Opinion

Carlo Crivelli

by Sophie Buckman | 23 January 2022

In 1936, Raimond Van Marle dismissed the work of quattrocento painter Carlo Crivelli as ‘quaint, strange, fantastic and often the reverse of real,’ and his figures ‘neither mystical, soft nor tender […] often angular and certainly never suave’. Modern sensibilities might understand this as faint praise; however, he goes on: ‘his art on the whole is not devoid of a certain monotony, and notwithstanding his clever achievements, we cannot actually classify him among the really great figures of the Italian Renaissance. Moreover, like all those who adhered to a convention he has contributed nothing to the further evolution of painting’. Ouch. Van Marle sees in Crivelli a ‘strange and personal artistic temperament,’ yet finds in its forceful consistency a monotony worth castigation. In his condemnation, Van Marle unwittingly identifies the very same features which would lead Susan Sontag to remark nearly 30 years later: ‘Camp is the paintings of Carlo Crivelli, with their real jewels and trompe-l'oeil insects and cracks in the masonry’.

 

Since its publication, Sontag’s Notes on Camp has been criticised, expanded, and misinterpreted to the point of cultural saturation. Its modest title anticipates its inadequacy in defining a term as slippery and evasive as “Camp”. A few features of Sontag’s sketchy definition are: exaggeration, ‘the spirit of extravagance’, the prioritising of artifice over meaning, and a ‘consistently aesthetic experience of the world’. Camp is an aesthetic, performance, and lens, evoked through naïve failure of seriousness, or consciously projected through flamboyance. If this linguistic fol-de-rol wasn’t evidence enough, Camp is too visceral to define, and in doing so it loses its lustre. It is a sort of sexual tension - once you speak it into existence, the fun is gone. I would even describe it as pre-linguistic, but that would be sickeningly un-Camp of me. Sontag recognises this conundrum: ‘To talk about camp is therefore to betray it.’  

The best demonstrations of Camp are by example. Sontag gives us a few: Tiffany lamps, Aubrey Beardsley drawings, and the speeches of de Gaulle are Camp. The operas of Wagner, the drawings of Blake, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, are not. Her broad strokes and seemingly arbitrary divisions (Wagner’s operas but not his overtures?) have been widely discussed, however once one acquires ‘the Camp eye,’ such categorisation feels inevitable. Once Pontormo, Caravaggio and de La Tour are viewed as Camp, it’s oh so easy to stamp the label onto any and all works of art, sorting them mentally into two camps, ‘HERE BE CAMP’ and ‘HERE BE… the rest.’ Soon there is a great line down the middle of art history, and the canon is at war like the star-bellied sneetches. Without questioning the value of this binary, let’s ask rather where Carlo Crivelli falls in this register.

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Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, 1486. Tempera and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm. The National Gallery, London.

Carlo Crivelli was born in Venice c.1430, and worked most of his life in the Marches, and variously in Dalmatia and Padua. His extant paintings are all religious, mostly in tempera and very occasionally oil. In 1457 he was arrested in Venice for an affair with a fisherman’s wife, and he died around 1495. These are the only things we can say of Crivelli’s life with a degree of certainty. Many place the blame for the lack of biography on Giorgio Vasari, who omitted Crivelli from his Lives in favour of a Florentine focus, leading Crivelli to languish in relative obscurity until he enjoyed a small renaissance in the nineteenth century. Now Crivelli is widely accepted to have been worked in the Paduan workshop of Francesco Squarcione, perhaps at the same time as Andrea Mantegna, whose sinewy figures on the San Zeno Altarpiece (1457) are reminiscent of Crivelli’s own. Where Crivelli differs from the ‘Squarcionesques,’ and indeed from his Venetian contemporaries, is in that thread of uncanniness and fantasy, identified by Van Marle, which runs through his corpus.

 

This unique style is visible in his most famous work, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486), now in the National Gallery’s extensive catalogue of Crivelli’s paintings. Here the Annunciation is set in the town of Ascoli Piceno, and the Archangel Gabriel is accompanied by their patron saint, Emidius. At the bottom of the scene reads: ‘LIBERTAS ECCLESIASTICA,’ the title of the papal bull which granted Ascoli its right to (limited) self-government, issued on the day of the Feast of the Annunciation 1482. Here Crivelli celebrates the freedom of this town by distilling (or transforming) its essence into a wondrous theatrical landscape, as he assaults the senses with celebratory textures and colours. The perspective of the work is at once adept and unsettling, as figures of various sizes rub shoulders in an Escher-like cityscape. The scene is static in its almost enamelled sheen, yet is in constant movement; a rug flaps in the breeze, birds ruffle their feathers, and a holy ray cuts through cloud and stone and into the Virgin’s head.

