Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Renaissance Domesticity

Monday turned into another of our two-exhibitions-and-a-good-lunch day trips to London - starting in the morning with a visit to the Queen's Gallery, which I don't think that I'd ever been inside before. It turned out to be quite grand in places, too - mahogany panels and Molton Brown soap in the lavatories (no, not "toilets"), even...

But let's not lower the tone. We were there for the "Bruegel to Rubens" show, Angela having a particular taste for Dutch Renaissance painting, and yeah, it was good - although the Bruegel snowscapes and calm domestic interiors were sometimes in danger of being overwhelmed by the sort of splashy, lush, lurid religious art which frankly does nothing for me. Still, there were some great portraits, including a Van Dyck self-portrait with one of the show's two best stories attached.

(The first such story involved Bruegel's "Massacre of the Innocents", which if one looks is remarkably short of depictions of innocents being massacred. Apparently, it was completed and went to a Spanish nobleman's collection just in time for an outbreak of religious warfare in which the Spanish troops behaved with all the gentleness associated with such wars. Showing soldiers committing mass murder was suddenly considered impolitic, so it was promptly edited. The story about the Van Dyck, on the other hand, involved him selling a different painting to a British aristocrat, not realising that said aristo was going to present it to Charles I. So Van Dyck dumped a thing by his studio assistants on that buyer, and Charles, being a smarter art connoisseur than he was ... anything else, really ... sent it back as inferior quality. And then Van Dyck sent him a better painting; a self-portrait. Ten out of ten for cocky confidence in one's own skills.)

Then, for a bonus, it turned out that the same ticket got us into the place's other exhibition of the moment, a catchall "Treasures from the Royal Collection" show. Of course, the royals having been collecting hard and with some judgement, on and off, for some centuries now, this featured a handfull of Canalettos here, the odd diamond as big as your thumbnail there, a bejewelled ostrich-egg cup, some gorgeous jousting armour... The sort of thing that anyone could turn up in their attic, really. No strong theme, but quite an assortment.

Anyway, lunch was in Wahaca, a chance discovery we happened to pass in Covent Garden and which I'll now thoroughly recommend for freshly-cooked Mexican nibbles (even if their 'Web site is a bit Flash-crazed), and on to the Royal Academy for their current Palladio exhibition.

This must have been fun to set up. Most of it consisted of drawings from all over the place (the RIBA library, the Chatsworth collection, wherever), mostly by the man himself, ranging from rough sketches of Roman remains through to formal final designs for great buildings, sometimes with a variety of details offered on the same sheet. However, there were also a clutch of portraits, many of them by very major artists of the period, of assorted Italian urban worthies who featured significantly in Palladio's career - and most eye-catchingly of all, there were a bunch of detailed wooden models of some of his buildings, borrowed from an architectural study centre named for Palladio in Vicenza.

But I guess it was the drawings that were most important in a crucial way. When somebody has basically defined a culture's architecture for five hundred years (note - I'm sitting in a modern suburban house with a pseudo-pediment worked into the frontage as I type this), it's useful to be reminded that he was a working architect above all, with a vast sense of detail. (Okay, here I'm remembering the TV programme about the man that was on a few months back, which made the same point.) If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, well, you can see that Palladio qualifies. Not the most glamorous exhibition I've ever been to, but interesting in a kind of fractal way; the closer you look, the more there was to find.

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