Paolo Cavazzola's Saints James the Elder, Anthony of the Caves, Andrew the Apostle, Dominic, Laurence, and Nicholas.
When the couriers from Bergamo came to the National Gallery of Australia, they revealed some amazing stories about the various paintings. Among them, I found Paolo Cavazzola's Saints James the Elder, Anthony of the Caves, Andrew the Apostle, Dominic, Laurence and Nicholas fascinating. The work is striking with its bright, early morning sky, highlighting the three-dimensional figures standing on a marble foundation. The abundantly swathed saints dominate the landscape, giving us only slight glimpses of the countryside behind them. Notice the great detail on the vestments of Saint Nicholas of Bari; the figures embroidered along the front edges and the elaborate patterning in the rich red fabric, the robe complete with black lining. Each saint holds a symbol representing his identity.
The original frames around each panel were probably ornate, but not overly large, and a rich gold in colour; a beautiful triptych that could have magnificently decorated a space above a church altar, complementing great and equally colourful stained glass windows.
It is thought that at the beginning of the 1800s, the period of the Napoleonic occupation and secularisation, the work was removed from its original quarters. The three panels were subsequently stuck together to form one work, with rigid wooden supports at the back to hold the panels flat and close to one another. It is in this state that the work arrived in the Accademia Cararra's collection. This past stress shows on the surface of each panel. It is a similar reaction to when we try to flatten a long forgotten rolled sheet of cardboard; the smooth surface becomes creased vertically where the memorised curl is pushed in the opposite direction.
Have a look at the panels from below; you will see straight vertical lines where pieces of wood are joined to form the panels and also the cracks where paint had previously lifted because of the pressure against the wood's natural curvature. The damage is less evident now after detailed conservation work. Apparently once the conservators painstakingly released the panels from their wooden shackles less than three years ago, the panels literally returned to their individual natural curvature almost right before their eyes! Each panel is of the same type of wood but has a different degree of curvature caused by having been cut from different sources.
Notice the inscription on the marble, above the parrot's head. This false signature of Cima da Conegliano dated 1515 is believed to have been added about the time the panels were stuck together in the 1800s, in order to fetch a better price when the work was being sold on the antique market. So whether the work ever hung in a Bergamo church is unknown.
The detail of the flora at the base of the marble foundation is absolutely remarkable. I'm sure plant aficionados would be able to recognise every single species because of the precise detail. And finally, notice the superb parrot, strutting on the ground among the plants. The parrot is a symbol of oratory, but they can be so cheeky and this one seems to be making a beeline for Saint Andrew's bare toes hanging over the edge of the marble step. No wonder, with the first pairs of saints' feet he walked past being all neatly hidden away. If only this parrot could talk, it could tell us more about the intriguing history of this work. Step back and look at this majestic work from further away, but don't forget to have a closer look, panel by panel. I think you will be impressed by the detail as much as I was.
Valerie Alfonzi is a Senior Registration Officer/ Art Storage at the National Gallery.
Renaissance - 15th & 16th Century Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, until April 9. Timed tickets from Ticketek.