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The title Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a time of Plague, 1500–1800 does not adequately prepare the viewer for the beauty, substance, and intelligence of the exhibition. Visitors will, of course, be confronted with the grim reality of plague. They will also be dazzled by the depth of scholarship embodied in the well-chosen images, which suggest unmistakable parallels between an era dominated by fear of pestilence and our own twenty-first-century world.
The exhibition’s curators, Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Pamela M. Jones, Franco Mormando, and Thomas Worcester, organized the exhibition in partnership with Clark University and the College of the Holy Cross. The thirty-six paintings (and one engraving) were carefully chosen to represent, with power and economy, the important role that art played in communicating the tangible realities of plague and the many iconographical symbols associated with it. The primary focus is Italian art of the early modern era, though the curators wisely included paintings by Northern European artists who lived and worked in Italy, most notably Anthony Van Dyck, Johannes Lingelbach, Jan Miel, Pierre Mignard, Nicolas Regnier, and Michael Sweerts. The Italian focus is logical, as Italy was home to many busy international ports and suffered especially severe outbreaks of plague from the mid-fourteenth to the early eighteenth century. Consequently, even when Italians were not experiencing eruptions of the disease, they were expecting its arrival. In its choice of images and its physical organization, the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue examine the ways in which artists responded to the medical and spiritual concerns elicited by this all-consuming aspect of daily life.
The exhibition is organized thematically, beginning with depictions of historical and biblical plagues. Subsequent rooms are devoted to acts of human mercy toward victims and to representations of plague saints. These last works make up the majority of the offerings and are roughly organized according to the geographical locale most strongly associated with each saint: Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome, and Venice. The show culminates with images of healing and salvation.
Hope and Healing begins with Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving from 1514 after Raphael. The composition and subject matter of this widely dispersed engraving influenced other works in this room, notably Angelo Caroselli’s Plague at Ashdod (1630), a copy after Poussin’s famous 1630 painting of the same title, and Sweerts’s brilliant Plague in an Ancient City (ca. 1652–54). Also notable here is Giovanni Martinelli’s Memento Mori (Death Comes to the Dinner Table) (ca. 1635), a powerful vanitas image. These works emphasize the gruesome physical symptoms of plague and allude to the “miasma” theory of its transmission by means of corrupt air. All these artworks stress the fear and anxiety wrought by the seeming randomness of plague’s occurrence.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s superb modello of Saint Thecla Praying for the Plague-Stricken (ca. 1758–59) leads the viewer into the second exhibition space, dedicated to scenes of mercy and charity extended toward plague victims. Dominating this room is Francesco de Mura’s Allegory of Maternal Love (Charity) (ca. 1743–44), which looks as vibrant and fresh now as the day it was painted. Proceeding from earthly matters to spiritual concerns, the third and largest exhibition space displays paintings of saints associated with plague. Saints Sebastian and Roch predominate here in works by Miel, Regnier, Bernardo Luini, Francesco Solimena, Bernardo Strozzi, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and Domenico Antonio Vaccaro. Notable among the paintings is a rare processional confraternal banner by Jacopo Bassano, which reminds us of the active role such utilitarian objects played in public devotion. Other plague saints include Saint Gennaro, shown in Mattia Preti’s vivid and grisly evocation his martyrdom (ca. 1685), during which the saint’s precious blood, said to liquefy on his feast day, was carefully collected and saved as a curative relic. The medieval Saint Rosalie, imagined by Van Dyck in two virtuosic compositions, shares the traditional iconography of the Virgin Mary as she ascends to heaven on fluffy clouds, aided by plump, wriggling putti. Among the diverse representations of saints offering salvation to sufferers are several who were associated during their own lives with outbreaks of plague. Pompeo Batoni’s moving Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (ca. 1744), who lived from 1568 to 1591, is a fine example of the painter’s elegant, sentimental style in its evocation of a chaste and beautiful youth cut down in his prime. The staunch Counter-Reformation saint, Charles Borromeo, noted for his passionate devotion to the relic of the Holy Nail, is depicted in works by Antiveduto Grammatica (ca. 1619–21) and Pierre Mignard (ca. 1647). Personal votive portraits are also included, the most intriguing being Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Two Donors in Adoration before the Madonna and Child and Saint Michael (1557–60). In this compelling painting, the artist combines a formulaic devotional scene with remarkably naturalistic donor portraits of a man and wife, presented as models of Christian faithfulness. The exhibition concludes with several images of salvation and healing, mainly from Venice. Here, Jacopo Tintoretto’s recently rediscovered Raising of Lazarus (ca. 1556–57) shares space with Luca Carlevarijs’s Feast of S. Maria della Salute (1720), testifying to the triumph of health and life over sickness and death.
The exhibition not only serves as a vehicle for the presentation of fine paintings, but also exemplifies how such objects should be displayed. Wall texts are brief, substantive, and well written, with none of the gratuitous and vacuous description that one often encounters, even in major American museums. The colors of the walls in the exhibition spaces are keyed to the tonalities of the paintings that hang within them. The museum visitor enters a room painted in muted, sage-green, shared by the gangrenous tonalities of the dead and dying in the Sweerts and Caroselli plague scenes, then proceeds into a space with walls of warm, rosy taupe that blends with the tonalities of de Mura’s Allegory of Maternal Love. Moving through the exhibition rooms, the tonalities become gradually warmer—a soft terra-cotta hue surrounds the many plague saint images—finally ending on a golden yellow note in the room devoted to hope and healing. The psychological effect takes the viewer from earthly concerns to resplendent salvation. Lines of sight within the galleries are also carefully considered, as paintings and vistas appear framed by the archways that separate the exhibition rooms.
The exhibition catalogue consists of eight original and substantive essays contributed by art historians who are experts in the iconology of plague imagery. A model of organization and clarity, Franco Mormando’s introduction outlines responses to the plague in early modern Italy through primary sources, both printed and painted. The essays discuss artistic reactions to plague in major Italian cities: Sheila C. Barker considers divine directives and temporal remedies in Rome; Pamela M. Jones examines the imagery of San Carlo Borromeo in Milan and Rome; James Clifton explores plague imagery in Naples; Gauvin Alexander Bailey considers Van Dyck and the cult of Saint Rosalie in Palermo; Andrew Hopkins looks at devotional paintings, architectural programs, and votive processions in Venice; and Thomas Worcester studies the imagery of Saint Roch. The illustrated catalogue, with excellent entries written by Bailey and Jones, reproduces all the paintings in glorious color and contains a comprehensive index. Hope and Healing is destined to become the definitive, authoritative text on the imagery of plague in Italian art.
The Education Department of the Worcester Art Museum deserves special praise for its accompanying public programs, which include lectures by art historians and medical experts as well as concerts and related events. In addition, an attractive, informative brochure and website reinforce the exhibition’s directives. The only suggestion for enhancement, revealed in hindsight, would have been to include actual materia medica at some point in the exhibition. Illustrated plague tracts, herbals, apparatus for bloodletting, and prophylactic clothing worn by physicians would have added yet another dimension—that of material culture—to the excellent artistic, medical, and historical presentations.
The discipline of art history has traveled light years since Millard Meiss’s Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951). Indeed, this exhibition not only documents hope and healing in times past, but also heralds with equal hopefulness the future of the discipline of art history. When exquisite connoisseurship is partnered with such responsible and creative scholarship, the result can only be an occasion for rejoicing in things to come.
Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Syracuse University