By Jinghan Wu
Renaissance is a term that means revival or rebirth. It was an era that marked a change in the culture and art of Italy between 1400 and 1600, a period when people began to appreciate Classical Antiquity. The basis for development of the humanities was the study of ancient texts. The Renaissance was an era when there was increased questioning of the natural world as well as exploration and experimentation in sciences and arts. With the aid of new technologies like gunpowder, the printing press, optics and watches, and the exploration of the New World, Renaissance society was transformed, resulting in the emergence of today’s Europe (Brotton, 2006).
The National Gallery of Australia is one of the most popular galleries in Australia and the general public is greatly influenced by it. The gallery’s collection exceeds 120,000 works of art. The Australian Government established the Gallery in 1967 as the country’s public art gallery. In late 20th century style, the defining characteristics of the building are its raw concrete surfaces and angular masses. A series of sculpture gardens were planted with Australian native trees and plants, which surround the building. A triangle is the basis for the building’s geometric motif, which is evident in the entire building as depicted by triangular columns, and stair towers. Though the building is primarily constructed using concrete, the interior walls have been covered with painted wood. The design is large enough to accommodate display and storage of art works (NAG, Web). There are several major exhibitions that have been held in National Gallery of Australia, but it is Renaissance: 15th and 16th century Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara Bergamo that will occupy this article.
The exhibition centres on Italian paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries from the collection of the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo. Bergamo city is located in the region of Lombardy in northern Italy. And lies between Lake Como and Milan. The long and interesting history of the city can be traced back to the time of Celtic settlement, with later settlement by the Romans. The Republic of Venice ruled the city from the 15th century. In 1810, the elegant neoclassical building of the Accademia Carrara was completed. The main donor and founder was Count Giacomo Carrara, who was interested in building an art school in Bergamo city, and collected artworks to serve as examples for students of art to copy. The picture gallery is better known compared the art school it originally served, owed largely to the high quality of Carrara’s paintings, as well as the paintings added by other donors like Giovanni Morelli and Count Guglielmo Lochis (Stourton, 2003).
A number of the painters that are represented in the exhibition include Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Botticeli, Sandro, and Raphael. It was possible for the National Gallery of Australia to borrow more than seventy artworks from Accademia Carrara, due to the display spaces of the Accademia being under renovation, and museum being temporarily closed. These paintings are of extraordinary quality since they were made in Renaissance culture centres like Florence, Venice, Padua, Bergamo, Siena and Ferrara. The subjects of the paintings range from Biblical stories to depictions of a Child, Madonna and lives of the Saints (NAG, Web).
Among the notable works of art in the exhibition is Madonna and Child (1475) by Crivelli. The painting portrays an ornately dressed Mary who is crowned as Heaven’s queen. Mary holds her son in a protective manner with her elegant hands. There are elegantly curved arches shaping the panel, which reminds viewers of Renaissance art’s early sources. The elements of Christian history are clearly represented by the carnation and beautifully executed fruit symbols. The setting of the landscape is also striking since it shows a contrast between harsh scene and a verdant one. Owed to the fact that Crivelli worked in central Italy’s marches, far away from contemporary cultural centres, his art pieces present Gothic aesthetic features like relief on the clothes of the virgin (Marshall, 2004).
Saint John the evangelist (c1480) by Lorenzo Costa is another work included in the exhibition. Originally, the artwork was painted in tempera and then transferred to canvas at a later time. Lorenzo makes use of clear and bright colours to portray St. John. The dead tree and live cypresses represent death and eternal life. The apostle’s life in the Roman Empire is located by a severe marble structure. Costa demonstrates his love and knowledge of classical architecture while at the same time providing a counterpoint to the fabric’s lush folds.
The story of Virginia the Roman (1498) was created by Botticelli, the Florentine artist, in the form of a large panel. Botticelli narrates a story of a young girl who faces a tragedy that leads to the saving of the Roman republic. Reading the painting from the left, the audience can follow Virginia’s fate. The painting is a representation of a theatrical scene in the form of three acts, creating a triptych. It is not only rich in colour but it is also rhythmic in movement. In Saint Sebastian (1501-02), Raphael is portrayed with an arrow in his hand. The arrow would later become an instrument that torturers would use. The artist presents a rich and elegantly dressed young man instead of the traditional iconography of a full length, partially draped man. Some of the pictorial devices employed by Raphael include the oval face of the Saint mirrored in the loop of a chain and a curved halo that is echoed in the Saint’s eyebrows. Therefore, the central subject, or idea of Italian landscape during the Renaissance era, is the early Christian subject.
