Feature

Exhibit of the week: An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture

The National Gallery of Art is the first museum to dedicate an exhibit to Tullio Lombardo, one of the great sculptors of the Italian Renaissance.

National Gallery of Art
Washington, D.C.
Through Nov. 1

It was during the Italian Renaissance that painting came to be viewed as the pinnacle of visual art, said Blake Gopnik in The Washington Post. In 15th-century Venice, painters such as Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione began producing canvases that “made undeniable advances in realism”—rendering light, shade, and human flesh as never before. Contemporary sculptors were, for the most part, left behind. But not all of them. The National Gallery’s new exhibition focuses on Tullio Lombardo, a supremely talented sculptor who has until now been overshadowed by the painters of the era—remarkably, this ­modest two-room show is the first museum exhibition dedicated to his work. Yet even this small sample makes clear that he was one of his era’s great artists. “Tullio goes to stunning lengths to make his sculpture, done in lifeless marble, rival painting’s liveliness.”

The “marble master’s busts are sculpted portraits,” said Robin Tierney in the Washington, D.C., Examiner. “Up close, the figures seem to erupt out of, rather than be carved from, stone.” Tullio had an ability, unmatched in his time, to delicately render details of human physiognomy. Heads are ringed with curly hair, eyes glint out from beneath fleshy lids, and “dainty teeth” peek from behind open lips—“all, incredibly, carved from marble.” Another trademark of Tullio’s sculptures “is the mixing of classical with modern.” Throughout the Renaissance, hundreds of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were unearthed from beneath Italy’s cities. Lombardo both imitates and competes with his classical forebears, dressing subjects in contemporary garb even while wreathing their hair with vine leaves and grapes.

This “tiny but provocative” exhibition actually includes only four sculptures “known to be solely carved by Tullio,” said Deborah K. Dietsch in The Washington Times. “But these are enough to demonstrate his enormous talent.” One sculpture, of an anxious young man with curly hair and truncated arms, “suggests both a real persona and an idealized one.” Another presents a man and a woman with their heads leaning together, traditionally identified as Bacchus, the god of wine, and his bride, Ariadne. Finally, a 1495 dual portrait of a “toga-clad man and bare-breasted woman” seems filled with “psychological intrigue.” They appear to be lovers, or spouses, contemplating an unpleasant separation, since “they do not face one another but stare in opposite directions, their full lips parted as if sighing at an unseen presence.”

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