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Vermeer’s Mysterious Girl - Palazzo Fava
Museums | Art
It must be the light in her shining eyes, or perhaps it’s the strange smile that moves her mouth, as if she’s been startled. Or maybe it’s the unusual details – the turban, the precious pendant – or the soft glow of her skin, which bestows her countenance with a radiance from within.
We could conjecture endlessly about this young girl, comparing her to an enigmatic ‘new Dutch Mona Lisa’, but the bottom line is that Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), Johannes Vermeer’s celebrated canvas, has always enchanted visitors, attracted crowds and sparked the curiosity of historians, writers and directors. It seems that everybody’s crazy for that face – its anonymity perhaps adding to the attraction – which is why Vermeer frenzy has broken out in Bologna as a new exhibition centred around this masterpiece opens at Palazzo Fava (via Manzoni, 2).
It is the sole European stop on an extensive tour showcasing the painting by the artist from Delft, along with other masterpieces from the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. The tour has travelled from Japan to the United States, passing through such large metropolises as Tokyo, Kobe, San Francisco, Atlanta and New York.
Now, before returning to the halls of the Dutch museum for good, the Girl with a Pearl Earring brings her story to Emilia-Romagna’s largest city. The exhibition juxtaposes the painting with other gems of the cultural movement known as the Dutch Golden Age, and, specifically while in Bologna, with works by contemporary Italian artists inspired by that epoch.
Over 40 other artworks have come from the Mauritshuis Museum, including masterpieces by the likes of Jan Steen, Pieter Claesz, Fabritius, Gerrit van Honthorst, Jan van Goyen, Frans Hals, Rembrandt van Rijn and Pieter de Hooch, as well as pieces by 15 Italian masters, such as Piero Guccione, Franco Sarnari, Francesco Stefanini and Maurizio Pierfranceschi, who provide a contemporary take on the teachings of the Dutch masters.
Thus, the urban heart of the Emilia-Romagna region once again affirms its place as an artistic and cultural hub of world renown. Bologna’s long history in this role has its roots in the city’s major university, where intellectuals of the calibre of Roberto Longhi, Luciano Anceschi and Umberto Eco have all held office.
This is a city that has always protected its treasures and celebrated its artists. As evidence, think of the exhibitions organised here in the 1980s and which were later exported abroad, to the United States and elsewhere.
These ensured that the entire world got to know the Italian masters, such as Guido Reni, Guercino and Carracci.
Today, 17th-century masterpieces from the Emilia-Romagna region are kept at Bologna’s National Picture Gallery (via delle Belle Arti, 56). The collections – by no coincidence – provide further insights into Vermeer and his contemporaries. And at the Palazzo Pepoli Campogrande (via Castiglione, 7), you can admire the Zambeccari collection. Here, together with some fine local masterpieces, you can view a complete series of paintings – small panels and large canvases – by Flemish and Dutch artists from the late 16th century and mid-17th century.
This substantial body of works, exemplars of the new styles being cultivated in northern Europe, arrived in Bologna in the late 1700s thanks to Giacomo Zambeccari, the last descendent in an ancient line of senators.
Through his direct connections with Florentine and Venetian antique dealers, this noble luminary enriched his family collections by looking further afield, to the masters from Amsterdam and Antwerp. It is also perhaps worth visiting to gain a better understanding of how Rubens’ Flanders – which Zambeccari so loved – and the cultural climate of Vermeer’s Delft were so close yet so far apart at the time. On the one hand, we have the baroque – expressing the taste of the patrons who upheld the church and the courts and which embellished the altars and noble salons. On the other, we have the masters of the Dutch Golden Age, representatives of the Calvinist society, of bourgeois merchants, who imposed an entirely new style – their subject matter the inside of houses, landscapes, still lives and the faces of common men and women, in small works intended for domestic indoor settings.
It is against this backdrop that Vermeer’s girl appears, a masterpiece of pictorial technique based on the knowing use of light to elevate the subject’s countenance and the details – an unusual turban, certainly not worn by young Dutch girls, and that pearl, so large and imposing – which stand out against the dark backdrop. Some, such as the writer André Malraux, believe that it is a portrait of Vermeer’s elder daughter Maria, born in 1654. But the current thesis is that it is instead an example of tronie – that is, a portrait of an anonymous male or female model, used to study different facial expressions, symbols of emotion.
Another fine painting on display at the exhibition is Portrait of Aletta Hanemans by Frans Hals.
This snapshot of Haarlem’s new middle class emphasises personal wealth in its depiction of the subject’s large and precious lace collars and her sumptuous black satin garments embellished with gold brocade. Yet to see the true stylistic revolution taking place, look no further than Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Man. The crooked hat, the unbuttoned jacket, the strings of the old man’s unfashionable collar untied – all bring out the naturalness and expressiveness of his countenance, the lips slightly parted in a light sigh.
Also worth a look is another Rembrandt, Simeon’s Song of Praise. Here, the artist depicts a sacred subject, Mary and Joseph taking baby Jesus to the temple. In it, Christ becomes a font of light, not just physically, but symbolically, in a scene in which all else is confined to shadow.
During the Dutch Golden Age, religious painting was as important as the production of secular art, which satisfied the tastes of a new clientele. Another of Vermeer’s important paintings, Diana and Her Companions, a work from his early period, was produced when we was just 23, at a time when he was still focusing on biblical or mythological subjects rather than stories from everyday life. However, the dramatic rendering of the scene and the texture of the colour already indicate all of his greatness and originality.
While any profane overtones here are softened by the mythological aspects, they instead become more explicit in works such as Girl Eating Oysters, by Jan Steen.
An elegantly-dressed girl sits alone at a set table; the painter catches her eating this shellfish, in those days, as now, deemed an aphrodisiac. The sexual allusion is underlined by a bed with curtains drawn behind the woman.
Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Violin Player has sexual connotations, too. The gaudy clothing and hat with feathers seem to suggest a high-class prostitute, just as the act of playing the violin in those days was a symbol of an entirely different kind of pleasure. But the painting is to be admired regardless of its theme; if we look at the draping of the garments and use of light we see how the painter took Michelangelo’s teachings and made them his own, albeit with an original twist.
The exhibition is a crescendo that builds up as yet other themes in vogue during that era follow one after the other: from Still Life with Burning Candle by Pieter Claesz to the genial Goldfinch by Fabritius, through the many different landscapes to the portraits of men busy smoking, playing and working. Ultimately, the result is one large fresco, curated by Marco Goldin of Linea d’ombra and, among others, Emilie Gordenker, Director of the Mauritshuis.
Article by Paola Naldi
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