This year has been designated The Year of Italian Culture, bringing to our shores important loans from Italian museums. One of those, Velázquez‘s “Portrait of Francesco I d’Este,” 1639, has just been accorded a room of its own at the Metropolitan Museum (to July 14), on loan from Modena’s Galleria Estense. The lending museum has been closed due to extensive damage (not, fortunately, to the artworks) since the severe May 2012 earthquake in that region.
Another perhaps more spectacular loan, not yet announced by the Met (but already announced by Italy) will be the nude “Boxer at Rest”—a bravura bronze from the Museo Nazionale Romano, to be unveiled in New York this June:
Keith Christiansen, the Met’s chairman of European paintings, told me that the loaned Velázquez portrait was not being displayed alongside the Met’s own paintings by that artist because “people would compare it to the Met’s.” It might indeed suffer from that comparison: Among the Met’s examples are works that are more riveting as character studies and more impressive for paint handling. The duke seems a bit guarded, maybe somewhat distrustful. He keeps the viewer at a distance (in more ways than one, as I will explain below).
This one-work exhibition is the first in the Met’s new suite of galleries for European art, the rest of which will open in June. It is located in what will be used as a “rotation gallery,” which will later contain a display of the Met’s pastels and, after than, another Italian loan—a work by Piero della Francesca from Venice.
There’s just one problem with the current show: I couldn’t get a good look at the visiting masterpiece. Here’s what it looked like when I stood directly in front of it (which is probably why the woman in the photo at the top of this post is gazing at it from an angle, as I also ended up doing):
I hope this is not a problem inherent in the lighting system in the newly created gallery. More likely, as Christiansen suggested to me, the Italian museum doesn’t shield its pictures with the non-glare glass, as is standard at the Met. (The photo at the top, which doesn’t show glare and ceiling reflection, was taken from a great distance, with a zoom lens.) The painting is also hung too high, perhaps to keep it in view if there’s a large crowd gathered around it. (Then again, Keith is a lot taller than I, so the lighting and height may look fine to him.)
Christiansen told me that his main reason for showcasing this painting was “to call attention to the incredible damage to that took place to the culture of Modena during the earthquake.” When he visited the city last fall, he was “shocked by the extent of the damage….Hundreds of canvases and sculptures have been rescued from churches. I said, ‘I didn’t read about this in the NY Times.’ The reason [for negligible publicity] was that there wasn’t a whole lot of loss of life, so it seemed like a minor earthquake. But the damage has been extraordinary. I said to Davide [Gasparotto, director, Galleria Estense], ‘Can’t we do something to redress this?'”
The devastation was completely unexpected and unprepared for. Stefano Casciu, head of Department of Artistic and Cultural Heritage in Modena and Reggio Emilia, told me this:
We didn’t know our area was seismic. Italy is almost all seismic, but there are some parts that are very strong. We were told our area was not so dangerous. This [the earthquake] was a shock, because the last one was in 1570. No one could imagine that in this area this could happen again.
Casciu hopes to raise support for the Modena museum, in connection with this exhibition, through a crowd-funding website that will launch on Apr. 29. The money would be used to pay for installation of seismic bases on all the sculptures in the Galleria Estense, including a Bernini depicting the same duke who is portrayed in the loaned Velázquez (an image of which you will see on one of the show’s wall panels, as captured in the CultureGrrl Video, below).
To highlight the distinguished visitor and bring attention to the damage suffered in Modena, the Met on Saturday afternoon will host a series of lectures, free with museum admission, by Casciu, Gasparotto and Xavier Salomon, curator in the Met’s department of European Paintings, who organized the exhibition.
For now, come join me in the Met’s new gallery to hear Christiansen discuss the painting: