New perspectives on Old Masters: the Alana Collection traces ‘the beginning of the modern world as we know it’
Highlights from the sale of the iconic collection — from Fra Angelico to lesser-known gems of profound historical significance
Renowned by scholars and collectors alike, the Alana Collection — expertly built over the past several decades — encapsulates the history of Italian art over the course of two millennia through works that are as prescient today as when they were created. Featuring a curated survey of Late Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque paintings and sculpture, as well as museum-quality Antiquities, the collection is lauded not just for its masterpieces by likes of Fra Angelico and Orazio Gentileschi but also for its exceptional breadth, threading key art historical turning points with objects of fascinating provenance.
On 9 June, Christie’s New York will proudly offer Old Masters | New Perspectives: Masterworks from The Alana Collection. Jonquil O’Reilly, Speciaist and Head of Sale in Christie's Old Masters department, recently sat down with Keith Christiansen, Curator Emeritus, European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to discuss the transformations of the Italian Renaissance as shown through paintings in the collection and how his perspective as a scholar influences the way he looks at art.
Jonquil O’Reilly: The Alana Collection is pretty breathtaking — I remember having to gather myself the first time I walked into the apartment to visit. Can you describe your first encounter with it?
Keith Christiansen: I remember I was quite overwhelmed. It's a unique collection, encompassing not only masterpieces but an entire historical period. It was put together with the objective of showcasing the richness and the variety of art that was executed during the 14th and 15th centuries, particularly in Florence. From there, it expanded. One of the great pleasures that I received from the collection was watching it grow over the years, from the core group of early Florentine Renaissance pictures to the inclusion of Italian painting throughout the 17th century.
When I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I would get messages from colleagues in Italy and France, who were coming to New York, asking, ‘Can we get in to see the Alana Collection?’ It’s such an unusual collection, in terms of the range of works it covers, from Bernardo Daddi in the 14th century through Fra Angelico in the 15th century to Bartolomeo Manfredi in the late 17th century. This richness of presentation has established the Alana Collection in the minds of both collectors and scholars.
JOR: The collection bridges so many art historical themes; it’s rich territory for academics and enthusiasts alike. There was also a determination on the part of the collectors to track down elements of works that had been disseminated, which is really satisfying to see.
KC: Yes, the collector had a unique desire to reunite artworks that had been dispersed over time. One example from the sale is Domenico di Michelino’s beautiful series of five predella panels. Four of them were purchased together, but the other had to be found and re-joined.
Another distinguishing factor about the collection is that it was formed by an individual who was willing to look beyond the big art historical names and was really interested in artistic importance, the character of individual artists and putting things in a broader historical context.
The collection includes many of the great artists of the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, but it also moves beyond those common bounds. Take, for example, the altarpiece by Luca Cambiaso, a leading figure in 16th-century Genoa. This work stopped me in my tracks. This altarpiece of extraordinary provenance was a very important work in Cambiaso's career and is mentioned in the various guidebooks and biographies that we have on the artist. This is a work of enormous historical importance, and that's characteristic of the collection.
It’s not the sort of work you expect to see in a private collection. It belongs in a museum because of its importance in relation to the history of a patron. We know the exact church it came from — Santa Brigida in Genoa — and the chapel, it sat on: above the third altar on the righthand aisle, one dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. We've read in guidebooks that it held great prestige in Genoa. To see a private collector acquiring works of museum quality like this was a real treat.
JOR: I really enjoyed reading those Genoese guidebook excerpts! As Head of Sale, I’m probably not supposed to have favourites, but I confess to being particularly excited about spending time with a few of these in particular... I’m curious to know which other works in the collection you were drawn to?
KC: They cover a wide range because what resonated with me was precisely the variety and the unexpected. The Fra Angelico, which I was shown in Paris when it was first discovered, is exquisite. It’s a small picture, something that must always have been viewed as a precious object. I love precious objects.
There's another picture that fits the same category. It's by a lesser-known artist, but one who was quite important in the city of Ferrara, where he worked for the state court: Garofolo — a beautiful early nativity of his, which has an exquisiteness to it that is absolutely appealing. If you turn the picture over, it has this extraordinary design on the back, filled with arabesque decorations, which give you a clue that this must have been a very prestigious work for private devotion. Something that was meant to be held in your hand, that kind of intimate relationship. I love pictures like this.
