Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 7, 2007
Jonathan Bober, ed. Luca Cambiaso: 1527–1585 Exh. cat. Milan: Silvana Editoriale in association with Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin and Palazzo Ducale, 2006. 475 pp.; 140 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Paper $65.00 (9780977145386)
Exhibition schedule: Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, September 15, 2006–January 14, 2007; Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, March 3–July 8, 2007
Luca Cambiaso. Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1550). Oil on wood panel. 36 x 31 11/16 in. (91.4 x 80 cm). Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas. Purchase as a gift of the Cain Foundation in honor of Charmaine Hooper Denius. 2005.151.

The University of Texas’s spacious new Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, which opened in April 2006, recently mounted an outstanding exhibition devoted to Luca Cambiaso, the leading native-born figure in sixteenth-century Genoese painting. Organized with the Palazzo Ducale Genoa, this first monographic exhibition in fifty years was supported by a beautifully produced catalogue, in English, edited by Jonathan Bober, the show’s chief architect and the Blanton Museum’s curator of prints, drawings, and European paintings. The volume comprises 118 substantial catalogue entries, each accompanied by a superb full-page color plate, preceded by an excellent fortuna critica, an anthology of sources, and eight pathbreaking, well-illustrated essays by Bober and other noted scholars; a document summary and extensive bibliography follow. An expanded version of the exhibition is on view in Genoa at the Palazzo Ducale through July 8, 2007; its accompanying catalogue, in Italian, is titled Luca Cambiaso: un maestro del Cinquecento europeo.

Aware of Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s art through prints, Cambiaso was initially influenced by Perino del Vaga, Domenico Beccafumi, and Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis, called Pordenone, who worked in Genoa during the 1530s in response to Andrea Doria’s program of civic artistic aggrandizement. From the later 1540s through the early 1580s, Cambiaso strove energetically—working at first with his father, Giovanni—to continue to satisfy the ambitions of Genoese patrons. The period was one of exceptional prosperity for the city and witnessed the emergence of Genoa’s ruling families as powerful players on the European stage. Cambiaso’s production included monumental frescoes in palaces and churches as well as altarpieces and devotional and classicizing pictures for private use. His painting came to reflect the influence of Parmigianino, Correggio, Titian, and Veronese. Cambiaso’s later religious works manifest an increasing propensity for night scenes and starkness of form. From October 1583 until his death, Cambiaso was engaged by Philip II in the decoration of the monastery of San Lorenzo at El Escorial. Following Arturo Pacini’s essay on sixteenth-century Genoa, the catalogue provides an essential review of the artist’s career and development in “Luca Cambiaso: Idea, Practice, Ideology” by Lauro Magnani, author of a monograph published in 1995.

The Genoese master is renowned for his extraordinarily distinctive and numerous drawings of high quality and art-historical interest. Rendered with a powerful command of line, they characteristically employ dramatically foreshortened figural poses and explosively dynamic compositions, giving rise during the nineteenth century to comparison with Tintoretto’s graphic output. Cambiaso’s draftsmanship is closely scrutinized by Bober in an essay and forty-six catalogue entries and by Piero Boccardo in entries for the seven Cambiaso drawings leant from the Palazzo Rossi. As Bober argues (82, 84), Cambiaso (and his workshop) began in the early 1560s an extensive practice of replication of his virtuoso autonomous inventions so that, given the absence of printmaking in Genoa, drawn copies of drawings might serve the disseminative role played by prints in other artistic centers. Cambiaso’s famous embrace in the same decade of stereometric (“cubic”) figural forms is examined—with consideration of sources (86), as further in Giulio Bora’s essay—and viewed as basic to the simplified, depersonalized style of the artist’s late religious paintings, here claimed to “embody the pervasive spirit of the Tridentine reform” (90).

Cambiaso was an eminently fitting subject for the Blanton. In 1998, the museum acquired the collection assembled by Cambiaso scholars William Suida and his daughter Bertina Suida Manning, with her husband, Robert Manning. The Suida-Manning Collection comprises six paintings from the artist’s maturity (cat. nos. 55, 72, 90, 92, 94, and 95) and some fifty drawings associated with him. The Blanton purchased a seventh painting, an early Madonna (cat. no. 16), in 2005. In the exhibition, these holdings were richly complemented by loans from numerous major museums, private collections, and churches and other institutions in Genoa. The layout of the exhibition was admirably straightforward. Individual labels were succinct but exceptionally informative, and those for drawings related to extant paintings tastefully included small color reproductions of the latter.

