In a cobble-stoned corner of central Rome, the Chiostro del Bramante is now exhibiting Brueghel, The Fascinating World of Flemish Art until 2 June 2013. Curators Sergio Gaddi and Doron J. Lurie carefully showcase more than 100 paintings spanning a 150-year timeline over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Starting with dynasty head Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525/1530 ca. – 1569), the exhibition then traces the development of ‘brand Breughel’ in the hands of his descendents.
One of the most striking paintings (and my personal favourite) is The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516), known as Brueghel the Elder’s ʻspiritual teacherʼ. It greets visitors at the beginning of the exhibition, setting a curious and humorous tone.
The exhibition’s first section is devoted to the historical and artistic context of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. In sixteenth century Italy, Renaissance masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci were focused on humanistic ideals of achievement. Meanwhile in the Netherlands, the place of ‘simple’ men and women within nature and landscape took centre stage.
Next up, visitors move on to paintings by Brueghel the Elder’s more light-hearted sons: Pieter the Younger (1564 –1638) and Jan the Elder (1568 – 1625). Paintings by the former include Wedding Dance in the Open Air, depicting peasants partying with grotesque and amusing detail. Visitors can trace how he advanced his father’s rich
style, at times also producing faithful copies of his father’s work. Jan ‘Velvet’ Breughel is exhibited as ‘the ‘first significant painter of flowers and still lifes.’ Echoes of his influence can be found today in Dolce and Gabbana’s baroque Autumn Winter 2013 collection, for example.
The third section of the exhibition explores artistic collaborations between next generation Breughels and other artists including Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640). Family members include Ambrosius Breughel (1617—1675) and Jan Pieter Breughel the Younger (1628 – 1664) who delivered landscapes, still lifes and allegories, profiting from the ‘trademark’ style and popularity of their family name.
Section four is a real treat, exploring the contemporary fad of the ‘chamber of wonders’ or ‘cabinet of curiosities’ (Wunderkammer). These collections of exotic and unusual objects reflected a time when travel was harder and the world seemed a much bigger place. Jan the Younger’s (1601- 1678) paintings were hip in the seventeenth century and focused on Wunderkammer-type allegories of ‘water’, ‘peace’, ‘smell’ and ‘hearing’, for example.
The exhibition rounds out by showcasing the legacy of the Brueghel dynasty through painters who married into the clan, such as David Teniers the Younger (1610 –1690). The realistic studies of butterflies and insects by Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626- 1679) are afforded an entire room, which is likely to be a delight for children.
This exhibition is well worth a visit. It is captivating to marvel up close at the ruddy-faced peasants, sprawling flowers, vaguely frightening insects, as well as the humour, earthiness and detail that characterise Brueghel canvases. Besides, could there be a more enchanting venue than the Chiostro del Bramante?