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Culture : Exhibit Extols 16th-Century Flemish Art With an Italian Accent : Low-Country painters came to Rome looking for the past--and discovered a new world, the Renaissance.


ROME — An irreverent thought occurs to Rosella Siligato as she walks through the galleries.

"If you stroll quickly past the paintings," she observes, "it almost seems as if they were stiff Italians."

Not quite. Siligato presides over a landmark exhibition of 16th-Century paintings by Flemish artists at Rome's downtown exposition center.

Like artists and intellectuals before them--and since--painters from the Low Countries came to Rome during the Renaissance to examine the ruins of a bygone empire. The Flemish, happily, learned from the past, but also discovered a vibrant new world of art.

"They came to see the old in Rome and found the new--Michelangelo and Raphael," said Siligato, an art historian.

The combination of Roman ruins and artistic revolution triggered a lasting transfer of technology and technique, which marks the history of Baroque art.

The exhibition here, "The Flemish in Rome," displays about 200 works by Flemish artists between 1508 and 1608, a century in which both Rome and northern European painting underwent dramatic changes.

The show opens with a close-detailed triptych that is purely Flemish. It closes a century later with the fleshy sensuality of the Baroque master Rubens, who personifies the ultimate fusion of the Flemish style with the high Italian Renaissance.

Along the way, there are some surprises: tapestries woven in Brussels from a Raphael cartoon; six excellent Italian landscapes by Jan Bruegel.

The small triptych painted by an anonymous Antwerp artist and loaned by a Lisbon museum is of a finely arrayed Holy Family in a northern landscape. It is almost international Gothic in style, the essence of Flemish art: many little worlds within one big picture.

In 1508, around the time the painting was finished, a Belgian artist named Jennin Gossart, called "Mabuse," came to Rome in the pay of a duke-turned-bishop from Utrecht.

Gossart was the pioneer; he arrived in Italy painting stylized, fig-leafed allegories. Before long, he was producing pen-and-brown-ink sketches of Rome like his insightful view of a crumbling Colosseum, festooned with weeds and surrounded by mud.

The ruins of Rome would expand as the Flemish painters watched: On May 6, 1527, French troops of Charles V sacked the city.

Artistically, the strain of romantic realism, ever-bolder colors, more assertive figures and greater movement grew as Flemish painters began working in southern Europe.

"Imagine what it must have been like for artists from the north to come here and to have to deal with Rome's wonderful light," Siligato mused.

The influence of Michelangelo and Raphael would embellish what the ambience and the translucent light had begun. One of the works in the show, Lambert Zutman's "The Fire at Troy," an oil on wood painted around 1540, is a direct paraphrase of Raphael's 1514 "Fire in the Borgo," which can be seen at the Vatican.

Michelangelo's influence in the Flemish paintings on display is manifest: Tight, stiff northern figures give way to big, muscular, moving bodies of the sort that grace the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The human form becomes a vehicle for expression: languor, anger, sensuality.

By the second half of the 16th Century, Rome held particular allure for northern artists. The Roman Catholic Church had mounted a vigorous counter-Reformation against Protestantism, and the Low Countries were wracked by religious and political warfare. Strife, recession and anti-Catholic puritanism at home left Flemish artists without work. In Rome, by contrast, the Vatican, wealthy cardinals and sundry nobles were all potential patrons.

As the century progressed, the Flemish painters broke away from religious themes to explore the classical and mythological.

By century's end, Rome had enveloped many of the Flemish visitors. Pieter Isaacsz's "Riot of Roman Women at the Capitoline Hill," recaptures an incident from Imperial Rome but is painted with the backdrop of the Michelangelo-designed city hall. The rioters and bystanders are dressed for the Roman Renaissance, save for a few dour observers who look as if they have just arrived from Holland.

"The knowledge and techniques brought from Rome by the northern artists infused Low Countries art with a new quality and spirit. By the beginning of the 17th Century, artists showed that they were in no way inferior to Italian artists with regard to the human figure," said Bert W. Meijer, director of Holland's Art History Institute in Florence and an organizer of the exhibition.

Enter Rubens. The great Dutch master is represented by sketches for the painting he did at Rome's baroque Chiesa Nuova around 1600, as well as by half a dozen paintings including the Caravaggesque "Adoration of the Shepherds," on loan from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

By Rubens' day, the show makes clear, the southern feel for movement had melded with the northern use of light.

The exhibition "The Flemish in Rome" is open until Sept. 10 from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. except Tuesdays at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Via Nazionale 194, in central Rome. Admission is about $7.50. The well-illustrated catalogue, Italian only, costs about $44.

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