FROM CARAVAGGIO TO CANALETTO – AND ART COLLECTING IN HUNGARY

The tone of the exhibition is striking from the off. Upon entering the first hall, visitors in thrall to the conventional cliché that Baroque is “the art of the Counter-Reformation spread by Jesuit fathers”, will notice the large number of paintings that deal with everyday secular subjects. On the right hand-side wall, they see a still life by a follower of Caravaggio with a huge table richly laden with fruits, then on the central wall, the pain-distorted face of Caravaggio’s Boy bitten by a lizard. On the opposite wall there is a genre painting, a counterpart, as it were, of the “portrait with still life”: the interior of a tavern full of characters of dubious professions. Thus visitors are welcomed first by an allegory, then by a giant fruit-piece alluding to the richness and joy of life: the narcissistic self is accompanied by the withering, yellowing fruit-leaves of still “living” nature, as if to remind one of the transitory nature of existence. The two monumental still lifes speak of the joys of life, but already in the genre of natura morta, because everything is laid on a table, cut from its natural environment. Further away, the genre scene depicts the crooked, immoral characters and the deceitful life of gangland streets, then on the following picture depicting card-players, we find that cheap entertainment and worldly pleasures are but a cover for the actual background of Baroque’s attitude towards life: the uncertainty lurking behind temptations of everyday reality and a foreboding of changing values.

How different this is from dry textbook lessons! The curating is excellent from the very first moment. When borrowing from museums abroad, the curators, Zsuzsanna Dobos and Vilmos Tátrai Jr, selected these paintings produced on Italian soil with a thorough knowledge of the historical movements and internal mechanisms of this great period in art history. In doing so, they stuck to a very up- to-date formula of what “Italian baroque painting” means in modern art history – instead of the one rooted in the schemata of Hungarian philology –, as well as to their own image of the period formed through decades of expert research.

Baroque arrives in Rome from Northern Italy with Caravaggio. Barocco is not yet fully-fledged, it is only – to use a period expression – naturalismo, senza decoro. What will later become the essence of this great century, the Seicento: sensualismo and sensibilità, are but the first tentative products of the demonic nature of a young genius still to unfold. The first Caravaggio in this exhibition does not yet bear signs of the painter’s mature style: despite details of excellent workmanship, the modelling of the body shows anatomical uncertainties and the juxtaposition of colours is maladroit.

However, Baroque is not the individual path of isolated masters but a characteristic and coherent style of a whole period. It combines a huge reform movement, concerning the language of ecclesiastical and secular representation, with the handing down of traditions, and recreates these while keeping the Renaissance interpretation of antique art. Its development is marked by nature and intelligence, empiricism and reason, passion and discipline, accompanied by constant innovations.


But Caravaggio interprets the past and storia in a manner very different from his contemporaries; his colours are full and expressive, his dimensions are plastic even without depth. The seeming imbroglio of the characters – often due to the bottom- or close-up view and to an unprecedented disengagedness – is a surprising, and at first impermissible innovation, as it records the chronicle of the painter’s own days spent on the fringes of society. When he arrives in Rome there is syncretism in art everywhere: new and morally unbinding forms of demeanour are combined with traditional aesthetic attitudes. Those who “understand”, call for the “beauty” and “correctness” of forms (the completeness of form) even if these can no longer express the new sentiments and ideological contents. Caravaggio, coming from the north, does not consider the predominant style in Rome as binding. In his view the metaphysical concetto belongs irrevocably to the past; for him the moral and aesthetic program is the truth, the exposition of the utmost “idea”. His example – that of the homo novus – will be followed by a host of foreigners: Dutchmen, Flemings, and most of all, Frenchmen and also Spaniards. The young Velázquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer are ultimately all caravaggisti at the beginning of their career, even if they rework his style and adapt it to their own personality and local roots. The Spaniards working or staying in Naples, most notably Zurbaran and Ribera, will also become followers, once again individualising Caravaggism.

