Review

Santa Barbara's 'Botticelli, Titian and Beyond' a quirky gem

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic
Italian painting by way of Glasgow makes for a compelling 'Botticelli, Titian and Beyond' @sbmuseart

Scotland is apparently in the midst of a cultural tourism push, with traveling exhibitions from its national museums in Edinburgh and civic museums in Glasgow visiting California. Both are old-fashioned "treasures" shows.

San Francisco's De Young Museum is presenting 55 paintings in "Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces From the National Galleries of Scotland," a sprawl that starts in Renaissance Florence and ends in Modernist Paris. At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 41 works constitute the more focused "Botticelli, Titian and Beyond: Masterpieces of Italian Painting From Glasgow Museums."

I haven't seen the Edinburgh show, but the Glasgow exhibition is a quirky gem.

If you think from these two that the Scots are especially enamored of Botticelli, well, that seems to be something of a fluke. Edinburgh's illustrious National Gallery didn't acquire its Botticelli, "Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child," until 1999, while Glasgow's "The Annunciation" has been a star in its museum collection for more than 150 years. (It's a lovely little essay on the dramatic potential for the new formal technique of one-point perspective.) Perhaps Botticelli's titular prominence was driven by a marketing decision to advertise a bold-face name.

The Santa Barbara show has been traveling to smaller museums in Canada and the United States since 2013 under the more illustrative title "Of Heaven and Earth." For its final stop, the museum decided to put two of the most prominent artists, the Florentine Botticelli and the Venetian Titian, on the marquee.

The changed title might have been a mistake, if visitors arrive expecting a "who's who" of great Italian artists beginning with the Renaissance revolution. Thirty-six artists are represented, and half the works are by lesser lights. More than half date from the 17th century and after.

In the final room, the 500-year journey crash-lands with the mediocre likes of Pietro Aldi and Luigi da Rios. A treacly storybook romance, sometimes said to portray Renaissance Florence's libertine painter (and part-time friar) Filippo Lippo wooing a bashful nun, and rosy-cheeked young women looking out over a Venetian canal are bland, 19th century examples extolling regional legend and local charm. They merely reflect a new Italian nationalism, the country having recently unified after centuries as an agglomeration of independent city states.

Yet despite such slumps, two things do make the exhibition of unusual interest.

One is the presence of stellar individual examples. Some are by artists one would expect, such as a view of quotidian life on magnificent Venetian canals by Francesco Guardi. Some are by artists one might not.

The show also crystallizes Victorian taste in Glasgow. The city was a veritable boomtown during Britain's 19th century Industrial Revolution, when most of the civic museum's collection was formed.

The show's pinnacle is Titian's "Christ and the Adulteress" (1508-10), painted when the Venetian genius was the ripe old age of about 20. The subject is a pivotal episode in the historical transition away from the cruel brutality of ancient Mosaic Law.

The Pharisees have brought a woman caught in the act of infidelity before Jesus, who was teaching at the temple. He's challenged on upholding the Old Testament command that the sinner be stoned to death. According to the New Testament, Jesus pondered a bit.

"He that is without sin among you," he finally declared, "let him first cast a stone at her." None could or did, and the lesson against judgmental self-righteousness was taught.

Titian's painting is large, its eight figures roughly 3/4 life-size. A variety of poses, garments and textures indicate a young artist trying out a range of effects — some frankly less successful than others. Most important, he moved the scene outside the temple court and into the natural landscape.

There, pastoral harmony reigns, bracketing the action. A foreground clump of plants is drawn with near-botanical clarity. In the background, fluffy white clouds float above equally fluffy white lambs.

Titian brilliantly frames the picture's moral teaching with the seductive power of natural law, nudging aside the old manmade kind. Soft brushwork and atmospheric coloring ranges from a light-reflective shimmer on satin and body armor to smoky shadows shrouding Jesus' reticent face. Titian became the undisputed master of optical naturalism, a hallmark of Venetian Renaissance art.

Notably, the picture we see today isn't exactly the one the artist saw. At the lower right side of the adulteress' white dress, a strange, blue-edged triangle intrudes. Originally that shape was the bent knee of a ninth figure — the picture's tallest — standing at the canvas' right edge.

An anonymous copy of the painting now in a museum in Bergamo, Italy, reveals that he was seen from behind. A so-called repoussoir figure, he turns to look over his shoulder directly at us. A viewer gets invited in to engage the scene.

Why the right-hand section of the canvas was trimmed off is unknown. (Damage? An avaricious dealer turning one Titian into two?) The body was never recovered, but in 1971 Glasgow acquired the missing figure's severed head. It hangs on an adjacent wall.

Cutting out the figure changed Titian's pictorial balance. The dramatic focus shifted. Now, Jesus' arm is smack in the center, reaching out to rein in the woman's accuser. This action is the picture's heart.

Before, it wasn't. The accuser, not Jesus' arm, was the center of the scene. His action was Titian's focus.

