A Window on Renaissance Florence at the Auckland Art Gallery

The Corsini Collection: A Window on Renaissance Florence
Auckland Art Gallery
Until January 21

Most visitors to Florence get to the Uffizi to see the best of Renaissance paintings and many also get to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David and his Slave works. Only a few venture down the river for a tour of the Corsini Collection, which has a pretty good selection of paintings as well.

Now you don’t need to make the trip as some of the best works from that collection have made it to the Auckland Art Gallery with the exhibition, The Corsini Collection: A Window on Renaissance Florence.

The exhibition of close to 100 works (including work from the gallery’s own collection). provides a mini-survey of art of the 15th to 17th  century plus a few more recent paintings as well as a few others.

They include works by some of the great artists of the Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque period including Botticelli, Caravaggio, Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto, and Tintoretto, as well as decorative objects, clothing and a dining room set up that helps to give a sense of the grandeur of the family.

The works provide several interrelated themes – a history of the family, a history of Florence and the impact of the Corsini family on Italian history, the technical development of paintings as well as the evolving interest in Greek and Roman art and the codification of the iconography of the Catholic Church

The Corsini princes were among the most important and influential families in central Italy from the Middle Ages to 17th century Florence and the portraits of them and the other important family, the Medici, in the exhibition are a record of the rising fortunes as members of the family as they gain power and wield political and religious influence.

This combination of politics and religion resulted in one of the earlier family members, being canonised as Saint Andrea Corsini while one of the family’s great achievements was manoeuvring to have Lorenzo Corsini become Pope Clement XII. For his part Clement bestowed the title of Prince of Sismano on his nephew Bartolomeo and made another nephew, Neri, a cardinal. There is a superb bust of Clement by Edme Bouchardon in the exhibition.

There are portraits from the Renaissance period through to portraits by 20th-century artists including one of Princess Elena Corsini by Pietro Annigoni, who also painted Queen Elizabeth II.

There are also portraits of other important people, notably the Medici, which was a much more important family. These include one of Bianca Capella who was mistress of one of the Medici and whose illegitimate son nearly became the ruler of the Medici clan–  but both she and her son died, possibly poisoned.

As well as the portraits of notables there is an unusual work depicting the execution of Savonarola attributed to Francesco di Lorenzo Rosselli, which is remarkable in its depiction of Florence in the late 15th century.

The exhibition also shows the development of technical skills of artists as well as the evolution of subject matter over several centuries. While there was a growing understanding of the notions and rules of perspective, paintings such as the Rosselli show the difficulty that artist had in applying rules with a lack of understanding of linear and atmospheric perspective and depiction of light and shadow.

It is also a reminder of the way in which artists of the period continued the invention of a Christian iconography, finding ways of creating stories out of myths of the Bible, establishing the stories of saints and martyrs and evolving the physical features of the characters based on scant information.

Elements of the Old Testament and classical history and mythology are also used as props for both political and religious purposes

There are a number of Madonna and Child works, many in response to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church's PR campaign to make the church seem more relevant, with the artists attempting to make Mary and the Holy family more like a typical family with less gold and decoration.

There are several highlights to the exhibitions, the Botticelli Madonna, the Caravaggio portrait of Pope Urban VIII and Andrea del Sarto’s Triumph of David.

The Botticelli is one of the more vibrant works in terms of colour in the show and has many of the elements of his other Madonna and child works with a brilliantly constructed work and carefully composed colour elements. But even Botticelli can get it wrong sometimes, with his ungainly Jesus.

The Caravaggio work isn’t one of his great chiaroscuro works but he uses colour in a selective way to dramatic effect while Matteo Roselli’s the Triumph of David is a small masterpiece of dramatic action.