The circle of his followers in Rome broadens as well. From Rome itself, Orazio Borgianni; from Venice, Carlo Saraceni; from Naples, Giovanni Battista Caracciolo; from Mantua, Bartolomeo Manfredi will all become “disciples”. Saraceni paints the literary topoi of antique themes with the nostalgia of fairy tales, Borgianni, upon returning from a short stay in Iberia, will use his impasto technique, while Manfredi will incorporate the life of pubs and locandi in Rome in the nascent genre painting. Whereas Caravaggio relegates biblical events to “dim cellars”, Manfredi’s characters – people in costumes, soldiers on leave, never-do-well card players, fortune-teller gypsy women, idle loafers – create a ferial illusion by the feat of presentation, without bearing a hint of misery or the naturalistic and critical exposition of human ignominy.

When Caravaggism is rejected in Rome, it turns south to Naples and Sicily (Caravaggio’s last dwelling-places), where it will become – in the hands of Spanish masters – picaresque and tenebroso. Caravaggismo will re-emerge in the oeuvre of the short-lived Serodine. His revolutionary genius will be retraced by no less an art historian than Roberto Longhi. (Serodine’s heroic resistance and independence is best exemplified by the fact that “his technique arrives at a point where he solves the problem of representing open-air light”, says Longhi, a problem that was not on the agenda of strict Caravaggists.)

The election of Pope Urban VIII constitutes a turning point in the arts in Rome: Classicism triumphs, following which Rome is transformed into a predominantly baroque city (in its architecture as well). Arts in Rome will become dichotomous: they will be classicist and pre-romantic at the same time.

However, the arrival of the Bolognese painters in Rome will mark the birth of a non-doctrinarian academic trend. The formulation of the classicist idiom did not bring about a rebirth of classical ideas. This art was original, intellectually striving for an orderliness of form, but lacking the intellectualism of the Florentines and having an expressed lyrical openness to nature instead. Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni, Domenichino, Lanfranco definitely turned towards norms thought to belong to some Golden Age with a certain nostalgia, but without trying to avoid the depiction of elemental human emotions. Just as the masters mentioned above, Sacchi, Poussin, Claude Lorrain – the French painters whose oeuvre evolved in Rome, influencing local masters as well – combined in their works a renewed interpretation of nature with a certain classicistic formal restraint. The debate over the primacy of form over colour was not yet concluded among the French residing in Rome, and it would later evolve into a huge controversy between Poussinists and Rubenists at the French Academy during the Seicento. Annibale Carracci successfully integrated firmly drawn forms with an exuberance of colours on his large mural in the Palazzo Farnese, as if wanting to evoke Raphael’s models. It is Guido Reni – considered by many the Raphael of the Seicento – who drifted furthest from Caravaggism. For him the beauty of form was most fundamental, no wonder his figures evoke the clarity of sculpted forms. As a result of his Classicism, his oeuvre became enormously popular all over Europe.

The Neapolitan artists were peculiarly close to the people and they had a folkloristic passion. This would become evident with Caracciolo, the first local follower of Caravaggio. The Spanish on the other hand followed Caravaggism. Ribera would incorporate realism with his rustic manner, while Zurbaran aligned with the baroque sensualists by his surprising use of colours.

In this short sketch of art history, we wanted to give an overview of the glorious period that Italian painting meant for Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Let us note the logical and historical order: what Italy meant for Europe! That is why the following sentence from the otherwise excellent summary essay of the exhibition catalogue by János Jernyey Kiss, titled Italian Painting in the 17th and 18th centuries,is not true: “These two centuries of Italian painting were determined by Baroque, the predominant style of Europe at the time.” Quite the contrary! It is Italy that determines the style of Europe. The best-known and school-making Italian classics of art history treating this period figure only in the background bibliography of Jernyey’s study, not in the body text. Despite this fact, Jernyey excellently presents the two most decisive trends, caravaggismo – for simplicity’s sake, let us call it naturalism –, and the Carracci school – also for simplicity’s sake, let us call it classicising eclecticism –, from which the painting of these two centuries evolved. According to Axel Vécsey, the author of the grand essay of the catalogue, their works were the main focus of interest of contemporary Hungarian collectors.

