Carlo Crivelli, an Overlooked Renaissance Master, in Boston
Credit Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona
BOSTON; If your admiration for Italian Renaissance painting is more culturally received than deeply felt, “Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the show to see. It is the first exhibition in an American museum devoted to Crivelli, a great but neglected Early Renaissance master, and his fabulously fraught panel paintings, with their charged emotional moods, exquisitely detailed and richly appointed settings, gleaming trompe l’oeil jewels and tracts of gold gilt. There are only 26 paintings here, but they form a thrilling, seductive and edifying experience.
You may resent my opening implication. After all, who doesn’t love, love, love, the Renaissance? Most of us, but let’s admit that beyond the first rank of carved-in-stone names Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and Titian things can often turn confusing and repetitive. So many Virgins, Annunciations, Adorations and Crucifixions, so little time.
In contrast to the aforementioned, Crivelli is nearly invisible and probably overshadowed even by less prominent figures, like his contemporaries Andrea Verrocchio, Andrea Mantegna and Luca Signorelli. Born in Venice around 1435, the son of a painter, he apprenticed in the workshop of Antonio Vivarini and also spent about three years in a workshop in Padua. At that time, Mantegna was working in the area and probably influenced the extreme expressions of emotion most apparent in Crivelli’s paintings of the dead Christ, with their anguished Virgins and wailing saints.
In the 1460s, Crivelli was banished from Venice for committing adultery. He worked mostly in the Marches region of northeast Italy, devoting his talents almost exclusively to religious commissions for churches and individuals. He was very successful, “a painter of status,” a wall text in the show reads, and he often signed his works with “Crivelli of Venice.” On his death in 1495, his reputation declined rapidly and his art has spent most of the last 520 years languishing on the margins of art history, considered parochial, conservative and overly decorative if not decadent. It didn’t help that Vasari didn’t mention him in his “Lives of the Artists,” which concentrated on the creatives of Florence and Venice and steered generations of scholars in the same direction.
But Crivelli’s opulent paintings bring the artistic issues of the Renaissance into sharp focus. Everything is here: the rise of naturalism and one-point perspective, the revival of classicism, the exacting detail of the Northern Renaissance post-Jan van Eyck and the declining fashion for Gothic gold.
Crivelli makes you see these issues because he gave himself permission to use them all, often taking them to new heights. Even Gothic gold, which he punched with brocaded patterns or integrated into his scenes with overpainting, while adding gold touches to other areas. Did I mention he employed pastiglia, building up images with low-relief plaster that he painted and gilded, heightening the presence of jeweled crowns and pendants, chain-mail armor, ornate weapons and crowns of thorns? Aided by a superb color sense, Crivelli wrested the inherent contradictions of his art into balanced wholes that are deliciously accessible as images and unexpectedly familiar as bold statements of ambition.
In his insistence on leaving nothing out and in manipulating every aspect of a painting to its fullest, Crivelli can seem like an early example of the omnivorous, over-the-top modern artist. (Frank Stella comes to mind.) It may be worth noting that Crivelli used the cucumber virtually absent from Renaissance art as a signature motif. It is almost always included in the garlands of fruits and vegetables that appear in these works or sitting on the parapet ledges that are an even more constant device and often feature other feats of exactitude like a fly or a note. Another signature device is a swath of moire fabric that hangs immediately behind his Virgins in particular; their subtle hues and wavy, broadly spaced, concentric lines feel modern too, like dressy camouflage or something that Jasper Johns, who has borrowed from the Renaissance before, might adapt.
Crivelli’s pictorial flourishes often tend to make great narrative sense. In the “Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene” from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where an unusually aged Virgin cries over her son, his body is rendered pale golden brown burnished with white, at once dead and lighted from within. It tends to draw the eye, after which you examine the rich textures and patterns of the punched gold background, classically carved parapet and the Magdalene’s garment as well as the garland, cucumber and all, overhead.
Crivelli’s art found only intermittent admirers. Foremost were the Pre-Raphaelite painters of 19th-century England, whose paintings were often similarly over the top. This may help explain why the National Gallery in London is rich with his and one of the greatest places for a Crivelli epiphany. Crivelli’s ostentation also attracted the wealthy American art collectors of the early 20th century, with many of his paintings ending up in American museums, 19 of which are lenders to this show.
Credit National Gallery of Art, London
The American art historian and adviser Bernard Berenson was enthusiastic, although he saw Crivelli as an outlier who did not fit into his notion of art’s continuous forward progress. Nonetheless in 1897, Berenson persuaded Isabella Stewart Gardner to buy the first Crivelli to enter this country: the magnificent “St. George Slaying the Dragon,” with its saint, pale horse rearing in terror and writhing dragon shown with the threatened damsel and her town against a flat gold sky. Decorative touches of gilded pastiglia abound, notably metalwork on the horse’s red reins, harness and bridle and the sunburst knee and elbow guards on St. George. But also important is the taut composition of figures and Crivelli’s balancing of ornament with the bare, parched ground underfoot. It is rived with fine cracks, like some cockeyed version of the Renaissance’s perspectival grid.
The Gardner’s St. George, newly restored, helped inspire this show, and it is reunited here with three of the six panels of Crivelli’s first altarpiece, executed in 1470 for a church in Porto San Giorgio in the Marche. They consist of a severe lamentation, a richly ornamented full-length Virgin and Child with a very tiny donor, as well as a small lunette of St. Catherine of Alexandra and St. Jerome. The wheel on which Catherine will be martyred is so sharply foreshortened that to recognize it is to admire it.
One of the smallest works here is the beautiful Adoration from Strasbourg that features what may be one of the most handsomely carpentered mangers in the history of art. Its striking wood grain patterns flow down toward the kneeling Virgin. They are picked up by the gold edges of her robe, which flow down to a halo radiating outward from the infant Christ. Crivelli’s integration of gold continues in the outlines of the many clouds above.
Credit Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Among larger works, the multilayered “The Virgin and Child With Infants Bearing Symbols of the Passion” from Verona is a tour de force of conflicting space and scale. To one side of the inevitable moire, the view is blocked by a stone wall, to the other, the deep space of a landscape culminates in the hill called Golgotha.
The exhibition also includes a large work that might seriously be called the mother of all Annunciation paintings. Everything in this elaborate composition, from London’s National Gallery, is as lavish and detailed as possible, whether it’s the robes and hair of the archangel, the luxurious paneled bedroom of the Virgin or the scrolling classical reliefs on doorways and entablatures. Shifting tones of terra-cotta, pink and cream are gently unifying, as is the light. And the plunging perspective of the walkway adds visceral drama to that of the Annunciation itself. The gold, while restrained, has moments of undeniable flair: it defines, of course, the Archangel’s and Virgin’s halos and God’s impregnating ray, descending from the sky. Less usual is that this ray enters the room through a gold-trimmed mouse-hole opening, and in the middle distance, a man who shades his eyes, stares at it. He is the only one who seems to grasp what’s happening, and every fold of his robe is outlined in gold.
This marvelous exhibition has been organized by Stephen J. Campbell, an art historian at Johns Hopkins University; Oliver Tostmann, curator of European art at the Wadsworth Atheneum; and Nathaniel Silver, assistant curator of the Gardner’s collection. They have marshaled a memorable argument for Crivelli’s exquisitely crafted potpourris and against linear, geographically anchored readings of past art. Their revisionism should inspire.
Article by Roberta Smith, The New York Times.