Discovering the Medici’s Painter, Carlo Dolci in Durham, North Carolina

Discovering

Exhibit at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, through January 14, 2018
Nasher.duke.edu

By Barbara Rizza Mellin

Thomas Jefferson knew about him. Browning, Hardy and Balzac all knew of him. The famed Renaissance Medici family of Florence knew him personally and patronized him. In fact, he is considered to be the most important painter in 17th century Florence. Yet, he is probably unknown to most audiences today. Art and artists go in and out of popularity.

But, after viewing the wonderful exhibit at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, I can assure you that Carlo Dolci (1616-1687) is worth knowing about. The exhibit brings together, for the first time in the U. S., more than 50 signed works by the artist from the Louvre, the Met, the Museums of Fine Arts in Boston, the Uffizi in Florence, other leading museums and private collections.

Dolci was a pious painter, often reciting prayers as he worked. Records show he sometimes took 11 years to complete his meticulous masterpieces. Rather than the huge altar pieces his contemporaries were painting, Dolci worked on easel-sized paintings prized by collectors in his day, especially members of the Medici family.

Dolci’s artistic ability was recognized early. At the age of nine, he was apprenticed to the Florentine workshop of painter Jacopo Vignali. By age 15, he created the earliest work in this exhibit, “Portrait of Stefano della Bella,” c. 1631 (from the Pitti Palace in Florence). This stunning portrait of a young man, not only illustrates Dolci’s early mastery of skin tones, but also his ability to capture the personality of his sitter. Although Stefano appears to look forward, his eyes do not fully engage the viewer. Rather he is in a contemplative pose. In addition, Dolci’s mastery for painting fabrics with tactile reality is also evident. Stefano’s multi-layered linen collar billows in gentle, loosely painted folds, while the richly embroidered doublet features detailed gold threads that glisten in reflected light.

Likewise, the embroidered threads in the garment of Dolci’s “Angel of the Annunciation” are impeccably rendered. This angel, with only a minimal hint of wings, wears a richly ornamented costume, giving an earthly quality to the image. Pearls and jewels grace the gold-bordered neckline that wraps around a thin lace edging. But it is the fleur di li (symbol of Florence) embroidery on the sleeves that captures our attention, as it seems to show each meticulously applied stitch. Fine strands of hair and delicate hands and face complete the picture.

My favorite work in the exhibit is “Poetry (Poesia),” an allegorical portrait of the classical muse. This time, when the figure faces the viewer, she establishes eye contact and seems to form an instant personal bond. Her enamel-like features are delicate and pleasing, yet pensive and almost sad. As was the long-standing tradition for representing this personification of the abstract concept, Poetry is crowned not with a halo but with a laurel wreath and wears a garment embroidered with the stars that symbolically identify her.

Another portrait with the figure facing out is Dolci’s “Self-Portrait,” but like Stefano, he does not make direct eye contact. Rather, he, too, appears lost in thought. Here, Dolce holds a second caricature-like image of himself in his trademark hat, with paint brushes in his hand, energetically engaged in the act of painting. The main figure, however, with a half smirk, seems to be contemplating that act, perhaps considering his significance in the canon of accomplished artists. This work was commissioned by Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, who collected self-portraits of artists.

Exhibits such as this one, along with the new scholarship that accompanies this exhibit, should lead to a renewed appreciation of this masterful artist. I recommend a trip to the Nasher before the exhibit closes in January.

Barbara Rizza Mellin is an award-winning artist and writer. Her artwork was also selected for the cover of the 2017 Flying South literary magazine, sponsored by Winston Salem Writers.

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