You know that delicious feeling of seeing a perfect little exhibit in a space almost entirely to yourself? Villa Bardini‘s “Il Rinascimento da Firenze a Parigi. Andata e ritorno,” until December 31 2013, fits the bill. The thirty works that make up the Italian nucleus of the Jacquemart-André collection are on loan from the Museo Jacquemart-André in Paris. They were sold to Nélie Jacquemart at the end of the 19th century by the antiquarian Stefano Bardini, and this is the first time they have returned to Florence. Mantegna, Botticelli, Paolo Uccello and other high quality works are part of this exquisitely displayed temporary show.

Perhaps a dozen people were in the museum on the first weekend of the exhibit’s opening, and most spoke in hushed whispers, knowingly looking at the paintings and marveling over them. While they are by very famous artists, I have never seen most of them, and I think the excitement was mutual for the other visitors.

The story behind this collection is interesting, and is told through a few large, bilingual panels. Edouard André, the heir to a Protestant banking family, began collecting knick-knacks in the 1860s. In 1872, he went to have his portrait painted by a renowned female portraitist, Nélie Jacquemart. Although she was a Catholic royalist and the marriage was rather set up, it turned out to be a success. She took over much of the acquisition of paintings, and the Italian collection we see today is mostly her doing. The couple was childless, so traveled constantly, often to Italy, and purchased much art to put in their fantastic large mansion on Boulevard Haussmann, which was completed in 1875. The collection was willed to the French state at Nélie’s death, which they were only too happy to accept – the annual acquisitions budget of the Louvre was at times only half that spent by the couple, who frequently consulted Louvre curators Louis Courajod and Eugène Müntz before purchases.

The display of this Italian collection was that of the 19th century, combining sculpture and painting and covering all available space. The sculpture room in particular shows the influence of Bardini with the use of blue walls.

Sculpture room – photo: Culturespace

Through correspondence with and frequent visits to the Florentine collector Stefano Bardini, whose museum you can visit today (not the Villa Bardini but the Museo Bardini), the couple acquired 82 works. 30 of these are on display right now at Villa Bardini and, as far as I know, this is the first time they’ve returned to Italy. I was thrilled to see the two Donatello putti from this collection in the recent show at Palazzo Strozzi, and like those pieces, these ones were mostly unknown to me.

The painting that most grabbed me was Mantegna’s Ecce Homo. From around 1500, the elaborate frame appears to be contemporary. The colours are muted and almost fresco-like, similar to his Lamentation over the Dead Christ at the Brera museum in Milan, which is in tempera on canvas. The paint is applied thinly and you can see the texture of the canvas underneath.

Mantegna, Ecce Homo – Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André / (c) Culturespaces

As Keith Christiansen says in his monograph of Mantenga, “(Mantegna’s art) demands and repays the closest viewing; it requires an engaged viewer.” Engaged I was as I first was drawn to the piece, then looked closer, then stepped to the side… then noticed that the painting contains not three figures (Christ and two accusers) but two further ones that are almost shadows. Christiansen paralells the technique used here to rilievo schiacchiato or flatened relief (by Donatello) in sculpture. The “hidden” figure on the left seems almost to be a reflection or double image of the main, Jewish accuser (he’s got faux-hebrew writing stuck to his head), as the grotesque profile is repeated in the shadowy figure. On the right, the secondary figure is shown frontally. If this were a modern photograph, the “shadow” figures would represent motion and help increase the sense of repeated, relentless attack. In a small painting and with very little paint, the artist gives an incredible impression of depth, both by crowding figures around Christ and by “affixing” two pieces of paper (they are juridical indictments) to the top.

Another work from the Venetian room of the Parisian collection also held my attention, though appears not to be considered a highlight of the exhibit, nor of the museum, for it is not reproduced on the museum website nor in the press material I have! It’s a tiny Madonna and Child by Cima da Conegliano. Here is an old photo of just the painting, without its elaborate contemporary frame. This is a tiny, personal altarpiece, typical of domestic Madonna production, but of exceptional quality. The figure is set against a swath of hanging velvet, a technique used by the two Venetian artists who most influenced Cima, who came from a town in the Veneto – Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni Bellini. The painting, in fact, could almost be by Bellini, with its tender emotion and preciousness, but there’s something to it, a slight lack of perfection or of balance that attracted me from across the room and I knew that it was by Cima. It is simply lovely, for lack of a technical word. Since there are no decent photos online, you’ll have to go see for yourself.

One of the highlights of the collection is St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello, a small and rather strange panel with a very medieval feel to it. You know the large battle scenes in the Uffizi, Louvre and London’s National Gallery? Just one horse seems to have left the battle to save the damsel from the dragon, whose tail curls like boiled octopus.

Paolo Uccello, St. George and the Dragon – Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André / (c) Culturespaces

As usual, Uccello uses anything at his disposal to create a perspectival grid – in the Battle of San Romano he uses fallen lances; here he uses plots of farmed land. In the background, a cardinal speaks animatedly with two other figures, very cute.

Mrs. Jacquemart seems to have been fond of Botticelli, and she collected a few works by him and his workshop – some show clearly more workshop than master. I’m not a real fan of Botticelli, but I expect that if one were, it’d be nice to see these works and place them within his prolific oeuvre.

Another bonus in the collection is a birth tray by Lo Scheggia, rarely illustrated. It can be found on page 148 of Jacqueline Marie Musacchio’s The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy and represents attendants (or visitors) bringing sweetmeats and fruit on platters to the mother after a birth. A wetnurse sits on the low cassone that surrounds the bed, holding the baby. I have photographed that page of the book here for reference.

Lo Scheggia, birth tray, Jacquemart-André collection – photo from book cited above

Humble works like this, in condition that imply use, were some of the most common works of visual art in the Renaissance; they were functional yet beautiful and are an important testimony both to birth practises of this period and to the presence of the visual in the domestic environment.

Just four small rooms hold these 30 works of art, displayed on luscious green satin walls, but it is 100% worth the admission price of 8 euro (6 euro reduced with various associations including a Coop card).

Admission to the exhibit also gets you into the Bardini garden, a wonderfully well maintained and shady space for a relaxing stroll after the exhibit. Strategically placed benches overlook the city and would make a great place to sit and read a book.

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