Magazine article The Spectator

Giants of the Eternal City

Magazine article The Spectator

Giants of the Eternal City

Article excerpt

The Genius of Rome 1592-1623 (Royal Academy, till 16 April)

A rebirth of art, of course, did not only occur at the Renaissance. Such events are recurrent in Western culture, and indeed in other traditions such as the Chinese. As in individual lives, after a period of doldrums, a point suddenly arrives when it is possible to imagine, and take the next step into the future. One such fertile period is examined in the Royal Academy's magnificent and unmissable new exhibition, The Genius of Rome 1592-1623.

This is a place and a time that has in the past received far less attention and fewer plaudits than, say, Florence in the era of Masaccio and Fra Angelico, or the `High Renaissance' Rome of Michelangelo and Raphael. Nonetheless, Rome around the turn of the 17th century may well be more agreeable to contemporary taste.

As a period it has previously had what ad men call an image problem. Of its two presiding geniuses, one, Caravaggio, was under a critical cloud from shortly after his death until about 1950. Admittedly since then he has been acknowledged again as one of the greatest of all painters. Indeed his dark and disquieting blend of sexuality, religiosity and violence is more in tune with the age of Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst than the art of Raphael or Rembrandt. To judge from the flow of books, films and fictionalised biographies, Caravaggio is our Old Master - just as Botticelli was the Pre-Raphaelites'.

The other great painter of the era, Annibale Carracci, has had an opposite posthumous fate. Showered with praise until the early 19th century, he is now largely forgotten. And this exhibition will not entirely resurrect his reputation, since his most powerful works are unexhibitable, because they are frescoes bonded with the walls of the Palazzo Farnese in the centre of Rome. But there is enough on show - especially in the section devoted to landscape, a department of art in which Caravaggio took little interest - to suggest his importance.

While Caravaggio painted - often directly from life - pictures that combined earthy, vivid detail with claustrophobic drama, Carracci did something almost opposite. He reinvigorated the classical tradition of Raphael, adding a novel energy and joie de vivre. From Caravaggio sprang Georges de la Tour, the youthful Velazquez, the Rembrandt of `The Blinding of Samson', and numerous painters throughout Europe. From Carracci came Poussin, Guido Reni and a classicising legion.

For a while the combined push these two giants gave to art was immensely fertilising. When the impact of Caravaggio waned in the middle of the century, the effect was enervating for Italian art. One reason for that waning was art criticism supporting the classical, Carracci party, written by, among others, Monsignor Agucchi, represented in an excellent portrait by Domenichino (it is often a mistake for artists to pay attention to critics).

But 17th-century art, even art in early 17th-century Rome, was more than just a tale of two geniuses. One of the points made clearly by this show is how complex and diverse the Roman art scene was in those years. There are times when a single city becomes an international capital of art. That was the position of Paris around 1900, when it was the centre not only for French artists, but the place to which an enterprising Spaniard such as Picasso, or Russian such as Chagall, would naturally gravitate. That was the role Rome played in the 17th century. …

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