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The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection Opens in Edinburgh
Caravaggio, Micheangelo Merisida (1571-1610), The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, c.1603-6. Photo: The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

EDINBURGH.- The drama of the Baroque just opened in Edinburgh in part two of The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection. The 31 paintings and 43 drawings selected for the exhibition reflect the great stylistic diversity of the period, which gave birth to the powerful realism of Caravaggio, the revolutionary naturalism of the Carracci and the cool classicism of Poussin and Domenichino. Highlights of the exhibition include two works by Caravaggio, The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew and Boy Peeling Fruit, both previously thought to be copies of lost originals. Recent research by Royal Collection curators and conservators has resulted in the re-attribution of these paintings, which are now generally recognised by experts as by the master himself.

Seventeenth-century Italian art first entered the British Royal Collection in the reign of Charles I, when the king purchased a substantial part of the collection of the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua in 1626-9. With the Gonzaga collection came Domenico Fetti’s dramatic David with the Head of Goliath, painted when the artist was employed at the Mantuan court, and Anastasio Fontebuoni’s Madonna di Pistoia, commissioned by Ferdinando Gonzaga, 6th Duke of Mantua. Orazio Gentileschi and his daughter Artemisia, both represented in the exhibition, worked for Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria while in London during the 1620s and 1630s. The king was unsuccessful in his attempt to lure the painter Guercino to the English court; the artist refused the invitation on the grounds that the country was heretical and the climate terrible.

Although Charles I’s collection was sold after his execution in 1649, a significant number of paintings were reclaimed or bought back by his son, Charles II, after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Among those re-acquired were Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, a chilling response to the end of the artist’s love affair, and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, which the artist had presented to Charles I. Charles II also managed to retrieve some of the pictures that his mother had taken to France in her widowhood, including Orazio Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.

Drawing was central to the work of Italian artists in the 17th century. The examples in the exhibition include compositional sketches, designs for altarpieces, frescoes, prints, sculpture and architecture, and finished works of art in their own right. Most were acquired by George III in 1762 through the purchase of two outstanding collections – those of Consul Joseph Smith in Venice and Cardinal Alessandro Albani in Rome. With these collections came Domenichino’s St Jerome, Guido Reni’s Head of Christ, and The head of an oriental and Circe by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione.

At the academy set up in Bologna by Ludovico Carracci and his younger cousins, Agostino and Annibale, life drawing was the foundation of artistic practice. In A Seated Male Nude by Ludovico Carracci, the power of the human form is skilfully conveyed through a few rapid marks in chalk and charcoal. Annibale Carracci’s Head of a Man in Profile, applies the same extraordinarily direct approach to subject-matter, but in the medium of oil. Emulating the Carracci, Guercino ran a life-drawing studio in the town of Cento, while the great Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini was head of the artists’ Academy of St Luke in Rome for a brief period. Bernini’s chalk study A Male Nude from behind is probably associated with his teaching responsibilities during this time.

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