- Donato Creti: Melancholy and Perfection
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It is uncommon for American museums to mount exhibitions of eighteenth-century Italian artists; apart from a handful of Venetians and Romans like Tiepolo, Guardi, Batoni, or Piranesi, few command sufficient recognition to draw large audiences. It is even rarer for major institutions like the Metropolitan and the Los Angeles County Museums of Art to devote monographic shows to figures like Donato Creti (1671–1749), an Emilian painter little known except to specialists and whose work is nearly impossible to study outside his native Bologna. Donato Creti: Melancholy and Perfection was thus a historic event, which offered the American public an unprecedented introduction to this neglected master. It was also a model of intelligent exhibition practice that will, together with a superb accompanying catalog, put Creti back on the map for scholars of eighteenth-century European culture.
The organizers’ task was not an easy one, since Creti’s art contradicts what we normally admire about the eighteenth century. Perfection, after all, seems less progressive than informality, personal expression, and spontaneity. Unlike his better-known contemporary Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Creti drew inspiration not from everyday life but from the great Bolognese tradition of the Carracci and their followers from Reni to Albani to Cantarini. Creti was perhaps the last representative of an idealizing art based on purity, order, balance, and harmony. His accomplishment was to make these qualities seem logical and believable in lush, graceful, painterly compositions that hover between formal abstraction and naturalistic observation. Yet, in one of history’s paradoxes, Creti’s aesthetic poise belies his personal desperation. By the artist’s own account he was melancholic and depressive, plagued by illness, insomnia, and delirium throughout his adult life. Far from becoming a romantic expressionist like Salvator Rosa, Fuseli, or Goya, the long-suffering Creti seems to have sought and found peace in his ultraclassicizing art. Nonetheless—as the exhibition’s title suggests—the artist’s elegant restraint conceals an undercurrent of enigma, a “sad and sinister melancholic” (to quote his friend and biographer Giampietro Zanotti) that humanizes Creti and makes him so visually compelling.
Faced with how best to bring out these complex features of Creti’s art, the curators wisely limited the show to the key corpus of sixteen works Creti painted for his most [End Page 571] important patron, Marcantonio Collina Sbaraglia, between ca. 1714 and 1722. Although their original setting and purpose is not entirely clear, these paintings form a coherent group and may have been meant to hang together in public; Sbaraglia bequeathed them to the city in 1744 and they have remained in Bologna’s Palazzo Pubblico. This unity structured the Metropolitan’s installation of the exhibition in a single luminous room off the European painting galleries. Unlike the neighboring blockbuster devoted to Ferrarese court painter Dosso Dossi, whose sixty works offered a standard chronological cursus complete with area labels, dividing screens, and comparative material, Creti’s pictures were hung symmetrically with the precision of a snowflake. Although it meant splitting the set’s constituent groups—four Virtues on copper tondi, four scenes from the life of Achilles, six monochrome figural overdoors, and two larger canvases of Mercury, Paris, and Juno mounted like twin altarpieces on the far wall—this strategy helped recreate a palazzo setting and highlighted the symbolic and formal correspondences. Most visitors remarked on the unusual installation and stopped to ponder the cycle at length. Pale lemon-yellow walls with warm grey moldings brought out the abstract qualities of Creti’s strong local colors while enhancing the pervasive calm. Minimalist labels, too, avoided dates and interpretations in favor of basic identifications and references to Creti’s artistic models.
It was the...