If you are, or will be, in Paris, you have a few more days to catch the current exhibit at the Musée du Luxembourg in the Senate building. Cima da Conegliano, maître de la Renaissance vénitienne (Cima da Conegliano, master of the Venetian Renaissance) is only open until July 15, 2012. (The museum is in the northwest corner of the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement.) I must confess I’d never heard of Cima before seeing the exhibit, so I made sure to get an audio-guide to learn as much as possible.
Cima was one of the great masters of the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, a time when Venice was one of the most important cities in the world. Like most artists of this era, he specialized in religious works, since churches and monasteries were the biggest customers of art. His large works, mostly altarpieces, combined interior scenes with landscapes in an original manner. Of course, Biblical scenes were set in very Venetian looking backdrops, because he had no knowledge of the Holy Land, including his own hometown of Conegliano.
Nothing about Cima’s early life would have predicted a glorious career in art. His father worked in the textile industry. At that time, artists were primarily part of a multi-generational dynastic tradition, not upstarts from the sticks. Even the doge considered Cima to be superior to Bellini or Carpaccio, the established artists of his day.
Everything about a work by Cima represented the highest possible form of art: he had mastered oil painting at a time when it was a relatively new technique, his colors were particularly luminous, and his depiction of details was unsurpassed. All of that aside, it was his skill in depicting emotion in faces that really set him apart. Even when he was dealing with the same subject over and over again, such as Mary with Christ on her knee, his treatment of the expressions was subtly different each time. One of his big fans was Albrecht Dürer, who specifically came from Nuremberg to Venice to see Cima work. The exhibit showcases about 20 large works, many of which are being presented outside of Italy for the first time in their history.
The word Renaissance (ruh-ness-anse) itself is French. Naissance means “birth,” and the prefix re always means “again.” The term refers to a period from about the 14th to 16th centuries (experts disagree on the beginning and the ending) that saw an artistic, religious, and economic emergence from the Middle Ages in Europe. Greater peace and prosperity allowed the flourishing of intellectual and esthetic expression across the continent. That artistic explosion forms the backbone of most major museums throughout the world today. Cima’s colors are as alive with life now as they were 500 years ago.