Thursday, December 8, 2011

Masters of Venice

During the 16th century the most aggressive and successful collectors of Italian painting outside Italy were the Hapsburgs who ruled Spain and the Holy Roman Empire and much else besides. In the 19th century much of the art acquired by the Hapsburg Emperors passed to Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, where it has remained. The Hapsburg holdings of Renaissance paintings from the Venetian school were scheduled to be temporarily displaced from their permanent Viennese home this winter to make room for a special exhibition there. San Francisco's De Young Museum managed to persuade about fifty of them to take a vacation in California and occupy their downtime by going on display here.

Saint Sebastian
c. 1457-59

The Three Philosophers
c. 1508-09

Youth with an Arrow
c. 1505

Palma Vecchio
Bathing Nymphs
c. 1525-28

Lucretia and Her Husband
c. 1515

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery
c. 1512-15

The Bravo
c. 1520

Portrait of Isabella d'Este
c. 1534-36

c. 1554

Venus, Mars & Cupid
c. 1560

Paris Bordone
Allegory of Mars, Venus & Cupid
c. 1560

Susanna and the Elders
c. 1555-56

Doge Sebastiano Venier

Judith with the Head of Holofernes
c. 1580

c. 1580-83

Most of these large and fantastically beautiful works have never before in the course of their long lives traveled outside Europe. So there is much reason to get over to the De Young before February 12th when Masters of Venice ends, especially as the galleries have remained almost bizarrely uncrowded during my own recent visits. Probably the people at the De Young are distressed about the low numbers. Museums used to define success in terms of the quality of their offerings, but these days it is wholly defined by the volume of gate receipts, like a racetrack. Ever since moving into its grand new building the De Young in particular has been going in for brainless blockbusters – "King Tut" comes to mind – and cramming the building with as many bodies as the fire marshal will tolerate. Judging by the number of ticketing stations they have set up and the mazes of crowd-control tape, the De Young administrators planned this current show as another such rock concert (Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power is the exhibition's teaser line). But the broader public in its wisdom does not see the point if there is nothing made out of solid gold or with a curse on it.