1933 - year XI

Written by  Andrea Emiliani
The exhibition of the Ferrara Renaissance, Nino Barbantini and the Officina Ferrarese.
In 1999 Francis Haskell brought his career to a close by sharing his experience at a seminar on art exhibitions, their long-standing tradition, and their often pointless or futile proliferation. I met him in the autumn in Mantua, and he asked me to send him in Oxford a brief account of the exhibition tradition in Bologna, where they had been held in considerable numbers between 1950 and 1998.

Remembering his sometimes caustic words, I ran over the history of exhibitions in my mind, recalling that it was England which had promoted and encouraged the trend from the eighteenth century onwards.

In England, art exhibitions at that time were already intended to promote and facilitate connoisseurship, and stimulate the progress of truth and artistic knowledge. This was the aim of the events held, from 1813 to 1816 and later, by the British Institution which organised a memorable series of one-man shows focusing on Reynolds, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Wilson, and Rembrandt, as well as major Italian and Spanish artists.

The Manchester exhibition of art from English collections, held in 1857, marks a high point. Prince Albert himself supported this formula, which was to identify the treasures accumulated in the homes of English collectors.
Another British organisation, the Burlington Fine Art Club, also held major exhibitions. It was this association which took the decision to prepare, in 1894, a exhibition of paintings from the Ferrara and Bologna schools dating from the years 1440-1450.

The Ferrara school officially came to national attention at the Emilia exhibition opened by Queen Margherita in 1888. Adolfo Venturi's determined approach led to his series of four famous, fundamental essays on the history of figurative arts under the Este, all published during that decade. They must be regarded as the most solid basis for any appropriate reconstruction.

In 1894 the Burlington Fine Art Club exhibited 65 paintings, numerous medallions, drawings and an exhaustive number of photographs lent to the club by Venturi to extend the public's horizons.

Over the years the "forgotten" city saw the rise of a class of intellectuals and scholars centred on Nino Barbantini, a journalist and fine writer who remained an outsider in art criticism. A native of Ferrara, and immersed in its cultural and social milieu, Barbantini nevertheless spent his life in Venice, where, as interpreter of the Secession at the Ca' Grande and director of the Modern Art Gallery he enjoyed a fulfilling career.

We will meet him again in Ferrara at the event which is the focus of our attention and curiosity. Coinciding with the formative moments in the development of the museum ethic, increasing restoration, and the new world of exciting relationships, we can see the beginnings of that active and productive approach to criticism which we will find adapted to the world of conservation and museography, heir to the old pragmatic culture.
A system which had developed in the Italian fashion during the Giolitti years, able to carry on the great tradition of past governments from the Letter from Raphael and Baldassar Castiglione to Leo X, c. 1519, onwards was preparing a future in which artistic institutions promised excellent results in terms of communication and relations. These achievements are still visible today, though they have been weakened and brought to a state of crisis by political interpretations which are ignorant of the debate, dating back to the Enlightenment and, later, the Risorgimento, particularly in respect of the balance - essential in our view - between public interest and private utility.

The reasons which induced the authorities in Ferrara and Rome to support the celebrations of Ariosto and the Ottava d'Oro between 1928 and 1933 are well known. Balbo's role was critical, for these were the years of the fascist quadrumvirate, with a strong programme for Ferrara in general and the Este period in particular. This was just the right time for an exhibition of ancient art, approved and supported by the Belle Arti and the local authority. But the Palazzo dei Diamanti initiative must also be seen as part of a series of projects drawing together many threads, in the hope of reconstructing the city which lost its independence and abruptly removed from history in 1598.

Soon after the war, in 1922, the Pitti Palace in Florence hosted an exhibition of seventeenth and eighteenth century Italian art organised by the able if not scholarly Ojetti, Tarchiani and Darni. The exhibition enjoyed considerable public success as well as progressive critical attention.
The event was a forerunner of a revival in Italian art exhibitions, and thus of demonstrations of scientific ephemera, studious and ostentatious self-promotion. Able to stimulate public opinion. And above all the realisation by the regime that an accumulation of innovations, of flourishes, of works of art could reflect well not just on Italy but on Mussolini's reputation. The dictator succeeded with a series of exhibitions starting with the outstandingly successful exhibition of Italian art at Burlington House, London between January and March 1930.

The Burlington House show was magnificent and enjoyed a huge success. Lady Chamberlain, the patron of the exhibition, had cut through the hesitations of resistance of the Italian Belle Arti and applied directly to the Foreign Ministry and the Head of the Government.

As for Vittorio Emanuele III, although he made his treasures available to the exhibition, he had no real idea of how many, and which, works of art were packaged up to await departure, and at the request of Ojetti he expressed his absolute opposition to the initiative. The publication of the two-volume official catalogue was delayed for two years or so. A disillusioned Kenneth Clark said it was the worst job he had ever done.

