There was, by far, nothing worse than getting to lecture late and forgetting to grab a slide sheet as you sheepishly took a seat near the door. The slide sheet, for the undergraduate art history student, is the key to everything: artists, titles, dates, locations (don’t forget — spelling counts!), and to be missing one the night before the test was a special way of being afraid.
Always a little neurotic about punctuality, I was normally waiting by the door for the previous class to exit, but on one occasion, early in sophomore fall, I only arrived just as class was beginning and failed to see the slide sheet near the door. During this class, I learned that it would be imperative to either learn Italian or never, ever forget another slide sheet again (as a precaution, I did both). How do you spell Masaccio if you don’t know a lick of Italian? Not very well, I tell you, and correcting notes after the fact is about as tedious a task as one can imagine.
(As an aside, this was the same semester that I learned the correct pronunciation of pietà and St. Francis of Assisi — “peee-ay-tuh” [emphasis first syllable] and “ahh-sissy” were the rural New England interpretation of these Italian words.)
Slide sheets, at the time, also seemed to summarize this magical world of places that I might or might not ever visit. Here, in list form, was a precise catalog of all the cities, galleries, and museums that I should see to be the person I wanted to be. Pinacoteca and Pinakothek — how ordinary in Italian and German, yet how fascinating to someone who had not yet been to either country! (I also remember smiling smugly when the Uffizi and Botticelli were mentioned in an episode of The O.C., but now I’m just dating myself.) It seemed that we spoke of these places with reverence, in hushed tones, and, of course, it was a kind of pilgrimage being recounted every time a professor narrated their own adventures in such-and-such a place. The names on the lists had a totemic power; it was not entirely rational, but to say them evoked a time and a place and a future that I was striving for.
One such place, for me, was the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. You listen to your professor a few times, and quickly learn to parrot the shortened title of “Brera,” and you feel like you belong. Years after learning the name of this museum, I finally stepped into the courtyard and up a flight of stairs into this most wonderful place.
Seven years is a long time, and the exact contours of my interest in this place had faded just a bit, but I was quickly reminded why this museum is so important.
The collection is arranged in chronological order in galleries overlooking a central courtyard — who’s palace this once was, I do not know. There were panel paintings by the Lorenzetti brothers and an altarpiece by Gentile da Fabriano, herald of the International Style at the end of the Trecento. Not far away, one finds Mantegna’s Dead Christ, with its outrageous exploration of foreshortening that was not entirely successful and always elicits a few guffaws when projected in a lecture hall.
There was a selection of Lorenzo Lotto portraits (I swear he painted the same nose on every subject), and several Bellinis. The most important Bellini, however, was missing from its usual spot, and was discovered in a conservation lab established in the middle of a large gallery. I do not know if this is the normal arrangement, or if this was only arranged to show visitors the inner workings of a lab, but it is always quite interesting to see how these things are done in other countries. The cool palette and marble forms of Bellini’s Pietà perfectly express the monumental grief of the Virgin at this moment, and it is no coincidence that Bellini’s Madonna and Child paintings mirror his Pietà images in both color and composition, as one event is always meant to remind the viewer of the other.
The Brera’s triumvirate is held in Room 24, where one will find Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, Piero della Francesca’s Pala Montefeltro, and Donato Bramante’s Cristo alla Colonna. The first two paintings are such canonical works of the Renaissance that is almost unbelievable to see them in person. Piero, as he is affectionately called, has always been a favorite artist of mine, and his Pala Montefeltro, named for the patron, is a beautiful example of a sacra conversazione – a sacred conversation, normally centering around the Madonna and Child, collapses differences in time and space, showing them surrounded by various saints of the past and donors from the painting’s present. As was typical, the patron is shown kneeling in the right foreground, and poignantly (and perhaps without precedent in the history of art) there is an empty space across from him where his deceased wife would have appeared.
Of course, there were a number of other incredible works, including Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus.
It’s the final version of Procaccini’s Penitent Magdalene. We saw the study at the Arnoldi-Livie booth at TEFAF.
In a separate gallery devoted to the Jesi Collection, there were also a number of works by the Italian Futurists. It’s impossible to praise them, but it is also impossible not to find poignancy in the brash and foolish youthfulness that led them to their deaths in World War I.
Their paintings survive in the hallowed halls of the museums they wanted to raze.