The life of El Greco in 16th-century Toledo

“There are no masterpieces here! Which is just as well because this is where history is.” Professor Nicos Hadjinicolaou picked a rather unorthodox way to introduce an exhibition currently on display at the Benaki Museum in Athens. Running to March 1, “Friends and Patrons of El Greco in Toledo” is built around an interesting narrative developed by the Greek expert on the Spanish Renaissance artist along with fellow authority on the matter, historian Richard Kagan.

The main focus of the exhibition is not so much the three Domenikos Theotokopoulos works on display than an array of manuscripts, books and engravings. Connected as if by invisible threads, the items create a picture of the Cretan artist’s years in Toledo, Spain. The show highlights his relationship with family, friends, patrons, fellow Greeks and leading personalities of 16th-century Toledo. Portraits of two of the artist’s intimate friends, doctor Rodrigo de la Fuente and jurist and politician Jeronimo de Cevallos, can be viewed at the exhibition.

Comprising a small elite influenced by Italian culture, El Greco’s milieu was limited in scale. But these were the people who supported and inspired the Greek who turned his back on the era’s creative rules, a move which earned him a spot among the great innovators in the history of art.

Don’t expect to see large-scale works in the show, but browsing the manuscripts can be a very moving experience, as is the case with El Greco’s trembling signature in his will, for instance.

The show is the first in a series of Athens exhibitions commemorating the quatercentenary of the artist’s death, with “Domenikos Theotokopoulos between Venice and Rome” opening at the Benaki’s Pireos Street annex on November 21. El Greco Year 2014 continues with “The Depiction of Death in the Work of El Greco,” which opened at the Cycladic Art Museum on November 14, while exhibitions at the National Gallery and the Byzantine & Christian Museum are also in the works.

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