In 2014 I went on an art tour of Italian Renaissance-era courts, beginning in Milan. It was a great trip, but this post is just a sketchy outline of a few highlights with some photos!
A visit to the Brera Gallery, Milan: Located in a former convent / Jesuit monastery, the first thing you confront on entering the courtyard is a nude (with a strategic fig leaf) Napoleon! It’s a bronze version of Canova’s marble statue in Apsley House, London. However he’s currently covered in scaffolding.
The gallery is on the first floor. Just a few highlights: frescoes removed from their original walls seen up close was revealing. A Titian portrait on an easel being restored in the glass bowl that is the restoration lab. Piero della Francesca’s ‘Montefeltro (or Brera) Altarpiece’ and Raphael’s ‘Marriage of the Virgin’ in the same room.
Seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ in situ is certainly better than in reproduction! Santa Maria Delle Grazie church (where it is housed) is worth seeing too – we entered at the back through a cloister – with a parterre garden and frog fountain in the middle. A man was sweeping the path. The church was built at two times – the front is more Gothic, the back Renaissance.
One of the benefits of travelling is seeing the artworks in situ. In reproductions or online you may see details that are hard to see in front of the actual work – perhaps because it’s too far away – but in front of the work you can see where it was made for (if it hasn’t been moved), the scale of it, and the materials it’s made from, more clearly. The ‘Last Supper’ is a good example. It covers the end wall of the (former) monks dining room. At the opposite end of the room is a crucifixion scene – a much more crowded picture. So on one end the monks contemplated the beginning of Christ’s Passion – the Last Supper – and on the other end, the end point of His Passion – the crucifixion. It was a private space for reasonably educated viewers – the story didn’t need to be blindingly obvious like earlier artists depicted it, such as with Judas on the opposite side of the table, or giving him a black halo, or no halo, or with a money bag.
Other works that benefit by being seen in situ included the Byzantine-era mosaics at Ravenna; some altarpieces that are still in the churches they were created for (e.g. Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ in the Frari church in Venice, and a Giovanni Bellini in the same church (Titian’s ‘Pesaro Altarpiece’ was removed for restoration); a Giovanni Bellini ‘Baptism of Christ’ in the Santa Corona church in Vicenza). Of course, retaining artworks in situ can be risky as we saw at the Eremitani Church in Padova (Padua) where frescoes by Andrea Mantegna were badly damaged by bombing in WW 2. The restorers have put black and white photos in place and then placed the fragments that can be identified on top – it looks like a jigsaw with lots of missing pieces in the worst damaged frescoes.
It was interesting learning about how much art Napoleon had taken from Italy – some to Paris (the Louvre), some is in other French galleries, some in Milan or Vienna – only some of the more well known pieces were returned.
Here’s a small selection of photos from the trip: