The day before yesterday I arrived in Rome where I will stay for the rest of September to begin writing my thesis at the Accademia di Danimarca – The Danish Institute in Rome. More on that later.
Today I went to Palazzo Venezia to see a Pinturicchio exhibition that turned out to be a communicative tour de force. The exhibition was build up of cubicles on a string that you walked through reading information on the walls and most importantly watching chapters of a filmed interview with some Italian actor (Arnoldo Foà). You know – the old, sort of selfabsorbed type who feels like the greatest story-teller ever. Which is not bad at all, when you consider that the exhibition turned out to show only one (1) work: Il Bambin Gesù delle mani (The Baby Jesus of the Hands), 1492 painted by Pinturicchio (born 1454-1460, died 1513).
I must say I’m impressed by how the curators managed to make such an interesting exhibition out of one painting and I think lots of curators have something to learn from this design. Luckily this painting has a rather intrigueing story to tell:
The Bambin Gesù delle mani was originally part of a larger fresco painted above the door in Pope Alexander VI’s bedroom in the Vatican. It showed a seated Virgin with the Child in her lap and the Pope on his knees in adoration. One painting out of a million if it weren’t for the connection between the sitters.
Alexander VI (Borgia) is one of the most controversial popes ever to have lived. He had several children (among these Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia), he eagerly partook in warfare, and he never shrinked back at promoting his own. Before he was made pope he was know as Il Cardinale della gonna – the cardinal of the skirts.
And then there is the Virgin. Not very much of a virgin if you ask Giorgio Vasari the great biographer of the Italian renaissance and pre-renaissance artists. He tells us that Giulia Farnese modelled for the Virgin. Giulia Farnese was one of Alexander’s mistresses (which helped her brother to become cardinal and ultimately pope Paul III) and the term ”adoration” can thus be understood in two ways.The art history is probably filled with such frivolity but this paintng caught the interest of the Duke of Mantua who had it copied. Which is lucky since the 17th century Pope Alexander VII tore down the painting and cut out two squares of it to work as independent works of art (the Child and the face of the Virgin) which then disappeared into the private collection of the noble Chigi family thus obliverated by the general public.
Facchetti’s copy commissioned by the Duke of Mantua.
The only record of the original painting is the copy and the two pieces of fresco. Which if I were curator would be the minimum of works in this exhibition. But no – only one piece of the puzzle. So this exhibition was more an exhibition of a good story than of Pinturicchio’s art. The narrator kept telling us that this was a very important work of renaissance art but he never explained why and when I finally reached the painting in the last cubicle it didn’t feel like a revelation even though the painting is truly fine.
Still I left the exhibition feeling enriched, and I think this was a wonderful example of how much communication means when putting up exhibitions. Liking it or not…
I kind of liked it.