The History Book of Museum Art

July 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Dürer to Veronese: Sixteenth Century Painting in the National Gallery (Jill Dunkerton, Susan Foister, and Nicholas Penny)

National Gallery, London (Source: Wikimedia Commons / Yorrick Petey)

Because of its hard cover, the glossiness of its pages and the large number of lavishly colored full-page  illustrations of 16th century Italian and Dutch paintings, it is easy to dismiss this book as a standard coffee-table offering, intended merely to invest the owner (and exhibiter) with an aura of intellectual superiority, while not necessarily conferring a lot of wisdom on him or her. However, it would be a huge mistake to write it off in this manner.

In fact, I think serious students of art history will find Durer to Veronese extremely useful indeed, tackling, as it does, not just the familiar names (Durer, Titian, Michelangelo, Veronese, Tintoretto, Holbein) but also several lesser lights (Sebastiano del Piombo, Jan Gossaert, Giorgio Vasari, Lucas Cranach, Giovanni Battista Moroni and dozens of others); not just the familiar themes of religion and mythology but landscapes and portraiture as well; not just canvases and panels, but  furniture and ceramics as well. For the still more serious, there’s lots in there about techniques and technicalities – of pigments used, oils, chalks, egg tempera, cheese-based glues and resins of various kinds. Even the kinds of textiles the artists used for their canvases is discussed in excruciating detail.

Me, I have no pretensions whatsoever in this field – I am a glorious dabbler, a walker and gawker, but not much of a talker. The National Gallery in London is my favourite art museum and I have spent several happy hours in there, walking from room to room and, well, gawking. My taste in art is not sophisticated. It runs heavily into busy narrative pictures with a lot happening all over the canvas, several characters and bystanders, all twisted limbs and tortured expressions, and a story that can be easily understood and explained. And ooh, I just love experts who can analyze paintings and explain the significance of the most trivial details – the cat on the floor, the little cherub in the distant background, the tiny Latin words on the page of the half-open book on the lap of the man whose portrait it is…and there was enough of that in this book to keep me interested – until, that is, the authors whip  out their X-radiographs and rapturize about the relative merits of calcium magnesium carbonate and calcium sulphate as materials used in the preparation of panels for painting (when mixed, if you please, with animal-skin glue). After a hundred pages of this, my eyes were more glazed over than the glossiest painting that Veronese ever applied varnish on.

No doubt my dilletante interests would have been better served if the book had been chronologically arranged, or if it had discussed painters in turn, possibly alphabetically; nevertheless, I do appreciate the advantages, for a more scholarly reader, of the book’s format – a loose narrative  that comments on various aspects of the period, referring to examples throughout.  The biggest negative of this format, in my opinion, is that the figures referred to are so often in different pages from the references, and so a lot of back-and-forth flip-flopping is involved.

These irritants should not put you off  from picking up this book or its companion volume (Giotto to Durer), even if the finer points of disegno or sfumate are lost on you, even if you cannot make out the difference between a medium-weight twill and a markedly coarser herringbone, and couldn’t really care less. The genius of these painters, their very claim to greatness, is their easy accessibility by the knowledgeable and the ignorant alike. The sheer joy of looking at Titian’s Noli me tangere (or, as I like to call it, Whoa-Lady-No-Touchee) or his Bacchus and Ariadne (or as I like to describe it, Jeff-Thomson-Bowling-to-Someone-Who-Clobbers-Him-to-Cow-Corner) makes up for all the tedious technicalities.


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