Lusieri’s luminous horizons

Lacco on Ischia

When the clouds return and the sky darkens I recommend a visit to the Scottish National Gallery to see the quite literally brilliant works of Italian landscape painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri.

The Gallery's Expanding Horizons exhibition is the first ever devoted to the artist. During his lifetime, 1754–1821, Lusieri was regarded as one of the most gifted of landscape artists, but his name was rather forgotten as art took a new direction in the 19th century.

The exhibition showcases scenes painted in and around Rome, Naples and Athens. As one might expect from a painter of that period working in those locations there's a focus on the ruins of classical antiquity: there are plenty of ruined temples, shattered urns and corinthian columns. But that's rather incidental: there's absolutely none of the melancholy fustiness that so often obscures paintings of the later 18th century: when I entered the exhibition I was immediately drawn to the brilliant light shining through the canvases.

Panorama of Palermo and the Conca d'Oro from Monreale

The best paintings are like windows onto shimmering Meditteranean landscapes. They capture the essence of that hazy, luminous, beautiful blue light that overwhelms you when you visit one of those countries, which is somehow so much more intense than even the brightest day of a British summer.

The paintings have the same quality of light as the impressionist works of the later 19th century, but they retain a classical stress on detail. If you look at them closely you'll see that the landscapes, architecture and figures are articulated with painstaking accuracy. Close up the paintings have the quality of jewel like miniatures, somewhat like a medieval book of hours. Viewed from a distance they are luminous panoramas with - curiously - something of the same quality as Mark Rothko's glowing abstracts.

Castel Sant'Angelo and St Peter's from the Tiber

An interesting detail from the exhibition notes is that Lusieri ended his career as Lord Elgin's resident artist and agent in Athens, in which capacity he helped supervise the removal and shipping of the friezes from the Parthenon, now in the British Museum.

The exhibition runs till the 28 October, and for maximum impact is best visited on a rainy day!

Greek Double Urn

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