Renaissance art and Greek mythology

It is justly considered one of the turning points in Western civilized thought: The Renaissance period, with quattrocento Italy at its core, overturned prior notions of artistic production and defined all subsequent perceptions of the arts and the role of the artist. As early as the turn of the 15th century, the Florentine artist Cennino Cennini argued in his treatise on art that painting and sculpture should be classified as liberal arts (which consisted of arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy, grammar, logic and rhetoric) and wrote about the importance of originality and creativity. In Leon Battista Alberti’s famous humanist treatise «On Pictura» (On Painting) some decades later, the famous Florentine architect and scholar sets the prototype of the artist as a learned intellectual who possesses both skill and «ingegno» (inventiveness). This elevated status of the artist is just one of the many aspects of the spirit of Humanism, Renaissance’s chief intellectual movement which, broadly speaking, consisted of a revival in interest in the Greco-Roman past and a renewed focus on the ancient ideal of «man as the measure of everything.» Humanism provided the cultural context for exceptional art to develop, for artists to gain individual fame and for the Classical past to become the ideal for all aspects of life, from politics and rhetoric to literature, painting and architecture. These different strands that constitute the complex and varied phenomenon we have come to know as «Humanism» come together in the exhibition «The Light of Apollo: Italian Renaissance and Greece» organized by the National Gallery in Athens in collaboration with the Fondazione Roberto Longhi in Florence and held within the context of the Cultural Olympiad. Jointly curated by the director of the National Gallery, Marina Lambraki-Plaka, and the director of the Fondazione Longhi, Mina Gregori, the exhibition links the concept of «rinascita» (the Renaissance in Italian) with the revival of the ancient Greek past. It sets out to show the immense and broad-ranging influence that the Greek Classical past had on Renaissance art and life by focusing on paintings, sculpture, books, manuscripts and artifacts of the quattrocento and early 16th century that draw from themes and figures of Greek mythology. «In the Light of Apollo» includes 500 works by 150 Renaissance artists, many of them the most renowned names in the world of Italian art: Ghiberti, Donatello, Botticelli, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Veronese, Tintoretto, Luca della Robia, Mantegna, Ghirlandaio, Giulio Romano and Pollaiolo are among them. It is one of the most ambitious exhibitions ever held in Greece and the outcome of concerted efforts (works so heavily insured are not easily allowed to travel) and research to be documented in the two-volume, supplementary catalogue to be issued within the month. The exhibition is structured both according to the regions of Italy and the differences in style that each produced, as well as thematically. Roman relief sculpture introduces the viewer to the exhibition’s concept and evokes the archaeological interest and discoveries that took place in the Renaissance, bringing to light such masterpieces as the Apollo of Belvedere and the Laocoon complex. The exhibition moves freely across paintings, drawings, ceramics, artifacts and sculpture (one of the strongest aspects of the exhibition). Each of the works (even those that are not an artist’s most celebrated works) helps to show the connection between the Italian Renaissance and the ideals of ancient Greek civilization, while certain pieces stand out more than others. Among them is Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze relief sculpture plaque for the eastern door of the Florence Baptistry and Sandro Botticelli’s «Birth of Venus» and «Portrait of a Lady» (both works are attributed to him) as well as the «Portrait of Michael Maroullos Tarhaniotis,» a praised Greek poet, intellectual and soldier who lived in Renaissance Italy. Titian’s reclining «Venus in the Company of Music and Eros» (a version of his «Venus and Lute Player») shows a sensual, mortal Aphrodite, apparently a favorite figure in Titian’s art. There is also Pollaiolo’s engraving «Heracles and Antaeus» and Paolo Veronese’s large painting portraying «Mars and Venus.» Figures and popular themes taken from Greek mythology were used to personify wealthy patrons in the Renaissance and symbolize the revival of ancient ideals. The Greco-Roman past had been reborn; Raphael’s famous «School of Athens» is probably one of the greatest works of the High Renaissance which epitomizes the value the period placed on the Classical past. «In the Light of Apollo» attempts to capture something of this Humanist streak. It is an ambitious and worthwhile project that opens up paths of knowledge into Western civilization. «In the Light of Apollo» is now showing at the National Gallery (50 Vassileos Constantinou, 210.723.5937) through the end of March. Open Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 6-9 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays at 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.; and Sundays at 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. National Gallery’s quest for greater exposure Large-scale exhibitions that help to familiarize the public with important periods in the history of art seem to be an objective of the National Gallery and its resourceful director, Marina Lambraki-Plaka. Following the exhibition «The Light of Apollo,» the National Gallery – Museum Alexandros Soutzos will host an exhibition of the Imperial Treasures of China (scheduled for May). And soon after that it will host «Six Leading Sculptors and the Human Figure,» an exhibition that will bring together selected works of the late 19th and early 20th century by the sculptors Rodin, Bourdelle, Maillol, Brancusi, Giacometti and Henry Moore. (From early June to the end of September). Meanwhile, its sculpture gallery in the area of Goudi will host separate exhibitions; the joint presentation of sculptures by Henry Moore and Christos Kapralos is one of the highlights. The National Gallery is also concerned with increasing its international exposure. To this effect, it has organized «From Greco to Delacroix,» an exhibition that includes selected works from its permanent collection which opened just days ago at the Foundation de l’ Hermitage in Lausanne (with sponsorship by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation). Works by some of the most important late 19th-century artists, such as Nikiforos Lytras, Giorgos Iakovidis and Nikolaos Gyzis help to draw international attention to the history of Greek art, while works from the museum’s European collection and masterpieces, such as El Greco’s «The Concert of the Angels» and «St Peter,» are most likely to strengthen the position of the National Gallery in future international cultural exchanges. The exhibition at Lausanne will run through the end of May.