“I originally became interested in the Renaissance painter Carlo Crivelli when I was an undergraduate.
Italian government sponsorship in the 1980s enabled me to work as a research fellow at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan and I also spent a lot of time in the National Gallery in London, which are the homes of the two major collections of his work.
I was particularly fascinated by Crivelli’s very smart use of trompe-l’œil, and at the time I wrote an article about the skill that enabled him to paint a bunch of grapes so realistically that birds would swoop out of the air and attempt to peck at them, or that someone looking at
his depiction of a fly would try to brush the troublesome insect away.
Crivelli completely understood the technique of fooling the viewer into thinking they were seeing something physically real and played around with it to produce what I called ‘meta trompe-l’œil’.
In this picture of the Franciscan holy man, the Blessed Gabriele Ferretti, who is having a vision of the Virgin Mary, the line of birds receding into the background in the sky and the slanting road beneath are all painted with true virtuosity to convince the viewer that this is a space that is continuous with the one you occupy.
But look at the swag of fruit – a common aesthetic device – at the top of the painting. Crivelli has quite deliberately let his drop from the top of the panel so that it actually throws a shadow on his sky.
Crivelli is saying – just like the surrealist artist René Magritte did centuries later– that this is not the sky, it’s a painting of the sky. It’s not part of the frame, it’s a very well-painted illusion.
The people who commissioned work from Crivelli didn’t ask for this sort of thing; they were concerned about what the monastic figure would look like and how the buildings dedicated to him would be depicted.
Crivelli, however, played around and probably joked with his friends in bars about the details he was adding in the margins.
That article I wrote more than half a lifetime ago wasn’t published for another six years because the academic journals reckoned my hunch that Crivelli used different kinds of space to represent different kinds of reality – both terrestrial and spiritual – was not backed up by enough evidence.
Now I’m reconnecting with art history with the exhibition of my dreams, after having been distracted by my career as, ostensibly, a curator of modern and contemporary art. And I’m delighted to have young art historians thinking along exactly the same lines as me.
Finally, there’s Crivelli’s signature that tells a story in its own right. He is aligning himself with the artists of Venice, his birthplace, but the truth is that he had to leave the city much earlier after serving a custodial sentence for adultery with the wife of a sailor.
Whenever I visit the Bridge of Sighs in Venice now, I think of the walk Crivelli took across the canal to his prison cell.”
Interview by John Holt.
Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky is at Ikon, Birmingham, until 29 May