Magazine article The Spectator

A History of Taste

Magazine article The Spectator

A History of Taste

Article excerpt

Who loves the seicento? Where are the fans of the post-Raphaelites? Not among the mass-art public, if tourism is anything to go by. For every visitor who makes a pilgrimage to Cento, birthplace of Guercino, to the Bologna of Guido Reni and the Carracci or the baroque churches of Rome, several thousand must infest the early Renaissance sites of Florence, Assisi and Arezzo. Our tastes in Italian art remain by and large those of our Victorian greatgreat-grandfathers --Botticelli, Piero, Fra Angelico, the perennial superstar, Michelangelo. The great painters of the 17th century remain comparatively little known and appreciated. But for those who wish to sample the period, an excellent opportunity is offered by Discovering the Italian Baroque: The Denis Mahon Collection at the National Gallery.

Sir Denis, of course, is one person who has long loved the seicento (indeed an appreciation for the baroque has been widespread among art historians for over half a century and Sir Denis was a pioneer in this development). In addition to studying the period, he put this collection together in days when baroque painting was even more out of favour than it is today. Between the Thirties and the Sixties he was able to buy outstanding works by great seicento artists for sums that were fantastically small even when inflation is taken into account: 50, 100, 200.

The result is a microcosm of the Italian baroque, a connoisseur's perfect private museum in which almost every major figure and tendency is represented -- Caravaggio is the only notable absentee -- although plainly Sir Denis has his favourites, Guercino above all, and the quality is variable.

Nowadays, the major paintings in this collection would sell for millions, which shows that museums and collectors value them again. In fact, the whole story of the decline and resurrection of the reputation of 17th-century Italian paintings is one of the strangest in the history of taste. To 18th-century collectors, 17th-century Bolognese painters - Reni, Domenichino, the Carracci - were about as good as art got, a peak of achievement exceeded only by Raphael himself.

There followed over a century of critical vituperation. From Winkelmann to Berenson not a single major critic favoured the seicento. The vilification poured on the period by Ruskin, never one for temperate judgments when intemperate ones would do, was unusual only for its savagery.

Domenichino, he wrote, was `palpably incapable of doing anything good, great or right in any field, way, or kind, whatsoever'. The grief of Guercino's 'Hagar', he considered, `partly despicable, partly disgusting, partly ridiculous'. By the early 20th century, nobody was interested in buying, which is where Sir Denis came in.

So who was right - our pre-Raphaelite forbears, or the Georgian connoisseurs who preceded them? One concise answer to the question, `Why bother with the baroque?' is provided by the little room containing ten sketches by Luca Giordano. These contain much which the unconverted might find indigestible about the period: frivolous-looking mythological figures, personifications of this and that loitering on clouds, putti (`What I don't understand,' a friend once mused with reference to my taste in art, `is how he can stomach all those cherubs').

But, on the other hand, these modelli for Giordano's masterpiece, a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence, also display many of the virtues of their period: ebullience, exuberance, energy, a blend of drama and vitality which is irresistible especially in the `Mythological Scene with the Rape of Proserpine', and `Mythological Scene of Agriculture'. …

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