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Brushed by drama

Ecstatic saints, a murderous woman and St. George plus dragon are among those whose passions roil in this exhibit of Baroque and Rococo works.

Published February 15, 2004

[Images from the Ringling Museum of Art]
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, 1594-95, oil on canvas.
Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint Serapion, 1628, oil on canvas.
Orazio Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, 1610-12, oil on canvas.

SARASOTA - About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters, as poet W.H. Auden observed. As it turns out, they were never wrong about a lot of other things.

Murderous impulses and spiritual ecstasy, romantic passion and sensual depravity, war, peace and the everyday stuff in between - it's all here in an exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, "Renaissance to Rococo: Masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art."

Sixty paintings loaned by the Wadsworth in Hartford, Conn., the oldest public art museum in the United States, span almost 400 years and cover most of the European continent. That span, from the 15th century through the 18th century, witnessed the rise of Protestantism in northern Europe; the religious fervor of Catholicism's response, the Counter-Reformation; bitter civil wars and unprecedented prosperity; the establishment of a new merchant class; and a growing secularism, fueled by interest in scientific investigation, global exploration and an information explosion through printed books.

This is not a comprehensive show - you'd need to browse the Metropolitan's European galleries for about a week to get that. And with a title that bills itself as such, some of the biggest names of those eras are absent - no Leonardos or Vermeers, no Rembrandts or Watteaus, no German artists, period. (Let's note that the unified countries we know as Italy and Germany didn't exist as they do today.)

But "Renaissance to Rococo" provides a big slice of the art created during that rich, roiling period of Western civilization. Some of it is, frankly, more about the marquee name on the painting than the painting itself, which is to say you get a Goya, though not a great one, and a Franz Hals portrait, though not one of his finest. But when you're talking about painters such as these, whose "okay" is better than others' personal bests, it's a quibble.

Besides, the show contains plenty of bona fide masterpieces, such as Francisco de Zurbaran's magnificent Saint Serapion and Orazio Gentileschi's Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, not to mention a gracious complement of gorgeous works by important artists, some better known to the art-going public than others.

The exhibition has both a chronological and geographical arrangement, beginning with Italian Renaissance art, and includes the very broad category of Baroque and Rococo art by Dutch, Flemish and Spanish masters. (Rococo is generally considered a subcategory of the late Baroque period.) Also in the mix are British representatives who chronologically could be called Baroque, such as Benjamin West and Thomas Gainsborough, but are more on the cusp of the neoclassical movement.

The point is that it's a big show and one that beautifully complements the Ringling's permanent collection, which does have some of the artists missing from the Wadsworth's lineup, such as Rubens, Velazquez, Titian and Poussin, along with more works by represented artists, so I'd advise you to allot time to try to cover both (a good half day) for a very gratifying mental workout.

Florentine painter Piero di Cosimo's enchanting The Finding of Vulcan on the Island of Lemnos, painted in 1490 when he was 32, is the earliest work. It bears the influence of Botticelli's graceful, linear contours, though Piero, in this work, seems to be moving away from the idealization associated with Renaissance conventions. It's a mythological rather than religious scene, capturing the moment when the young Vulcan was thrown from Mount Olympus by Zeus and landed on Earth, surrounded by curious, bemused nymphs in a scene of pastoral fantasy. It's a lighthearted work, a warmup for the best section of the show, dealing with artists classified as being part of the Italian Baroque period.

Here's what you need to remember: The "Old Masters" were men (and a few women) of their time - mostly young rather than old, trying to do good work and earn a living. They were aware of other artists' work, but not to the extent an artist today can see, through the Internet, art from any corner of the world the same day it's created. Much of the art back then was commissioned for private homes; there were no museums, and even church commissions were not always accessible to the public. Nor were artists aware of being part of a vast movement; there was no Brotherhood of the Baroque, for example.

That Caravaggio was one of the greatest 17th-century painters is clear in the early work here, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy. You have to wonder where this brilliant originality came from, given the artist's violent tendencies and early death. Many are familiar with the textbook version of his virtuosity, his use of light both as literal illumination for surface drama and as a spiritual metaphor. His subtlety and sensitivity lie in the ability, even in moments of great import, to give the characters nuances that make them larger than life and utterly human.

St. Francis, prostrate in the arms of an angel, looks more catatonic than ecstatic, until you notice he is full of an emotional charge, his body taut and back arched as if about to rise. His hand seems to touch his stigmata gingerly, but his right eye is fluttering open, steeled on a vision beyond the painting's frame and the source of its mysterious light.

It meshes well with Spaniard Francisco Ribalta's later Franciscan narrative in which the saint is wakened in his monastic cell by the music of an angel sent to comfort him. Ribalta relies on many more props to make his point and is indebted to Caravaggio's way with a light source. It's not as great as the former painting but provides a marker for another great work, Zurbaran's Saint Serapion, painted in 1628.

Serapion is a minor saint, an English crusader who served a Castilian king in the 13th century and died in Algiers after ransoming the freedom of other Christians with his own life. His death was grisly, disembowelment and decapitation, but Zurbaran focuses on the man, premutilation, beaten down, perhaps wandering in a mental Garden of Gethsemene, still able to make a choice. In the darkness, he is oblivious to the light source shining on linen robes that enfold him like an embrace or a shroud. Fabric has never been rendered with such exquisite simplicity or complexity.

Orazio Gentileschi's Judith, painted in Rome in about 1610, is dramatic, too, one could say even theatrical, in capturing a telling moment in an individual's life. In this painting, Judith cradles Holofernes' head in a basket, helped by her maid, dressed in rich garments and set against a black, featureless background, as if her act has forever separated her from the normal world. She looks up and out as if startled by a sound; her maid looks apprehensive.

Compare this Judith, who looks positively 20th century in her ambivalence, to the beautiful but insipid version interpreted by Fede Galizia or the studied calculation of Francesco Cairo's Judith, both of the same era and across the museum courtyard in the Ringling's permanent collection.

The exhibition is not all about human drama. Landscapes and still lifes, along with portraits, round it out and are worthy of further exploration. Among them: Claude Lorrain's fabulist depiction of St. George and the dragon, the genre paintings of Gaspare Traversi and Francois Boucher, Jusepe de Ribera's lusty, allegorical The Sense of Taste, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun's exquisite take on the Duchesse de Polignac juxtaposed with the small but monumental Portrait of a Man in Armor by Sebastiano del Piombo, and Thomas Gainsborough's woodland scene with brushstrokes that seem to capture the wind as it moves through trees.

Read the copious wall texts, buy the accompanying catalog. Most of all, linger. This show is dense and asks that you connect many of the dots. But a traveling collection of this scope is rare and not to be missed.

REVIEW: "Renaissance to Rococo: Masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art" is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bayshore Road, Sarasota, through April 25. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and free for children 12 and under and teachers and students with ID and includes the Ringling grounds and admission to Ca' d'Zan and the Circus Museum. The museum only is free on Monday. (941) 359-5700.

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 11:09:30]

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