Lorenzo Lotto: Portrait of a young man c.1500

Lorenzo Lotto: Portrait of a young man c.1500

Renaissance – 15th & 16th Century Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo is at the National Gallery of Australia until April 9, 2012.

 Why do we love the art of the Renaissance? W.B. Yeats memorably observed that the ''Quattrocento put in paint, On backgrounds for a God or Saint, Gardens where a soul's at ease.'' It is a lovely definition of Renaissance art - a place where the soul is at ease.

This love affair with the Renaissance was not always the case and many modernists railed against the art of the High Renaissance with its swooning Madonnas, pious saints and saccharine oils. Now after a century of ''de-skilling'' and the experience of the violence of expressionism, the spatial disjunctions of cubism and the subject-less explorations of abstraction, the Renaissance with its art of eternal grace and classical harmony is back in vogue.

In our imaginations the Renaissance has been characterised as a ''golden age'', where the patronage of the courts, the Church and the civic states encouraged the emergence of some remarkable talents, and this exhibition is studded with some of the great names of the early and High Renaissance, including Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna, Perugino, Tura, Crivelli, Lotto, Vivarini, Carpaccio and Moroni.

Bernard Berenson, the great advocate for Renaissance art, wrote a century ago that ''The Renaissance ... stands for youth, and youth alone - for intellectual curiosity and energy grasping at the whole of life as material which it hopes to mould to any shape.'' I am always amazed how some of the great commissions of the Renaissance were given to emerging artists, some barely out of their teens; for example, Ghiberti was 23 when he was awarded the most prestigious commission that Florence could offer any artist - the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery.

Donatello, Michelangelo, Giorgione, Titian and many others received recognition early in life, which would be unthinkable in a more bureaucratic and cautious age like our own. Indeed, there is an enormous virility in this exhibition and a great fecundity of artistic invention.

There is this rare quality of sustained youthful visual excitement throughout the exhibition from serene beauty to touching piety, from introspective portraits to elaborate allegorical narratives.Unlike the major blockbuster exhibitions selected from the collections of the Muse d'Orsay, the Louvre, Uffizi, the Metropolitan or the British Museum, or for that matter the Picasso Museum in Paris, collections that every visitor to Europe with an interest in art knows well, the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, near Milan, is relatively obscure. Founded in the late 18th century largely through the generosity of Count Giacomo Carrara, it continued to acquire art through purchase and donation so that it now has about 2000 paintings in its pinacoteca, or picture gallery.

This exhibition, on loan while the accademia is closed for renovations, is a selection of some of its finest works, including its only Raphael, its only Mantegna, its best Giovanni Bellini and so on. This is a unique opportunity to see some very fine Renaissance paintings that are largely unknown except to a relatively small number of dedicated experts.

The Raphael Saint Sebastian is stunning, classical and serene; the Titian is a colourful juvenile piece painted when the artist was probably about 19, the Mantegna, Saint Bernardino of Siena, again is an adolescent work, possibly painted while he was in his late teens, but is an absolutely stunning painting with sombre tempera offset with gold leaf.

The much promoted Giovanni Bellini Alzano Madonna is striking in its luminous colour use, exploiting the new medium of oils, even if the composition is somewhat awkward in its resolution, especially if one considers that the child is meant to be sitting on his mother’s lap.

The complex Botticelli composition The story of Virginia the Roman, is an interesting late painting by the master created long after he renounced his pagan works such as the Birth of Venus and the Primavera and after he had possibly embraced the teachings of the fanatical Savonarola. Envisaged as two panels to be hung together, the other being Lucretia, they are based on the classical writer Livy and his account of two Roman heroines.

In this painting, the beautiful and virtuous Virginia becomes the victim of intrigue when she rejects the sexual advances of Appius Claudius and despite her innocence she is called a slave. In order to avoid this disgrace, her father, Lucius Virginius, as an honour killing, stabs her to death. These events lead to a revolt against Rome’s tyrannical rulers and the reestablishment of the Roman Republic. It is a complex, dry, multifigured composition with some superb rear view images of horses that remind one of Uccello.

For me the greatest delight lies not only with the work by the great names, but also with the paintings by some of the less well known masters, for example, Giorgio Schiavone’s St Jerome, a breathtaking picture from the garlands above to the brilliantly painted insect below, that would make even Salvador Dali jealous.

Carlo Crivelli is one of great artists of the period, sadly still not fully recognised, and is represented with an excellent late work, Madonna and Child, c1483.

A superb Lorenzo Costa is one of the highlights of the show and there is a very strong contingent of Lorenzo Lotto paintings, portraits and religious works, including the sadly truncated The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. There is also a superb Jacopo Bassano, Madonna and child with the young John the Baptist, c1542, where the previous stability of the Renaissance now starts to dissolve into a flowing emotionalism.

This is a significant exhibition that will bring delight to all who admire exquisite paintings where the concern is with the soul as well as with pleasing the eye and informing the intellect.