>A Royal Academy Show Actually Worth Seeing

>Gentle Reader: A reminder that you have until Wednesday August 25th to submit your entry for The Blog of the Courtier’s Birthday Contest! Details and a link where to email your entry may be found here.

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Should the reader find himself in London this autumn, a visit to the Royal Academy is in order, for the purpose of viewing something other the soiled bed linen and perverse pottery that have previously been displayed during their summer exhibitions. The new exhibition, “Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele”, features paintings and drawings from Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts as well as the Hungarian National Gallery. The show runs from September 25 through December 12th, and tickets may be obtained at the Royal Academy’s website.

One of the highlights of the exhibition – for The Courtier anyway – is Raphael’s Esterházy Madonna of 1508. Named for the princely Hungarian family that eventually acquired it in the 18th century, it is an unfinished jewel of a painting from one of the important periods in Raphael’s lifelong development of the image of the Madonna and Child. Stylistically, it is related to his other Madonnas set in sunny, Tuscan landscapes, from the period he spent in Florence absorbing the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, among others.

For example, take a look at the Madonna of the Goldfinch of 1505, in the Uffizi; his Madonna of the Meadow painted the same year, now in Vienna; and La Belle Jardinière in the Louvre, painted in 1507. All of these are cousins, if you will, of the Esterházy Madonna. They all show full-length figures of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John the Baptist, spending time outdoors in an idealized landscape setting of the Tuscan countryside.

It is worth pointing out however, that the figures shown in the Esterházy Madonna seem to be more complicated than those in these other pictures. Raphael would sometimes paint half-length figures, as in a portrait, such as his Small Cowper Madonna of 1505, now in the National Gallery here in D.C. In these half-length images there is some movement, but usually in the form of one or both figures leaning or reaching for something. Similarly, in his full-length Madonnas such as the aforementioned, the Virgin Mary is usually shown to be seated and fairly restrained in her movements.

By contrast, the Virgin Mary in the Budapest picture is twisting and turning from a kneeling position. She seems to be holding back the Christ Child from slipping off the rock upon which He is seated, as He tries to grab for the scroll which has drawn the enrapt attention of St. John the Baptist, who himself is shown in a half-kneeling, half-crouched position next to her. There is a sense of twisting movement among the three figures individually, as they twist in concert around the pyramidal core established by their forms.

We know that Raphael moved from Florence to Rome in late 1508, and that there he began to come under the spell of Michelangelo.The Courtier not being enough of an expert on the subject to know precisely when the Esterházy Madonna was painted along the timeline of Raphael’s development, it is interesting to wonder whether Raphael was working on this piece when he moved to Rome and began to look at Michelangelo’s work – which is full of wriggling, writhing figures – or whether this shows that he had absorbed all he could of the tranquility of Florentine painting and was already prepared for the more robust work he was to find in Rome. Is this why he left the piece unfinished?

Admittedly, this is all pure armchair speculation, but it is an interesting piece to consider, particularly if you, gentle reader, like The Courtier, enjoy the wide variety of images of the Madonna and Child which Raphael produced during his short lifetime.

The Esterházy Madonna by Raphael, c. 1508
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

>Christie’s Goes to Court

>It is true, dear reader, that The Courtier did not blog yesterday, due to a panoply of work-related matters which kept him running about all day long; he begs your forgiveness. Sometimes trying to both keep up with the law and with cultural events can lead to the latter having to yield to the former. However, today we have an interesting story in the press about the two coming together.

As the U.K. goes to the polls today – The Courtier always keeps a close eye on the returns for the Monster Raving Loony Party – what may get buried in the British news reports is word of an enormous lawsuit filed against British auction house Christie’s. Regular readers of these scribblings will recall that back in October, I wrote about a portrait drawing of a young lady in Renaissance dress, which was examined by experts using advanced scientific techniques and determined by some to have come from the hand of Leonardo Da Vinci. Christie’s part in the story came in 1997-1998, when the auction house accepted and then sold the piece in New York, attributing it to an unknown 19th century German painter.

