Renaissance masterpieces leave Italy for first time to show in Paris

The collection includes a portrait of Saint Sebastian considered one of the finest works by Andrea Mantegna

A collection of Renaissance masterpieces, many of them never seen outside Italy, have gone on display in Paris in an exhibition described as a “rare and extraordinary experience”.

The paintings, sculptures and bronzes are from one of Venice’s most beautiful but little-visited museums, which has closed for renovation.

Star of the exhibition is the 15th-century painting of Saint Sebastian by the early Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna– the artist’s final work that has never left northern Italy – as well as paintings by Tintoretto and Titian.

Until now, the 70 works have been on permanent show at the Ca’d’Oro on Venice’s Grand Canal – now closed for restoration – as part of a lifetime’s collection bequeathed to the Italian state by an art enthusiast, Giorgio Franchetti. Philippe Malgouyres, an art historian who is curator of the exhibition and also curator of art objects at the Louvre, described the Paris exhibition as a moving and rare event.

“Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian has never left Italy since it was painted. There is so much going on in this painting but very little was known about it before Franchetti bought it. It’s a beautiful painting but harsh. It shows Sebastian standing of his own free will – not even tied but resigned to whatever bad fortune, whatever fate brings him. It’s the abstraction of human life and fate.”

Andrea Mantegna’s painting of Saint Sebastian
Andrea Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian. Photograph: © Venice, Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro, courtesy of the Ministero della Cultura. Photography by Matteo De Fina/x

Malgouyres said the Franchetti collection was symbolic of the triumph of Venice, an industrial city that had no historical connection with antiquity, in proving that money from commerce could be used to acquire history, beauty and artistic renown.

“Venetians are reputed to be sparing with their money but they spent lavishly when it came to the beauty of their city; it was whatever it cost,” he said.

He said the rarely seen Mantegna painting overshadowed even the works by better-known masters. “There are works by Titian and Tintoretto [in the exhibition] that are good, but you can see better in Paris. The Mantegna, however, is truly beyond everything else.”

Mantegna, born in about 1431 near Padua, painted the early Christian saint Sebastian three times. The work on display in Paris, known as the Saint Sebastian of Venice, was his ultimate masterpiece and was in his studio at the time of his death in 1506.

The painting shows Sebastian’s “first martyrdom”, in which he is bound to a stake and condemned to death by archers’ arrows, but miraculously lives. His luck did not hold out, however. History has it that he was later clubbed to death and his body thrown in a sewer.

In Mantegna’s third painting the atmosphere is sombre, showing Sebastian’s body pierced by arrows and twisting in agony. The painting includes a guttering candle and motto: “Nothing is stable except the divine. The rest is smoke.” Art historians have remarked on its pessimism, citing it as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of human life and suffering.

Mantegna, son-in-law of Jacopo Bellini, one of the founders of the Renaissance style of Venice, is believed to have embarked on this portrait of Sebastian for one of his protectors, but after his death his heirs put it up for sale.

The exhibition also includes a 16th-century portrait by Tintoretto, a 15th-century Titian, as well as works by Pisanello, Alessandro Vittoria, Bartolomeo Bellano and Andrea Riccio from the Ca’ d’Oro collection.

The Ca’ d’Oro, also known as the Palazzo Santa Sofia or “golden house”, is a late Gothic palace that sits on the Grand Canal. Its collection was brought together in the early 20th century by Baron Franchetti, the last owner of the palace, who bequeathed it along with his collection to the Italian state on his death in 1916.

The exhibition is organised by the Al Thani collection foundation – in collaboration with official French and Italian cultural authorities – that has taken over the Hotel de la Marine in Paris in a long-term agreement with the French government

The Ca’ d’Oro: Masterpieces of the Renaissance in Venice at the Hotel de la Marine, Paris, runs until 26 March 2023


Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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