by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
National Gallery, London
The Annunciation with St Emidius by Carlo Crivelli, 1486

Crivelli in Milan

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILANO, Italy 20 March 2010


Carlo Crivelli's altarpieces display an attachment to the Late Gothic, a command of the new mathematical perspective, a familiarity with the latest trends in Renaissance painting and a substantial measure of the artist's own idiosyncratic aesthetic.

Although of Venetian origins, the painter spent nearly half his career in the Marche in central Italy. The number of commissions and the immense cost of labor and materials employed in his altarpieces leaves no doubt as to how much he was valued throughout the region, but he remained virtually unknown outside it - not even receiving a passing mention in Vasari's 'Lives of the Artists.'

'Crivelli and the Brera' is the last of a series of special exhibitions marking the founding of the gallery in 1809. It brings together for the first time in nearly 200 years all the original Crivelli panels once at the Brera, save for 'The Consigning of the Keys to St. Peter' in Berlin, judged too fragile to travel.

The show's curator, Emanuela Daffra, has also tellingly juxtaposed with the pictures some 15th-century gold- and silver-work, ceramics, textiles and two surviving contemporary examples of Anatolian carpets from Asia Minor. Much admired in the West, such carpets appeared in Crivelli's work as in the Annunciation scenes from the National Gallery in London and the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. Both of these paintings featuring 'Crivelli' carpets appear in the Brera exhibition.

Ironically, it was Napoleon's depredations that helped bring Crivelli to the attention of a wider world. Works were transported from all over Italy to stock the Brera, which was to be the new national gallery of the Bonapartist Kingdom of Italy. In 1809, 161 pieces, many of them requisitioned from churches and religious institutions, arrived at the gallery. In 1811 the arrivals numbered 468, among them 13 panels by Crivelli. Some of these were to end up in public galleries in northern Europe, expanding the artist's audience and, in due course, winning him international appreciation.

Crivelli's gorgeously colorful, multimedia altarpieces, with their gold backdrops, molded and contoured surfaces, opulent renderings of robes and textiles, trompe l'oeil marbles, lush swags of greenery, blossoms and ripe fruits, and even solid objects, from metallic bosses and glass jewels to bishops' staffs and huge gilded keys, projecting out of the surfaces of the paintings, were the antithesis of the cool, restrained neo-Classical tastes of the early 19th century. Yet one observer, Robustiano Gironi, the author of the Brera's first catalog in 1812, reflected the reactions of earlier and future generations when he wrote of a pair of the artist's saints that 'they attract the spectator's eye as though by some kind of spell.'

But Crivelli's magic was insufficient to prevent Gironi's colleagues at the gallery from subsequently exchanging and selling off a considerable number of these then unfashionable 'Italian primitives,' although retaining at least some of the panels, such as the lyrical central triptych of the San Domenico church altarpiece and the captivating 'Madonna of the Little Candle' from the high altarpiece of the Duomo in Camerino. Dispersed sections of this work now return for the exhibition from Avignon, France; Denver; Florence; Frankfurt; Portland, Oregon; Riggisberg, Switzerland, and Venice.

The son of a Venetian painter, Crivelli is reckoned to have been born around 1430. He was fined and sentenced in Venice in 1457 to six months' imprisonment for adulterously cohabiting with Tarsia Cortese, the wife of a sailor. By 1465 he appears in the records as a citizen of the Venetian colony of Zara on the Dalmatian coast. By 1468 he had crossed the Adriatic and taken up residence at Fermo, in the Marche, where he executed at least eight altarpieces between that year and 1473.

Even though documentation of his training is lacking, it is evident from his work that he knew, for example, Donatello's altarpiece at the Santo basilica in Padua, the output of Squarcione's studio there and the work of its students Marco Zoppo, Giorgio Schiavone and Mantegna, whose altarpiece for the San Zeno church in Verona was evidently an inspiration. The influence of Jacopo Bellini's drawings is manifest in Crivelli's compositions.

But Crivelli forged an unmistakable style of his own, which he brought to perfection in his 25 years in the Marche (where he died in 1495). Prominent characteristics were a rich variety of closely observed physiognomies (some of his madonnas look startlingly modern), a profound knowledge of pigments, exuberant use of color and bold three-dimensional effects, achieved by illusory perspective, by making features stand out with the application of underlayers of plaster and by integrating actual objects into the composition.

A signature trademark was his lovingly realized depictions of vegetation, fruits and flowers which transcend their established religious symbolisms, becoming mystical celebrations of the abundance of the earth and virtuoso exercises in still-life painting long before this was regarded as a significant genre in Italy.

In his monumental altarpieces Crivelli continued the traditions of the multipart format, with single and paired figures occupying separate compartments, in contrast to the altarpieces pioneered by Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Giovanni Bellini and others, in their 'Sacred Conversations,' in which the central figures were grouped in a single unified space. But despite the elaborate Gothic architecture that divides them, Crivelli's highly individualized and expressive figures relate to one another in complex ways, creating a dynamic sense of continuity and wholeness. However, Crivelli adopted single, unified spaces in his later smaller altarpieces, represented here by the Brera's own 'Coronation of the Virgin' (his last work) and the National Gallery in London's 'Annunciation.'

By 1483 Crivelli had settled in Ascoli Piceno, the only town in the Marche that has a monumental Crivelli high altar still in place. In 1482 Pope Sixtus IV had granted the city self-government - 'Libertas ecclesiastica' (Freedom under the Church) - in exchange for its recognition of the Vatican's sovereignty. The words appear prominently in an inscription at the foot of the National Gallery 'Annunciation,' which the artist painted for the Annunziata church, the final destination of an annual procession instituted to celebrate the papal grant.

This narrative painting of 1486 constitutes a double annunciation: to the Virgin Mary in the foreground that she is to be the bearer of Christ, and to the city of Ascoli Piceno, which first heard of Rome's concession of autonomy on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation. Visible above the parapet of a Roman arch in the background, a city burgher is intently reading the news that has arrived by pigeon post (a playful parallel to the divine messenger dove hovering above the Virgin's head). At the same time, Ascoli Piceno's patron saint Emidio, bearing a scale model of his city, does not miss the opportunity to buttonhole the Archangel Gabriel for his blessing.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023