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Leonardo and his Followers at the Fondazione Ugo and Olga Levi

24 wonderful works from private collections and American funds arrived in Venice to give life to “Leonardo and his outstanding circle” exhibit

… is how the show is described on the Fondazione’s website. Having just viewed the exhibish, it’s safe to say that the eulogizing adjectives might be pushing it.

To start on a good note: the paintings (and few drawings) are predominantly from private collections and therefore not usually available to the public; there is a wideish range of painters on display from a school that is too often ignored; the exhibition rooms are intimate and lovely, with a show which is mercifully small.

Now for the not so good:

The painters include Bernardino Luini and Salaì, names not entirely unfamiliar, as well as Giampietrino and Cesare da Sesto (no, me neither). However, it wasn’t quite clear whether the show was aiming to represent works by Leonardo’s pupils, circle, and/or followers. And none of those categories was represented with any accuracy, either individually or collectively.

Many of the compositions on display were based on well-known works by the master, such as the Madge of the Rocks and St John the Bap, and most of these were mediocre at best. Generally, the paintings were a bizarre mish mash of quality, subject matter, and style. Alas the internet isn’t coughing up the worst offenders, so I present to you a middlingly bad example, by Luini:

Despite the Leonardeschi not being a group I am at all familiar with, some of the authorship claims were also difficult to stomach. Either certain artists had the capacity to be good and awful within a few short years, to change styles dramatically, and to paint like a blotto Victorian amateur, or there’s been some dodgy attribution practice.

While it would be unusual to bring down an exhibition which predominantly contains the art equivalent of a custard creme knock off, further, the curatorial approach managed to do just that. There is no explanation as to who these artists were, how they were linked to Leonardo, or why their styles varied significantly. Nor was there any coherence in the arrangement of the rooms. Surely scooping up these few images and arranging them by artist, subject matter, or themes, such as copies or quality, wouldn’t have taken up too much time? The odd wall text, the occasional catalogue note. Don’t think that’s too much to ask for?

Yet, strangely, I’m glad I went. Nowadays, with most major museums housing only great examples, by great names (and sometimes shitty examples by great names), you don’t get to see the dodgy copies, the lazier students, and the uninventive followers. And it was these works, more so than the ones which flood our more popular exhibition rooms, that were the norm in ye oldie times. Viewing the output of these artists permits for a more accurate recreation of the art landscape of the Renaissance period, as well as a far better rounded understanding of the influence of the great masters on artists ranging from the good to the very very bad.

Also, it was fun figuring out which attributions I agreed with, and which ones I didn’t.

But it was especially fun picking out some of the oddest looking Christ babies I’ve yet come across.

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To end as we started, that is, on a good note, I want to mention some of the paintings which I did very much enjoy. These were the Christ carrying the Cross by Giampietrino, the Maddalena Discinta by Leonardo and a pupil, and the Martha and Mary Magdalene by Luini.

The Giampietrino was just an all-round good painting. Freedberg once referred to the artist as an ‘exploiter of Leonardo’s repertoire’, which I think sums it up nicely. His better works, of which this is an example, are not usually particularly inspiring,

Or exciting,

Or innovative.

He also seems to have stuck to producing more than one version of the same subject, and it looks like there is a slightly better painting of the present composition in the Museo Diocesano in Milan as well as elsewhere. The composition was itself originally based on a silverpoint drawing by Leonardo.

Nonetheless, and especially if you’re into bleeding Christs, the painting here is well-executed, technically solid, and enjoyable to look at.

Ultimately, it’s art’s answer to the maroon wrap dress.

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The Maddalena Discinta, (aka the ‘bare-breasted Magdalena’, main image) was touted as the star of the show, and as such got its own room (except for 2 drawings, one bleurgh, and the other a nice study of horses by Leo). It’s a good painting, yet elsewhere would probably have gotten lost amongst the masterpieces of places such as the Louvre or the Uffizi. But here it was the crowning glory. And unlike the Christ, it was a bit more interesting.

I believe the catalogue entry which claimed that Leonardo likely had his hand in its execution. And if that turned out not to be the case, it was another jolly good artist who did. The manner in which the body is painted, in particular the hands, arms, and fabric covering the Magdalena, is beautifully soft and delicate, with subtle, rounded forms and curves that make it a delight to look at.

That which lets the painting down, I thought, was the way in which the head of the figure is executed. While difficult to see in this reproduction, the Magdalena’s face looks somewhat oddly turned and flat, particularly when compared to her body.

Nonetheless, it was a wonderful work to see in the flesh, and one which could easily be admired and studied for some time.

***

Some of the same praise as well as criticism could be applied to the final work of this trio: Luini’s Martha and Mary Madge. This was possibly my favourite of all the paintings. The colours of the fabrics were gorgeous, and somehow had a Roman Baroque feel to them, the figures were interesting and lively, and much of it was charmingly painted.

In other renditions of the subject the Mary Madge is usually presented as responsive in some way to her sister’s attempts at converting her. Boring Martha is shown here, too, trying to cramp M. Madge’s wild style, but in this example, her sister is having none of it. She’s boobylicious, ornately decorated, and looking straight at us with a mischievous glint in her eye.

While we ought to be witnessing a fallen woman mid-repent, we see instead a subtle smile…

And one unlikely to represent her finding of God.

Looking at the painting I felt like a pervy Bethanite, soliciting, or even, being solicited by, the not-yet-holy Magdalene.

My main criticism of the work, here too, centres on its technical faults. It looks like Luini painted the body of the Magdalene from one model, the neck and head of another, and stuck them together.

Even so, it was muchos fun to stare at.

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The show runs from 31 May until 25 August 2019 at the Fondazione Ugo and Olga Levi in Venice (a stone’s throw the Accademia bridge. So you can treat yourself to one of those artery destroying paninis at the Corner Pub afterwards).

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A Western Art History blog by someone who sometimes gets paid  to read and write about Western Art History. Mostly Old Masters. Mostly Italian. Hopefully accurate.

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