Evidently, 17th and 18th century Hungarian collectors could not yet know that the trends represented by Caravaggio and the Carracci sometimes met. For example, their “technique”, i.e. the direct life drawing (disegno) done in preparation for a painting, played an important role in both. In the Bolognese workshop of Annibale Carracci, direct figure studies were just as important as Caravaggio’s use of models in Rome, whom he recruited from his acquaintances due to lack of material means. Carracci also paints street scenes, but their expressiveness differs from Caravaggio’s “realism” (whose use of colours was characterised by an outstanding expert, Theodor Hetzer, as clinging, or adhering to things [dinglich gebunden], and which was not a product of imagination, but the everydayness of life). What separates these two trends is not the existence or lack of figure study. Carracci’s atelier is after all “academic”, but when he moves to Rome, he gives up the persuasive and heroising historical representation of the Counter- Reformation, and following the eclecticism of Raphael and Coreggio, he turns to antique mythologies. He then creates his own eclecticism in the Palazzo Farnese, which will serve as a model for a whole century. It is also the Carracci who will introduce ideal landscape painting, later to be transformed into veduta painting in the last period of the production of cabinet paintings. Caravaggio’s line represents saints as ordinary people; perhaps without his type-creating still lifes, in the modern sense, the history of this artistic form would have evolved differently.

II.

Art collecting in Hungary in the 17th, and especially in the 18th century follows trends abroad. The great collectors of the aristocracy did the same as collectors in other parts of Europe: they wanted to purchase paintings from masters of both (and later, further) branches of Italian Baroque. Well, the most important essay of the catalogue, The Hungarian reception of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Italian painting: general taste and art collecting by Axel Vécsey, traces the activity of collecting with an exemplary knowledge of the subject, exhaustive thoroughness, and an exact mapping and outlining of places and situations, intentions and circumstances. It is an excellent and ambitious work that sums up sporadic results published in the literature. But the paper is somewhat one-sided: it explores the reasons of changes in taste only from one aspect of art collecting, and makes the mistake – the same that has been made in our art history writing for several decades – of attributing special status to the need for representation. Collecting, however, was not exclusively connected to enrichment and, definitely not only to representation in this age either, but to taste and cultural trends in the broad sense too. In fact, for the ecclesiastic, it will become a tool for the persuasive strengthening of spirituality, in other words, propaganda fidei. Whereas for laymen, the activities of meditating upon, viewing and communing with pictures belong to the domain of aesthetics, behind which there lies a whole set of preferences in literary taste and mentality of the age. Therefore the study could have emphasised the fact more strongly that art collecting in these two centuries could be divided into three main periods in Hungary: 1) the early (aristocratic) dilettante approach – in the Burckhardtian sense; 2) changing preferences in collecting and the spreading of the phenomenon due to the appearance of connoisseurs in the field and, finally, 3) the reinforcement of these tendencies under the aegis of Sehnsucht nach Italien which peaked in the 19th century. After art history enters the scene, collecting turns towards Italy in the 19th century and becomes more robust. It kind of forms a sine curve beginning with the three founding fathers (Ipolyi, Rómer, Henszlman), through the Pulszkys, and then Tibor Gerevich, finally giving voice to a rejection of Baroque on the theoretical plane, only to strive for completeness in harmony with the requirements of twentieth-century scholarly cataloguing (Petrovics, Pigler), then it reaches the present state of affairs: purchases made by museums between 1950 and 1989, with already reduced means.


