Yesterday I ran into the first artwork I’ve seen from the Italian Renaissance that didn’t depict angels or Mary. Much of sculptor Tullio Lombardo’s work still remains in churches and shrines around Italy, but his pieces at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington leave the viewer wondering about characters’ identities and emotions.
The exhibit, opening to the public July 4, is small and includes mostly marble sculptures and busts. Lombardo’s work is not the only art in the display; also included are a few pieces from those who worked closely with him or were influenced by him.
Even though the art was not what I expected, I found a different type of divine presence in some of Lombardo’s work. There were two sculptures in particular in which the smooth marble made characters seem very present in form but their looks gaze up and away, indicating their focus is somewhere else.
Alison Luchs, the curator of early European sculpture at the National Gallery of Art, said by placing young beautiful nude characters close together and simultaneously having them look away from each other suggested to her the idea that physical beauty is not enough. She terms much of Lombardo’s work in the exhibit as “physically present but spiritually distant.”
In another one of Lombardo’s sculptures, again a young man is looking up into the sky instead of out into the world around him. I found the sculptures description — “Relief bust of a male saint?” — to clearly encompass the mystery Lombardo left in his artwork.
While he did become a secular artist at a time when many artists were still primarily bound to the needs of the church, Lombardo’s work still is too spiritual and too complex in composition to rule it out as strictly secular. Lombardo’s work still makes me wonder at the shift in his subject matter. Was he privately commissioned to sculpt images that were not for the church? Unlike some privately commissioned Renaissance paintings, Lombardo’s sculptures are not clear attempts at portraiture. Did some in Italy around the time of the Renaissance look past the art of the church and into more subjective art forms?
Although the gallery is displaying only about 10 pieces of Lombardo’s artwork, the exhibit raises many questions. Gallery officials say they expect Lombardo’s art to remain on display through the first of November.