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August 26, 2013 2:54 pm
Dreams are as old as humanity and as universal as sex and death. Little wonder they have figured so regularly in the stories that we tell about our world. From classical myth to Biblical stories and popular legends, dreams are a catalyst for change – consider Joseph who rises to rule Egypt after he interprets the Pharaoh’s dream – and a window on our secret selves. How astute then of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence to consider the role of dreams in the Renaissance.
Bringing together paintings, drawings, engravings, sculptures and texts, the show is a fascinating voyage through the lesser-known byways of 16th-century culture. Big names are present: Plato, Aristotle, Michelangelo – with a sonnet and an architectural drawing – Raphael, Correggio, Lotto, Dürer and Bosch. Yet the unusual angle ushers in intriguing new perceptions about this apparently well-known world.
Transporting humans into territory beyond their conscious control, the world of sleep must have been an enticing subject for 16th-century artists, particularly as often their raison d’être was a return to classical order after the decorative mish-mash of the Gothic era.
When we slumber, reason sleeps too. Nevertheless, Renaissance artists’ imaginations were kept in check by neo-Platonic philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino. According to the latter’s 15th-century text, “Theologia Platonica”, on loan from Florence’s National Central Library, sleep was an occasion for the vacatio animae: a moment when the soul could wander away from the body and draw closer to the divine.
The curators use Ficino’s phrase, modified to the less esoteric vacanza dell’anima, as an umbrella for the show’s central section, which brings together an array of splendid paintings including the show’s masterpiece: Raphael’s diminutive “The Vision of a Knight” on loan from London’s National Gallery. A bijou of a painting, it shows a handsome young lad slumbering between between two equally comely young women; one, her scarf fluttering provocatively in the wind, proffers a flower, the other, whose hair is corralled by a cap, offers a Bible and a sword.
Most likely inspired by the epic Latin poem, Punica – rediscovered in the 15th century and present here – it probably shows the Roman general Scipio dreaming of the allegorical figures of Virtus and Voluptas. Obliged to choose between them, he takes the moral option.
With the figures arranged in perfect symmetry and the action unfolding against an Arcadia of azure skies and emerald hills, Raphael, typically, shows us a dream world that is as balanced and calm as his waking one. Yet the sense of dilemma faced by his hero is common to many of the paintings here. Temptation, it seems, is the stuff of dreams.
Take “Sleeping Apollo” (1530), by Lorenzo Lotto. On loan from Budapest, it shows the naked deity, lyre in his hand, dozing in a glade of laurel trees, beneath a trumpet-toting angel. At his feet lie heaps of discarded clothes and musical instruments while on the untamed, grassy slopes below, the naked Muses dance with sensual abandon. In this gloriously delphic image, the Venetian painter seems to be gesturing both at the danger for the artist of losing himself in erotic fantasy but also celebrating the necessity of a creative vacanza for the imagination.
Given that it sent clever, masculine reason into a snooze, night was inevitably regarded as a female kingdom. (In ancient Greek myth, Night was represented by the goddess Nyx.)
The iconic Renaissance image of Night is the sculpture carved by Michelangelo for the tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici in the Medici Chapel in Florence. (Visitors to this show should definitely make a pilgrimage.) In this show, a terracotta by an anonymous 16th-century sculptor and painted copies by Michele di Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio (1553-55) and Francesco del Brina (1575) do convey a soupçon of the original’s extraordinary aura, as she slumps like a vast, nude Lilith, one elbow resting on one mammoth thigh, her breasts splayed across an anatomically improbable gulf, who has surely sated herself on a Titan lover before falling asleep with only her owl for company.
Images of naked women sleeping in the open countryside were a favourite motif for Renaissance painters. Of a clutch in this exhibition, the finest is by Correggio on loan from the Louvre. Showing Venus sprawled on a blue cloth, her son Cupid sparked out by her side, while a satyr leers at her creamy, post-coital languor, the painting would have found intellectual justification through the neo-Platonic notion that the contemplation of Venus could transport the beholder to the ideal of chaste, celestial love.
But comatose women offered other, less lofty virtues. What could be more passive, vulnerable and tempting than a woman with her eyes shut? What could present less of a threat to the male gaze?
Esoteric sexual fantasies were as rife in the Renaissance as any other epoch. A key text here was the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an early copy of which is on display. Published in 1499 in Venice with superb engravings, and probably written by Francesco Colonna, it narrates the rhapsodic dream of Poliphilo as he wanders through a series of erotic adventures in search of his true love, Polia.
One of Colonna’s more bizarre predilections is his fetish for fountains. On loan from the Getty Museum, the “Allegory of Pan” 1528-32, thought to be by Ferrarese Dosso Dossi, shows a sumptuous nude asleep on a bed of flowers with a carafe discarded by her side. A catalogue note affords the insight that the image was probably inspired by Colonna’s description of a nymph from whose breasts surged hot and cold running water.
For the stuff of nightmare, it was necessary to look to the north. A riveting cache of paintings and engravings by the likes of Dürer, Bosch, Bruegel and their followers underline that the most spectacular visions of the horrid and the grotesque lay beyond the Alps where neo-Platonic notions of beauty were less prevalent.
The showpiece here is the quartet of paintings known as “The Vision of the Afterlife” 1505-10, by Bosch, whose idea of Hell involves winged, claw-footed demons who skewer fallen souls so that they tumble into a lake of flames beneath a fetid, jaundiced mist. Most likely, the Netherlandish painter’s vision was inspired by the medieval poem known at the “The Vision of Knight Tondal” – a Dantesque tale of an errant knight who dreams of his redemption after an encounter with Hell. On loan from the Getty, a painting catalogued as “School of Bosch” and entitled “The Vision of Tondal”, 1520-30, lacks Bosch’s painterliness but makes up for it with graphic details such as the mice crawling into a man’s empty eye-holes.
Rich in visual novelties, historical peculiarities, and proffering a myriad insights into the exchange between text and image that was fundamental to Renaissance culture, this enormously rewarding exhibition should not be missed.
Until September 15, www.unannoadarte.it
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