Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Cranach - The Other Renaissance

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1475-1553)
Venus and Cupid with a Honeycomb
Galleria Borghese, Rome
Lucas Cranach - The Other Renaissance
Galleria Borghese, Rome
15th October 2010 - 13th February 2011

The Borghese Gallery in Rome presents 45 of Cranach's most significant works from leading European and American collections. The exhibition investigates a still-open question, the relationship between Cranach and the art of the Italian Renaissance of the period.

Lucas Cranach the Elder was, along with Albrecht Dürer, the leading figure of the rebirth of German painting around 1500.The exhibition aims to present a comprehensive view of the Renaissance painter, court artist and innovator, linked with the Flemish tradition but influenced also by the new developments in Italian figurative painting.

In art history, Cranach is perhaps best known as a friend and supporter of Luther, with whom he laid the foundations for a Protestant iconography. But Cranach, in charge of a large and very active studio in the city of Wittenberg, also introduced other subjects into painting, in particular a new imagery of the nude and the erotic, as well as Humanist themes and a particularly effective and innovative style of portraiture. Cranach was the exponent of 'another' Renaissance, different from the classical theories and practice of his great contemporary and rival Albrecht Dürer; different also from the Italian Renaissance; a court artist, but an innovative one, who developed a new and visually attractive formal language.

Lucas Cranach. The other Renaissance is curated by Prof. Bernard Aikema, an art historian and one of the leading authorities on the German artist, and Anna Coliva, Director of the Galleria Borghese.

Feature on the exhibition by Rome Reports, including short interview with curator Bernard Aikema

Lucas Cranach, The Golden Age
Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Court painter:
In 1504 Lucas Cranach obtained the position of official painter at the court of the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, succeeding the Venetian Jacopo de'Barbari. Aged only 32, and after an initial period of activity still obscure to his biographers  (the painter lived in Vienna before being appointed to the Saxon court), Cranach was awarded this more prominent role in which he would become a painter of importance in the ambience of one of the most important political, cultural and religious courts in Central and Eastern Europe. The seat of the elector of Saxony, of the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation, was a fashionable cultural centre; the same court where the great painter from Nuremberg, Albrecht Dürer, had been employed on two seperate occasions. Cranach's employment with the Saxon princes lasted for almost fifty years, ending only on his death in 1553. A prolific and successful career which afforded him, along with the protection of his patrons, all the privileges and rewards that follow: in addition to a fixed annual salary - a hundred florins - a choice of residence in the city, even the provision of clothes for himself and his assistants, the opportunity to work for other private clients, and from 1508, the right, not at all common, to an emblem, a winged serpent, which appears in some of his paintings.
Lucas Cranach, Melancholy
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
He assumed the role of arbiter of taste and of the propaganda requirements of the Wettin dynasty, for which he executed a very wide range of works, from portraits of courtiers to mythological and religious paintings, hunting scenes, the painted decoration of the halls of Saxon castle but also the design of temporary structures for parties and parades of the court, the supply of designs for medals and banners, the decoration of furniture. He became a model in every field of reference for German and Northern European artists. The role of court artist, and his loyalty to the rulers of Saxony, also earned him diplomatic assignments, such as the journey made in 1508 to Flemish Burgundy with Archduchess Margaret of Austria, an experience crucial to his artistic development. And once more the now aging painter was asked to meet with the Emperor Charles V after the Battle of Mühlberg (1547), during which Prince John Frederick was taken prisoner, and who took him into exile with him in Augusta.
Lucas Cranach, Diana and Actaeon
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Trieste
Lucas Cranach, The Garden of Eden
Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

The art historian Kristina Hermann Fiore talks (in Italian) about Cranach the representative of Humanism and the Renaissance across the Alps, and the Cranach painting acquired by Cardinal Borghese, the original assembler of the paintings housed in the Borghese Gallery, Venus and Cupid with Honeycomb

The power of women
Lucas Cranach was one of the first artists to introduce the themes of the 'power' or the 'deception' of women into painting, the formula which alludes to the paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth century in which a female character uses her charms to win over, subdue or destroy a man, taking advantage of his naiveté and ignorance. These representations reflect the ideas of the time on the relations between men and women and the battle between the sexes, persuading the viewer to refrain from conduct similar to that shown.
Lucas Cranach, Judith with the head of Holophernes
Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel
The episodes are drawn from the Bible in particular, as in David and Bathsheba, or Lot and his daughters, and in the famous story of Judith, a symbol of virtue and 'feminine wiles' which defeat tyranny; she is depicted as frivolous and sensual, with a deliberate contrast between her elegant dress and the severed head of Holofernes which faces the viewer.
Lucas Cranach, Aristotle and Phyllis
Private Collection
The representation of Salome refers to the same type, with half the figure painted in the foreground. Compared to earlier versions of this theme, like the sober version in Lisbon, Cranach in his mature phase tends to ease the narrative tension, enriching the scene with eye-catching details, as in the Budapest version. In this iconography the artist was more explicitly inspired by Italian models, such as works by Lorenzo Lotto and Callisto Piazza. Iconographic sources are also found in classical antiquity, as is the case in the painting of Aristotle and Phyllis, and the Judgement of Paris, transformed by Cranach into a courtly gentleman.
Lucas Cranach, The Judgement of Paris
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth
A common theme in the Flemish and German-speaking world was that of the ill-matched couple or unbalanced love, a subject frequently depicted by Cranach and his workshop. The theme, taken from textual sources from antiquity and sixteenth century Germanic literature, represented young women who grant their favours to older wealthy men in exchange for money and jewels, or (more rarely) older women seeking the attentions of young men as in the painting from Budapest, the first in this popular series. In addition to the disapprobation of such degenerate morals and the condemnation of such conduct, it is evident that these representations emphasise the ridiculous aspects of human nature.
Lucas Cranach, The Ill-Matched Couple
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Images of Faith
The Reformation marks a watershed in European history, bringing spiritual renewal, but also centuries of war and dissent. It was Lucas Cranach, a personal friend of Luther, who gave the Reformation its imagery, dealing with various religious subjects in a substantially new manner. It was he who draw the woodcut illustrations for the first controversial theme of the reform, the Passional Christi und Antichristi. Mankind, according to the teachings of the reformer, could be justified before God only by faith, not through good works. One of the founding principles of the new doctrine was that of iconographic simplification, well illustrated in Cranach's Crucifixion, where inessential elements of the Gospel account are suppressed, or otherwise reduced in accordance with a Lutheran reinterpretation, as in the Sacrifice of Abraham.
Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist
Kunstsammlungen der Veste, Coburg

