This past weekend I travelled 485 miles from London to Frankfurt to see an art exhibition. But how I first knew about it was purely chance. Back at Easter we saw the exhibition catalogue for Maniera at the Staedel in Frankfurt whilst wandering through the Gemäldegalerie book shop in Berlin. Fortune took another turn and we discovered the exhibition was still on till June and we duly booked our flights so we could make it.
The Staedel gallery, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a joy and we visited it the previous Easter. It’s got a large and varied permanent collection with something for everyone – from Vermeer’s Geographer to a simply stunning portrait of Simonetta Vespucci by Botticelli.
Incidentally, the Staedel produces some absolutely fantastic catalogues and always has an English version. Something that places like the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and other perhaps better known German institutions could well learn from.
The artists of the High Renaissance are largely household names, so famous in fact that they are first names, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. We aren’t regrettably as familiar with those who come in the couple of generations after them. It’s a shame because the quality of works is very impressive. Del Sarto, Bronzino, Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino deserve to be better known. That’s precisely what the Staedel is trying to do in this inspiring exhibition which is the largest of its kind in Germany.
Nevertheless the exhibition can’t resist beginning with a stunning picture by Raphael in the form or the Esterhazy Madonna pictured below. Though it’s only really the size of an A4 sheet of paper, it is a stunning work and something that’s a joy to behold for its tender rendering of Mary and the two infants.
Small in size, it leaves a really lasting impression and sets the context for the development of Mannerism brilliantly. Though in recent years we have seen the Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Diverging paths of mannerism exhibition organised by Palazzo Strozzi in 2014 and Florence: Portraits at the Court of the Medici – Musee Jacquemart Andre in late 2015, Mannerism doesn’t attract the attention it deserves. For me this was one of those times when you buy the catalogue beforehand because you want to swat up in advance.
It was really through Bronzino that I first came to admire this style. What drew me in were his magnificent portraits which stand out even in the crowded company of the Uffizi. London also has a superb allegorical work in the form of Venus and Cupid at the National Gallery.
What I liked about the exhibition wasn’t just its visual brilliance and the luminous use of colour. It also furthered my understanding: alongside Bronzino I can also think about Pontormo, Rosso Florentino and the rest. With some 15 canvasses and supplementary drawing though it’s undoubtedly Bronzino who steals the show. Nowhere is that more evident in the section on the development of portraiture which contrasts the Staedel’s own masterpiece The Lady in Red with earlier works including the Lady in Green from the Royal Collection.
The show is also excellent at showing the narrative arc and we learn about the artists, their connections and their relationships with both each other and other works. That’s especially brought to life in the works on display concerning the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, which was a familiar and popular subject of the time.
There isn’t long left for others to enjoy the exhibition, which is a shame, but do think about the Staedel more generally. This is one of the best exhibitions I’ve been to this year. The catalogue is something I will treasure.