A Neglected Renaissance Master Gets His Due
a neglected renaissance master gets his due

A Neglected Renaissance Master Gets His Due

When Bernard Berenson, the art historian and tastemaker, was advising Isabella Stewart Gardner on acquisitions for her collection, in 1897, he urged her to purchase a small panel that depicted St. George on horseback slaying a dragon, by the fifteenth-century Italian painter Carlo Crivelli. “You never in your life have seen anything so beautiful for color, and in line it is drawn as if by lightning,” Berenson wrote to Gardner, from Fiesole. The work, which measured thirty-seven by nineteen inches, and had once been part of a larger altarpiece, was exquisitely rendered. The saint’s gilded armor and halo had been built up with the delicate application of gesso pastiglia, or paste-work, atop which the artist had layered paint and gold leaf, creating a glimmering, three-dimensional relief. The painting, Berenson wrote, was “a picture which at the bottom of my heart I prefer to every Titian, every Holbein, every Giorgione.”

Yet when it came to writing “Italian Painters of the Renaissance,” Berenson’s influential survey from 1930, he more or less wrote Crivelli out of art history. Although Crivelli was mentioned, and indeed praised—“He takes rank with the most genuine artists of all times and countries, and does not weary even when ‘great masters’ grow tedious,” Berenson wrote—he was dispensed within a few lines, whereas Titian, Tintoretto, Giovanni Bellini, and others were granted pages of attention. Crivelli was born in Venice in the forteen-thirties. According to the National Gallery of Art, both his father and his brother were painters. He worked in a style that was Gothic and mannered, with an idiosyncratic use of trompe-l’oeil. Often, his art included such peculiarities as setting a figure represented within a frame of cracked masonry, or incorporating the strategic placement of fruit or vegetables, including what is either a girthy cucumber or a gourd. The resulting art works did not fit into Berenson’s preferred narrative of Renaissance progress and innovation. “A formula that would, without distorting our entire view of Italian art in the fifteenth century, do full justice to such a painter as Carlo Crivelli, does not exist,” he wrote.

Berenson’s dodge dismays Jonathan Watkins, the director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, in the Midlands of England, and a Crivelli aficionado. “If you say, ‘Look, we don’t have a model to accommodate Crivelli’—and, rather than changing the model, you don’t accommodate anything, how could you live with yourself?” Watkins told me recently. “How could you sleep at night, knowing that what you are dealing with is inadequate?” The gallery, which usually is devoted to contemporary art, recently mounted the United Kingdom’s first-ever show devoted to Crivelli, “Shadows on the Sky.” It featured nine radiant works on loan from the Vatican and the Berlin State Museums, as well as from institutions in the U.K., including several from the National Gallery, in London. In the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, Watkins and his co-authors made a persuasive case that Crivelli’s often weird and gnarly works should not be seen, as Berenson saw them, as a creative dead end. Nor should they be relegated to a niche or ironic taste, as Susan Sontag implied in her famous essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” in which she cited Crivelli’s paintings as an example of camp’s extravagance of style. Rather, Watkins argues, Crivelli’s work should be understood as offering a sophisticated and self-conscious exploration of reality and illusion. Within the considerable constraints of conventional religious iconography, but without the language developed centuries later by theoreticians of postmodernity, Crivelli made paintings that were as much about the nature of representation as about the divinity of Christ or the sacrifice of the saints represented within them.

Take, for example, the work that gave the exhibition its title, “The Vision of the Blessed Gabriele.” Crivelli painted it in about 1489, to hang in the Church of San Francesco ad Alto, in Ancona, the capital of the Marche region of Italy in which he spent most of his working life. It depicts Fra Gabriele Ferretti, the guardian of the convent associated with the church, kneeling in prayer on the convent’s grounds, eyes raised to a vision of the Madonna and Child, who are represented within a gilded, lozenge-shaped mandorla apparently bursting from the canvas. The work partakes of familiar fifteenth-century compositional conventions, but, as Amanda Hilliam, the co-curator of the show with Watkins, argues in the catalogue, Crivelli further emphasizes the friar’s visionary capabilities by destabilizing the viewer’s perceptions of what, exactly, is within the scene and what is without. A garland of fruit hanging across the top of the painting appears at first to be a bough within the friary’s orchard—until the viewer notices that the apples, pears, and their leaves cast a shadow upon the sky behind them, thereby drawing attention to the sky’s painted status. The scale of the fruit, moreover, shifts the viewer’s perception of the figure of the friar himself—who, suddenly, appears to be shown on a much larger scale than the trees around him. “Distinct from painted landscape, he seems to exist in a space between sacred and real from where he can act as an intercessor,” Hilliam writes.

The same playfulness or confusion of scale occurs in a number of Crivelli’s works, perhaps for the artist’s own pleasure, given that his pieces were often originally displayed high up in dimly lit ecclesiastical spaces, out of range of close perusal. An altarpiece in the National Gallery’s collection includes a panel that depicts St. Thomas Aquinas holding what at first looks like an architectural model of a church. Look closely, though, and you’ll see that there are two small and realistically depicted figures standing in the doorway, a secondary world uncannily nestled within the first. “Nobody would have been able to see that, other than the people in Crivelli’s studio, and maybe the people who commissioned the work,” Watkins said. “As soon as it went up on the wall, it would have been invisible.” Crivelli’s work, Watkins added, reveals “a kind of smart, aesthetic wit that we associate with the modern day.”

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