A lost cause: Vermeer in Italy

March 20th, 2013
Vermeer watching

It is normally not too difficult to calculate the costs of art exhibitions.

It is a bit trickier to calculate their cultural benefits.

Let me take a stab at what may have, and may have not, been gained from the recently closed Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Art exhibition held in Rome.

After 8 (?) Vermeers and 48 Dutch seventeenth-century paintings have come and gone from the Eternal City—I happen to live a brisk walk from the Quirinale where the exhibit was staged—my feelings are not good. That is, middle-class Italian museum goers, who know relatively little of Vermeer & co. and as such were the prime target of the exhibition, ahimè, still don’t “get it.”

Setting aside organizational lacunae of the exhibition, there are at least three good reasons why this may be so.

First, Italians are born among and bred on monumental and spectacular works art which are practically ubiquitous. They are blissfully at home with mythological, biblical and historical subject matter and many, sometimes unaware, joust with supreme works of classical art and architecture on a daily basis. For example, just to reach the exhibition, the majority of Romans took a bus or drove their cars (without noticing) either around the Coliseum, through a historic piazza, under a winding Baroque façade or a few yards from colossal Roman statuary.

Once inside the windowless Quirinale, the curious crowds adjusted their eyes and were greeted by small pictures that portray insignificant events—insignificant by anyone’s standard except for those of historians of Dutch Art—which unfold in household environments. There were no unicorns or dragons , heroes or villains, saints or seductresses—nothing even vaguely supernatural, but dollish Dutch women and retiring Dutch men who don’t seem to be doing much of much at all.

Second, although bedecked in fine laces, exquisite satin and pearl jewelry, by Italian standards the Dutch juffers (damsels) on display were not raging beauties. A few visitors confided to me, a bit embarrassed but not really too much, that they were disappointed to discover that Vermeer’s women are homely and have greenish complexions (beauties which populate high Italian painting cannot be counted). In this country, physical beauty and grazia, obsessive concerns since the Renaissance, remain among the most spendable social currencies to this day for both sexes.

Third, most Italians do not identify themselves with their households, or”domesticity”as historians refer to it, the way Northern Europeans and Americans so often do. They don’t much like to tinker or do things at home except to watch television and dine. Sewing, quilt-making, hedging bushes in odd forms, building ships in bottles or even fixing broken things are not popular activities (if at all possible, one always pays someone else to get these kinds of things done). Do-it-yourself U.S.A. mega-stores like Joann’s Craft Center or Home Depot are utterly unthinkable on the Italian soil.

THUS, a good part of the domestic imagery and the exceptional level of craftsmanship which characterize Dutch genre painting falls on deaf ears. And if I had to bet, I would wager that the cultural impact of this “largest-of-all-Vermeer-exhibition-ever-held-in-Italy” was at best marginal. After 20 0r so visits to the exhibition, I encountered no one who had been overwhelmed. After all, the exhibition trailed second place in ticket sales to the concurrent Picasso exhibition in Milan.

The crushing economic crisis did not help.

At least one thing will be remembered. Somehow, the Quirinale and Italian press hammered through the idea that Vermeer’s paintings are special because they were depicted with an inordinate amount of natural ultramarine (powdered lapis lazuli), the most precious and venerated pigments of all times. It is a sin, however, that the pictures by Vermeer on display showed only a scant few small patches of bright blue (the appropriateness of the adjective “bright” is debatable). And if I were to again to accept wagers, this time I would stick my neck out and bet a handsome sum that no more than a handful of art historians would have suspected that (provided they had not known they were by the hand of the Delft master) these passages were painted with natural ultramarine, unless of course, they had brought along under their arms a high-power microscope and knew how to use it.

Let’s be frank—if it’s ultramarine blue that makes paintings special, someone forgot to point out that from the early Renaissance onwards, Italian painting, great and not great, is literally awash with the stuff.

Don’t hesitate to let me know if you have other ideas.

4 Responses to “A lost cause: Vermeer in Italy”

  1. Francesco

    I’m very sorry to read this, but I think your analysis is quite accurate. I never thought of that, but these must be the reasons why most people here in Italy have never even heard of Vermeer (and if they have, they’ve forgotten.)

    I’m sorry because I’m Italian… and I *love* Vermeer. I’m not an art expert, not even remotely, but I stumbled into Vermeer’s works online a few years ago and they touched me in a way no one else’s works ever did. He’s the only painter who speaks to me, through his art.

    Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to this exposition (I live in a different part of Italy), but I will definitely go to Bologna next year for the Girl With a Pearl Earring. I hope that at least that will attract more people (people who will probably say “She doesn’t look like Scarlett Johansson” or “But it’s so small, it must be a copy”.)

  2. Jonathan Janson

    Francesco, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Perhaps, the danger is not so much that Italians are somewhat Italian, the French are somewhat French or the Dutch remain are somehat Dutch, but that everyone feels obliged to rid themselves of their local identity in order to embrace the prepackaged lessons which blockbuster exhibitions habitually proffer. The “amore” for a painter (or even a single artwork) remains (notwithstanding intense cultural pressure to respond democratically) a deeply personal matter, exactly like your own. I am sure that Italy is no worse off for not having absorbed “our” Vermeer, the splendid Titian exhibition now at the Quirinale will take care of that!

  3. Carrie

    WHAT!? Not like Vermeer? This is an entirely new concept for an American educated and well-travelled art lover. Your blog kept me laughing throughout. Your erudite and irreverent sense of humor is greatly appreciated. Thank-you.

  4. Paul Bartholomeusz

    Was it Picasso who said he would give away all of Italian art for the work of Vermeer of Delft? He can do religious and mythological scenes (not very well perhaps), but then he doesn’t need to. Vermeer shows you the world in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour.

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