The National Museum hosts some great exhibitions, and it’s only a short bus trip away from our apartment. To see similar exhibitions in Australia I have to travel to Sydney (370 km) or Canberra (230 km). The current offering is paintings from Renaissance Brescia, a city between Venice and Milan in Northern Italy.
I peruse the fifty paintings: when I notice the lack of smiling faces, I wonder how much my modern sensibility influences my viewing. I can understand no smiles at the Annunciation: that news must have been hard to accommodate. But even the Nativity doesn’t seem to provoke any sense of joy. In fact I pass through a number of galleries before I see a single smile. Is this a period or cultural difference? (Poles think you’re weird if you smile. Someone once asked my smiling daughter whether she was drying her teeth.) I interpret other facial expressions and body language with the same hesitation: jealousy between Jesus and John? Joseph talking to his mates rather than adoring? a cranky Cupid? a student not at all interested in meeting the virgin?
One of my pleasures in paintings of this period is glimpses of landscape: walls and pillars; rolling green hills with a distinctive bluff in the background; rugged ranges; a waterwheel; mountains topped by a fort; a winding river.
At the same time as I encounter a genuine smile, I meet a woman artist, the only one in this exhibition. Sofonisba Anguissola was a trail blazer for women artists and admired by Van Dyck amongst others. Her painting of chess players is one of my favourites.
As always, I am charmed by details: a cat under the table; a boy patting a dog; elaborate hair decoration; a tumble of pots; a woman looking into a mirror; a hand holding flowers; bare feet; fingers lifting a cloth; a drowsy-eyed baby.
Alessandro Bonvicino “Supper at Emmaus” (1427) – detail
Francesco Bassano ll “Vulcan’s forge” (2nd half of 16th century) – detail
Paris Bordone “Venus and Cupid” (1530s) – painting and detail
Lorenzo Lotto “The holy family with St Catherine” (1523) – painting and detail