“Really unfashionable, not even noticed enough to be disliked,” is how National Gallery director Nicholas Penny described to me the Ferrara school of artists that he is cataloguing. “We are, I often think, looking after them for the time when they’ll make more impression.”

What dictates taste for some Old Masters and not others? A century ago Italian art historian Roberto Longhi radically reconsidered Renaissance pictures in the light of the contemporary avant-garde. In the dynamism and violence of a then-obscure Lombard painter called Caravaggio he saw an affinity with Italian futurism. He perceived Piero della Francesca’s serene compositions as precursors to Cézanne and modern colourism. He developed an interest in the austere, dreamy Ferrara school alongside a love for minimalist still-lifes by his friend Giorgio Morandi.

From Giotto to Caravaggio: The Passions of Roberto Longhi, the new spring exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, is a thoughtful, sensitively selected, exquisite connoisseur’s show recounting how one man set out to change the history of taste, the extent of his triumphs and, intriguingly, the areas where he was less persuasive.

Leaning out provocatively to greet us as we enter, Caravaggio’s plump-cheeked, tousle-haired, pouting “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” (1593-94) is, thanks to Longhi, now a global icon. The sultry half-dressed just-out-of-bed youth rearing back from a lavish array of fruit and flowers belongs to the visual vocabulary of sex and consumption that confronts us daily: pretty, witty, ironic, teasing, this boy is one of us.

On the other hand, the Ferrara school that Longhi also championed stays closed to our sensibility. The statuesque figures in sombre reverie in Cosmè Tura’s beautiful pyramidal composition in pallid light, “Virgin and Child with St Jerome and Mary Magdalene” are encased in a stiff medieval worldview. Perhaps they resonated in darkening, repressive 1930s Italy; they call to mind Giorgio de Chirico’s tight surrealism. Longhi praised Tura’s “stalagmitic nature, a humanity of enamel and ivory, with crystal joints”, and his pioneering book Officina ferrarese (The Ferrara Workshop, 1934) won him a chair at Bologna university. Among his pupils was Pier Paolo Pasolini, who at the end of both their lives painted Longhi’s portrait, steely, refined features elegantly abstracted in revolutionary red and black.

Most works here come from Longhi’s collection, a stash unimaginable for an academic today. Supplemented by judicious loans of pieces with which he was connected, the display dovetails superbly with the permanent Italian holdings — Botticelli, Perugino, Bellini, Mantegna — assembled in the 19th century by Édouard André and Nélie Jacquemart, whose preference for mainstream 15th- and 16th-century artists reflected the assumptions of their time. Not until 1911, just before she died, did Jacquemart venture towards the 14th century: in a neat connection, she acquired without attribution the pair of tempera-and-gold stunners here, “St John the Evangelist” and “St Lawrence” (1320), still byzantine in outlook but with figures already corporeal and weighty, which Longhi subsequently ascribed to Giotto.

Longhi was at the forefront of the shift by which, under influence of modernism’s rejection of classical beauty in favour of more archaic or exotic models, the primitivism of the 14th century came into favour and was grasped as part of the Renaissance continuum. Longhi loved these “brutally honest and impulsive” works, and amassed remarkable examples from the 1330s combining decorative patterning with dramatic expressiveness: Vitale da Bologna’s packed orchestration of elongated, suffering, dying figures in “Pietà and saints”; Pietro da Rimini’s filigree-fine, mosaic-like “Virgin and Child” surrounded by hosts of angels and saints.

A century on, Piero della Francesca had completely mastered perspective and introduced a new treatment of light. Amply sculpted figures and hilly landscape in “St Jerome and a Donor” (1451) are harmonised in a palette of soft hues, bathed in an envelope of crystalline light with which, says Longhi, “leaving the past to embrace the future . . . Piero prefigures and fully puts into practice the motto devised by Cézanne: ‘when colour achieves its richness, form achieves its plenitude’.” Longhi’s monograph on Piero (1928) vaulted the Tuscan artist to historical prominence; it convinced Kenneth Clark that Victorian, pre-Cézanne audiences could never have understood Piero.

Longhi’s claims for Caravaggio felt, at the time, more extravagant. But “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” — a face grimacing theatrically and plunged in semi-darkness against the peaceful still-life of jasmine, roses, cherries, chiaroscuro effects establishing a mood between agony and ecstasy — reverberates perfectly in its raw emotion and anticlassicism with early modernism. It is displayed here between Caravaggio’s “Sleeping Cupid” (1608) a tender, putrid, swollen-bellied infant who seems to be passing from life to death, and “The Crowning with Thorns” (c1607) where Christ’s face, sweaty with pain, is illuminated at the cross-point of a striking diagonal composition.

Each time, as Longhi writes, “out of the abstract and abrupt colour structure of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, the event emerges suddenly and like a fateful incidence — truer, more tangible, more natural than had ever been imagined before”. By 1951, when Longhi staged Milan’s game-changing retrospective of the artist, his Caravaggio was a postwar socialist, deploying an accentuated realism that touches the common man, pointing to democratic modernity and at a distance from Renaissance intellectual humanism.

As Caravaggio had no workshop and left no writings at his death, on the run for murder in 1610, it was easy for his name to disappear: his first biography, a hatchet-job by a rival painter, killed his reputation. By the 19th century he was barely known. Longhi was convinced nevertheless that Caravaggio’s immediate influence had revolutionised art history, and chased canvases across Europe to prove it.

In 1612 Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera, just arrived in Rome, asked his landlady for permission to cut a hole in his roof, the better to paint Caravaggiste effects. Longhi acquired Ribera’s trio of saints painted that year in a stark intensification of Caravaggio’s ruthlessness. Each is depicted with uncompromising naturalism and with the instrument of his martyrdom: unshaven “St Thomas” brandishes a spear; “St Bartholomew” holds his flayed skin; behind “St Paul” is the sword to behead him.

Ribera may have influenced the young Velázquez; the Dutch Caravaggisti (Matthias Stomer and Dirck van Baburen are among lively examples here) certainly took Caravaggio’s impact north. Today, Caravaggio’s pre-eminence is axiomatic: no one questions Longhi’s assertion that “Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without him. And the art of Delacroix, Manet and Courbet would have been utterly different.”

This penetrating show at once explains why we see the Renaissance as we do, and implies nevertheless that there is always a tremendous cultural relativity in how we approach art past and present.

‘From Giotto to Caravaggio: The Passions of Roberto Longhi’, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, until July 20. musee-jacquemart-andre.com

Slideshow photographs: Collezione Banca Popolare di Vicenza; Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell’Arte Roberto Longhi; Studio Sébert Photographes; Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della Città di Firenze — Gabinetto Fotografico

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