Sunday, 20 September 2009





If two things in the world of art seem certain, they are that Italian museums have a surplus of masterpieces, and that the Russians, desperate for cash, are willing to lend. Put these two factors together and you have the exhibition now at the Scuderie del Quirinale, currently the most prestigious exhibition space in Rome.


Its purpose is to trace the parallels, and also, as it turns out, the divergences, between Russian and Italian art and architecture, from the time of the late Middle Ages onwards.


There are three periods when Russian and Italian culture seemed to be in step with one another. The first of these was during the medieval period, when artists in both regions were the heirs of Byzantium. A number of works included in this section of the exhibition emphasise how close the parallels actually are - a painting of the Madonna and Child by an artist  close to the mid-13th century Florentine Coppo di Marcovaldo is wholly Byzantine in style.


Gradually, however, the two civilisations began to diverge. Russia lacked the restless curiosity that created the Renaissance in Italy. This is not to say that Russian art became creatively impotent. There are two over-lifesize icons here representing a pair of standing saints, which come from the Cathedral of the Dormition in Vladimir. They were painted by the greatest of Russian icon-painters, Andrei Rublev, perhaps with the help of a collaborator, and date from the first decade of the 15th century. They demonstrate just how grand Russian sacred art could be when it was at its height.


However, the Italian contribution was at this time, and for three centuries to come, much more various. The organisers of the exhibition have thrown in masterpieces with a lavish hand - a Virgin by Antonello da Messina and Botticelli's 'La Calumnia' [both from the Uffizi], Titian's early 'Concert' [from the Palazzo Pitti], Correggio's 'Martyrdom of Saints Placidus, Flavia and Eutychius' [from the Galleria Nazionale in Parma], and works by almost every great name in italian Baroque art: Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni, Pietro da Cortona, Gianlorenzo Bernini.


Placed beside these Baroque masters, Russian art of the 17th century looks cramped and provincial.


The balance only began to shift again at the beginning of the 18th century. In particular, Russian rulers, from Peter the Great onwards, began to invite Italian painters and architects to work in Russia. A remarkable early fruit of this collaboration is the portrait head of Peter the Great, based on a death-mask, by Carlo Bartolommeo Rastrelli, one of the Italian architects who helped to create the city of saint Petersburg as we know it today. This head gives one a better idea of the sheer force of Peter's character than any written description I know.


The epoch of Russian/Italian artistic co-operation reached its height during the reign of Peter's successor, Catherine the Great. Though Catherine was originally German, and took her aesthetic direction from France, she fully appreciated the talents of Italian artists. Some made the journey to Russia, in the hopes of making their fortunes. Other exported works there. Which influenced Russian painters. The exhibition offers a tellin comparison between a mythological canvas by Pompeo Baroni, purchased from the artist by Count Rasumovsky when the latter was on a Grand Tour visit to Rome, and another by the Russian painter Peter Sokolov.


During the course of the 19th century many Russian artists visited Rome in order to further their artistic education, and there are often remarkable similarities of style.


The real fascination, however, lies in the relationship between avant-garde Italian and avant-garde Russian art in the early years of the Modern Movement. In a certain sense, both Italian and Russian avant-gardists were subsidiary figures, clients of what was going on in Paris. However, they also had things in common that were not completely shared with their Parisian counterparts. To a much greater extent than their French rivals the Russians and Italians were in search of a new social order. This search would eventually lead the Italian Futurists to Fascism and the Russians to an alliance with Bolshevism.


In addition, both groups of artists were active propagandists for a new way of seeing and experiencing the world. This reflected the restless dissatisfaction felt in both countries with the social framework.


It is noticeable, for instance, that artists in both countries were much bolder in their approach to abstraction than those in France. Cubism, often described as an 'abstract' style, was in fact simply a new way of describing appearances. One can perhaps say that the will to abstraction that appears in the work of the leading Italian Futurists Balla and Boccioni, just as it does in that of Russians such as Kandinsky and Malevich, ultimately stems from the 'conceptual' legacy bequeathed to both cultures by Byzantine art.




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