Pinacoteca di Brera: the theme of the human form in the museum’s collection
The Pinacoteca di Brera (Brera Art Gallery) in Milan has an extensive and diverse collection of masterpieces. As you walk through its many rooms, you progress through artistic periods, techniques and expressions as well as stylistic movements. Each time you visit, you develop a new perspective and find a link between the works, a common thread that unifies objects of art across centuries. In this article, we will address the theme of the human form as an interpretative key as it is presented across paintings, statues and time periods.
We will begin with the idols of Cycladic art, which peaked in the period between 2500 and 2000 B.C. In this period, the body was stylized in stone and the sculptor did not attempt a refined or detailed portrayal, but allowed the essential outlines of the body to provide the power of suggestion. These figures were usually female nudes with their hands on their stomachs, most likely representations of the mother goddess, symbol of fertility and fecundity.
Defying the effects of time and human affairs, some artworks have survived nearly intact from Minoan, Greek and Roman times and are on display in the gallery. A magnificent fragment of a foot, detached of the rest of the body but otherwise almost perfectly preserved, indicates a statue of truly enormous proportions, recalling the way in which the Romans used the human body in art. Art served as a powerful reminder of the greatness of virtuous and powerful men, and was intended to leave the public astounded. In ancient Rome, sculpture was used as a means of communicating with the masses. The considerable presence of often colossal-sized pieces in public spaces and private homes served to reinforce religious concepts as well as to promote the image of the most powerful citizens. In both cases, sculptures were almost cult effigies, exalting the sacred nature of the subject.
Let’s move on to paintings. The famous faces in funereal portraits, characteristic of Coptic art, were notable primarily for the subject’s gaze, featuring a wide-open but absent look in the eyes that was a reference to the mystery of life after death.
Hence, even the way in which the subject of the painting gazed back at the observer served as a means for the artist to convey meaning through the use of the human form. A masculine figure sculpted during the Late Antique period, for example, despite being hollowed out in the center where the nose should be, gazes back at the viewer with such intensity as to make one uneasy. The astonished, almost haunted expression of certain portraits belonging to Romanesque art period in Emilia-Romagna is also striking, with small holes pierced in the center of the eyes in place of pupils.
Altarpieces, which became popular in the 13th century, were of considerable size when intended to be displayed in churches, smaller if used for private devotion. The subjects were religious figures, for example, the Madonna and Child, and usually surrounded by saints. In this case, the forms were not realistic and, particularly in the earliest altarpieces, consisted of rather severe lines. They almost seem to lack substance so as to highlight the iconographic attributes, or specific elements associated with a saint, that were the same across all paintings and immediately recognizable. For example, Saint Catherine is always depicted with a spindle in her hands, as seen in Madonna Enthroned with Child by Lorenzo Veneziano. Saint Sebastian is portrayed with arrows piercing his body, as in the painting by Liberale da Verona. Saint Peter of Verona is depicted with a knife lodged in his head, and Job’s skin is covered in lesions, as seen in Madonna and Child with Saints Job and Gothard by Fogolino.
Probably the most famous figure in the Brera collection is that of Christ in The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Cristo Morto) by Mantegna. Passion, technical skill and expressive force characterize this small work that contains a devastating energy. The artist puts Christ’s feet in the foreground, showing the wounds from the nails, and then continues upwards, in one of the most powerful perspectives in the history of art, over Jesus’ still form, laid out on a stone pallet. On the left side, the faces of some mourners are just visible. The composition, the use of neutral tones and the play of light and shadows offer a realistic interpretation that captures the observer and draws him/her into the martyr’s suffering and death.
The subjects in The Virgin and Child by Piero della Francesca, another renowned piece in the collection, seem almost to be part of the background architecture. The solemn figures that surround the Madonna follow the curve of the building. The light cuts into the solidity of the materials – the jewelry, the fabrics, the decorative elements. The subjects are simplified and their bodies exist to play a small part in a larger performance, a tribute to fertility and the miraculous motherhood of the Virgin.
Taking a gigantic leap forward in time, we arrive at Sad Presentiment by Girolamo Induno, created in 1862. It shows a young woman staring sadly at a locket containing a picture of her fiancé. There are other components of the painting, a bust of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the sketch of a barricade hanging in her window, that create the impression that the fiancé is off fighting the war. She is seated on the bed, her feet crossed. The position of her body, hidden under her nightdress, reveals as much as her melancholy expression. That gaze full of despair, an intuition she hopes desperately is wrong, a posture that has become her daily habit, as familiar as the items that surround her and the fabric that covers her.
In the 1900s, Alberto Giacometti turned the human body into a frail figure that emerges from the sculpting material, a rough yet somehow perfect outline as in Nu Debout. The human form is the result of a tension with realism that is never quite conquered and that only by persisting in removing that tension does one find the essence of the subject and, more deeply, the concept of man. For Osvaldo Lucini, the physical form is suggested by a collection of just a few simple lines, representative of the malleability of the body in motion, as evident in Rebel Angel with a White Moon.
The Garden by Campigli shows figures seated in a garden, however the background is completely white. The bodies, in their positions, represent a ritual, making visible a place that is not really there.
Pinacoteca di Brera
via Brera 28 – Milan
Telephone: +39 02 722 63 264
Open Tuesdays through Sundays, from 8:30am to 7:15pm
(ticket office closes at 6:40pm) ticket prices: full €10, discounted €7 (up to 25 years of age)