Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 12, 2004
Andrea Bayer, ed. Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2004. 272 pp.; 136 color ills.; 83 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0300102755)
Museo Civico “Ala Ponzone,” Cremona, February 14–May 2, 2004; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 27–August 15, 2004
Andrea Solario (Milan, ca. 1465–Milan 1524) Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, ca. 1506-7. Oil on canvas, 22-1/2 x 18-1/2 in. (57.2 x 47 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 32.100.81

Tracing artistic origins and sources is always tricky business, never more so than when one is seeking to identify and explain a concept as broad and malleable as naturalism. First there is the problem of the term itself. Postmodern theory has rightly claimed that there is no such thing as a naïve, unmediated, “natural” representation of the world around us. Not only are there different kinds of naturalism and different purposes it can serve, but one culture’s naturalism may also strike another’s as highly stylized and limited by convention. Even when there is general agreement that a certain group of works and/or traditions distinctly manifest naturalism—as critics have regularly maintained for Lombard painting since the Renaissance—it is rarely an easy task to determine where and how that characteristic first appeared or became dominant, let alone to identify the multiple sources that contribute to it.

Fortunately, the organizers of Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy have negotiated these difficulties extremely well. Essentially setting themselves the question “Where did the remarkable naturalism in the work of Caravaggio and later Lombard artists come from?” they journeyed back in time through northern Italy of the sixteenth- and late-fifteenth centuries, specifically to the arrival of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan. In doing so, they openly sought to complete a project begun fifty years ago, when Roberto Longhi organized an exhibition bearing the same title. The present exhibition revisits the many artistic riches of Brescia, Bergamo, Cremona, and Milan—all crucial to Caravaggio’s own artistic development. Among other works, portraits by Moretto da Brescia (ca. 1498–1554) and Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520/24–1578) demonstrate the tactile intensity of portraiture in those cities. The pictures of Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (act. 1506–1548), who is usually grouped with the Venetian school but who was actually born in Brescia and undertook several important commissions in Lombardy, show his characteristic use of intense and dramatic light. Gaming scenes by Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1532–1625) and Giulio Campi (ca. 1508–1573) and musician scenes by Callisto Piazza (ca. 1500–1561/62) set the stage for Caravaggio’s treatments of these subjects, while market scenes by Vincenzo Campi (1530/35–1591) and still-life compositions by Ambrogio Figino (1548–1608)—all splendid in their own right—forcefully contextualize the appearance of similar imagery in Caravaggio’s works. While the exhibition as seen in New York includes only five paintings by Caravaggio, they are intelligently distributed throughout the installation in the context of earlier paintings to which they are related. Standing in front of The Supper at Emmaus toward the end of the installation, the visitor is equipped with a mental checklist of how much Caravaggio owed to the fortunate circumstance of having grown up in Northern Italy. At the same time, Caravaggio’s own genius for composition and synthesis—quite different than the often awkward, somewhat myopic vision of earlier works—underlines his unrivalled skill for weaving these many strands together.

The graphic sections of the exhibition are equally impressive, presenting new visual evidence that demonstrates how Lombard artists closely observed nature in their drawings, many of which are clearly related to the investigations of Leonardo and his followers. In the corresponding sections of the catalogue, particularly insightful essays by Linda Wolk-Simon and Martin Kemp clarify the central role played by drawing in the naturalistic enterprise. Kemp’s felicitous coining of the term “hypernaturalism” helps to characterize Leonardo’s insistence on placing his natural observations in a rich spatial context as well as his infectious interest in exploring the causes and origins of natural phenomena. Thanks to Wolk-Simon’s essay, the intelligence with which Lombard artists responded to Leonardo is much clearer than the sadly derivative, dark shadowed faces usually cited as evidence of Leonardo’s impact on Lombard painting.

That said, Leonardo’s position within Lombard art still demands more nuanced situating, particularly regarding the reasons why Lombards may have been so attracted to his example in the first place. While the essayists in the catalogue occasionally make reference to earlier Lombard work, particularly the animal studies of the renowned miniaturist Giovannino de’ Grassi (act. from the 1380s, d. 1398), and rightly distinguish his work from Leonardo’s broader ranging and more systematic studies, I was not always convinced by the finished paintings in the exhibition that Leonardo’s manner really had supplanted the world-renowned naturalistic tradition of ouvraige de Lombardie or the hearty documentary style of Vincenzo Foppa (ca. 1428–ca. 1515), to which Mina Gregori rightly attached a good deal of importance in her essay. There is an impressive stillness and precision in much Lombard realism that owes as much to native tradition and Northern European models—another subject that deserves further elucidation but was not explored to any great extent in the exhibition—as it does to Leonardo’s example. To be sure, exhibitions can only accomplish a limited number of goals without becoming overly diffuse and visually confusing, but historians of early modern Italian art need to pay more attention to works outside their usual chronological and geographical boundaries, especially when dealing with Lombardy, which enjoyed so many significant commercial, political, and even aesthetic ties to northern Europe.

As future scholars move on to explore such topics, they will be exceedingly well served by the catalogue and its tightly written catalogue entries. Of special note, Andrea Bayer provides a fine review of how contemporary and later critics fashioned our understanding of naturalism in Lombard painting. Robert Miller publishes and elucidates a rare surviving contract for a painting of a market scene with a variety of “very ridiculous” figures. Biographical sketches and an exhaustive bibliography ensure the volume’s status as a standard reference work for years to come.

Gary Radke
Professor Emeritus of Art History, Syracuse University