Cities of Splendor: A Journey Through Renaissance Italy arrives at an apropos time in Italian history. Last month, the country recognized the 150th anniversary of its unification — and many "celebrated" by lamenting that it ever happened, or by bemoaning today's lurid scandals enveloping Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In summation, Tim Parks in the April 11 issue of the New Yorker wrote, "A couple on the edge of divorce do not rejoice that their wedding anniversary is around the corner."
So one thing that makes Cities interesting is that in setting it up, the Denver Art Museum has divided the 15th- and 16th-century paintings and decorative objects by city-state. Devised by associate curator of painting and sculpture Angelica Daneo, a native Italian, the approach ties the art to politics and history: Prior to Giuseppe Garibaldi's fluke revolt in 1861, Italy was a set of powerful, individual city-states, each dramatically different in style and attitude from the other. Treating each one separately here strengthens the show's relevance, refreshes the old masters' content for a younger generation, and overall, just works brilliantly.
Each city-state occupies its own room, which heightens the stylistic differences between them. In Florence, for example, you see the figure gaining prominence, looking more realistic and posed in more technically difficult positions. Meanwhile, in nearby Siena, Gothic flair of the middle ages reigns supreme. Gilding still colors the backgrounds, and the figures are cold and symbolic — done intentionally, to recall the days of Sienan political glory.
Over in Venice, one of Europe's greatest ports, artists mixed influences from the surrounding regions with an innovative new product: oil paints. What you get is the subtlety and mastery you'd expect from the Renaissance.
And whether or not the curatorial aspects interest you, know this: Daneo built the show around the core of the DAM's Renaissance pieces in its permanent collection. Save for a few loaned works (including a Titian and a Botticelli, the latter on long-term loan), the body of the show came via a gift from Samuel H. Kress.
Kress, a businessman, collected Italian paintings from every school of painting (an uncommon approach) during the first half of the 20th century, before gifting the works to galleries across the country, including the DAM in 1961.
Before now, these Renaissance works have been rotated in and out of the sixth-floor gallery, but never shown all in one 50-some piece exhibit. Cities is an abrupt departure from the usual fare, and makes the DAM feel almost like a European museum. In it, you replace the angular modern, the fitful contemporary and the familiar Western scenes with the richly aged tempera paints on board; stoic for the sacred altars, Technicolor brilliant for the secular eyes.
Cities is marketed as a "passport to travel." But more than taking you to a physical place, it transports you to a place of mind.