Pestilence in Palermo – Van Dyck in Sicily

15 Feb

As many of you will know, I’m somewhat geographically challenged.  When I was studying, I found a quick and easy way from home to the Strand.  As a result, when I drive around London (and I mean anywhere in London), I operate rather like a homing pigeon.  I can get to pretty much anywhere as long as I plan my route around the Strand.  So you can imagine my delight when the online route planner advised me to go exactly that way to get to the Dulwich Picture Gallery on Tuesday morning.  And better than that, the route then continued past VAULT.  I couldn’t stay away even for a day.

I got to Dulwich without any real mishaps and managed to park outside the Picture Gallery.  What a relaxing way to travel – well, apart from the traffic, speed cameras and red lights but that’s all par for the course.  At least I had heating the whole way!

Anyway, the reason for my visit to the other side of London was the opening of Dulwich’s new Van Dyck exhibition which focuses on the year and a half he spent in Sicily.  The exhibition brings together all 16 of the works believed to have been executed during his stay in Palermo.  Normally, when we think of Van Dyck we think of Charles I or the Swagger portraits and, until now, very little study has been devoted to this earlier period.

Van Dyck exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.

The key point to be aware of here is that Van Dyck only spent a short amount of time in Sicily and his paintings were quite time-consuming enterprises.  I warn you of this because I was initially surprised by the size of the show – half the normal amount of rooms used for Dulwich’s temporary exhibitions.  Admittedly, the three rooms used here are beautifully curated with deep purple and dark grey walls.  Although compact, it’s full of personality –the exuberance of Van Dyck, Dulwich and the curator, Xavier Salomon.  It’s a dramatic exhibition.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, Prince of Oneglia, 1624.  Courtesy of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Hearing Xavier give his exhibition tour took me back to my days at The Courtauld when he taught a survey course in my 1st year.  Until 1999 it had been thought that Van Dyck only spent four months in Palermo but recent discoveries, made possible by the Sicilian state archives, have been able to prove the full time frame using legal documents, invoices and papers regarding commissions.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, St Rosalie in Glory, 1624. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Here, we are told the story of how Van Dyck arrived in Palermo in 1624 expecting to complete a commission to paint Viceroy Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy and head home.  But, things didn’t go quite to plan.  In May 1624, a ship from Tunis arrived at the busy port of Palermo carrying with it bubonic plague which, by December that year, had killed off most of the population.  Surrounded by death, catastrophe and disaster, Van Dyck had little choice but to prolong his stay and, amidst this panic, he set up studio, establishing a practice and producing a variety of works for local clients – many of which are thought to remain undiscovered.  Towards the end of summer, the bones of Saint Rosalia were discovered in a nearby cave and carried in procession through the city; after which the plague ceased and Saint Rosalia was declared Palermo’s protector.  In the final room, the exhibition brings together Van Dyck’s images of the patron saint.

The painting loaned from the Prado is the smallest of all his images of her and is particularly moving.  Although this is compositionally similar to the others, Van Dyck painted Rosalia in many different guises.  In this devotional image, she looks up to heaven while an angel offers her a crown of roses.  In her left hand she holds a skull, referencing the recent mortalities of the plague and the iconography of hermit saints, while her right clutches her breast and heart.  These paintings were made as forms of prayer and to give thanks to God and Rosalia for their benevolence which ended the city’s suffering (better late than never – Van Dyck himself must have been grateful for his survival).

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Saint Rosalia, c. 1625. Courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

The painting of the Viceroy is one of the highlights of the permanent collection here.  It is incredibly rare for the armour seen in the painting to have survived in such good condition and it is an interesting juxtaposition and point of comparison to see them side-by-side.  Armour was a very valuable possession (described by Xavier as the Porsche or Ferrari of the day) and, ironically, at the time, would have been worth more than any of the paintings now on show here.  But this image is a definitive one showing the viceroy majestically armoured and prepared against his enemies.  Sadly, shortly after the painting was finished and by July of that year, he too had been lost to the plague after leaving the confines of his palace to access the situation and inspect the city.

Maestro del Castello de Tre Torri, Armour of Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, c. 1606. Courtesy of Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Room two focuses on two large devotional works, that were most probably painted for the aristocracy of the island, as well as two highly emotive portraits of Sofonisba Anguissola.  A fragment of a larger portrait that has been cut down on all sides, Sofonisba Anguissola (1624) is touching evidence of the young artist’s encounter with an aged celebrity painter.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1624.  Courtesy of the Sackville Collection, Knole and Matthew Hollow Photography and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

This is a historical exhibition, using a limited number of paintings to elucidate a period of history.  The self-portrait of Van Dyck seen at the start is not actually from the period in Palermo (but through x-rays we actually know that he did paint a self-portrait under one of the paintings of Rosalia).  He’s dressed as an aristocrat – a young Flemish dandy arriving in Palermo.  He was dressed in rich attire and used to the company of noblemen.  He knew he was something special – a point that we see emphatically by looking at this exhibition.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Self-Portrait, 1620-21. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

In contrast to the Picasso exhibition, I wish this show had been bigger.  But, no more works remain so that is hardly the fault of Dulwich or the curators and, in a way, it is refreshing to see such dedicated focus and concentration.  They haven’t tried to pad it out. This is a tight-knit, story-board exhibition.

Alongside this, the Picture Gallery are showing Ragamala Painting from India to highlight the work of Tilly Kettle, a relatively unknown artist from their permanent collections.  This is not so much a curated exhibition but a collection of 24 rarely seen objects.  A ragmala is a set of miniature paintings depicting various musical modes of Indian music.  Each painting is accompanied by a brief caption or poem, most frequently focused around love.  These were tactile objects for private consumption and were never intended to be seen on display.  Magnifying glasses have been provided to allow you to get up close and personal with the miniatures.  I didn’t really have the time to inspect these properly as I had spent a considerable time in the Van Dyck exhibition and I needed to head back to meetings, over Waterloo Bridge of course – where else?

Bhairava Raga, Pahari, Nurpur, c.1690. Courtesy of the Claudio Moscatelli Collection and Matthew Hollow Photography and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Ragmala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song and Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague are both at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 27th May 2012, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

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2 Responses to “Pestilence in Palermo – Van Dyck in Sicily”

  1. Gary Kahn February 16, 2012 at 6:00 am #

    Had absolutely no idea about all this that you’ve so illuminatingly outlined here. Terrific.

    GK

    • chloenelkin February 17, 2012 at 10:59 am #

      Thank you. Do hope you can make it over to Dulwich for a visit.

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