 

Pre-empting the Baroque, Crivelli uses exuberant colour and artifice to celebrate the divine. But in doing so, he translates the story of the Annunciation into a dolls-house setting, mirroring the model city in the hand of Saint Emidius. In this recurring motif, Crivelli draws attention to the fabrication of his painted worlds, drawing back the curtain and positioning himself as creator. That is what is Camp about Crivelli, these rhetorical flourishes which do enrich the meaning of his works but do more to demonstrate his own skills. Another example of this is the ‘cracks in the masonry’ which Sontag uses to define Crivelli’s Campness. These recur in Crivelli’s work, and are a feature which Ronald Lightbown finds to be ‘an expression of […] illusionistic virtuosity and […] romantic antiquarianism’. These senses of spectacle and nostalgia are typical of Sontag’s Camp.

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Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child (the Lenti Madonna), 1480. Tempera and gold on wood, 37.8 x 25.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Cracked masonry is a feature of what is probably the most Camp of Crivelli’s work, the Lenti Madonna. Of Crivelli’s litany of Madonnas, this one boasts unmatched clarity and refinement. Here Madonna and child are framed by a Netherlandish landscape, and a series of tromp-l’oeil details such as the small buzzing fly, and the paper cartellino which Crivelli uses to sign his name. This is another feature of Crivelli’s work, this ‘OPUS CARLO CRIVELLI VENETI’ signature which he uses, constantly proclaiming his status as a Venetian despite by all accounts working in the provincial Marches for most of his life. Both paper and fly here seem to be pinned more to the surface of the panel than the scene within it. In one of the most famous anecdotes from Vasari’s Lives, and indeed from the Italian Renaissance, Giotto fools his master Cimabue with a tromp l-oeil fly, leading Cimabue to attempt to swat it away several times. Norman Land even argues that here Crivelli executes a similar feat, and while the symbolic resonances of the fly (Beezlebub, the plague, death, etc.) are evident, it’s also symptomatic of the playfulness and boastfulness of Crivelli’s Camp aesthetics.

 

Perhaps the Campest icon in the Lenti Madonna is the gargantuan cucumber which dangles suggestively over the baby Jesus’s head. Here Crivelli transforms the swags and garlands typical of Mantegna and the Paduan school into a wreath of oversized vegetables. These fruits and vegetables are omnipresent in Crivelli’s work, always purporting to symbolise the Fall, or the Fruit of Mary’s womb. The symbolic fruits are fantastical and a defining feature of Crivelli’s oeuvre, and his cucumbers are almost a trademark. In the Annunciation, one projects over the stone ledge, again drawing attention outside of the framing of the scene, and casting a playful shadow over the word ‘LIBERTAS.’ Of course, I’ve been dancing around it, but Crivelli’s cucumbers are sometimes too phallic to ignore. Take a look at the central panel of the Camerino Triptych (1482). Undeniably phallic. The main criticism of Sontag’s Notes on Camp is its sanitised erasure of sex and the queer identity, which are inextricably linked to Camp and its history. Many of Crivelli’s paintings sport glimmers of suggestiveness and innuendo, and whether played unwittingly or consciously, they underpin his Camp aesthetics. Crivelli’s cucumbers apparently allude to some extrapolation of the biblical tale of Jonah and a gourd and represent by all accounts ‘a symbol of Christ’s resurrection’. By modern standards, the semiotic gap between the raising from the dead of Jesus of Nazareth, son of God, Salvator Mundi, etc. etc. and a gherkin, is so wonderfully camp. Moreso when said gherkin juts out of the frame like the most ostentatious of early modern codpieces.

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Carlo Crivelli, Camerino Triptych (Triptych of Saint Domenico), 1482. Tempera on Panel, 542 x 203 cm. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

I think my personal favourite Crivelli is typical of his Campness. Saint Roch (1480) is one of his many surviving panels depicting a single saint, however it’s one of the few which isn’t framed by lashings of Byzantine influenced gold leaf. Crivelli paints Saint Roch in his status as amulet against the plague, in one of the first recorded depictions of the fourteenth century saint. His figure is wiry and serpentine, and his dress and hair evocative of Northern Medieval styles. His face is scored by lines and veins, which are reflected in the textured fabric of the work. Saint Roch is a figure of mystical solemnity; however here he oozes Camp. Looking beyond his resemblance to a deformed Crane brother, his sultry, brooding gaze and contrapposto exposure of his plague scar are just so enigmatic. The seriousness of the panel fails, the inherently sombre context of plague and death are superseded by the force of Crivelli’s style. This is Camp. Crivelli’s works are suggestive, ostentatious and driven by a spectacular style. These features, which led Van Marle to declaim Crivelli as odd, unsuccessful, and perhaps deranged (‘That Crivelli's mind was normal does not seem to be likely’) are the same which ooze that most indefinable sensibility: Camp.

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Carlo Crivelli, Saint Roch, 1480. Tempera and oil on panel, 40 x 12.1 cm. The Wallace Collection, London.

Bibliography

Raimond Van Marle, The Development Of The Italian Schools Of Painting. Vol. XVIII (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1936)

 

Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp (1964)

 

Ronald Lighbown, Carlo Crivelli (Yale University Press, 2004)

 

Normal Land ‘Giotto’s Fly, Cimabue’s Gesture, and a "Madonna and Child" by Carlo Crivelli,’ Notes in the History of Art, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Summer 1996)