"Giulio Romano, Master Designer," Sept. 16-Nov. 27, 1999, at Berta and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College, Lexington Avenue and 68th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
This year marks the quincentenary of the birth of Giulio Romano (1499?-1546), Raphael's protégé, inheritor of his workshop at the papal court (along with Giovanni Francesco Penni) and all-around artist and designer for the court of Federico Gonzaga of Mantua. Hard to believe that there has never been an exhibition devoted to him in this country -- until now.
"Giulio Romano, Master Designer," currently on view at Hunter's Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, charts Giulio's development from Raphael's High Renaissance sweetness and restraint to the sexy Mannerism that was his mature style. Organized by Hunter College art historian Janet Cox-Rearick, the show is an impressive collection of 44 drawings, three prints and one splendid oil. The exhibition also has a first-rate catalogue.
Much of Giulio's success is due to his move in 1524 (just four years after Raphael's death) to the court of Federico Gonzaga, one of the Renaissance's more noted libertines. If Raphael was "divine," Giulio was decidedly mortal, and working for the Gonzaga family unleashed all his imaginative powers.
Titian's portrait of Giulio introduces a handsome, soulful-eyed, bearded fellow holding a plan for a now-unidentified building. While Giulio is more noted for the architectural projects, murals and the decorative schemes he executed in Mantua, the exhibition includes several early drawings from his Roman years and some prints that hint at what was to come.
The youthful Bust of a Young Standard Bearer Wearing a Lionskin Headdress was probably drawn as a cartoon for a tapestry. The figure's shy upward glance, wisps of beard, long eyelashes and bee-stung lips are far more delicate, as is the coloring, than what one would expect of most males wrapped up in a lion skin.
Before Giulio left Rome for Mantua, he approached Marcantonio to create prints from 16 of his drawings. Possibly done to raise some quick cash, "I Modi" -- now lost -- featured images of couples engaging in sexual intercourse, which aroused the Pope to ban the prints immediately and throw Marcantonio in jail. A friend, Pietro Aretino had contributed scurrilous verse to each print, which only made matters worse (or better, depending on one's point of view). The show features one print from a later set of copies and some fragments that are all pretty straightforward and kind of dull, really. They show little of the teasing sensuality of Giulio's later drawings.
One early and impressive drawing from Mantua is the fierce head of an eagle, a device adopted by Federico Gonzaga. This sign of imperial power and lust was the perfect symbol for Gonzaga and was used repeatedly (as were most of Giulio's drawings) for interior decorations, fancy goods and ephemeral ornaments for court festivities. It may be related to the sharp-eyed abductor of Ganymede in a study for a stucco medallion with its human-like grip around the waist of the young man. It was not accidental that this medallion was destined for Federico's bedroom.
Giulio was especially talented at depictions of playful and sexy interplay between animals, putti, satyrs and humans. Designs with a bare-bottomed putto hanging onto a horse and two putti scrambling atop an elephant are fresh and lively, though more cute than suggestive. His study for another stucco, The Rape of Europa, shows a dramatic windswept escape and an extended and daring seduction by a single-minded bull with a very human expression.
Designs for full-length male and female satyrs prove that by around 1527-28, Giulio was a full-fledged Mannerist. The male's overly exaggerated long torso and the female's impossible contortion with tail-raised drapery are original and flippant, typical Giulio Romano, as is the pen-and-ink head of another satyr crowned with leaves dating from around 1528.
In his own time, Guilio was praised for his blending of the antique and modern, as can be seen in one of his many religious works, a study for an unidentified painting of the Adoration also from around 1527-8. The members of the Sacred Family have generalized features, but the Magi are individuals that would look right at home in Mantua or anywhere else today.
But even in his religious works, Giulio first thought of action, often between animals. His sketch for St. Michael Fighting the Devil with the saint about to skewer a serpent-tailed Satan is as exciting today as it was around 1528.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.