Magazine article The Spectator

Imported Talent

Magazine article The Spectator

Imported Talent

Article excerpt

Exhibitions Baroque Painting in Genoa (National Gallery, till 16 June)

In the 14th century; Genoa and Venice were at loggerheads when the Black Death struck Europe. Each lost more than 50 per cent of its population, but went on to fight with undiminished ferocity - which tells one something about human nature. It also tells one something about Genoa - that it was the rival and in many ways the equivalent of Venice: a maritime, mercantile republic on the west coast rather than the east coast of Italy.

It too has a crumbly mediaeval centre now the night-time haunt of prostitutes and drug dealers - plus 16th- and 17th-century palazzi and a Doge's Palace (where Mr Blair impressed the attendants with his habit of running up the ceremonial staircase at the recent ill-fated G8 summit). And Genoa also has a share of magnificent paintings, a choice selection of which have just gone on show in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery.

There the comparison ends. For what reason it is hard to say, Genoa never developed a local school of painters of remotely the splendour or importance of the Venetians. There never was a Genoese Bellini, Tintoretto or Titian. But that does not mean that the Genoese did not have a taste for the visual arts - just that in the early 17th century, like Charles I of England, they were obliged to be importers of talent. In fact, perhaps because they were on the international art-hiring market at roughly the same time, Genoese collectors ended up with a pretty similar team to that which painted for the Caroline court.

Rubens, Orazio Gentileschi, and Van Dyck - all of them painted in Genoa before going on to work in London, and all of them are represented by a painting in the National Gallery exhibition. The Rubens, depicting a Genoese nobleman named Giovan Carlo Dora on horseback, is an absolute stunner - the first great baroque equestrian portrait packed with bounding energy and dramatic, thundery light. It is worth visiting the exhibition just to see this picture, in which you catch the young Rubens - he was around 30 when it was painted in 1606-7 - just coming into top form. (Genoa by the way is, with Antwerp, the best place to see Rubens's paintings in their original setting, since there are also two splendid altarpieces in the Jesuit church.)

It's not surprising that Rubens - though he was only briefly in Genoa - had a tremendous impact on native Genoese painters. Bernardo Strozzi's `The Cook' another highlight of this little show - is a paradoxical performance. This is a genre painting - something normally thought of as a speciality of Northern European artists, executed on a heroic, Italian scale, and with Rubenesque vigour.

It is also a virtuoso exercise in the comparison and contrast of various grey, whitish and silvery tones - the feathers of the swan that the cook is plucking, the spectacular silver ewer in the foreground, the translucent grey-brown shadows behind. All in all this is rather a Flemish performance for an Italian artist - but then the Genoese had a pronounced taste for Flemish art (as indeed did the Venetians).

Some of Jan Van Eyck's customers came from Genoa, and by the 17th century there was a little colony of Flemish artists living in the city. Van Dyck made it his principal base for his six-year stay in Italy, during which time he stayed with the De Wael brothers, Flemish painters who were already Genoese residents. The National Gallery show contains one of Van Dyck's numerous Genoese portraits 'Geromina Sale Brignole with her Daughter'. …

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