An Ideal City
The Renaissance has a lot to answer for. It created a set of standards – artistic, social, civic – by which we still measure the success of much of modern life. At the world-class exhibition now showing at the Pushkin Museum titled Russia – Italy. Italy – Russia: From Giotto to Malevich, one sees how many, and how little, of these ideals Russia has absorbed and implemented.
The Annunciation, painted in 1408 by the icon painters Andrei Rublev and Danil Chornii. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
If you want to understand, for example, where our idea of the ideal city comes from, then you can see it in the painting An Ideal City attributed to Luciano Laurana (1430 – 1479). Look at the circular building (a public space, perhaps a theatre) placed at the centre of the picture, then at the wide open square, and the perfectly-symmetrical buildings lining both sides of the street, and you are looking at an image of perfection that architects in Russia (and all over Europe) were aiming at. You can find an approximation of the ideal in parts of Moscow (think of Theatre Square), and most of all in St Petersburg (which was designed from scratch as a classical city).
This is an exhibition about cultural cross-references – what Italy and Russia took from each other. The first room is the best, not only because it boasts such an astounding number of masterpieces by Italian artists – Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgone, Raphael, Correggio, Michelangelo, Titian, Caravaggio, Botticelli – but because it is about the importance of beginnings; it shows how far apart Italy and Russia were at the time when the Renaissance was in process.
Two paintings with the same title – one Russian, one Italian – illustrate the point: The Annunciation, painted in 1408 by the icon painters Andrei Rublev and Danil Chornii, and The Angel of the Annunciation, painted by Bellini at the end of the fifteenth century. Not much separates them in time, but they are worlds apart. It is not so much the different materials – The Rublev is tempera on wood, the Bellini is oil on canvas – that make the difference, but the handling of the subject matter. In accordance with Byzantine tradition, Rublev’s Angel and Virgin Mary are painted with idealised faces; Bellini’s Virgin Mary is painted from life – we can see the human characteristics. The structures of the two pictures are also very different; the Rublev is placed against a background of assorted, apparently random, structures – parts of a city; the Bellini is placed within one symmetrical room, and the use of perspective leads the eye out through the central window, and to a recognizable landscape beyond.
This comparison, however, is not meant to say that one picture is better than the other.
The Angel of the Annunciation, painted by Bellini (1434 – 1516), Academic Gallery, Venice.
The lack of formal perspective in the Rublev is not a failing; it gives a more generalized, and so more contemplative, impression. If the use of oil by Bellini allows him to model in detail the luxurious folds of silk fabric clothing the Angel and the Virgin Mary, there is as much to enjoy in the almost weightless delicacy of the dark red robe worn by Rublev’s Virgin Mary.
With the first room still in one’s mind, one sees in the next rooms – the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries – how much closer the two countries came to be. The exhibition places side by side Russian and Italian artists – Serov/Signorini, Repin/Boldini, de Chirico/Malevich; there are many of them, too many to appreciate in just one visit. This is an exhibition to come back to.
The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent, beautifully-illustrated, scholarly catalogue, which, however, is available only in Russian. For an exhibition which is all about the ways in which Russia has a place in international art, this lack of support for foreigners (who have to pay much more than Russians to enter the museum) seems to suggest that Moscow in 2005 still needs to look to its laurels.
Russia – Italy. Italy – Russia: From Giotto to Malevich.
When: February 7 through May 20
Where: Pushkin Museum, 12 Ul. Volkhonka, Moscow.
Tel: (095) 203 7998
An Ideal City, attributed to Luciano Laurana (1430 – 1479), The National Gallery of Marche, Italy.