A Brave Brush

I have recently visited the exhibition Rubens e la nascita del Barocco at Palazzo Reale, Milan. Featuring more than forty artworks by the great master, the show presents an engaging dialogue between him and the contemporary Italian fellow painters. The setting is essential and it gives relevance to the objects. I have particularly appreciated the lights, which perfectly emphasises the visual grandeur of Rubens’s creations. Each piece stands alone on the wall, communicating with peer works from one side of the room to the other. In fact, the spectator is overwhelmed by the considerable size and the vibrant colours of each canvas. The paintings act as individuals with their own soul and history, which suits perfectly Rubens’s flamboyant genius and darying technique.

Giovanni Carlo Doria (detail)

The life-size equestrian portrait of Giovanni Carlo Doria is probably the most impressive of the exhibited works and probably one of Rubens’s most complete achievements. The horse faces the viewer frontally, thus emerging from the dark canvas like a vibrant, white thunder. Rubens shows the body in a three-quarter composition, so as to highlight the animal’s elongated body and powerful mass. The artist’s brush renders various surfaces, from the airy mane to the glaring armour. Materiality is a fundamental component of the Rubenesque style and matches the growing tendency of Baroque painting in the early seventeenth century. Art is moving far from the intellectualistic conceits of Mannerism, embracing a new sensual approach to communication which is wonderfully replicated throughout the exhibition path.

Hercules Slaying the Dragon of the Hesperides

Rubens draws inspiration from the classical world and the curators have put great emphasis on this aspect of his oeuvre. As Michelangelo, he greatly enjoyed the sight of the so-called Belvedere Torso, a Roman statue now in the Vatican Museums. Christ Risen is a wonderful example of the integration of ancient examples into the painter’s work, as he links the image of the Saviour to the manly figure of a Greek hero. Indeed, Christian artists drew avidly from Antiquity, since the classical style could confer the same strength and dignity of Myron’s Discobolus or Polykleitos’s Doryphoros to a saint or a martyr. Baroque statues such as Bernini’s St Longinus in St Peter present the same tendency, with the dynamic contrapposto being taken to its extreme in a wonderful emotional outburst.

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Rubens e la nascita del Barocco presents the artist’s full passage toward Baroque art. It is a change of style which follows a deeper transformation of the European aesthetic conception. The new principle of appreciation is not intellectual,  but bodily. Rubens’s characters communicate through their firm spatial presence, nervous bodies and heroic attitude. The viewer does not ask to be surprised by the means of a complex concept, he rather wants to feel the work of art, become part of it. As Giulio Carlo Argan brilliantly puts it, the Renaissance artist portrays his own experience. On the contrary, the Baroque master crafts an experience for the viewer, he is the master behind the illusion. As in a rhetorical performance, he convinces us, and we are mutually asked to be ready and receptive. Therefore, Rubens’s masterpieces strike our imagination and satisfy our visual appetite through lively and vibrant shapes, more powerful than nature itself.

Tiger Hunt (detail)


Featured Image

Giovanni Carlo Doria


Belvedere Torso

Christ Risen

St Longinus

Tiger Hunt

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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