From the 17th century on, with the exception of sacral art, Hungarian collecting of Italian art gradually expanded from the private to the public sphere. Hungarian aristocrats, prelates and prominent personalities (Pyrker, Esterházy, Bruckenthal, Pálffy, etc.) opened their galleries to the public. Thanks to this, and the scholarly study and expedient collecting of museums, the Hungarian reception of Italian painting and through that, of Italian culture, entered the broader horizon of national culture.


Therefore: is collecting a means of representation? Among other things, yes! A passion? Certainly! An accumulation of treasures and values? It is that, too. Commerce? Conscious investment? Yes, indeed! A confirmation of the sheepskin or the barony? Cultural snobbery? Castle and house decoration? Yes, these are all part of it. But in my view, the cultural historical aspects of collecting are also far from negligible, i.e. the cultural historical framework and the foundation of an ideal “consumption” of art. Therefore I would like to add a few remarks from this perspective to parts of Axel Vécsey’s excellent essay.


The first part of our categorisation overlaps with one of the author’s chapters. This would include members of the high clergy. I would expect there is still much to be researched in this milieu, especially after the pioneering research of István Bitskey. Bitskey examined Hungarian aristocrats and prelates studying in Rome and analysed their stay in the Italian capital as well as their cultural orientation in his work titled From Hungary to Rome – The Collegium Germanicum Hungaricum in Rome and Hungarian Baroque Culture. Ferenc Faludi proves to be the link with the mansion of the Batthyány family in Köpcsény, who were evidently motivated in realising an ambitious and representative (reprezentatis) decoration of the interior of their mansion. In Hungarian literature and culture, Faludi was the first to write down Caravaggio’s name. This fact was pointed out by József Szauder, the eminent literary historian and illustrious Italianist, when he quoted Faludi in one of his essays in 1948. He notes that Faludi wrote in the list of names of his Omniarium in the middle of the folio recto Nr. 32, “Caravaccio Madonna cum [illegible]… Ruas mori” (mentions having seen a picture of the Madonna), and he also mentioned the name of a Masucci pittore. In other words, the Hungarian Jesuit who spent four or five years in Rome took notice of the painter too. The dilettanti’s taste in collecting was no doubt partly rooted in their taste for luxury, a typical example of which is given in Mátyás Horányi’s important and exhaustive treatise titled Gaieties at Eszterháza. In her doctoral dissertation and several of her papers, Hedvig Belitska-Scholtz extensively treated the subject of stage-settings at the home of the princes of Eszterháza, and of the quantity and quality of engravings of scenes used for stage design. Upon reading these treatises, it becomes clear that the collecting of the Esterházys, for instance, or its first manifestations, cannot simply be squeezed into the box of “representation”. Because “representation” is preceded by information gathering.

Can we call the “customer’s” gesture a representation, when travellers order an Italian cityscape as a souvenir from an illustrious local painter, so that they could later evoke their memories in their home? Was this not the case of several Hungarian “collectors”, even if we cannot verify this for lack of scholarly and archival research? Even if the collection was more modest, limited to engravings of veduti, for instance?

Evidently, pictures of the theatre – and stage design – are connected to representations of landscapes and interiors on paintings of the period; therefore, they reveal the taste of the interior furnishings of the princely court to some extent. We have two obvious examples of the fact that collecting and commissioning were not only meant to satisfy the need for “mundane” representation. Altar pieces of private chapels in aristocratic mansions and religious paintings in general are not necessarily means of representation. If we made a statistical account of the paintings referred to by this paper, and categorised them not by genre and school, but by the themes of the paintings that ended up in 17th and 18th century Hungarian collections, religious themes would prevail in number. We cannot disregard the fact that Hungary is just recovering from 150 years of pagan rule; therefore, the artistic “treating” of the religious revival is one of the main tasks of the age. We only have to look at a scholarly edition of an Ancient Hungarian Poets anthology to see the upsurge in religiosity in the country. An important concomitant of this is fine arts, whose imagery in the sphere of the sacred was not meant to fulfil representative purposes. Notwithstanding, only 63 paintings treat religious subjects out of the 142 items on exhibit, illustrating a clear tendency in European painting: secularisation.

