by Roderick Conway Morris

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Brera, Milan
St. Mark Preaching at Alexandria, by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini.

A Rich Array of Italian Masters

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 22 May 2009


The Brera Gallery, the least known of all Italy's great city museums even though it contains an array of masterpieces that would be the pride of any institution in the world, is this year celebrating its 200th anniversary with a series of special study exhibitions designed to revisit its (sometimes checkered) history and highlight its remarkable treasures.

A Napoleonic initiative, the gallery was inaugurated on Aug. 15, 1809, Bonaparte's 40th birthday. Artworks were expropriated from all over the peninsula to fill it, but especially from Venice and the Veneto, Emilia and the Marche regions. In 1809, there were 139 paintings in the collection; by 1813 a further 50 had been added.

Expropriations and expulsions are recurrent themes in the history of the Brera, which took its name from the German word braida, or meadow, on which a religious order founded a monastery in 1201. The pope abolished the order in 1571, and handed its property over to the Jesuits. It was they who later built the present baroque structure, a rather overbearing mass of red brick and marble ornament on the outside but with a well-proportioned internal courtyard surrounded by spacious two-tier, high-arched loggias.

The Jesuits were dispossessed just more than 200 years later and the Brera became state property. By this time, the complex included a library, an astronomical observatory and a medicinal herb garden, which were joined by a new Fine Arts Academy in 1776.

One of the Brera's most gifted early students was Giuseppe Bossi. After spending time in Rome, he became secretary of the Fine Arts Academy in 1801, when his predecessor was dismissed by the city's French conquerors who suspected that he had anti-French views. Bossi created a private gallery of paintings, plaster casts and prints for the students.

The Milanese artist Andrea Appiani had ingratiated himself with Bonaparte by executing a virtuoso pencil sketch of the general on his triumphal entry into the city in 1794. This led to scores of official commissions both in Italy and France during the Napoleonic regime. From 1803, as a Fine Arts commissioner, he was also responsible for requisitioning thousands of Italian pieces. Some were sent to Paris, while others were allotted to the Brera.

The designation of Milan as the capital of the newly declared Kingdom of Italy in 1805 conferred on the Brera the status of a kind of Italian Louvre, and the influx of confiscated artworks swelled. This period saw the arrival of one masterpiece after another: from Raphael's 'Marriage of the Virgin' to Piero della Francesca's mysterious 'Madonna, Child and Saints with Federico di Montefeltro' and two exquisitely elaborate altarpieces by Carlo Crivelli. Giuseppe Bossi also managed to purchase privately Andrea Mantegna's stupendous 'Dead Christ.' From Venice came Titian's 'Penitent St. Jerome,' three important works by Vittore Carpaccio and 'St. Mark Preaching at Alexandria,' an enormous canvas of extraordinarily rich artistic and symbolic complexity, begun by Gentile Bellini and completed by Giovanni Bellini after his brother's death.

The last picture had been the centerpiece of a spectacular cycle on the life of the saint at the confraternity school of St. Mark. The other sections are now at the Accademia Gallery in Venice. The failure to return the centerpiece picture once Italy was freed from French and then Austrian domination is still a source of regret in the Bellinis' home city, although ironically when Bossi's superlative collection of more than 3,000 drawings, including Leonardo's famous 'Vitruvian Man,' was auctioned off after his death in 1815, they finished up not at the Brera but at the Accademia in Venice.

Raphael's 'Marriage of the Virgin,' acquired in 1805, is a pivotal painting in Raphael's oeuvre. Completed in 1504, it marks both the end of his fruitful artistic dialogue with Perugino in Umbria and the beginning of his career as an independent master in Florence and Rome. An extensive program of cleaning and conservation of the work was finished in March.

The Brera had no painting by the Milan-born Caravaggio until 1939, when the Patrizi family in Rome made it known that they were willing to sell their 'Supper at Emmaus' of 1606, which had been in the family since then. By this time the gallery's internationally renowned director, Ettore Modigliani, had been expelled from his post, a victim of Mussolini's anti-Semitic laws. Nonetheless, Modigliani and the Friends of the Brera, founded in 1926, managed to buy the picture (shortly before the Friends themselves were abolished by the Fascist authorities).

The contrasts between the 'Emmaus' canvas of 1603, now at the National Gallery in London, and the Brera one are extremely interesting. The former was painted when Caravaggio was at the height of his success and connoisseurs were vying with each other to obtain his works. The latter was done after his flight from Rome following the brawl in which an opponent was killed. Although dealing with a near-identical biblical moment, the differences in the style of painting, the representation of Christ and the other protagonists, and the darkening of the chiaroscuro are striking.

In the gallery's early days there was a room devoted to landscapes by Lombard artists. Most prominent among them was Marco Gozzi (1759-1839), who was initially commissioned by the French to produce images associated with military actions and the French presence, and later by the Academy to paint more general picturesque scenes. This section is the focus of 'Landscapes of Lombardy' (until June 2).

The medieval and Renaissance Lombard schools of painting never achieved the sublime heights attained by their counterparts in other parts of Italy. But Giuseppe Bossi made efforts to turn the Brera into a regional as well as a national gallery. He instituted a 'Cabinet of Portraits of Painters,' the majority of them Milanese and Lombard, in the hope of establishing a pantheon of notable local artists. This initiative hardly outlived him. Most of the pictures were subsequently dispersed through various administrative buildings. A special show, 'Bossi's Cabinet of Painters' (June 11 - Sept. 20), will as much as possible recreate this display.

Crivelli, one of the most idiosyncratic and expressive painters of the 15th century, was born in Venice but spent much of his career in the Marche. The sumptuousness of his productions, often with archaic gold backgrounds, gorgeous gold brocades, swags of verdant vegetation and luscious fruits, reached a glorious peak in the 1480s and early 1490s with his 'Madonna of the Little Candle.'

This panel was one of a dozen Crivellis brought to the Brera in 1811 as loot from the Marche. However, some were later exchanged or sold. All the original Crivellis of the Brera will be reunited (Oct. 15 to Feb. 15, 2010), providing the opportunity to see two of his greatest late altarpieces in their near entirety for the first time in nearly 200 years.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023