I stared at the Raphael drawing, The Conversion of the Proconsul Sergius Paulus from about 1504, admiring the way the hands of the figures set up a circular motion. Then I started to feel a bit unsteady, a little light-headed. Would I soon be on the floor, a victim of Stendhal Syndrome, faint and even a bit mad from an overload of Italian art?
I thought I had just seen the most beautiful drawing in the world. I righted myself, but not for long. Nearby was Leonardo da Vinci’s robust black chalk drawing from around the same time of Neptune with his trident, amid thrashing sea-horses. Surely that was the most beautiful.
Unless it was Michelangelo’s Flight of Phaeton (1533), a tripartite tragedy-in-the-making, with Zeus hurling a thunderbolt to stop the youth who’d lost control of the chariot of the sun, also in black chalk.
No. No. No. Clearly the most beautiful drawing in the world was the other Michelangelo from the same year, the glowing red chalk The Children’s Bacchanal, also a gift to his adored Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. Its rollicking babies perform every sort of basic human act, from suckling and eating to peeing and lighting a fire, while the sole adult in the composition sleeps and has his cloak removed by one of the babies. Physical decay and aging as a younger, untamed generation takes over was an idea that never left Michelangelo’s restless mind, so that even this romp is infected with a melancholic sense of mortality.
These splendid drawings completely unnerved me. And I was just at the beginning of two galleries stuffed with about 80 more. I had already viewed almost 100 High Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Yet I was not in Florence as Stendhal had been when he began to quake. I was in London and at a single exhibition, "The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque Art," Mar. 30, 2007-Jan. 20, 2008, at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.
For anyone lucky enough to be in London between now and Jan. 20 (or near the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh later in 2008), this exhibition offers masterpiece after masterpiece arranged as a survey of Italian art. That a private collection, even the Queen’s, should be so rich is astonishing. No other private collection and few public ones could do as good a job of tracing the accomplichment of Florence and the courts of the North, then Venice through the 16th and 17th centuries.
Though I appreciated seeing the influence of this or that painter or school, the pictures and drawings were so wonderful to look at that the pleasures of first this one, then that, obliterated any systematic assessment on my part. There were simply too many good things to enjoy.
The show includes no Leonardo, Michelangelo or Raphael paintings, though there is a Portrait of a Man by a "Follower of Raphael" or maybe a copyist. The paintings -- by Giovanni Bellini, Correggio, Parmigianino, Bassano, Annibale Carracci, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Strozzi, and Dolci, among others -- are radiant anyhow. I mean this quite literally as well as figuratively, as about 30 were cleaned and conserved during the last ten years, making the colors especially rich.
The real news about the paintings is that two oils, which were thought to have been copies of Caravaggio works, are now considered to be originals. Boy Peeling a Fruit from around 1592-3 may be Caravaggio’s earliest surviving painting (of which there are only 50, with most in Rome).
Even better is The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, possibly from 1602-4, with its pronounced lights and darks, the dramatic tug of wills between the astonished fishermen in the left half of the painting and Christ, who takes up the right, and leans toward the future that they will all share. It’s an absorbing picture, no matter who painted it.
But fascinating also are two huge Tintorettos, the jewel-toned multi-figured Esther before Ahasuerus from ca. 1546-7, with its swooning heroine, and The Muses of about 30 years later with its buoyant yet fleshy females.
If I didn’t get completely lost in these, I certainly was in Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of a Lady in Green (ca. 1528-32), one of the collection’s wonders, as complex as any portrait subject in the last 500 years. And her clothing and adornments!
On a rational level, I did notice how quirky the paintings of Lorenzo Lotto were, something that had escaped me before. Seeing his Portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) made me admire the way he framed the collector with his own finds to create a personal allegory. Encircled by pagan objects like the statuette Odoni holds out in one hand, he embraces a Christian cross with his other, holding it nearer to his heart.
Lotto’s Portrait of a Bearded Man (ca. 1515-18) is delicately defined through the textures of the costume and the face. We’re told so much about him, in contrast to Bronzino’s lady who tells us just so much and withholds the rest. (The current Metropolitan Museum of Art show, "Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797," also features an interestingly arranged family portrait by Bronzino.)
In the two galleries devoted to drawings, I did see how the horses’ heads in the Leonardo and Michelangelo pieces was echoed in Bertoia’s Six Horses’ Heads, a pen-and-ink from ca. 1570. But mostly, I just looked and looked.
The pleasures that Lucy Whitaker, assistant surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, and Martin Clayton, deputy curator of the print room at Windsor Castle, have provided in this spectacular show are dizzying, but in the best possible ways.
As if these treasures were not enough, the exhibition is rounded out by furniture, usually with pietra dura (hardstone mosaic) panels and small bronzes.
The collection is heading to the British Museum in December. You have until then to savor the three-floor exhibition of many of the collection’s 1,700 pieces. Besides a superb selection of Song pieces, the collection has two of the earliest dated blue-and-white vases from the Yuan.
The move necessitates the collection’s being out of view for a while. How many of its pieces will be shown in its new home is still undecided. So the time is right for another look at this impressive and extensive collection.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.