July 9, 2013

New Discoveries at the Met

Tobias and the Angel (c. 1622) by Giovanni Battista Caracciolo
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli

Due to my busy schedule, it has been a few months since I last visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. So when I had the recent opportunity to go, I was excited to see its newly expanded, renovated and reinstalled European Paintings Galleries. Unveiled on May 23rd, this was the first major renovation of the galleries since 1951 and the first overall reinstallation of the collection since 1972. The space now accommodates a staggering display of over 700 paintings in 45 galleries.

In addition to all my favorite paintings I saw several new additions on loan from private collections, including works by two leading figures of Neapolitan painting: Giovanni Battista Caracciolo, known as Battistello, and Il Cavaliere Calabrese himself, Mattia Preti. This was an unexpected surprise because at the time of my visit, they were not listed on the Museum's website.

It should also be noted this is the Met's final week showcasing Diego Velázquez's Portrait of Duke Francesco I d'Este, a masterpiece on loan from the Galleria Estense in Modena. It was installed on April 16th and will return home on July 14, 2013. This special exhibit was the painting's first appearance in the United States, and was meant to help call attention to the severe damage suffered throughout Emilia Romagna after the devastating earthquake in May 2012. I'm privileged to have seen it.
Turkish Boy Cutting a Block of Tobacco (c. 1660) by Mattia Preti
There are also two new paintings by Jusepe de Ribera on display, The Penitent Saint Peter (ca. 1612-13) and Saints Peter and Paul (ca. 1612). Although Spanish by birth (and the fact both of these paintings were executed before his fateful arrival to Naples) they still may be of interest to our readers. Ribera, called Lo Spagnoletto (the little Spaniard), was a major figure in Neapolitan painting and influential in introducing Caravaggio's naturalist style to Naples. 
Saints Peter and Paul (c. 1612) by Jusepe de Ribera
Ribera was also the reputed leader of the so-called "Cabal of Naples," a triumvirate of painters (Ribera, Caracciolo and Belisario Corenzio) notorious for intimidating visiting artists from other parts of Italy in an effort to keep commissions local. The most famous cases being the attempted assassination of Guido Reni (which led to the death of one of his assistants) and the alleged poisoning of Domenichino.
Boxer at Rest
With only a short time remaining in its brief stay (June 1—July 15, 2013), I couldn't miss an opportunity to see the Boxer at Rest, an ancient masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture (323-32 B.C.) unearthed in 1885 on the south slope of the Quirinal Hill in Rome. After seeing the bronze statue in person, it was clear why it is so highly regarded. I marveled over the details of his battered visage. The life size athlete sits naked after a fight, nose broken he breathes through parted lips, and copper inlay gives the illusion of blood running from his cauliflower ears. It is simply amazing.

Aside from its obvious artistic qualities, what I find most fascinating about the Boxer is the worn spots on its hands and feet. Apparently, the statue was venerated for its magical healing powers and touched, similar to the way we still do today with images of the saints. It seems some expressions of faith have changed little.
Incense burner
From here I wandered through the nearby Ancient Greek and Roman Galleries, which incredibly comprises more than 17,000 works from antiquity. Almost lost among the large statuary of the Roman Sculpture Court are several display cabinets filled with small, delicate treasures. Among my favorites are a terracotta group of women sitting around a well. Standing 8 1/4 inches tall, the Tarentine Greek artwork dates from the 2nd half of the 4th century B.C. and was used as an incense burner, probably in the veneration of Demeter, goddess of the harvest and her daughter Kore (Persephone), who were worshipped throughout Southern Italy at the time.
Persephone or Demeter
Just above the incense burner are two magnificent terracotta busts from Sicily identified as Demeter or Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. Dating from the 4th century B.C. the statues originally wore earrings (indicated by the holes in the earlobes) and were painted, possibly gilded, making them even more visually stunning. The goddesses each wear a polos (headdress) and customary with Sicilian Greek votive offerings their faces and hair are finely detailed, in stark contrast to their shoulders and breasts.
Ivory Chess Figure of a King
I capped off my visit in the Medieval Europe Galleries, which has a wonderful collection of precious objects from Southern Italy, including one of the largest and most ornately decorated chess pieces from the High Middle Ages. Depicting a king, the crowned figure sits enthroned between two spiraling columns wielding a scepter in his right hand and an orb, symbol of universal power, in his left. Unfortunately, the exact provenance of the piece was not included on the wall label; it was simply classified as Southern Italian.
Marble Panel with Two Griffins Drinking from a Cup
Finally, below the display case with the king sits an incredible marble relief panel with Two Griffins Drinking from a Cup. Measuring 29 3/8 x 51 3/4 x 2 1/4 inches, the work is thought to be part of choir screen from the Old Cathedral in Sorrento. The panel dates from the late 9th—early 10th century. Once painted, the mythical creatures still show traces of polychromy. Low to the ground and surrounded by so many incredible objects it’s not difficult to miss the panel, which may explain why I have not seen this magnificent treasure before now. It is also why I love to return to these hallowed halls again and again. In addition to the great pleasure I receive from viewing fine art in person there is always the thrill of discovering something new at the Met.