09 August 2014

The Prado's treasures come to Melbourne

The Spanish collection of Italian Art now in Melbourne comes from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. Until the end of August 2014, c100 paint­ings from their collection are on loan for our winter block­buster, tracing the stylistic development of Italian art across three centuries. Visitors will be able to examine Raphael, Carracci, Tiepolo, Veronese, Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto and everyone else.

These Italian Masterpieces high­light the particular tastes of royalty and arist­oc­rats at the Royal Court of Spain between the C16th-18th. Art historian Georgio Vasari (1511-1574) described how antique art served not only as a model, but also as a source of prestige. So popes, royals and aristocrats all over Europe competed to amass magnificent collect­ions for themselves, particularly into the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Spanish Royal family belonged to the House of Bourbon, a royal house of French origin that vigorously supported the Roman Cath­olic faith for centuries. King Philip V (1683-1746) was Spain’s first Bourbon. He and his successors were dedicated art patrons, enabling many Italian works to wend their way into the collections of royal circles in Spain. But it was King Philip II (1527–1598) in particular who shared the spotlight with one of my favourite artists, Titian (d1576). Although Philip did not take the throne until 1581, the younger Spanish patron and the older Italian artist worked well together.

Man with a Clock, c1550
122 x 101 cm
Currently in the NGV in Melbourne; normally in the Prado in Madrid

There are 61 works by Titian in the Madrid collection but only three of them are on display at the NGV. I want to focus on the Titian that displayed a man with the white cross of a Knight of the Order of Malta on his clothing. Man With a Clock, painted in c1550, was a good example of how Titian painted from observation, capturing the fleeting look on a sitter’s face.

Carolyn McDowall noted the way Titian rendered his black clothing through the creative use of lines, shapes and subtle shadings. It revealed his complete mastery of oil painting. The sitter was definitely a gent­leman of status, as revealed by the cut, cloth and style of his clothing. And black was the colour of gentleman, as laid down by Count Baldassare Castiglione in his book The Courtier (1528). This became the manual that had already specified the ideologies and behaviours suitable for gentlemen.

Titian apparently recorded a clock in others of his paintings, so what should we make of it? That Titian owned his own clock, when many other citizens could not afford one? That Titian wanted the sitter to be doing something status-filled, rather than just staring out at the viewer? Or that the portrait was of a successful clock maker? I wonder if the clock was not part of a vanitas scene, a type of painting beloved by still life artists in C17th Netherlands. Common vanitas symbols included rotten fruit which were a reminder of the certainty of death.. or delicate flowers which depicted the ephem­eral nature of life. And then there were timepieces in paintings that reminded us of the relentless passage of time! Could Titian in 1550 have predicted the vanitas themes of Dutch artists 80 years later?

Let me also mention Titian’s Portrait of Prince Philip 1551. Later to become King Philip II, the young prince was wearing armour but he was not at war. Rather he was standing in a relaxed pose, surrounded by the symbols of his dignity and power – velvet, gold and a ceremonial sword. This striking portrait must have become a role model for other artists creating portraits of their royal clients wearing armour.

Prince Philip (later King Philip II), 1551
Currently in the NGV in Melbourne; normally in the Prado in Madrid

The Melbourne exhibition certainly represents the supreme quality of Italian master artists in the Prado, but visitors should note that there are other very fine artists as well. Jusepe de Ribera was Span­ish, Claude Lorrain was French, Anton Raphael Mengs was German etc.

The Museo Nacional del Prado was not designed until 1785 by the architect Juan de Villanueva for King Charles III. In fact the building was not opened to the public until November 1819. So in which palaces were King Philip II’s art treasures held in the interim 270 years?


jeronimus said...

Titian is an absolute top ten fave painter for me. The brushwork in is later work was loose and painterly, and probably this influenced developments in painting that ultimately led to Impressionism.

I'm trying to decide whether to make the trip from Sydney to Melbourne, or wait to see these works on my next trip to Europe, whenever that might be.
Interesting post, thanks.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Australia is lucky that the Prado was willing to send so many top-quality paintings so far from Spain. Titian has always been a particular favorite, and when I visited the National Gallery in London, I was in heaven when I walked into a large gallery full of icon-status Titians.

Deb said...

I know you love Dutch still life paintings. What did you think of the Italian still life and flower paintings?

Hels said...


it is well worth making the trip to Melbourne, before the end of August.

Inevitably viewers are going to love some rooms more than the others - I personally thought the Caravaggisti were fabulous while the Rococo of the late C18th reflected a different taste and a different era.

Hels said...


Australia is VERY lucky indeed. According to the NGV, the
Prado has never or very rarely allowed its treasures to travel before. If this exhibition is as successful as it seems to be sofar, the Prado might be more willing to arrange temporary exchanges with other important galleries in the future.

Hels said...


the Italian still life and flower paintings from the Prado are bigger and bolder than most 17th century Dutch still lifes, but less scholarly and less nuanced.

Lord Cowell said...

I was down in Melbourne for a day last week and saw this advertised but unfortunately did not have any time I could slip away to see it. I see that Bendigo art gallery also has an exhibition of ancient Greek statues and artworks to do with the nude form, including several pieces from the V&A and the British Museum.

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

that always happens - too much to do and not enough time. But Melbourne is the arts capital of the southern hemisphere, so if you are here in July and August, leave some special time for the NGV Winter Blockbuster. It is always worthwhile.