, prettier colour and, above all, effect of free-flowing air and light. About halfway in between, stylistically, is the columnar figure of St Sebastian (c. 1502; Fig. 3) from Strasbourg. Beyond the saint is a scintillating view of the Castel Sant’Angelo, complete with a surmounting Archangel Michael; in this case, however, the castle is not situated in Rome but within an idyllic view of the pre-Alpine foothills of Cima’s native region. The Paris exhibition does not have quite the range of mythological paintings as seen in Conegliano, but it does include the most beautiful of them all: the little tondo of Sleeping Endymion from Parma (c. 1501; Fig. 2), in which the shepherd, watched over by the moon, is surrounded by similarly somnolent birds and animals.
The exhibition ends on something of an anticlimax, with an unworthy triptych from Caen and a huge and perfunctory Lion of St Mark from the Accademia. Yet any idea that Cima lapsed into decadence at the end of his career is dispelled not only by the Louvre altarpiece but also by the magical St Jerome from the Uffizi, in which the drastic reduction of the colour range has resulted in a newfound tonal unity, and the landscape now shimmers with warm humidity.
The accompanying publication, unlike that produced for the Conegliano exhibition, does not have entries on the individual works – it is not so much a catalogue as a short monograph on the painter. In keeping with the French subtitle, which implies that the main purpose of the exhibition is to recommend the painter to a new audience, Villa first sketches the historical and cultural back-ground to Cima’s career, and then provides a usefully up-to-date and reliable survey of his art and its development. Together, the text and plentiful colour illustrations make up a worthy complement to a very attractive exhibition. o
Peter Humfrey is Professor of Art History at the University of St Andrews. His monograph on Cima was published in 1983.
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