Botticelli, Bellini, Guardi… in Caen

June 15, 2010By Richard HesseDaytrips From Paris
Botticelli, Bellini, Guardi… Chefs d’Œuvre de l’Accademia Carrara de Bergame, musée des beaux-arts, caen

“Portrait of Z. B. Marenzi” (1737) by Paolo Bonomino.

Caen’s Musée des Beaux Arts must be my absolute all-time favorite provincial fine-art museum. Set in a contemporary building excavated out of the main courtyard

Botticelli, Bellini, Guardi… Chefs d’Œuvre de l’Accademia  Carrara de Bergame, musée des beaux-arts, caen

“Portrait of Z. B. Marenzi” (1737) by Paolo Bonomino.

Caen’s Musée des Beaux Arts must be my all-time favorite provincial fine-art museum. Set in a contemporary building excavated out of the main courtyard of Richard the Lionheart’s castle, it has two immediate benefits for visitors, apart from the fact that it is smack in the middle of town, both of them having to do with light. Being underground, it has no windows to break up walls, offering great freedom in hanging paintings and providing no distractions while you gawp. Second, the roof of each gallery is glass, so lighting is zenithal and natural, with a bit of electric help when it gets cloudy. Picture perfect. Another benefit – but this is no different from the dozens of provincial city art museums in France – is that you are almost on your own: guards often outnumber visitors.

Caen has a great permanent collection, running from early Italian to contemporary. And it organizes standout temporary exhibitions, too. One of my recent favorites was an exploration of the Jesuits’ contribution to Counter-Reformation (think Baroque) painting, shown about three or four years back. It was a real eye-opener, with the curator only trying to prove his point, not to show that he had a bigger heap of cultural capital than the rest of us.

This year the museum is featuring works from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy, in the exhibition “Botticelli, Bellini, Guardi… Chefs d’Œuvre de l’Accademia Carrara de Bergame.” Said Accademia is out of commission for restoration work, so 80-odd of its choice works have gone on tour this summer, which is a pain for visitors to Bergamo, but our gain.

What the exhibition discreetly underscores is how Florence-centric our eyes are. Most of the painters on show here were unknown to me, give or take a Pisanello, a Bellini and a few Canalettos (don’t be fooled by the sly, crowd-pulling title – you get only one Botticelli and one Bellini). And because there are so few Florentine painters, the painting style often seems unfamiliar, almost alien. You have to work at it. This is as true for the early altarpieces the exhibition kicks off with as it is for the 18th-century portraits, like the stunning depiction of an aged sourpuss and her equally decrepit dog by one Paolo Bononimo (see above). The depiction is utterly unflinching, yet emotes tenderness for this blighted soul eking out her last years with only canine company.

Another newcomer to me among the portraits was one Giovan Battista Mononi. He worked mostly in shades of gray, lit up by flashes of perfect white lace, capturing particularly well the facial expressions, ranging from joie de vivre to gravitas, of his mostly now unidentifiable sitters. They may lack some of the grandeur of Titian’s portraiture, but they make up for it in the approachable humanity he brings to his subjects.

Most, if not all, of the Moroni portraits come from one of several private collections donated to the Accademia at different times. This particular set came from the collection put together by Giovanni Morelli, a doctor turned art critic who came up with a method of studying the morphology of a painting to identify stylistic quirks that would point the finger of attribution at a particular painter. Morelli and others after him, including Bernard Berenson, made some spectacular attributions on this basis, and it forms the foundation for the strand of art history known today as “connoisseurship,” which doesn’t seek to look beyond a work to the social context in which it was produced – a thread that came along much later (and has yet to make it to the Louvre, but that’s another story).

My only carp about the exhibition is that it ducked the opportunity to tell people more about Morelli’s ideas and techniques. Here, surely, was an opportunity to give us an idea of what goes on behind the scenes in the art world, where lots of zeroes can be added to the price a work will fetch in the auction room if the right name is attached to it.

The show closes with a roomful of Canalettos and Guardis, two painters of views who, because they are so familiar from chocolate boxes and jigsaws, also take some work on the part of the visitor. Guardi is altogether darker, less the draftsman than Canaletto, whose love is for the landscape and water. Guardi is clearly more interested in the denizens of the Serenissima.

I was so taken by the show that I had hardly any time at all to see the permanent collection, other than to take a quick peek at Perugino’s “Marriage of the Virgin,” which has a special attraction for me. My companion and I had no time at all to look at the exhibition on Impressionist prints, which is part of a splendid, Normandy-wide calendar of summer events dealing with the Impressionists.

Our time was partly taken up by a leisurely lunch at the Bouchon de Vaugueux (12 rue Graindorge; tel.: 02 31 44 26 26, about 150 yards from the château). I can thoroughly recommend it. We paid €63 for two, with two dishes and half a dessert each, plus wine, mineral water and coffee, served by charming staff under parasols on a fairly quiet street. Wines are organic, and the food is Normandy-lite, which is why we were able to go back to the show for another couple of hours…

Richard Hesse

Musée des Beaux Arts de Caen: Le Château, 14000 Caen. Tel.: Open Wednesday-Monday, 9:30am-6pm. Admission: €5. Through September 19, 2010. Trains leave from Paris’s Gare Saint Lazare.

Catalogue (in French): Editions Hazan: €32

Order the exhibition catalogue: U.K., France

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