This attractive volume presents the impressive sixteenth-century holdings of London’s National Gallery, offering numerous art historical perspectives from which to appreciate its works. The paintings, largely Italian though including important northern representatives such as Holbein’s French Ambassadors, are organized according to ten basic themes that the authors consider integral to the period. Excellent examples are found for all categories, yet not even the treasures of this museum are sufficient to provide a general history of sixteenth-century art. Interestingly, comparisons are often drawn from other English collections – the British Museum, the Ashmolean at Oxford, the National Portrait Gallery, and others – making the book an ideal companion for London residents or visitors to the city. The information supplied is comprehensive though general, with a level of discussion appropriate to undergraduates or interested lay observers. Dürer to Veronese is beautifully produced and includes many useful details of the paintings discussed.
The sixteenth century is introduced as the age in which art galleries, academies, and artistic canons arose, a period marked by a heightened self-consciousness about paintings as institutionalized objects. The authors devote much space to the role of images in worship, the function of altarpieces and of smaller pictures intended for private devotion. Michelangelo’s Entombment, for instance, is a centrepiece in a discussion of approaches to representing the body of Christ with a mind to liturgical requirements; works by northerners Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien are adduced in comparison.
A consideration of secular pictures follows, profiting from the National Gallery’s rich collection of paintings commissioned for private palaces. Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne is treated here in some detail, taking account of ancient textual sources and of the painting’s place among pictures by Bellini and others that were likewise ordered by the Duke of Ferrara. Paintings about love are represented by Correggio, Cranach, and Bronzino, among others, again with important comparisons illustrated from other great collections. Portraits make up a third major category. Images of rulers, scholars, courtiers, and professional men are introduced – from Holbein’s full-length painting of Christina of Denmark to Morroni’s incisive characterization of a North Italian tailor.
The final third of the book treats the paintings of the gallery ostensibly as objects. The process of drawing is considered as a practice preliminary to the production of pictures. Nature studies and their integration in completed works, drawings after the nude, and compositional sketches that show the development of figural poses and abstract pictorial ideas are related to specific paintings. There follows a discussion of technical aspects of panel construction and preparation, including the use of different grounds and the application of gilding.
Ethan Matt Kavaler
University of Toronto