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Corsini exhibition brings Botticelli down under

Madonna and Child with Six Angels, by Sandro Botticelli (circa 1500).

A first-ever exhibition of famous works owned by Italy’s Corsini family provides Auckland Art Gallery visitors with a rare glimpse of Renaissance Florence. 

The title of the exhibition The Corsini Collection: A Window on Renaissance Florence suggests it’s about more than paintings: it’s a portal. The show brings works by Botticelli and Caravaggio among others to the Auckland Art Gallery. But it’s not all Bible scenes in gilt frames.

The exhibition gives a glimpse of what you might see if you peered through a window of a palace in Renaissance Florence. There is epic art and sculpture, yes. But the show also includes sumptuous clothing and tapestries as well as domestic touches such as pots and pans, a dining set and board games.

That “window” frames its own still life of how the Corsini family, one of Italy’s most powerful dynasties, dating back to the Middle Ages, lived in the 15th and 16th centuries.

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Auckland gallery director Rhana Devenport calls the exhibition a “slice of life”. “One of the reasons we’ve given it that title is that it’s for people interested in society, politics and what daily life might be like. I think people are fascinated to know.”

The Corsini family collection, which isn’t open to the public in Italy, is the last remaining major private collection in Florence and has never toured in its entirety. It’s the first private Florentine collection to be displayed in New Zealand.

“It’s such a wonderful opportunity. This is bringing Italy here,” says senior curator Mary Kisler, who curated the exhibition with Italian art historian Ludovica Sebregondi.

“The family gives us the opportunity to have this little window onto Renaissance Florence.” And onto the Corsinis themselves, as Kisler notes this is “an opportunity for everyone to learn more about them”.

One exhibition room recreates a chamber in the Palazzo Corsini, displaying the everyday historical objects that Devenport considers essential to the exhibition.

Costume worn by Tommaso Corsini’s wife, Anna, in 1887. Photo/Giusti Claudio

“After all, what is the art experience? Art is absolutely integral to daily life, and art is fundamental to who we are as an expression of our humanity. In this case, we’re also seeing decorative arts and the objects that people use and objects that were utilitarian in their daily life.”

The collection features works by about 40 artists, including Botticelli, Caravaggio, del Sarto, Pontormo and Rigaud. Many of the artists were as colourful as their work.

Botticelli burnt much of his own material and was overshadowed by Michelangelo later in life. Caravaggio attracted controversy for his cinematic style. He was branded “the Anti-Christ of painting” and was wanted for murder. He also influenced later greats such as Rubens and Rembrandt.

Botticelli’s original Madonna and Child with Six Angels is one the exhibition’s drawcards. Kisler says it’s a thrill to be exhibiting a work that many people have studied at secondary and tertiary levels. “It’s one thing to look at it on a computer screen, but it’s another thing to actually be in the space.”

Exhibition-goers will recognise the calm stillness of Botticelli’s religious works and Caravaggio’s theatrical and moody still-life close-ups, but the likes of del Sarto and Pontormo will be unfamiliar to many.

Kisler says they are important and well-known figures in Italian art history, especially for being “revolutionary in the treatment of the paint surface”. The collection illustrates the chronological progression of style and method through the artists’ works. “Every couple of years an artist introduces something new, and what you can do is track that evolution within the range of the exhibition.”

Triumph of David (1610), by Matteo Rosselli.

Perhaps less widely known than the Medici family, the Corsinis have a history just as rich and an even longer lineage. They became wealthy in the 13th century as wool merchants, then expanded into real estate, trade and merchant banking. They built palaces in Florence and, in the 17th century, Rome.

In this important family in Catholic Italy, Corsini second sons were routinely pushed into the priesthood and some rose to high office, including Cardinal Pietro Corsini in 1420 and Archbishop Amerigo Corsini. Cardinal Lorenzo Corsini was elected as Pope Clement XII in 1730. As an arts patron, he established Rome’s Capitoline Museums and commissioned the Trevi Fountain. The family even produced a 14th-century saint, Andrew Corsini.

Devenport says their 21st-century descendants are thrilled at the prospect of exhibiting their treasures on the other side the world.

By allowing the pieces to tour, the family are contributing to conserving the past. “What it also talks about is responsibility, because they have a duty to look after these works,” says Kisler.

“By allowing some of them to travel, that gives them funding, it helps them restore more works. Most private collections restore works only when they need to. So that’s why it’s a great opportunity for them.”

The Art Gallery of Western Australia has seized the opportunity too and will present the Corsini collection in Perth after the Auckland show closes in January 2018.

The Corsini Collection: A Window on Renaissance Florence, Auckland Art Gallery, from September 2.

This article was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.