“Masterpieces of Renaissance Art: Eight Rediscoveries” and “Vittoria and Tiepolo: The Giulio Contarini Bust” at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries

Alessandro Vittoria, Portrait of Giulio Contarini (c. 1570-76), terracotta, 68.5 x 63 cm.; courtesy The National Gallery of Canada

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Last week, I wrote that the Anne Ryan exhibition at Grant Selwyn Fine Art was the most beautiful show in town. This week, it’s got company. The selection of Renaissance sculptures and drawings that art historian Andrew Butterfield has organized for Salander-O’Reilly Galleries has been on view since the end of November. How I didn’t get around to visiting it sooner, I don’t know. Suffice it to say that the belatedness of this review is in no way indicative of the exhibition’s quality. It is, to cut to the quick, phenomenal. Scheduled to close at the end of January, the show has been extended until March 9. New Yorkers should not be as tardy as I was in getting up to East 79th Street to see it.

The exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly is really two exhibitions. Vittoria and Tiepolo: The Giulio Contarini Bust surrounds a terra-cotta portrait by the 16th-century Italian sculptor Alessandro Vittoria (1525-1608) with six drawings of the same work by the 18th-century Italian painter Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770). The adjacent exhibition, Masterpieces of Renaissance Art: Eight Rediscoveries, is what it says, with the most significant rediscovery being Pieta with Angels (circa 1450), a polychromed wood sculpture attributed to the painter Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506).

“Mantegna did sculpture?” was the response of one artist to whom I mentioned Pieta with Angels. If this piece counts as a discovery to a lot of us, Mantegna’s sculpture is, in a sense, still in the process of being discovered. Mr. Butterfield, writing in the exhibition catalog, doesn’t claim outright that the sculpture is by Mantegna. He does, however, offer the suggestion–based on historical evidence and comparisons between Mantegna’s paintings and Pieta with Angels–that it can be “reasonably attributed” to him.

Whether the doing of Mantegna or some other hand, Pieta with Angels is a work of astonishing–one might say unbearable–beauty. The depiction of the dead Christ being held by two angels is one whose dignity can be measured by its delicacy. The manner in which the grieving angels support the body of Christ–one with the gentlest of caresses, the other with a disbelieving embrace–could only have been carved by a master sculptor. The accompanying “rediscoveries” on view don’t approach the sublimity of Pieta with Angels . Still, that only means they qualify as sublimities of a lesser order.

The finest compliment one could bestow upon the portrait bust Giulio Contarini (circa 1570-1574), the focus of Vittoria and Tiepolo, is to note that the chalk studies Tiepolo made after it capture Contarini in all of his flesh-and-blood humanity. The gallery’s installation does more than contrast a sculptural centerpiece and its attendant drawings; it creates a dialogue that both deepens and clarifies their relationship. We note, for instance, how Tiepolo remains true to Vittoria’s sculpture–the younger artist being as taken with Contarini’s craggy pate as was Vittoria–yet colors it with almost imperceptible shifts of mood. In one drawing, Contarini looks on with a stern disapproval; in another, forgiveness. There is respect in Tiepolo’s studies; there is also interpretation.

Giulio Contarini, as sculpted by Vittoria, is a man given to profound–if not altogether sanguine–emotions. Despair, empathy, incomprehension and resignation are there to see in his face, and it is clear that Contarini has fathomed each and come to terms with none. Looking mournfully to a future of which he is all too sure, his gaze is uncanny in its penetration. Here is a man who knows us more fully than we could hope to know ourselves. Giulio Contarini is a masterwork of humbling proportions.

© 2002 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the February 4, 2002 edition of The New York Observer.

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