We are lucky to have the Corsini Collection in Auckland. It is grand to see Italian paintings in their real size not reduced in books. There may be some reservations about attribution but many of these paintings are off the beaten track and not found in the books on major painters nor in the collections at prominent public galleries in Europe.
The big tondo of the Madonna and Child, by Botticelli , the most famous artist on show and given the largest place in the publicity, is a lovely painting. It is very similar to two other round paintings of the Madonna and angels in the famous Uffizzi Gallery in Florence all typical of the charm that Botticelli, who was roughly contemporary to Leonardo da Vinci, commanded in his early work. Later in his career the influence of the severe preaching of Savaranola made his work more spare and solemn.
Botticelli established a prototype of beauty seen in both the Madonna and even better in the faces of the angels that surround her. They hold up a canopy, her Crown as The Queen of Heaven as well as a Trinity of three white flowers. Other angels hold symbols of the Crucifixion: the nails, the crown of thorns, the spear that pierced Christ’s side and the sop that was offered him when he said, ‘I thirst.
The draperies are elegantly painted. The colour is rich with plenty of the very expensive blue not confined to the Madonna’s robe. It is attributed to, “Sandro Botticelli and Workshop”. This is a reminder that all the great painters of the Renaissance ran a business, a workshop, where a variety of design work was available. If the Master achieved a particularly outstanding work copies by assistants were often made from the same drawings as the original or from the painting itself. The Master himself might add the finishing touches.
Only a careful examination side by side with an undoubted original would reveal differences in handling and draughtsmanship.
Another outstanding painting of the Madonna and Child is the later Mannerist work by Jacopo da Pontorno. His paintings are crowded and often eccentric. His treatment of eyes is often strange seen here in the staring, direct gaze of the child Christ, the terrified and prophetic gaze of John the Baptist in the lower corner of the work and the thoughtful, downcast eyes of the Madonna. Among the Italian painters of the Renaissance he was unusually influenced by German art. This can be seen in the houses in the background copied from a print by Albrecht Durer. Other Madonnas are linked to the big names of Fra Bartolomeo and Andrea del Sarto found in all the art histories of the Renaissance.
Mention of the preaching of Savonarola which became politically dangerous leads to the famous documentary painting of the stages of his execution with two of his colleagues in the square of Florence instantly recognisable to any visitor. The work from the Corsini Collection is one of more than twenty copies of the original.
There is a group of executions, notably a work on copper by the little-known Jacopo Logozzi with an energetic headsman decapitating Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Her slender neck looks pitifully vulnerable. Another is a vigorously painted character head of Saint Simon by Tintoretto accompanied by the saw with which he was cut in half. It is an example from the great Venetian tradition. Rather later, not an execution, but victory celebration, is the Baroque painting Matteo Rosselli of the young David carrying not only the severed head of Goliath but also the enemy’s mighty sword still stained with blood. He is accompanied by dancing maidens playing tambourine, triangle and lute.
The biblical hero is matched by another work by Matteo Rosselli. This time a heroine from The Book of Judges. Jael’s tender hand holds a tent-peg as she drives the spike through the ear and into the skull of the sleeping enemy general Sisera. As well as the force of the action, it is notable for the way the virtuoso painting of her elaborate dress establishes her status.
The work attributed a member of the prominent Ghirlandaio family of painters in Florence and the painting attributed to Caravaggio are portraits and give a fine feeling for the character of the prominent men of the time.
My favourite painting in the show: a striking, alert young woman personifying Music by Giovanni Martinelli. The woman who has been playing the flute turns to the viewer with a gentle smile and projects a charming personality captivating as sweet music.
There has been some effort to suggest the family life of the Corsini with portraits, historic photographs and even a table setting. Rather more effective of time and place, painted wall and ceiling frescos, are the heavy gilded fames around the paintings to make them stand out against a background of heavy drapes and curtains and in candle light in a grand palace.
The Corsini have been for centuries a very prominent family of the nobility in Italy long before it was unified into one country. The occupied various castles and palaces throughout the centuries and are still a titled part of high society in Italy. The collection reflects their status and gives insight into the life of a family that have gave one Pope and several cardinals to The Church at a time when such people had real political power in Italy and Europe at large.
It is well worth a visit.
As a footnote: travelling back from Europe I was surprised to find among the films available, the marvellous Luchino Visconti film, The Leopard with Bert Lancaster superb in the leading role. The film was based on Lampedusa’s novel Il gattopardo (The Leopard). Burt Lancaster played the prince of a declining Sicilian noble family. It is one of the great films of all time.
© T J McNamara, 2017
Except as provided by the Copyright Act 1994, no part of this publication may be reproduced or stored in a retrieval system in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.