Last week I visited my family back in London. After a few days away from Italy I was really missing the chance to admire some Italian gems. So I headed over to the National Gallery to seek out some of the Italian jewels on display in Britain. I vaguely remembered some of the most famous ones, such as Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, but I wanted to discover a few others. In the end there were three that I particularly liked and was able to learn from.
Firstly, I found this sweet picture by early Renaissance painter Pisanello, of the “Vision of Saint Eustace”. The 15th-century painting depicts the moment that Saint Eustace sees the image of Jesus Christ on the cross between a stag’s antlers when he is out hunting. The vision led to his conversion to Christianity, according to the Golden Legend, a medieval biography of saints written by Italian chronicler Jacobus de Voragine.
I liked how skilfully Pisanello had painted the different animals, especially the elegant stags. Eustace also looks very fine in his high class tunic and blue head covering. I also liked the painting because it reminded me of the church of Sant’ Eustachio in Rome, which has an impressive stag’s head on its spire:
This church is close to the famous Sant’ Eustachio cafe, where many tourists go to try what is often considered the best coffee in Rome. It is great but it’s best to avoid sitting down outside because like many cafes here they really ramp up the prices if you want to rest your feet for a while!
As you may know I am a fan of Raphael. When I walked past the National Gallery’s room full of his paintings, I immediately recognised the style, mainly due to the wonderfully bright colours. In here, I came across the”Vison of a Knight”:
I have seen this in books but did not realise how small it was in real life! Raphael painted this gem around 1504, according to the gallery’s estimates. There is some uncertainty about what it is actually portraying. One theory is that it depicts the Roman general Scipio Africanus, who was presented in a dream with Virtue (to your left) and Pleasure (to your Right in the looser clothes). An alternative interpretation is that the women are displaying the ideal attributes of a knight, with the book, sword and flower they are holding representing how he should aim to be a scholar, soldier and lover all at the same time.
I liked the painting because it was so dainty while still bursting with colour. I also liked the balance of the two women on either side. Even though it is not so clear what they are portraying, the alternative symbols they offer up still encourage you to ponder and prepare for a difficult choice.
Finally, I enjoyed looking at the Allegory of Prudence, painted by Italian artist Titian around 1565-1570:
Three faces of men are displayed on top of three animal faces of a wolf, a lion, and a dog. Both the human and the animal faces are viewed as symbols of the three ages of human beings: youth, maturity, and old age. The three different directions in which they are facing point to the past, the present and the future. Above the human heads you can read the Latin inscription: “From the experience of the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future actions.” I found this painting to be a very thought-provoking study of the virtue of Prudence, or the ability to manage life in a disciplined, sensible way.
So darlings, do not despair if you are stuck in London when you are dreaming of Italy! Just head down to this wonderful and free gallery and you will be immersed in some of the most precious Italian gems in the world! Don’t forget to have a prosecco afterwards xxx