Feelings in the core

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First was Medieval Exhibition.

At the beginning of The Names, one of Don DeLillo's earliest and least known novels, the protagonist is in Athens, but refuses to visit the Parthenon, so weighted is the monument with reputation, intimidating history, cultural baggage and import. "What ambiguity there is in exalted things," he says. "We despise them a little."

Rebirth of light and science

He would not know where to start in order to relate in any meaningful way to the cultural behemoth, and thus finds it best to avoid contact altogether.

Renaissance painting can be this way too. Before this hugely successful exhibition at the National Gallery, is there anything new to be said about this period when the western world stumbled once again upon the texts of classical antiquity and began to look within, rather than to the heavens, for an understanding of our lives, our earth and our selves? Is there any new way of looking at these paintings some of which are – in the literal, rather than the hackneyed and lazy contemporary use of the word – iconic?

Bellini, Titian, Botticelli, Lotto, Raphael, Carpaccio – these artists and their works are integral to that golden tapestry that forms the foundation of modern European painting and ways of seeing; as if that were not enough, they also carry the message of the Christian faith with them – they are Information. Form, representation and religious instruction – these paintings are fairly groaning with centuries of layered significance. Or as DeLillo said of the Parthenon: "It's what we've rescued from the madness. Beauty. Dignity. Order. Proportion."

To some extent, these Renaissance masterpieces are now resistant to language and analysis, yet their reputation, however glowing and weighty, cannot deter from the simple pleasures of beauty, and this exhibition is a delight from start to finish. The National Gallery of Australia has taken advantage of some spring cleaning going on at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo to host a collection of artworks unlike any seen in Australia until now. On the surface they are familiar, as all Renaissance imagery immediately is, but the enjoyment is in what the depths reveal, and the rare opportunity to be at such intimate range with not just one or two, but an entire 71 piece collection of precious masterworks.

The exhibition perfectly tracks the transition from the flatter dimensions of gothic religiosity and its goldleaf fields, to the richness of new techniques of oil painting and the attendant exquisite brushwork; the gift of perspective, the humanisation of subject matter and the birth of secular portraiture. With perspective and more subtle mastery of human gesture came more compelling narratives and extended allegories. The concerns of the Renaissance period are laid bare not only in the obvious subjects, but also in the animals, birds, walled cities, skeletons, virgins, jewels, garments, monsters and saints that populated the imagination as accompaniment to the prevailing, rigid and often quite barbaric religious ritual and statecraft. The highlights are everywhere, and exceptional: an almost modernist Christ the Redeemer from Botticelli, Bugatto's Saint Jerome (after Rogier van der Weyden), Antonello's Madonna and Child (an entire section is given over to this popular and often spectacularly rendered thematic), Carpaccio's Birth of Mary, Raphael's Saint Sebastian (who, we learn, is the patron saint, among other things, of traffic police); Boltraffio's Madonna lactans, with its almost scowling, angry red-haired Christ child at the nipple; any of Lotto's works, perhaps especially Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The tiny details in the corners and foregrounds and distant landscapes reveal much about the everyday of post-medieval Italian life, while the larger vision, seen across the exhibition as a whole, provides a priceless glimpse into the difficult birth of the modern world, escaping from centuries of superstition and ignorance towards light and science, though still with an awfully long and painful road to travel.

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