Now at the Borghese Gallery: The Other Renaissance

"Venus and Cupid," Lucas Cranach, in the permanent Borghese collection In Rome, it's the Italian Renaissance that gets the glory. In a city filled with paintings and sculptures by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael, that's how it should be.

But with such larger-than-life pieces, it can — ironically — be easy to forget in Rome just how influential Italy's renaissance was beyond its borders. After all, the importance of the art isn't just that every tourist flocks to the Sistine Chapel to stare at more than 10,000 square feet of fresco. The real question is: Why do they? And, in no small part, it's because the Renaissance launched in Italy would go on to shape art both up until today — and across the entire European realm.

Unless you're stopping in Germany and the Netherlands and England along with Italy, that can be tough to get your mind around on one trip. Until now.

The Galleria Borghese is showing an excellent exhibit on the work of Lucas Cranach. Appropriately titled "Cranach: The Other Renaissance," it brings together, in one space, the pieces of one of the foremost artists of the German Renaissance with Italian Renaissance masterpieces… and the ancient sculptures that inspired both.

Born into the same era as Michelangelo and Raphael, Cranach became a court painter to Saxony's Frederick the Wise in 1504. He would remain a court painter until his death in 1553. With his status, he had access not just to the rulers of the realm, but also to their art — which included pieces from the Italian masters. 

The relationship between his art and that of his Italian peers (or, in many cases, predecessors) is highlighted again and again. There's no looking at his "Primitive Man (The Golden Age)," for example, and not seeing the Florentine Botticeli's "La Primavera," executed some fifty years earlier. (Sadly, Botticelli's piece isn't in the Borghese exhibition, so you'll still have to go to Florence's Uffizi Gallery to get the full picture).

Primitive Man (The Golden Age) by Lucas Cranach, currently in the Galleria Borghese "Primitive Man (The Golden Age)," Lucas Cranach, 1530

Primavera by Botticelli, in Florence "La Primavera," Botticelli, 1482

Even while Cranach drew on Italian models, though, his style was all his own. His figures are less proportionate, the clothing more sumptuous, the messages more moralizing. And his Protestantism — a close friend of Martin Luther, he introduced Luther to his future wife and painted a widely-reproduced portrait of the couple (included in the exhibit) — significantly influenced his paintings, too.

Just take his "Centurion at the Cross," a stark contrast to Pinturicchio's crucifixion scene. Hung side-by-side in the exhibit, the two paintings highlight the widening divide between Luther's followers and the Roman Catholics. Cranach's crucifixion scene is stark, bare, the centurion's sighting of Jesus unmediated by anyone — or anything — else. His conversion is a lonely one, undertaken because of inner faith alone.

The Centurion at the Cross, Cranach, in the exhibition at the Borghese"Centurion at the Cross," Lucas Cranach, 1539

Not so in Pinturrichio's piece. Here, the saints Jerome and Christopher mediate, praying both with — and on behalf of — the viewer. That's exactly what the Protestants rejected.

Crucifixion, Pinturrichio, in the permanent Borghese collection "The Crucifixion," Pinturrichio, 1473

The exhibit isn't perfect. Some of the rooms seem to be reaching: While you could certainly have a conversation about various types of Renaissance portraiture from looking at a line of unrelated portraits of unrelated men, for example, the resulting jumble overwhelms. The exhibit is far clearer, and more effective, when it picks more precise themes to compare.

Still, it's a treat even to just see so much of Cranach's work in one place. You can see both his style developing, and can tell when he hits on a marketable idea — like his "Ill-Assorted Couples," a humorous but moralizing theme he repeated more than 40 times in his workshop's output.

It's neat, too, to see the influence he and other German Renaissance painters may have had on other artists in the collection. Take one of Cranach's "Ill-Assorted Couples," for example, and then take a look at Gerrit van Honhorst's "The Concert" (in the Borghese's permanent collection). Yes, van Honhorst's piece is explicitly Baroque, not Renaissance. Yes, it's Caravaggesque in its realism and dramatic lighting.

But van Honhorst also seems to draw something from his fellow northern painter — particularly in showing a joyful scene debased and warped, both humorously and with a moralizing intent. In Cranach's piece, is the old woman paying off the young man for love? In Honthorst's, is the young woman stealing the man's earring and about to pass it to the old woman behind her? How else are the scenes similar… and how, separated by 100 years and their respective art movements, do they differ?

"Ill-Assorted Couple" by Cranach, at the Borghese exhibit "Ill-Assorted Couple," Lucas Cranach

07concer "Concert," Gerrit van Honhorst, 1623

It's exactly those kinds of conversations you can have at the Borghese's newest exhibit.

"Cranach: The Other Renaissance" is on at the Borghese Gallery until February 13. For more information about the exhibit, click here. For more information on the Borghese, including how to book (you must book in advance), click here. All Borghese tickets include entrance to the Cranach exhibit; the price for a ticket is now €13.50.

 All images above except for "La Primavera," "Venus and Cupid" and "Concert" courtesy of the Borghese Gallery. Images of the other pieces courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.

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