In the theme of the Madonna and Child, Cranach reveals the strong influence of Italian models, Umbrian in particular, both in composition and in the chromatic palette; nevertheless one essential component stands out: that of the silent dialogue between mother and son, never completely absent in the Italian works. In Cranach's tender images the varied spatial construction allows the dreamy detachment of the Madonna to emerge, set against the background of two-dimensional landscapes, inserted as an inlay onto the surface of the painting. These northern landscapes, wooded and filled with mysterious little monsters, as in the St Jerome, the Vision of St. Eustace and the refined St Barbara, clearly refer to models from the courtly world.
Lucas Cranach, Adam and Eve
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
To the biblical world also belongs the story of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Cranach first painted this theme in 1509 under the influence of Dürer's drawings. If in the first representations of the subject, the painter seems to focus on the human forms set against a black background, in the second half of the 1520's he began to be interested primarily in the physical and psychological relationship between the two protagonists. The Venetian Marco Basaiti, in paintings in the Galleria Borghese, freely reworked Dürer's version, evidence of an interesting typological exchange between Germany and Venice. The images in the exhibition produced by Cranach of our first progenitors, although they belong thematically to the iconography of the Old Testament, really belong among the erotic and sensual works produced by the artist from about 1525. It is plausible to assume that the buyers of these works did not appreciate them for their theological meaning, but rather for their unusual and alluring sensuality.
Lucas Cranach, Venus and Cupid
University Art Museum, Princeton
Feminine sensuality - sacred and profane
Certainly one of the most famous aspects of Cranach's art consists in the representation of sensual women. Not only the famous nudes, but also women defined by various iconographic attributes. Cranach paints his unmistakable feminine figures, characterised by slender and elongated body shapes, and polished white flesh, in both secular and religious settings. These feminine types, of humanistic flavour, were developed to meet the demands of a modern clientele at the electoral court, but also of the more affluent classes of Saxony and central Europe, to be expanded later to the emerging bourgeois market. 
Lucas Cranach, Venus
Stadel Museum, Frankfurt
In this context, the representation of the myth of Venus is certainly the most famous in Cranach's repertoire. The Venus and Cupid with honeycomb entered the Borghese collection in the early seventeenth century and was probably intended by Cardinal Scipione Borghese to form a pair with the Venus by Brescianino, creating a visual contrast which can be seen in the exhibition. These two monumental paintings were paired in order to accentuate the difference between the Italian Renaissance manner, where the figure is rendered with the utmost plasticity through the use of sfumato, so as to make the statuesque form appear alive, and the icy abstraction of the German Venus, devoid of plasticity, rather unrealistic yet expressive and sensual. The dialogue between the two formal languages can be appreciated here thanks to the Venus from Princeton and the one from Frankfurt. The former is a painting of high quality, which in its eroticism recalls Italian models, Botticelli or the circle of Leonardo. The latter, in which Venus plays mischievously with a transparent veil, was described as "the most salacious and seductive goddess of love that Cranach ever painted." The work, of small proportions, must have been paired with the Lucretia from Vienna, a pairing this exhibition is able to show. The Young girl with an apple could also allude to the myth of Aphrodite, because of the iconographic details. The opportunity to exhibit these works in the Galleria Borghese enables further comparison with the Italian world, such as with the Sleeping Venus by Girolamo da Treviso, derived from Giorgione, and perhaps originally matched with the other two Venuses in the collection; the fine copy of Leonardo's lost Leda, whose prototype was the first female contrapposto of the Renaissance and which the German painter may have used as a model.
Lucas Cranach, Lucretia
Akademie der bildenden Kunste, Vienna
The portrait of Lucretia was also a popular theme in the courts of the north, as an example of virtue and moral and ethical strength. In the nudes from Coburg and Vienna, however, the Roman heroine is transformed into an example of sensual femininity, fully comparable to the representations of Venus. Although these disembodied images are far from the Italian Renaissance conception of the nude, it is possible that Cranach was aware of depictions of the subject painted in the peninsula, such as the image of Lucretia's suicide painted by Francia, or the version by Palma Vecchio held in the Galleria Borghese.

(extracts from the official exhibition guide translated by A. Curran)

Related Italian Renaissance paintings in the Borghese Gallery's permanent collection
Baldassarre Peruzzi (1481-1536), Venus
Galleria Borghese, Rome
Brescianino (1507-1525), Venus with two Amors
Galleria Borghese, Rome
copy of Leonardo, Leda and the Swan (early 16th century)
Galleria Borghese, Rome
Girolamo da Treviso (1497-1544), Sleeping Venus
Galleria Borghese, Rome
Jacopino del Conte (1510-1598), Lucretia
Galleria Borghese, Rome
Jacopo Palma il Vecchio (ca.1480-1528), Lucretia
Galleria Borghese, Rome

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