The history of the portrait at Basilica Palladiana in Vicenza

Raffaello verso Picasso

For the last five years the Basilica Palladiana of Vicenza has been shrouded in scaffolding, invisible and inaccessible to the public, the object of a massive cleaning and expert restoration. Centuries of grime and modern graffiti have now been removed returning this celebrated treasure to pristine condition. In October this shimmering jewel of white marble reopened to the public with an exhibition entitled Rafaello verso Picasso, which tracks the art of portraiture through 100 works by major artists, chronologically arrayed in the heroic and vaulted space below the basilica’s legendary curved roof.

Basilica Palladiana

Paula Sweet Photo Credit

If you see only one art show in Italy this season, let it be this one. Be warned: in its first month the exhibition welcomed over 100,000 visitors, and the show closes January 20th, so time is running out.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a spectacular panorama of portraiture from a jaw-dropping cast of international painters.

Paula Sweet Photo Credit

Spanning works by Mantegna (1425) to Lucien Freud (1988), you need only dream a name to discover representative examples among the galleries: Giorgione, El Greco, Durer, Bosch, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Rubens, Tiepolo, Manet, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Andrew Wyeth, Francis Bacon and more. The curators have arranged the galleries in three parts, beginning with depictions of the life of Christ, followed by character scenes from the New Testament, and ending with deep meditations on the nobility of the portrait as interpreted all the way to our era, which is consumed by psychology and the nature of celebrity. It presents a provocative contrast of beauty and faith, counterpoised with reflections on powerful social forces.

Particularly noteworthy is a double portrait by Pontormo from 1525, so realistic and immediate in its rendering that it could be an Instagram photo taken yesterday. There’s a Franz Hals installed next to a Rembrandt, which shows how differently two artists interpret the same subject matter. One of the heroic portraits of Filippo IV by Velasquez (1625) prefigures Socialist Realism. An enigmatic portrait by Degas from 1865 shows a startled subject, frozen forever in engagement with the viewer. An early Balthus hints at later works, which will deal with anxiety and obsession. A poignant Modigliani reminds us that stylization in no way obscures humanity.

Piccolo Vicenza is not at the top of most tourist destination lists for the part of Italy known as the Veneto. The better part of visitors come here to view the largest collection of architecture by Palladio in one place, while the nearby cities of Venice and Verona attract significantly more visitors for their high-profile cultural events. But the reopening of the Basilica Palladiana heralds a renaissance for Vicenza. The Commune di Vicenza has extended exhibit hours, due to the demand for tickets for the show. And on New Years Eve the city has created an event which offers 800 tickets to private dinners which will occur at representative Palladian villas in the old city, followed by private access and tour of the exhibition, which will remain open until 2am. It’s a bargain at 83 Euros a person, and an unusual opportunity to sample regional cuisine prepared by local chefs in heritage settings followed by an exclusive look at this impressive artistic event.

Stanley Moss

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See also

  • Rossella Bisazza, interviewed for ItalianTalks at Cafe Garibaldi in Vicenza, April 2013, photo by Pa

    A history of success: Rossella Bisazza

    Our contributor Stanley Moss tells us the second generation of the glorius Bisazza family through the portrait of Rossella Bisazza

  • douard Manet Olympia 1863 olio su tela, 130x190 cm Parigi, Musée d’Orsay

    Manet and Venice, two centuries of history

    Interview with the curator of the exhibition that opens on 24 April at Palazzo Ducale

  • Flag Throwers in Vicenza - Photo by Paula Sweet

    Flag Throwers in Vicenza

    You never quite know what you’ll find happening in the city of Vicenza. Take, for example, a commemoration honoring the 500th anniversary of Magellan’s voyage around the world. Why in Vicenza? [...]

 

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