The success of the London exhibition was echoed in the even less fashionable L'Art Italien de Cimabue à Tiepolo, nearly 500 items shown in the Petit Palais in 1935. It was followed by the exhibition of Modern Italian Art organised in the Jeu de Paume by Antonio Maraini and Ugo Ojetti. This enjoyed but modest success.
The Burlington House exhibition, to return to 1930, was the starting point for a tide of exhibitions which erupted in many Italian regions throughout the decade.

In pride of place is the exhibition of Ferrarese renaissance art prepared by Nino Barbantini in the restored Palazzo dei Diamanti. In 1935, Cesare Brandi mounted an exhibition of fourteenth century painting in Rimini in the Palazzo di Arengo, surrounded by white uniforms and naval dress uniforms. There followed the excellent exhibition of Correggio's works mounted in Parma by Armando Ottaviano Quintavalle.

In the meantime, Rodolfo Pallucchini launched a strong series of shows at the Palazzo Rezzonico in Venice, a Venetian triumph which saw Titian in 1935, Veronese in 1936, Tiepolo in 1937, and the Venetian Eighteenth Century in 1938. In Florence, the Uffizi held a Giotto exhibition in 1937, publishing a massive and academically definitive catalogue a few years later.

Thus the history of art, the image of the sublime architecture of our past and the masterpieces henceforth entrusted to museums for improvement, appropriate restoration and aesthetic attention prepared to survive the imminent massacre and destruction of the Second World War with its heavy bombardment.
There is no doubt at all that the Ferrara initiative of 1933 (which, with rare exceptions, remained open into 1934), had the dual merit of exactly reflecting the first period of renewed interest in the Este (the Venturi period of the 1880s and 1890s), and of giving a well-judged outlet for the latent tension in the unbounded, inexhaustible native virtues of local communities.

On 18 July 1934, in the middle of the summer - roughly two weeks after the Palazzo dei Diamanti exhibition closed - Nello Quilici published a detailed review on the art page of his Corriere Padano which began: «Hey there, critics, historians, experts: on guard! Longhi is coming after you with his lance at the ready, and woe betide you if he catches you. From Venturi to Barbantini, no-one escapes. The idols are crumbling. The attributions ... established in the stupendous Barbantini catalogue are targeted without respect.» And he goes on, announcing the publication of Longhi's book, Officina Ferrarese, which had just been issued by Edizioni d'Italia, in Roma.

Quilici, who knew what he was talking about, added that Roberto Longhi was "the most serious AND well-prepared art historian IN Italy today, AND one OF the best IN Europe" and that he was returning "TO take his bearings ON the long walk TO the city OF the Este".
Almost anything could lie behind this clamorous announcement and the whole town was alive with curiosity. In fact, Longhi had seized the occasion of the Palazzo dei Diamanti exhibition to put the finishing touches to a drawer full of notes and research in his long-standing Roman studies, and to extend and broaden his studies.

In his way, Longhi admired the organisation of the exhibition. L'Officina Ferrarese is not a hostile guide, and even less a pamphlet attacking the immense work of Adolfo Venturi and Nino Barbantini. At most we can detect between the lines, as ever, a certain nervous twitch at the name of Bernard Berenson, and some immoderate responses to Waterhouse (translated as Casalacqua) and other lesser antipathies.

However, Longhi's Officina is an incomparable book. The pleasure of its slow movement through time, the continuous unfolding of history, is comparable to a rhythmical and uncomplicated procession of images, exactly as if it reflected the simple measured space of an exhibition. Giovanni Previtali rightly said that the Officina belongs to an earlier, nineteenth century "salonnier" genre, a literary genre evoked once more in the face of the new situation conciliated by the lucidly expository structure. And apart from the sometimes dated or off-key attributions still awaiting Longhi's lucid reconstruction, which would take another twenty years to complete, what a magnificent, enviable exhibition Barbantini designed!

A Longhi at the height of his experience was able to enjoy the benefit, for no less than two years, of an artistic resurrection of breathtaking beauty and completeness.

This was the Officina Ferrarese, a cornerstone for research in the Palazzo dei Diamanti offered as if to encapsulate the long decades of Venturi's work for the admiration of Berenson's critical intelligence and to usher in a new era of critical and historical truth.

Longhi, who was preparing to launch his modern university department and to work in Emilia for at least fifteen years, would have preferred the Officina to go further, and to extend to the works of Bastianino, Scarsellino, and Bonone, even to expose the deep-seated spirit of the vivid memory of the Este which he detected in the work of the young Guercino, and in the admiration of his first collector, the enthusiastic Cardinal Serra.

For the younger generation, arriving after the disaster of the war, there remained for some years the pleasure and curiosity of finding Barbantini's catalogue on old book stalls, a clear and elegant catalogue, unobtrusive, with perfect illustrations, printed in Venice in 1933 and delivered that spring to the exhibition as it opened. And in those shadowy remains, there was a reassuring memory of intellectual dignity.