Overall, the National Gallery of Australia managed to display great art pieces from the Renaissance era in Italy. The exhibition does not only have the capacity to enrich Australian cultural life but it also strengthens the bond and friendship between Italians and people from Australia.
Among the key strengths of the exhibition is that it displays magnificent art pieces by famous Italian artists. The major focus of the exhibition was to explain various materials and techniques that were employed in Renaissance art. Clear emphasis is laid on the physical attributes of the art pieces instead of history or background information concerning the works. The layout of the exhibition is impressive; there are separate rooms for different pieces. In the first room of the gallery, three paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries were displayed. The paintings belong mainly to the founder of Accademia Carrara and the trustees. Following the first room are rooms for the Madonna and Child, Gothic to Renaissance periods, portraits, the late and high Renaissance eras, and finally the Northern Italy. Within the paintings, there is a strong depiction of religion, typical of Italian Renaissance paintings (Brotton, 2006).
Large arches, which serve as additional framing devices, are also used to connect the separate rooms of the gallery. Close to the entrance, there is a set of arches arranged in a row to form a set of four paintings that are hung at the end in a niche. This creates a powerful effect that focuses all interest to the paintings, which include: the Archangel Michael killing a dragon; Madonna and child; Saint Peter; and the Trinity above. In the last rooms of the exhibition, the style used to depict haloes is much simpler; that is, fewer lines emanate from the head, or simply, thin gold rings (NAG, Web). A painting that particularly caught my attention was Botticelli’s Christ the Redeemer. The style used to create this painting was less realistic compared to that of other art pieces. It depicted a face that expressed ten times the feeling of all other paintings displayed. Though the layout was impressive, some paintings were displayed in such a way that viewers felt as though they were looking at the paintings on a television screen, or on a computer, because of the glass in front to the works. In most areas of the gallery, the lighting is exemplary, which allows viewers to make clear distinctions between the art pieces. The colour scheme is also effective; by matching the colours of the walls in each room they do not overpower the art works. The colours scheme could also help in telling more about the portraits. For instance, in the last room, the dominant colours were royal blue and rich red; two colours that clearly stand for portraits of successful and wealthy individuals.
Despite the aforementioned strengths, a major weakness noted about the exhibition is that several paintings lacked a detailed explanation regarding their background. The explanations given only tell viewers the present, while ignoring the past. For instance The Story of Virginia the Roman gives an explanation of what the portrait represents, but fails to inform viewers of the story behind the portrait (Bourdeau at el, 2001). The same case is also noted in portraits representing Saints. One of the major recommendations for future exhibitions is to give background information and a brief history behind different portraits or art pieces displayed; this would be of great benefit to viewers who may lack extensive historical knowledge.
It is evident that the renaissance exhibition in the National Gallery of Australia is a source of historical enrichment, especially regarding Italian history during the Renaissance period. The gallery collected a great number of famous artworks, which contain historical meaning as well as their influence. Despite the information provided of the history and structure of the exhibition, there are many benefits to the layout, making it possible to get a clear contrast between different art works displayed in different rooms. The classical antiquity of the works, a distinct characteristic of the Renaissance era, clearly comes out in the paintings displayed throughout the exhibition, making it a memorable and once in a lifetime viewing experience.
 Brotton, J 2006, The Renaissance: A very short introduction, Oxford University Press, England.
 National Gallery of Australia Exhibition Catalogue 2012, Canberra, accessed 28 April 2012, <http://nga.gov.au/exhibition/RENAISSANCE/Default.cfm?MNUID=5>.
Stourton, J 2003, Great smaller museums in Europe, Scala Press.
 Marshall, D & David, R 2004, The Italians in Australia: studies in Renaissance and Baroque art, Melbourne University Press.
 Bourdeau, L & Chebat, J.C 2001, ‘An empirical study of the effects of the design of the display galleries of an art gallery on the movement of visitors’, Museum Management and Curatorship, vol.19, issue 1, Mar 2001, pp. 63-73.
Brotton, J 2006, The Renaissance: A very short introduction, Oxford University Press, England.
Marshall, D & David, R 2004, The Italians in Australia: studies in Renaissance and Baroque art, Melbourne University Press.
National Gallery of Australia Exhibition Catalogue 2012, Canberra, accessed 28 April 2012.
Bourdeau, L & Chebat, J.C 2001, ‘An empirical study of the effects of the design of the display galleries of an art gallery on the movement of visitors’, Museum Management and Curatorship, vol.19, issue 1, Mar 2001, pp. 63-73.
Stourton, J 2003, Great smaller museums in Europe, Scala Press