An exhibition promoted by the Ligabue Foundation opens on January 28 at Palazzo Loredan in a historical journey that goes from Leonardo to Francis Bacon, his heir in the twentieth century
«While a priest was going through his parish on Holy Saturday, giving, as is the custom, holy water to the houses, he happened upon a painter’s room, where, spreading the water over some of his paintings, the painter, turned back somewhat scrutinized, he said why I did such sprinkling on his paintings». Whether Leonardo da Vinci spoke of himself, in his «joke», recounting how enraged the landlord, victim of the intrusion, was with the intrusive cleric who had sprinkled here and there with the sprinkler without regard, is not very clear. What is certain is that the deadly 45mm by 65mm portrait, much less than a current credit card, it is considered by the art historian Pietro Marani, one of the leading scholars of the subject, as «one of the few original works by Leonardo that can truly be defined as “caricatures”. Starting with the head of the figure, with hair and tonsure, and then observing the hooked nose, the receding chin and the half-open mouth, features that give the face, with a few quick pen strokes and ink blots, almost the appearance of a bird of prey. ..»
A tiny little masterpiece of amused ferocity. But sufficient, with other «loaded portraits» as they were called at the time, to make the Tuscan scientist, philosopher, architect, painter, sculptor, draftsman, treatise writer, set designer, anatomist, botanist, musician, engineer and designer (Wikipedia summary) also the inventor of caricature as we have known it for a few centuries now. An art that still today, in certain days of bruised morals, manages to make us smile.
Oh my God, Leonardo’s irresistible caricatures are not the first ever in history. The oldest, traditionally, are considered the figures of the Satirical-Erotic Papyrus conserved in the Egyptian Museum of Turin. A sort of Kama Sutra from the 14th century BC, with all the varieties of sexual crossings. Please, nothing pornographic. Other times, other cultures. Rather, the contrast between the various participants in the skits is amusing: while the young women (probably singers, explains the museum guide) are all young and beautiful, the males are on the contrary ugly, crooked, sloppy, balding, bald and so disproportionately super -gifted to be grotesque.
And other “ancestors” of the caricatures will be found in Rome in the Domus Aurea, in Pompeii in the baths of the house of Menander, in Avignon in the bronze statuette of a focaccia seller with the deformed features of Caligula and so on. To the point of having Quintilian say, in spite of the Greek culture which claimed the primogeniture over almost everything, «Satura quidem tota nostra est»: satire is certainly all ours. Not to mention, in the centuries to come, medieval gargoyles (end parts of gutters) with monstrous “faces”. Or of the theses illustrated in the From Human Physiognomia and Giovanni Battista Della Porta for whom men with long hair and a long muzzle that reminded him of a sheep must really have the soul of a sheep and so others the soul of a lion, a monkey or a toad and so on … Without forgetting the Christ’s passion where Hieronymus Bosch drew those besieging Jesus with distorted faces, toothless mouths, demented eyes: physical ugliness welded to wickedness. An ancient idea that will push the Swiss philosopher Johann Kaspar Lavater, slightly anticipating Cesare Lombroso, to exclaim: “How many crimes could be prevented if only men could read vice on faces!” dangerous drifts…
Returning, however, to caricature in the strict sense of the word, that is the ability to read faces and obtain the dazzling image of a man with a few “charged” strokes, it is anything but a minor art. Or worse secondary. The exhibition proves it Of monstrous faces and caricatures. From Leonardo da Vinci to Baconopen from tomorrow at Palazzo Loredan-Veneto Institute of Sciences, Letters and Arts, promoted by the Giancarlo Ligabue Foundation and named after the brilliant Venetian entrepreneur of catering who, after graduating from the Sorbonne in paleontology, became a kind of Indiana Jones (including daring adventures) and financed hundreds of excavations and scientific expeditions all over the world with National Geographic.
What do caricatures have to do with expeditions like the one in search of Cambyses’ army that disappeared in the Sahara? They have something to do with it, replies his son Inti who is president of the foundation: «Man is always at the center of our interests. Curiosity, the thirst for knowledge, the love for culture and art, the desire to “know and make known”». That wasn’t enough, one of the eighteen irresistible players belongs to «Ligabue». Leonardo’s “loaded portraits” exhibited in Venice, that Grotesque head of a woman on the cover of the Marsilio catalog edited by Pietro Marani with contributions from Rosalba Antonelli, Paolo Cordera, Laura Corti, Enrico Lucchese and Calvin Winner.
Objective? Reconstruct, with references to “naturalism, the physiognomy, the grotesque portrait, the exaggeration of the features, the identification and the “classification” of human types in the drawings of Leonardo and the great Lombard artists, Emilians but above all Venetians and Venetians who have ventured into this genre», a different path from the usual ones. “Focusing on ‘grotesque heads’ and ‘caricature’ in Northern Italy”.
A path, for non-specialists, full of surprises. Like the discovery of the eighteenth-century world of Anton Maria Zanetti described by a biographer, Alessandro Bettagno, as populated by «abbots, priests, painter friends (…), waiters, nurses and gastaldi, and theater people such as singers, dancers, actresses, musicians , prompters, copyists, authors and all that world that gravitated and lived on the melodrama boom». Or the other face of Giovan Battista Tiepolo, perhaps the most important Venetian painter of the eighteenth centuryauthor of works such as The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew but also of a delicious Pulcinella arm in arm with a lady drawn (apparently) for the little son Giandomenico or the mocker Caricature of friar with glasses and key in hand. Without forgetting Agostino Carracci and his brother Annibale, whose Head of a Laughing Youth. The variety Pairs of grotesque heads by Carlo Lasinio, aged and ugly husbands and wives who look at each other without much enthusiasm, however exchanging good feelings in rhyme.
And Bacon? What is the Irish painter Francis Bacon doing, who said he wanted to render «the brutality of facts»? «A flight forward», replies Ligabue: «We wanted to close with an emblematic and extraordinary reference to contemporary art as a demonstration that tradition has not been interrupted, that physiognomy, the exasperation of characters, the deformed return in figurative art all the more in an era of existential crisis and psychological fragility such as the twentieth century». The Three studies for the portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne. Hard. Reds. Blacks. Who knows what Giovan Battista della Porta would say about it…
The exhibition and the catalogue
The exhibition “Of monstrous faces and caricatures. From Leonardo da Vinci to Bacon», promoted by the Giancarlo Ligabue Foundation, opens on 28 January in Venice, at Palazzo Loredan-Veneto Institute of Sciences, Letters and Arts. The exhibition catalog is published by the Marsilio di Venezia publishing house by Pietro Marani and contains contributions from some art history scholars: Rosalba Antonelli
Paolo Cordera, Laura Corti, Enrico Lucchese and Calvin Winner.
January 26, 2023 (change January 26, 2023 | 21:31)