The final week of February in Australia means, among other things, that another summer is almost over. Yet in contrast to the fleeting nature of lived experience, a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia calls attention to the enduring power of art to capture and convey human passions, fears, and values. A Window on Italy – The Corsini Collection: Masterpieces from Florence is a compact, forty-piece exhibition of Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces loaned by the Corsini family, a prominent Florentine dynasty whose origins can be traced back to the thirteenth century. The works on display demonstrate the Renaissance preference for religious and mythological themes, and capture the full range of dramatic intensity – from the gruesome to the deeply contemplative – that is characteristic of the art of this period. Surviving largely intact across the centuries, despite war and natural disaster, the collection makes its way to Perth from Auckland, for the final leg of its first-ever international tour.
Visitors are introduced to the Corsini family in the opening sequence of the exhibition: alongside a family tree and coat of arms are portraits of family members, and an etching of the palazzo Corsini in Florence. The Corsinis began as silk traders, before moving into the lucrative fields of banking and property investment, amassing wealth and power – and acquiring a taste for fine art. Juxtaposed with these familial artefacts is an important pairing of Guercino’s Saint Andrea Corsini (1630) and a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century copy of The Execution of Savonarola and Two Companions at Piazza della Signoria. Together, they open the story of the collection itself as an exposition on the resilience of humanist values.
The canonised bishop Andrea Corsini is depicted contemplating the crucifix, with the anguish that consumes him heightened through the use of chiaroscuro. The most arresting feature of the piece came not from Guercino’s brush, but from a German rifle some 300 years later. To save the collection from pillage by the retreating German army in 1944, Princess Elena Corsini hid the artworks in a rural villa behind a false wall, hanging Saint Andrea Corsini on it in the hope that the family’s patron saint would protect the concealed artworks. Suspicious of the wall’s still-wet plaster, a German soldier would shoot Saint Andrea in the head – but, pressed to move on quickly, left the rest of the collection undisturbed. The bullet hole remains as a physical reminder of the family’s dedication to preserving art, even within a maelstrom of brutality. This message of endurance in the face of iconoclasm is further underscored by The Execution of Savonarola, in which a fifteenth-century Dominican friar – whose fanatical commitment to moral reform saw him advocate for the burning of books and artworks – is publicly put to death.
As the exhibition unfolds, visitors encounter one captivating piece after another by leading Renaissance and Baroque masters, including Botticelli, Fra Bartolomeo, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, and Jacopo da Pontormo. The crown jewel of the collection is undoubtedly Botticelli’s Madonna and Child (c.1500), a tondo in which Madonna and a young Christ are depicted in a tender embrace, surrounded by six angels holding instruments of passion, all rendered in the typical Florentine Renaissance palette of reds, blues, and greens. Caravaggio’s Portrait of Maffeo Barberini (c.1597) is another fascinating highlight, in which Cardinal Barberini (who would later become Pope Urban VIII) is shown dressed in his ceremonial robes and seated against an austere background. Caravaggio’s stylistic hallmarks are all present. The cardinal’s slightly swollen eyelids, the vase of flowers just beginning to wilt, and the supreme rendering of chiaroscuro all convey the Baroque preoccupation with the transition from beauty to decay, and the line between vitality and mortality.
Elsewhere, a pair of seventeenth-century seascapes by Flemish artist Il Montagna – replete with dark, stormy skies and churning water that threatens to swallow a pair of struggling ships – continue the themes of precariousness and evanescent fortune. In the final section, a series of allegorical personifications relating to music and visual arts play off against various depictions of virtue, in a further nod to the Renaissance celebration of the ancient belief that what is beautiful is good, and what is good is beautiful.
A Window to Italy concludes with another, albeit more contemporary, set of Corsini family portraits. Here, the Portrait of Princess Elena Corsini by Pietro Annigoni (1950) is quite remarkable. Though relatively small, it is heavy with meaning: Princess Elena, the collection’s twentieth-century hero, sits in the foreground, draped in a large grey cape. Her face and posture are reminiscent of the classical figures seen elsewhere in Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings, yet the landscape that stretches out behind her place the work in direct conversation with the painterly tradition of masters like Leonardo and Giorgione. The weariness in Elena’s face matches the autumn atmosphere of her surroundings, as the aftermath of World War II sits heavily on the country and its people.
Between the bullet-pierced bishop Saint Andrea Corsini and the mystical, almost surrealist feel of Elena’s 1950 portrait, this is the captivating story of ambition, perseverance, providence and beauty that shaped the Corsini family and its collection, and is an inherent quality of all great art. The remarkable opportunity to experience this story in Australia should not be missed.
A Window on Italy – The Corsini Collection: Masterpieces from Florence continues at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until 18 June 2018.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and ABR Patrons.