LONDON.- The first exhibition to survey 16th- and 17th-century Italian art in the Royal Collection for over 40 years brings together 90 paintings and 85 drawings from royal palaces and residences across Britain. It celebrates the artistic legacy of the Stuart kings, Charles I and his son, Charles II, whose taste profoundly influenced the character of the British Royal Collection. Described by the painter Peter Paul Rubens as ‘the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world’, Charles I built up a collection of Italian masters to rival that of any European court of the period. Although Charles I’s collection was sold after his execution in 1649, a significant number of paintings were reclaimed or bought back by Charles II after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Charles II’s own acquisition of an extraordinary group of Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings was a conscious attempt to reinstate his father’s outstanding collection.
In 1623 the future Charles I, then Prince of Wales, embarked for Spain disguised as Mr Smith to woo Philip IV’s sister, the Infanta María. He returned with neither bride nor Anglo-Spanish alliance, but he had seen one of the finest collections of Italian paintings in the world and resolved to create something like it in Britain. To achieve this, the King relied upon a network of advisers, art dealers, agents and ambassadors across Europe. Such men exchanged paintings with the King or made outright gifts in the hope of obtaining political advantage. Charles’s court gained prestige through connoisseurship, as the King’s reputation as a man of discerning taste spread across Europe.
Charles I’s purchase of a substantial part of the collection of the Dukes of Mantua in 1628-32 transformed his collection at a single stroke. English art lovers had long known of the splendours of the Gonzaga court and especially admired the work of Giulio Romano, the dominant architect, painter and ‘design consultant’ in Mantua - and the only contemporary artist mentioned by Shakespeare. Among the many treasures of the Mantuan collection came Tintoretto’s Esther before Ahasuerus and The Muses; The Holy Family by Dosso Dossi; Domenico Fetti’s David with the Head of Goliath; and Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, all included in the exhibition.
In the 16th and 17th centuries artists were often employed in the decoration of a room or piece of furniture. The exhibition displays important groups of decorative panels by Giulio Romano and Polidoro da Caravaggio that once formed part of the interior of Charles I’s private apartments. Many of the drawings in the exhibition are studies for decorative schemes and show the close relationship between architecture, painting and the decorative arts during the period.
The day after the proclamation of the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Charles II set up a committee to recover works of art dispersed in the ‘Commonwealth Sale’. Among the paintings re-acquired were the enigmatic Portrait of a Lady in Green by Bronzino; The Holy Family with St Jerome by Correggio; and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting. To these were added the handsome group of pictures given to Charles II by the States-General of Holland, which included the powerful portrait of Andrea Odoni by Lorenzo Lotto, Veronese’s The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria, and Titian’s Portrait of Jacopo Sannazaro. Charles II also managed to retrieve the pictures that his mother, Queen Henrietta Maria, had taken to France in her widowhood, including Orazio Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife.
During Charles II’s reign the walls of Whitehall Palace, the centre of Monarchy, were hung with Italian paintings, among them Margherita Paleologo by Giulio Romano, Domenico Fetti’s David with the Head of Goliath and Cristofano Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes. In the King’s private apartments, much praised by Samuel Pepys – who ‘could have spent three or four hours there well’ – were Parmigianino’s Pallas Athene and two works by Palma Vecchio, The Virgin and Child with Sts Catherine of Alexandria and John the Baptist and A Sibyl.
Charles II was the first British monarch to collect artists’ drawings, which he probably kept in his private cabinet rooms at Whitehall. The examples in the exhibition – by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and other masters of the Italian Renaissance – are studies for altarpieces, decorative frescoes, portraits, sculpture and architecture, revealing a sophisticated taste that was highly unusual for the period. Among royal collectors Charles II’s interest in drawings was matched only by George III, who added outstanding works from the Baroque period to the Royal Collection.
Other members of the royal family have shared a love of Italian art. In the 18th century Queen Caroline’s appreciation contrasted with the ‘extreme ignorance in painting’ of her husband, George II. Among her purchases was the monumental painting by Vasari of Venus and Cupid, described by the King as the ‘gigantic fat Venus’. Her son, Frederick, Prince of Wales, bought Annibale Carracci’s Head of a Man in profile and Cleopatra with the Asp by Guido Reni. With the Consul Smith collection, acquired en masse by George III in 1762, came Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of a young Man. Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, particularly admired early Italian painting. He bought Girolamo Romanino’s elegant Portrait of a Man, which hung in his rooms at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
Research for this exhibition has resulted in a number of important re-attributions. Among these, two paintings previously thought to be versions of lost works by Caravaggio, The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew and Boy peeling Fruit, are now generally recognised by experts as original works.
The catalogue The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance & Baroque by Lucy Whitaker and Martin Clayton is published by Royal Collection Publications (hardback, 384 pages, 320 colour illustrations), exhibition price £45.00. The paperback book Italian Paintings and Drawings: The Royal Collection is published by Scala (192 pages, 140 colour illustrations), price £9.95.