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Renaissance Venice: Drawings from the Morgan

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The flawless brushstrokes of Michelangelo and the impeccable human forms replicated by Raphael can often make the art of the Renaissance seem too perfect; intimidating to every artist who came after. Even those Renaissance artists who didn’t become household names or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles still managed to create at this level of naturalism and detail. It’s these often-forgotten artists and this practice of perfection that is showcased in The Morgan Library and Museum’s new exhibit, Renaissance Venice: Drawings from the Morgan. The gallery lifts that curtain of veneration to reveal the rough sketches and artistic experimentation that made the masterpieces possible.

Walking into the space, the walls are a soft shade of blue that sometimes compliments, sometimes contrasts with the mostly monochrome sketches. It’s cleanly curated: each section of the gallery’s left side is dedicated to a different genre, and the right side is left more ambiguous, broken up into various sections of the Venetian empire. A small space dedicated to printing separates the two, containing more than 10 ancient books, letters, and manuscripts encased and propped open to their most impressive pages.

Working clockwise, you’re first greeted by the “Landscape and Pastoral” section, highlighting the Renaissance interest of direct observation of nature. The pieces feature delicate cross hatchings of fields and hillsides interspersed with scenes of religious fervor like the flight into Egypt. Next comes “Patronage,” specifically patronage to God, to Venice, and to its leadership.

Here, Bartolomeo Montagna’s “Drunkenness of Noah” is one of the most striking pieces in the exhibit, mostly due to its unique use of color in this sea of black and brown ink. A soft layer of an aged yellow-orange color falls above a meticulous outline of four figures in the foreground. The trees and rocky terrain fade away in the background, in a way that seems to fully utilize the blue and purple wash on this transformed piece of vellum.

After “Patronage” comes “Portraiture,” which seems on focus more than just on the realistic rendering of an individual, revealing something hidden about the subject’s character or emotion, whether that be pain, power, or anxiety. They’re often done in a single color with little to no background, and the light bouncing off of noses and cheeks is highlighted with white gouache or chalk.

Through the opened books of “Printing,” you find a section titled “Terraferma,” referring to mainland Venice and the art created there. Here, there’s a much more general collection of sketches, including everything from improvised composition ideas with lingering grid lines to studies of light and drapery on the human form. There are loose rapid sketches that border on abstract, and realistic finished products.

Paolo Veronese is showcased here, most exceptionally in his piece, “SS. Leonard, Mark, and Francis.” It’s a modelli, or finished composition drawing, that features the three saints as a mix between outline and shadow. Veronese literally takes us behind the scenes in this piece: the source of light beaming down on the kneeling saint is revealed, and it’s not a cloud or an interpretation of God, but a lightbox. This light illuminates the saint’s face and dances off the tree behind him as it curves slightly to frame his form.

Finally we reach the last section, “Travel and the Venetian Empire,” which along with the framed pieces, contains two open atlases. It’s interesting to see these early attempts at geography in our current world of Mapquest and Google Earth– the north-eastern section of North America is left completely blank on Battista Agnese’s “Portolan Atlas,” created between 1536 and 1564. These amorphous blobs of land seem primitive, but he gave us this new oval depiction of the world that’s now hung in almost every middle school classroom. This, along with the studies of light and form in the rest of the exhibit, both work to showoff the Renaissance’s massive leap forward—pushing the world to new bounds by

Renaissance Venice: Drawings from the Morgan
The Morgan Library and Museum
225 Madison Avenue

Images from top:

Girolamo Romanino (1484/87–ca. 1560)
Pastoral Concert with Two Women, a Faun and a Soldier, early 1530s
Red chalk
9 13/16 x 16 1/8 inches (249 x 410 mm.)
Gift of Janos Scholz, 1973; 1973.37

Anonymous Italian artist
Portrait of a Woman with a Hairnet
Black and white chalk
8 13/16 x 7 1/4 inches (223 x 185 mm.)
Gift of H. P. Kraus, 1961; 1961.61

Giovanni Antonio da Pordenone (ca. 1483–1539)
Crucifixion, 1520–21
Red chalk
7 1/8 x 8 inches (180 x 204 mm.)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909; IV, 69
Renaissance Venice: Drawings from the Morgan

Paris Bordone (1500–1571)
Standing Man Playing a Viola da Gamba (Violoncello), late 1530s
Black and white chalk
7 3/8 x 3 1/8 inches (188 x 83 mm.)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909; I, 75
May 18 through September 23, 2012

Battista Agnese (ca. 1500–1564)
Portolan Atlas, on vellum, 1536–64
Opening: Map of the World with Magellan’s Route
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1912; MS M.507

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