An Ideal City
The Annunciation, painted in 1408 by the icon
painters Andrei Rublev and Danil Chornii. State Tretyakov
The Renaissance has a lot to answer for. It created a set of standards
- artistic, social, civic - by which we still measure the success
of much of modern life. At the world-class exhibition now showing
at the Pushkin Museum titled Russia - Italy. Italy - Russia: From
Giotto to Malevich, one sees how many, and how little, of these
ideals Russia has absorbed and implemented.
If you want to understand, for example, where our idea of the
ideal city comes from, then you can see it in the painting An
Ideal City attributed to Luciano Laurana (1430 - 1479). Look at
the circular building (a public space, perhaps a theatre) placed at
the centre of the picture, then at the wide open square, and the
perfectly-symmetrical buildings lining both sides of the street, and
you are looking at an image of perfection that architects in Russia
(and all over Europe) were aiming at. You can find an approximation
of the ideal in parts of Moscow (think of Theatre Square), and most
of all in St Petersburg (which was designed from scratch as a
This is an exhibition about cultural cross-references - what
Italy and Russia took from each other. The first room is the best,
not only because it boasts such an astounding number of masterpieces
by Italian artists - Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Leonardo da
Vinci, Giorgone, Raphael, Correggio, Michelangelo, Titian,
Caravaggio, Botticelli - but because it is about the importance of
beginnings; it shows how far apart Italy and Russia were at the time
when the Renaissance was in process.
Two paintings with the same title - one Russian, one Italian -
illustrate the point: The Annunciation, painted in 1408 by
the icon painters Andrei Rublev and Danil Chornii, and The Angel
of the Annunciation, painted by Bellini at the end of the
fifteenth century. Not much separates them in time, but they are
worlds apart. It is not so much the different materials - The Rublev
is tempera on wood, the Bellini is oil on canvas - that make the
difference, but the handling of the subject matter. In accordance
with Byzantine tradition, Rublev's Angel and Virgin Mary are painted
with idealised faces; Bellini's Virgin Mary is painted from life -
we can see the human characteristics. The structures of the two
pictures are also very different; the Rublev is placed against a
background of assorted, apparently random, structures - parts of a
city; the Bellini is placed within one symmetrical room, and the use
of perspective leads the eye out through the central window, and to
a recognizable landscape beyond.
This comparison, however, is not meant to say that one picture is
better than the other.
The Angel of the Annunciation, painted by Bellini
(1434 - 1516), Academic Gallery, Venice.
The lack of formal perspective in the Rublev is not a failing; it
gives a more generalized, and so more contemplative, impression. If
the use of oil by Bellini allows him to model in detail the
luxurious folds of silk fabric clothing the Angel and the Virgin
Mary, there is as much to enjoy in the almost weightless delicacy of
the dark red robe worn by Rublev's Virgin Mary.
With the first room still in one's mind, one sees in the next
rooms - the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth
centuries - how much closer the two countries came to be. The
exhibition places side by side Russian and Italian artists -
Serov/Signorini, Repin/Boldini, de Chirico/Malevich; there are many
of them, too many to appreciate in just one visit. This is an
exhibition to come back to.
The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent,
beautifully-illustrated, scholarly catalogue, which, however, is
available only in Russian. For an exhibition which is all about the
ways in which Russia has a place in international art, this lack of
support for foreigners (who have to pay much more than Russians to
enter the museum) seems to suggest that Moscow in 2005 still needs
to look to its laurels.
Russia - Italy. Italy - Russia: From Giotto to
When: February 7 through May
Where: Pushkin Museum, 12 Ul. Volkhonka,
Tel: (095) 203 7998
An Ideal City, attributed to Luciano Laurana
(1430 - 1479), The National Gallery of Marche, Italy.