From what I can tell in the press, having no access to the court’s filing system, the plaintiffs in this suit are the owner of the drawing at the time it was consigned for sale at Christie’s, and the animal rights foundation she helps to run. Though I do not have access to the complaint which was filed, I will probably find myself correct to guess that the piece was sold in order to raise funds for this foundation, which therefore would be a party to any litigation involving the sale – particularly with respect to whether any damages can be substantiated in court. According to reports the complaint alleges that, inter alia (as attorneys like to say), Christie’s failed to exercise due care in valuing the piece; press reports say that the plaintiff’s claim on this score is that Christie’s did not use scientific and other methods in evaluating the drawing, which were subsequently tried this past autumn and led to the Da Vinci attribution.

As the plaintiff only filed suit yesterday, Christie’s has not yet filed what is usually referred to as an “answer” to the complaint. In their answer, Christie’s (as well as any other defendants named in the suit who will file their respective answers) will indicate their positions on the plaintiffs’ claims. A spokesman for the auction house has already indicated that Christie’s disagrees with the plaintiffs’ allegations, but this is merely a press statement, not a legal filing.

Putting aside the array of issues that may come up in this matter, one very interesting possibility here if the case proceeds to trial is that the court will be faced with what I often like to call “dueling experts”. Each side will retain an expert or experts to testify, based on their training, expertise and experience, with respect to the matters at issue. In this case, that means art experts, for one thing; presumably the pool will include art historians, art preservation technicians, academics, and so on.

The art experts will then, as I term it, duel for the court, parrying and thrusting by comparing and contrasting each others’ opinions. In doing so they will be trying to assist the parties and the court by providing informed opinions on the drawing. The finder of fact will then have to take this evidence into consideration and accept or reject it, in order to make their decision.

Admittedly The Courtier is going to sound like something of a nerd for saying so, but surely it would be an amazing opportunity to sit in and hear some of this testimony at trial. It is very rare that a case of this nature, involving an in-depth examination of the life and work of one of the great Old Masters, comes up in a courtroom setting. Should the case go to trial you can be assured, gentle reader, that I will pass along whatever happens to appear in news outlets about this.

Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse,
U.S. District Court
Southern District of New York

>Shedding Light on Giotto

>My friend Miss Perry over at Ten Thousand Places drew my attention to an ongoing investigation into the work of Giotto di Bondone, the great Florentine master of the Early Renaissance. While working on the restoration of the Peruzzi Chapel in the Santa Croce church in Florence, which Giotto began painting in 1313, researchers using ultra-violet light were able to pick up many of the details which had been lost over the years due to decay, weathering, and clumsy or over-zealous restoration. The process has revealed a greater depth to the figures than the naked eye can presently see.

Unlike true “a fresco” painting, where the artist paints on fresh (i.e. wet) plaster so that the pigments become a permanent part of the wall surface, in the Peruzzi Chapel Giotto used the “a secco” method. Generally this involves several layers of lime wash over a sanded and primed dry plaster surface, somewhat like the way painters of Giotto’s time would prepare the gesso paintings on boards featuring elaborately tooled and gilded backgrounds with which the reader may be familiar. The secco method also allows the painter more time to work on the image, since he does not have the time constraints of the fresco painter, who must finish work on the section he is creating before the plaster dries.

While the secco method gives a greater brightness and reflective quality to the colors of a mural, since they float above the plaster rather than remaining suspended within it, the resulting image is also left in a far more vulnerable and delicate state than a fresco mural; the end result can be a disaster of paint flaking and permanent damage. A very well-known example of this can be seen in Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, which started to deteriorate rapidly within a few decades of its creation. As the centuries rolled on, the delicacy of the secco method and damage from wars, weather, and bad restorers left the piece in the rather poor state of preservation it has today.

Giotto’s work in the Peruzzi Chapel will never be displayed again as it was in its true glory for the first couple of centuries following its creation. While restorers can use scientific methods to give us a digitized reconstruction of what these images once looked like – and indeed the implications for research on other murals in a poor state of preservation is tantalizing – there is no intention of somehow using this technology to re-paint the images to an approximation of their former appearance. Still, the resulting data from this research will allow art historians and admirers of Giotto’s work to gain a greater perspective on his achievements, and provide a better understanding of why he was so influential on artists such as Masaccio, Michelangelo, and others who came after him.