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Italian Art from the Royal Collection

By December 6, 2008

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Image courtesy of The Royal Collection  2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; used with permission

First things first: there are new image galleries up for your viewing pleasure. We've got a two-parter, namely The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection - The Renaissance (in truth, light on the High and heavy on the Late) and The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection - The Baroque. The first exhibition listed just ended, while the second has only begun at the Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse. If you are anywhere near Edinburgh and a fan of Baroque art, "run, don't walk" and get yourself to this show. Hint: Out of 74 works total, two are Caravaggio canvases.

Now, an interesting thing happened to me while doing research on these two exhibitions. The cavalcade of Italian Masters started to blur into name-after-stellar name. (Sounds incredible, doesn't it? There were just so many of them...) For me, this whole amazing part of the Royal Collection became less about the artists and more about the Stuart kings Charles I and Charles II. Let me explain. My prior knowledge of Charles I centered mainly on his patronage of the Flemish painters Rubens and Van Dyck, as well as the violent end of his reign. Charles II, I must confess, was "the king who reassumed the Monarchy after they booted the Cromwells out of power." (Highly scholarly, huh?)

Well, what I didn't know--but discovered after hours of poking around and reading on the Royal Collection website--was that Charles I had impeccable taste as a collector and an insatiable thirst for 16th- and 17th-century Italian art. He first ran into the Italian Masters in 1623 in Spain, where he'd gone secretly to see if he couldn't arrange a marriage between himself and the Infanta Maria Anna of Spain, daughter of King Philip III. This marriage was not to be, but Charles began to purchase every Italian piece he could after his return to England. The single most important coup he scored in collecting circles was his purchase of the entirety of Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua's extraordinary collection of paintings and sculpture in 1628.

After Charles I was tried and executed, most of his collection was sold during the years of the Interregnum. However, shortly after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Charles II recovered everything that he could of his father's art collection--especially the Italian works--and added his own highly discriminating choices. And here is where I learned another new-to-me fact: it was Charles II who bought those volumes and volumes of Leonardo drawings that the Royal Collection boasts. So, aside from the wholly unpleasant parts where Charles I was beheaded (ironically, many of the Baroque works he collected were of historic beheadings) and Charles II spent years in exile, father and son did have some good (albeit separate) years forming the nucleus of the Royal Collection. I do enjoy a fascinating back story.

One further, minor point: I sometimes joke around about Her Majesty owning warehouses' worth of priceless artistic masterpieces, but in truth she does not. Own any of it, that is. The Royal Collection is actually held in a perpetual trust, safeguarded for future Sovereigns and Great Britain. (Please feel free to remind me of this fact the next time a Collection curator discovers another Caravaggio and I make wisecracks about wanting to be Queen.)

Related Viewing: Image credit:

Antonio Allegri, called Correggio (Italian, ca. 1489-1534)
The Holy Family with Saint Jerome, ca. 1519
Oil on panel
68.8 x 56.6 cm (27 1/16 x 22 1/4 in.)
Acquired by Charles I
RCIN 400029
The Royal Collection 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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