by Roderick Conway Morris

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The 'Moreel Triptych,' an altarpiece commissioned by a merchant family with Italian origins.

Italy's Love Affair With Memling

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 4 December 2014


When a 16th-century writer declared Hans Memling 'the most gifted and excellent painter of the whole Christian world,' he was testifying not only to Memling's eminence as an artist, but also to the fact that his works were widely known outside Flanders. A well-developed international art market enabled Memling, from his base in Bruges, to export his works throughout Christendom.

The Italians became among Memling's most ardent admirers, with the result that more of his works found their way to Italy than those of any other Flemish painter. As a consequence, Memling had a greater influence on Italian art than any of his Renaissance Flemish contemporaries.

Surprisingly, then, 'Memling,' an exhibition through Jan. 18 at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, is the first ever in Italy devoted to the artist. It is also the first to draw on a wealth of recent research into Memling's Italian patrons and the significant role Italy played in the trajectory of his career. The show, organized by Till-Holger Borchert, chief curator of the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, brings together pieces from 43 collections on both sides of the Atlantic.

A star exhibit was to have been the artist's 'Last Judgment Triptych' from the Muzeum Narodowe in Gdansk, Poland, but political disputes in the country caused the loan of the work to be rescinded just three weeks before the opening of the exhibition.

The triptych was one of the most important commissions of Memling's early career. It was ordered by Angelo di Jacopo Tani, a Florentine and director of the Medici Bank branch in Bruges from 1450 to 1464, for his family chapel in Fiesole, near Florence. But the ship transporting it to Pisa was intercepted in April 1473 by pirates of the Hanseatic League and the altarpiece was carried away to Gdansk, where it has been ever since. Tani's attempts to recover the work ended in failure — as has this latest effort to bring the triptych to Italy, even temporarily.

Happily, the other riches on display save this splendid exhibition from being a case of 'Hamlet' without the Prince. Among them, in the opening sections of the show on the ground floor, is another large-scale work, the 'Moreel Triptych' from the Groeningemuseum.

The Moreel family had Italian roots — their original name was Morelli — but by the mid-1400s they were established local magnates. Willem Moreel, who commissioned the altarpiece, had made a fortune through banking and the spice trade and held senior administrative posts in Bruges, including that of burgomaster.


The 'Moreel Triptych,' an altarpiece commissioned by a merchant family with Italian origins. Credit Groeningemuseum

The work is the only surviving private Memling altarpiece commissioned by a local family, and includes images of Willem, his wife Barbara van Vlaedenerbergh, and their five sons and thirteen daughters kneeling in prayer. It is the first group portrait of its kind in Flemish art. The beautiful landscape backdrops of the three panels also feature grand buildings that belonged to the family.

Memling is first documented in Bruges in 1465, when he was granted citizenship there. He was born in Selingenstadt, near Frankfurt, in or around 1440. Tradition has it that he was in the studio of the great Rogier van der Wyden in Brussels, but Memling's early work, as the scholar Barbara G. Lane points out in the catalog, seems to be even more influenced by Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus. The latter was still working in Bruges until his death there in 1475 or 1476.

The young Memling's success owed much to his skill in capturing the likenesses of his subjects, both in small portraits and in his altarpiece depictions of patrons and their families. The exhibition opens with portraits of a man and a woman; the male portrait is generally agreed to be of the Venetian diplomat Bernardo Bembo, father of the famous humanist Pietro Bembo.

The landscape backdrop of the Bembo portrait was of a kind that proved very popular with Italian patrons, among both those visiting Bruges on business and long-established residents in the banking and merchant trades. As this and other examples on the ground floor of the show illustrate, the arrival of these Flemish landscape views had an immense influence on Italian artists, not least of them Leonardo da Vinci (in the background, for example, of the 'Mona Lisa'), Perugino, Raphael, Fra Bartolomeo, Fillipinno Lippi and the Venetian Giovanni Bellini.

No less influential were Memling's three-quarter-angle view of the sitter's face and his placing of the hands in the foreground, giving the illusion that the subject partly projected beyond the surface of the picture.

Flemish painters were considerably less constrained in the depiction of the female nude at this period, as is demonstrated on the second floor's opening section devoted to Memling's smaller 'Devotional Images.' A set of these panels from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg, France, probably originally commissioned by a Bolognese merchant, include a full-frontal view of a comely nude from around 1485 — possibly representing the sins of vanity, voluptuousness or luxury — of a type that stimulated the likes of Giovanni Bellini to produce images of unclothed females with only perfunctory mythological or moralistic references.

By the 1480s, Memling was established as the leading artist in Bruges and the most favored by Italian patrons. His success encouraged the emergence of a number of highly accomplished painters in the same style, as yet not identified by name, such as the Master of the Legend of St. Ursula, the Master of the Legend of St. Lucy and the Master of the Legend of St. Catherine, whose works were also exported and bought by Italian clients. Some fine examples of these that remain in Italian collections are on display here.

Although, after establishing himself in Bruges, Memling seems to have traveled little, the constant exchanges between the city — the most important trading center in Northern Europe — and all of Italy's major cities must have given the painter ample opportunity to see Italian prints, drawings and even paintings. Memling was the first Flemish artist to include Italian Renaissance motifs in his works, such as putti, or cupids, atop pillars and arches, supporting swags of greenery and fruit; gilded statues; and decorative palmettes, which he artfully integrated into his typically gothic architectural schemes.

A classic example of these stylistic innovations is the 'Pagagnotti Triptych' from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which belonged to the Florentine scholar and bishop Benedetto Paganotti. It was probably commissioned by his businessman nephew Paolo, who also ordered a (presumably cheaper) triptych for himself from the Master of the Legend of St. Ursula, the now-divided elements of which have been brought together for this exhibition from Cherbourg-Octeville, France; New York; and Fiesole.

In the final room of the show there is a remarkable juxtaposition of Memling's powerful 'Christ Crowned with Thorns' of 1485, from a private collection in Britain, and a meticulous copy by Domenico Ghirlandaio, from a collection in Philadelphia. So exact was the Florentine artist's tribute copy that it was long thought to have been painted by Memling himself.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024