Moving to the 17th century, there's Guido Reni’s painting of Saint Apollonia. This picture was painted for Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, who was one of the great patrons of the early 17th century, including of Caravaggio. Reni’s work is on copper, so it has an elegance, a beauty of surface, and the character of it is simply marvelous. The subject is a dialectic between a tortured woman and the man who's torturing her. While the story is difficult, the picture is absolutely of the highest quality and of extraordinarily beautiful character.
JOR: You mentioned one of the outstanding features of the Alana Collection is the way it encompasses a historical moment, when the world was profoundly changing.
KC: It’s the defining moment for all Western art that was to follow — 14th and 15th-century Florence. The transformation of European painting begins with Giotto and runs through to Michelangelo. Giotto, as his early admirers said, took painting from the world of Byzantine icons and gave it a completely new life — announcing the beginning of the Renaissance.
The collection documents this moment in the most remarkable way because in addition to masterpieces, it includes works that highlight the transformations that were going on in society, in terms of private patronage, private devotion, paintings for confraternities, paintings to decorate not only churches but private dwellings, paintings that reflect not only commissions, but works done on spec for sale on the market. This means that, of course, the artists range from those that are very well-known — Fra Angelico, Guido Reni, Orazio Gentileschi — to those who will be unfamiliar to the general public, each of whom, however, brought a particular voice to this transformational moment in Western art.
This moment was initiated not only by Giotto’s painting, but by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and beyond that it's the moment of great commercial banking activity. Europe becomes an urban cosmopolitan economy, and the art responded to that shift in a remarkable way. It’s the beginning of the modern world as we know it.
JOR: Even those works that date much later, to the early 17th century, capture a pivotal moment. Take the Manfredi and the Gentileschi, painted from life, using models recognizable as everyday people — these were major innovations.
KC: Manfredi's wonderful picture of drinkers and gamblers epitomizes the new world of the early 17th century. When Rome, as the center of artistic production, drew artists from throughout Europe, many of these arriving artists had very little training and no letters of recommendation to give them a start. They banded together and lived a bohemian life. It sounds a lot like 19th-century Paris.
These artists brought to their pictures this extraordinary bohemian lifestyle, the life of the streets. And it immediately fascinated aristocratic collectors, who wanted to bring depictions of this counterculture movement into their homes. Manfredi's picture fascinated people precisely because it ran against the grain. It was outside the bounds of aristocratic collectors’ normal lifestyle.
In the 17th century, both Manfredi and Gentileschi were crucial to the chapter of painting opened up by Caravaggio. There's a very beautiful Madonna and Child by Gentileschi in the collection.
Gentileschi had been a late practitioner of Mannerism. His works were stiff, mannered, uninspiring. But when he saw Caravaggio's work — which was based on the direct study of nature, painting with a model directly before him — it transformed his whole trajectory. When this picture was painted, which I believe was around 1606 or 1607, he was in the first flush of his embrace of Caravaggio's style. These works have a new kind of humanity to them, and this, he passed on to his daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Today, Caravaggio looms so large over all of 17th-century painting that we sometimes forget that he established the groundwork for the next generation of artists. Orazio Gentileschi was actually older than Caravaggio, so he's an example of an artist who comes from a ‘pre-Caravaggio’ training who recognized of revolution and moved on.
JOR: Can you describe how your scholarly approach informs your perspective when you look at works like these? Does your mind leap immediately to historical and academic importance, or do you allow yourself a moment to revel on an aesthetic level?
KC: Experiencing the Alana Collection as a scholar, I always have two things going on in my mind: one is the sheer pleasure of looking at wonderful works of art, whether it's the Reni, or the Gentileschi... Then my mind shifts when I see the Domenico di Michelino put together in the series of predella panels. I wonder: Do we know what this was painted for? Can we match up the altarpiece? What do we know about the church it may have come from? It inspires a series of historical questions. Both of those levels are always at work when you encounter a collection as rich as that of the Alana Collection: awe and curiosity.