And now we have come to a specific variety of “representation” that already serves the cause of the common good, no doubt inspired by the ideas of the French enlightenment: Pyrker, Esterházy, Bruckenthal open their collections to the curious public. The 19th century will be a period of large-scale collecting by museums, as it was correctly noted by Vécsey. Károly Pulszky arrives too late in Italy and so is unable to purchase baroque paintings, probably not because he does not want to, but because purchasing options are wanting. The essay is a little too harsh in judging Pulszky in my view: in his work titled Die Landes – Gemaelde Galerie in Budapest, co-authored in German with Tschudi and published in Vienna in 1883, the sections written by him (it is true that he wrote about the northern schools) are not the least contemptuous of the baroque masters.

Finally, I would like to call the author’s attention to another fact. In the scholarly period of Baroque’s reception, the Museum of Fine Arts – even though it could not always effect important purchases, albeit it acquired nearly a hundred works between 1950 and 1989, as Vécsey also remarks –, promoted a large-scale Baroque research project within its walls. We have referred to the importance of life drawings. Well, two fundamental treatises have been produced on the subject in this very museum: the work of Iván Fenyő, titled Norditalienische Handzeichnungen, and that of Andrea Czére, titled Drawings of Bolognese Artists. Both are indispensable if one wants to be familiar with the museum’s collection of graphic art. Numerous Italian paintings are also treated in them as most of the drawings were done in preparation for paintings or frescos. These major contributions to the Hungarian reception of Italian art are not mentioned in the paper. I also miss at least a reference to Ágnes Szigethy’s work (the author listed a short volume of essays and a catalogue only in the bibliography). Ágnes Szigethy was an eminent scholar of the Museum of Fine Arts. Without making reference to her work, and the broader cultural background that I miss from this otherwise excellent paper, it cannot be more than just a quantitative overview of works written on the subject, waiting to be elaborated by the author into a much-awaited grand monograph on the reception and collection of Italian painting in Hungary.

But let us return to the appraisal of the curating. I will not guide my readers through the exhibition, as this was excellently done by informative labels and very well-prepared guides. One can sense how grandiose the underlying concept of the exhibition was. From time and again a Caravaggio painting appears surrounded by works of his followers that portray similar themes; there are nine major Caravaggios on exhibit, the loans have been the courtesy of the Galleria Borghese (Rome), the Fondazione R. Longhi (Florence), Vicenza, Genova, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the London National Gallery, the Palacio Real (Madrid) and the Palazzo Pitti (Florence). The curators very creatively took advantage of the otherwise awkward Ionic colonnade in the last hall, by hanging the veduti in the intercolumniations aligned with the axis.

Following the melodic line and rhythm of the exhibition one is reminded, as it were, of the sonata structure of classical symphonies. After the first major chord, it begins with the introduction of the main themes, then it goes on to elaborate them, to intensify the colours before the end; the theme returns, but without the secondary parts of the French painters, like Tournier or Valentin. Here


Italy becomes the passato nobilissimo: one can see the decors of farewell of this great Italian century – Florentine piazze, Roman edifices and patrician palaces of the Venetian High Street. But this is already a different pictorial treatment, despite the microscopic luminism in the paintings of Canaletto and Guardi: the subtle play of light as the water surface is reflected on the fretwork of a palace guarding the Canal Grande. All this is the final chord of a grand epoch. At the end of the enfilade, the colours become paler on the two Roman veduti. This is not contemporary Venice, but the decors of Classicism passing, or more precisely, replacing Baroque: the sites of Roman antiquity. But this melancholic ending is not the last message of the exhibition; its last message is instead a huge collection of veduti: the imaginary gallery of Paolo Panini – in which the enlightened dilettante’s retrospective passion for collecting and the antiquary’s proto-historicism and neoclassic taste bid farewell to visitors of the exhibition.

Translation by Orsolya Németh

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