Writing Archive

A Revel in Rome, Relived in Rotterdam

The New York Sun, March 16, 2012 (read there)

Maarten van Heemskerck is no longer considered a major painter, but his exhibition at the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam displays the mechanisms by which an assuredly major painter, Michelangelo, made his presence felt across Europe.

Van Heemskerck voyaged from Haarlem to Rome in 1532 and stayed for four or five years. During that time he developed a lifelong fascination with the Colosseum, which in his time had a grove sprouting from its top echelon. He also drew from the Sistine Ceiling. Michelangelo captivated him just as Greek sculpture captivated Michelangelo, and he spent the rest of his career inventing ways to insert heroically muscled figures into fantasias of ruined architecture.

Van Heemskerck's technique in pen and sepia wanted for nothing except, perhaps, originality. Most of his drawings are in a portfolio in Berlin and cannot travel, but the Rijksmuseum has loaned one for this exhibition that depicts the ruins of the Palatine Hill. Having delicately and observantly cross-hatched a rolling landscape of crumbling Roman archways, he flipped the paper upside down and drew a second one along the opposite edge. This was the object of the Grand Tour, after all, to study the lessons of the ancient world. The finished works intended for presentation would come at a later date.

After returning to Holland, Van Heemskerck made much of his income sending drawings out to engravers and having them worked up in a proto-Mannerist style that was not so much an innovation as an inability to work beyond what Rome had shown him. These engravers, too, were pretty pedestrian. But the resulting prints spread van Heemskerk's reputation, and Michelangelo's influence, throughout Dutch society.

From the looks of the paintings attributed to van Heemskerck, he probably farmed out most of his oils as well. One suspects two or three hands in most of them. But there's an exception, the centerpiece of this exhibition, on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It's a self-portrait in front of a painting of a bearded, cloaked man drawing the Colosseum. That man is van Heemskerck himself, and I was told by curator Peter van der Coelen that the drawing on his board has been positively identified as one in the Berlin portfolio. A trompe l'oeil piece of paper bearing the artist's signature has been tacked to the grass, letting us know that van Heemskerck is in front of a painting, not a landscape. Dr. Van der Coelen suggests that this may be the first time that someone has commemorated a tour by recording their portrait in front of a famous destination. Given all the tourists that have ever had their picture snapped in front of a landmark, this painting arguably contains the most influential pictorial innovation of all time, measured quantitatively.

That aside, it shows van Heemskerck taking reticent but justifiable pleasure in the glories of ancient Rome, recalling happy times spent drawing them. He presents himself as the unsurpassed interpreter of the Colosseum, but there's a note of humility in his expression as well. This is fitting, for the inspiration he found in Rome made him the artist that he was, for better or worse.

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