The accuser pulls the adulteress forward, and Jesus pulls on the accuser's arm. We're engaged with an ambivalent tug of war. An older, vengeful conception of sin wrestles a new, nonjudgmental sense of salvation. Pretty impressive for a 20-year-old.

Nearby is a gracefully poised "Virgin and Child" by Giovanni Bellini, Titian's teacher, although it is not in the best physical condition. More riveting are two pictures by Titian's own student, Paris Bordon, both showing mother and baby casually arrayed in the landscape with various saints. Bordon's figures are more ethereal than Titian's typically earthy and energetic men and women.

Perhaps that's because Bordon the student told Renaissance chronicler Vasari that he didn't much like Titian, his big-deal teacher. Instead he struggled to emulate Giorgione. (You can count on two hands the number of confirmed paintings by Giorgione — a still historically mysterious painter of dreamy enigmas, who died at roughly 31.) For at least a century, "Christ and the Adulteress" was mistakenly attributed to Giorgione, so the exhibition's two opening rooms offer a lot to chew on.

A terrific small devotional painting on copper by Giuseppe Cesari, known as Cavaliere d'Arpino, is a little Mannerist tour-de-force from the very end of the 16th century. Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" mural in the Sistine Chapel inspired many in its twisting cascade of Satan's fallen angels, who are being vanquished by a florid, sword-wielding St. Michael. The crew is packed into a condensed space, where radiant heaven quickly darkens into tumultuous hell.

The section on Baroque painting includes some by artists enamored of Caravaggio's brand of spotlighted excess, although none possess his painterly brilliance. The standouts are instead two sumptuous Carlo Dolci canvases.

An exquisite "Adoration of the Magi" is more like an adoration of textiles — soft emerald velvet, shiny sapphire satin and luxuriously textured ruby and gold brocade — which the clothes-horse kings ostentatiously wear to present their flashy gifts to a modest infant posed in a humble wooden manger. The picture's unknown patron, who was surely an aristocratic member of the Florentine 1%, could easily project himself into the adoring scene.

A half-century later, shortly before Dolci died, the painter was still at it, wrapping a wistful, alabaster-skinned Salome in a spectacular, 17th century cerulean-blue and crisp white court ensemble adorned with gold thread and pearls. By then the pious artist might have been exhausted: The severed head of John the Baptist, slack-mouthed and decoratively displayed on Salome's silver platter, is thought to be a self-portrait.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is a pair of monumental Salvator Rosa canvases, each more than 8 feet wide, from the mid-1650s. Rosa is famous for setting modest religious scenes into big, dramatic landscapes, but the settings often overwhelm the narrative, crushing it in bravura displays of artistic showmanship.

But not here. The painter was also a playwright, and these tales from the life of John the Baptist are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the compositions. Small figures and big landscapes fortify one another.

In Domenichino's nearby picture of hermit St. Jerome, the lush Arcadian landscape is untroubled. He injected a contemplative aura into the grueling, and contradictory, desert isolation actually endured by the saint.

By contrast, when Rosa painted St. John pointing out the little figure of a risen Christ walking off in the distant wilderness, he leaned the saint against a mossy, oblong rock and set it before a monumental, shattered tree. The tree and rock evoke the cross and sepulcher. The story's epic drama gets infused into the scenery.

How is all this an indicator of Victorian taste in Glasgow? The exhibition's compact, informative catalog recounts the history of the Italian painting collection, which is primarily housed in two Glasgow Museum buildings: the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the Burrell Collection.

It began with a bequest of more than 500 paintings, about 150 of them Italian, by Archibald McLellan, a bachelor and prosperous local coach builder who died at 58 in 1854. Half the show's works, including those by Botticelli, Titian, Cesari, Domenichini, Guardi and the Dolci "Adoration," belonged to him.

He also died in considerable debt. The city, after much heated debate, ended up paying more than $3.6 million (in inflation-adjusted dollars) to settle McLellan's obligations and retain the art collection. Glasgow was riding the economic crest of the Industrial Revolution. The controversial decision reflects an aggressive measure of civic ambition.

The city's population tripled during Queen Victoria's reign. Laborers — partly fleeing potato famines in Scotland and Ireland — arrived in search of sustaining work in the flourishing iron smelts, coal and shipbuilding yards and textile factories. As a wealthy businessman, not a landed aristocrat, McLellan represented a changing social and political order.

His art collection was not a Downton Abbey-style display of nobility's grandeur but instead evidence of a prosperous merchant's erudition. Still, its conveyance to a civic art museum was supercilious. The aim was to provide a public instrument of moral education for the new urban working class.

Protestant Scotland wasn't Catholic Italy, but Renaissance and Baroque paintings could still be read as secular lessons. Titian's forgiven adulteress rebukes self-righteousness. The Dolci "Adoration" ennobles humble origins. Landscapes elevate nationalist ideals.

And then there is the simple material quality of museum paintings themselves. Glasgow enshrined art in a site of high civic regard. Virtue goes hand in hand with artistic skill, happily establishing a worthy example all its own.

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