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Reviews/Visual Art

Humanising history

16 March 2018

Review: The Corsini Collection – A Window on Italy ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

The Corsini Collection is inextricably tied to one family and one city – the Corsinis, in Florence – but it is also part of a larger narrative that encompasses several major events of the modern era. The exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) provides viewers with an introduction to Italian art and the families whose collections enhanced and guided the narrative of art history through the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

It’s hard to think of Italian art without thinking of the cities that fostered these movements, and I was struck by the way in which Florence emerges throughout the exhibition as a personality, almost a family member of the Corsinis themselves. From an image of the fanatic Savonarola, who gripped the city with religious zeal, being burned in the square of the Piazza della Signoria, to extensive family portraits with the Arno flowing through fields out the window, Florence is more a character in this family drama than simply a backdrop. Even the family dog, who provides a sweet wall companion to children as they walk through the exhibition, is named Arno.

SCUOLA FIORENTINA DEL XVI - Veduta della Piazza Signoria col rogo di Savonarola
Florentine painter after Francesco Rosselli (Florence 1445 – before 1513) ‘The Execution of Savonarola and Two Companions at Piazza della Signoria’, 16th – 17th century,  oil on canvas,  96 x 119 cm,  Galleria Corsini, Florence.

Walking through the exhibition I couldn’t help but feel a fizz of excitement – it is pretty amazing to think that currently there are works by masters of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, such as Botticelli, Tintoretto, and Caravaggio, here in Perth. The exhibition is divided thematically to provide a general guide to art of the periods as well as the lifestyles of the rich and powerful families such as the Corsinis. It is, of course, quite different viewing these works on the walls of the brutalist building that is AGWA, as opposed to those of a Florentine palazzo. Huge decaled images of the palace interiors, however, provide a helpful backdrop to pieces that could otherwise appear a little dull without context, such as the family dining set, pots and pans, and a games table. The paintings are heavy on portraits, particularly of the family, and the centre room is the locus of the exhibition, with the Botticelli tondo Madonna and Child with Six Angels (c 1500) taking pride of place.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri known as Guercino (Cento 1591-Bologna1666) Saint Andrea Corsini 1630 oil on canvas 75 x 65 cm Galleria Corsini, Florence
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri known as Guercino (Cento 1591 – Bologna 1666) ‘Saint Andrea Corsini’ 1630, oil on canvas, 
75 x 65 cm, Galleria Corsini, Florence

Renaissance and Baroque art can sometimes feel far removed from our everyday realities, but throughout the exhibition it becomes apparent that the Corsinis were as affected by historical events as anyone. Unlike the Medicis, the other main family of Florence, the Corsini line survived into the modern era, and it’s fascinating to imagine what it must feel like to have your ancestors so elegantly portrayed around you, and a treat to see the Renaissance and Baroque works give way to photography and portraiture of the 1950s and 60s. It’s also interesting to see the details of our more recent history enter their narrative, most strikingly with the bullet hole through the head of Guercino’s Saint Andrea Corsini (1630), fired by a German soldier who, thankfully, did not realise the painting was hung on a false wall, behind which the remainder of the Corsini family’s art collection was hidden.

It’s these touches of drama that give the exhibition its warmth, turning it into something that’s not just a line-up of famous names, but a show about one family who, despite being born into a life of power and privilege, had a real, abiding commitment to the art of their home city and preserving it for future generations to enjoy.

Top: Exterior of Palazzo Corsin

“The Corsini Collection – A Window on Florence” runs until 18 June.

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Author —
Miranda Johnson

Miranda Johnson is a curator and writer who has worked for various contemporary arts institutions, co-founded Cool Change Contemporary and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories. Miranda’s favourite aspect of the playground is getting the chance to meet as many dogs as possible.

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