Masters reign in Spain
Salome with the head of John the Baptist, 1550. Picture: Supplied

Art snobs recoil at the idea of the wealthy purchasing art not simply for its aesthetic virtues but to fill an empty space on a wall, something pretty that matches the curtains and the furniture.

Indeed, I recently looked on with amusement as a western suburbs matron flashed around iPhone images of the entrance to her home in which she wanted to hang a piece of Aboriginal art. "I can't make up my mind between the swirls or the dots," she said to her companion.

However, the practice of using art to accessorise an abode long preceded the moneyed classes of Knightsbridge, Park Avenue or Peppermint Grove. This became clear during a viewing of Italian Masterpieces from Spain's Royal Court, a breathtaking exhibition from the Prado that brings together the Madrid museum's collection of Italian painting from the Renaissance and the Baroque era.

For the next three months as part of its Winter Masterpieces series, the National Gallery of Victoria is hosting 70 paintings and 30 drawings from the likes of Raphael, Correggio, Tintoretto and, most significantly, Titian, who was so beloved by the Spanish kings they amassed almost 90 pieces by the celebrated Venetian.

Apart from the quality of the show, which has been described as the greatest collection of Italian Old Masters ever to travel to these shores, what strikes one immediately is the scale of the paintings (the more general response to those seeing masterpieces of Western art for the first time, such as the Mona Lisa, is how small they are).

"We know that the Spanish kings ordered paintings that would be long enough to reach from one window to the next. And we know that some were commissioned to be hung above windows," says Andres Ubeda de los Cobos, one of the two travelling curators from the Prado.

"We also know that the Spanish monarchs ordered paintings with particular subject matter. For example, we know that they commissioned many paintings of flowers and landscapes that were so large they had to develop new techniques to be able to do the job. It was such a new approach to painting that many artists failed."

Indeed, what makes the Italian Masterpieces so unique is that nearly all the paintings in the exhibition were commissioned by the kings of Spain and hung in their many palaces until the Prado opened in 1819.

"They went from the painter's workshop to the collection, and they have been here ever since. This is not a collection done by 19th and 20th century bourgeois collectors," co-curator Miguel Falomir Faus says.

Thus the NGV's Prado show is not simply a collection of Italian art covering the period 1500 to 1800. It also tells the story of a relationship between Imperial Spain and the greatest artists of the age, of an enlightened royal court and the canny, business-minded Renaissance and Baroque artists who gave them masterpieces to measure.

Indeed, Spain's 16th and 17th century monarchs had such a great passion for art and were so well informed that they did not snap up everything in sight to create a panoramic collection.

Rather they sought to corner the market on their favourite painters such as Titian (1488-1576), who was the first painter collected by the Spanish Hapsburgs. This is why the Prado boasts the world's greatest collection of Titians even though the artist never set foot in Spain.

Titian looms so large in the history of the Spanish acquisition of Italian art that he has was called "the father of the Prado" by British travel writer and Italian specialist Edward Hutton.

The relationship between the two countries was fostered by the two Borgia popes, Callixtus III (1455-58) and Alexander VI (1492-1503), whose Spanish cardinals commissioned many works by Italian artists to be sent back to their homeland for devotional purposes (in these years religious orthodoxy was considered more important than aesthetic dimensions).

However, when the Spanish elites were integrated into the empire of Charles V (1519-1556) they were brought into contact with more sophisticated circles in Europe that held art and artists in the highest esteem. "This permanently altered the perception of painting in Spain," writes Falomir Faus in the catalogue.

The turning point was Titian's 1533 full-length portrait of Charles V, which kicked off a relationship between the Venetian painters and the Habsburgs that would shape the Spanish monarchy's taste in art.

The Spanish royals were enamoured by Titian's bold use of colour and a broad brush which gave his work great sensuality and emotional power. The Venetian's work had a bravado and confidence that chimed with Spanish monarchs at the height of their power.

There are five of Titian's works in the exhibition including a portrait of Philip II (1551), who was the artist's most important patron and with whom he had a relationship that was, according to the catalogue, one of the most fecund of the Renaissance. The work is celebrated and regarded as one of his most influential works because of the delicacy with which Titian idealised Philip II, subtly giving the stocky royal a more svelte appearance and making him seem taller and more imposing.

While the five Titians are the centrepiece of Italian Masterpieces, there are paintings and etchings that astonish in each of the rooms (the painting have been arranged in periods for the first time which, the curators say, created juxtapositions that surprised even them).

Facing each other from across the room in the section titled The Genius of the Renaissance is Raphael's Holy Family with Saint John or Madonna of the Rose (1517), a work so beautifully composed and with such calm that it forces viewers to stop and contemplate its mysteries, and Correggio's Noli me tangere (1525).

This masterpiece, which depicts a newly risen Christ imploring Mary Magdalene to "touch me not", is celebrated for the extraordinary balance of the composition, in particular the intensity of the gaze connecting Jesus and the reformed prostitute (achieved, recent X-rays reveal, after two previous attempts by Correggio). I was drawn back time and again to Noli me tangere, which expresses the beauty of the Christian story more powerfully than any painting I know.

And these two knockout works are in the first room. Ahead lies the stark, high-contrast realism of the Caravaggisti (but sadly no actual Caravaggio), the drama, exuberance of the Baroque and the mind-bogglingly intricate flower paintings of Neapolitan Andrea Belvedere which, according to Ubeda de los Cobos, were particularly favoured in palace decorations.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West