The first room, titled “Precedents and Sources,” displayed a sheet from Niccolò della Casa’s ten-plate engraving of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (acquired by the Blanton as part of Leo Steinberg’s 2002 donation of 3,200 prints; cat. no. 6); Perino del Vaga’s magnificent Alexander drawing from the collection of John Gere (British Museum; cat. no. 3); various little-seen works attributed to Perino and Beccafumi; and Cambiaso’s eye-catching double portrait of ca. 1570 depicting himself in his studio at work on a commanding bust-length portrait of his father (Genoa, Palazzo Bianco; cat. no. 78). A chronological progression of Luca’s works followed, with sub-groupings of drawings and of secular and religious pictures. Individual works were well served by thoughtful, often arrestingly beautiful juxtapositions, as especially the magnificent assembly of drawings from the early 1560s (culled from the collections of the British Museum, Louvre, Albertina, Blanton, and Fogg; cat. nos. 31–34, 38, 39) and the gallery labeled “Mythological Subjects 1560–1570,” which featured haunting treatments of Venus and Adonis themes along with the intimate, sensuous, chromatically alluring Venus and Cupid from the Art Institute of Chicago (cat. no. 63). Cambiaso’s contemporaries in Genoa were represented by Andrea Semino’s Diana and Callisto (cat. no. 66; attributed) and the huge, innovative Arrest of Christ commissioned ca. 1561 for the Grimaldi Chapel in San Francesco di Castelletto from Giovanni Battista Castello, called Il Bergamasco (cat. no. 35), the subject of a compelling catalogue essay by Boccardo and Clario Di Fabio. The exhibition also paired drawings relating to Bergamasco’s and Cambiaso’s respective contributions in 1559 to the Doria-funded decoration of San Matteo, Genoa (cat. nos. 27, 28). Cambiaso’s late maturity was documented with several striking nocturnes; an enormous, grim Descent from the Cross from the Clarissan church in San Martino d’Albaro (cat. no. 97); and the great drawing of the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (Washington, National Gallery of Art; cat. no. 102) related to his high altarpiece for the basilica at El Escorial (1581; now in the Sacristía de las Capas). A fine selection of works by Cambiaso’s followers occupied the last space, and specific aspects of his influence are examined in essays by Massimo Bartoletti and Franco Boggero, Ezia Gavazza, and Carmen García-Frias Checa.

The exhibition included numerous altarpieces never previously seen outside Italy, some newly cleaned for this show. Particularly appealing are Cambiaso’s Nativity from San Francesco da Paola, Genoa (ca. 1564–65; cat. no. 36), where three saints occupy the positions traditional to the shepherds approaching the manger, and the night presepio first recorded in the Casali Chapel in San Domenico, Bologna (ca. 1570; cat. no. 76). These works were hung low to the ground, which facilitated observation of the brushwork in the upper sections but denied the visitor the sense of inclusion in the circle of witnesses to the Incarnation—and inclusion in the miraculous glow of light emanating from the Child—that Cambiaso’s compositions, with the principal figures looming close to the picture plane, must afford when installed at altar height. For the former work, an analogy for the assembled saints (noted as unusual, p. 282) and inclusion of God the Father is found in Perino’s Nativity for the Baciadonne Chapel in Santa Maria della Consolazione, Genoa (1534; Washington, National Gallery of Art). The central placement of St. Joseph in the Bologna presepio may be noted with reference to the frequent contemporary use of the subject for St. Joseph altarpieces along with Bologna’s long-term veneration of the saint and the Dominican Order’s embrace of his cult (as also the city of Genoa’s) during the early Cinquecento.

The Blanton, situated at the city-side edge of the campus, casts itself as a “cultural gateway” with commitment, as Austin’s major art museum, to serve the community as well as to continue meeting its traditional mandate as a university art museum. Luca Cambiaso: 1527–1585 must be seen to have amply fulfilled this dual mission. The city was host to an innovative, world-class loan exhibition focused on a complex, significant protagonist of the Italian Late Renaissance. The assembled works provided students and faculty a remarkable springboard for discussion of major stylistic and thematic developments throughout the Cinquecento. Especially rich opportunities for teaching and honing connoisseurship were to be found, not least in the juxtaposition of multiple versions of autonomous drawings—such as the large Visitation represented by sheets from the Albertina, Louvre, and Blanton (cat. no. 43a–c; the male figure at the right is Joseph, not Joachim; p. 296)—and meticulous distinctions indicated, in the labeling, between autograph, copied, and derivative drawings. The many splendid examples of Cambiaso’s powerfully energetic draftsmanship cannot help but have served as incentive and inspiration for Austin’s artists and art students, and the catalogue is an exemplar of intensely close observation and responsible scholarship.

Carolyn C. Wilson
independent scholar

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