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Irresistible El Greco

El Griego de Toledo [The Greek of Toledo]

an exhibition at the Museo de Santa Cruz and other venues, Toledo, Spain, March 14–June 14, 2014
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Fernando Marías
Madrid: El Viso, 320 pp., €56.00
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Parish of Santo Tomé, Toledo
El Greco: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586–1588

For many of the four hundred years since the death of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, the artist known to his Spanish neighbors as El Greco, his work was regarded with the same disdain as that of his younger contemporary Caravaggio. If Caravaggio’s detractors vowed that, as Poussin put it, he had “come into the world to ruin painting,” the Greek who made his career in the land of Don Quixote was “contemptible and ridiculous, as much for the disjointed drawing as for the insipid colors.” In the nineteenth century, El Greco’s monumental Burial of the Count of Orgaz lay rolled up and despised in a basement of the Toledan church of Santo Tomé, the venue for which he had painted it in 1586–1588 (and where it hangs again today in glory).

In the early twentieth century, the Benedictine sisters in the convent of Santo Domingo de Silos sold their altarpiece, an El Greco Assumption of the Virgin, to a Chicago art collector, just like many other Toledans who decided to unload their ugly, inconvenient canvases on wealthy foreigners just before the tides of taste began to turn. One Castilian count liquidated his El Greco to invest in a collection of contemporary art—yet it was modern painters who first began to open their eyes, and ours, to the color, the fantastic imagination, and the supreme elegance that “the Greek” brought to his work. By 1914, the three hundredth anniversary of his death, he could count admirers like Delacroix, Manet, Picasso, Miguel de Unamuno, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Benigno de la Vega-Inclán, who created the Museo del Greco in Toledo in 1911. The pintor extravagante, no longer an embarrassment, had become a guiding light.

The year 1914 was not an auspicious time to mount an international exhibition, as Europe prepared for self-lacerating war. One hundred years later, the continent may be racked by economic crisis, but it is a united Europe, in which all of the countries through which El Greco passed share the same currency and the same problems; furthermore, it was only Greece, Italy, and Spain together that could have made him an artist of such universal scope as well as startling individuality.

For the fourth centenary of El Greco’s death, the city of Toledo and a special foundation called El Greco 2014 have gathered together icons and paintings on canvas from twenty-eight countries for a comprehensive exhibition that stands alongside several grand creations that have managed to survive in their original venues, both in Toledo and in the sanctuary of Illescas, halfway between Toledo and Madrid (these two cities are now connected by a quick, comfortable high-speed train). The exhibition, “El Griego de Toledo,” curated by Fernando Marías, occupies the ground floor of all four wings of Toledo’s monumental Museo de Santa Cruz, a former convent spacious enough to give even the largest works room to soar, and to absorb crowds of visitors comfortably under its vaults.

If El Greco is still an acquired taste for many people, the best place to acquire that taste is in Toledo, the city where his artistry reached its full development, from his luminous, phantasmagoric painting to the solid, surprisingly classical works of sculpture and architecture to which he also put his hand. El Greco’s imagination needs to be matched against the colossal scale of Toledo’s buildings, and only in Toledo can we see how carefully his fantastic cloudscapes, in heaven and on earth, drew from the shifting drama taking place in the atmosphere above his head.

Yet a man who spent the first half of his life on Crete could never erase the memory of the sun-saturated colors of the Greek islands, and they recur in his work: the aquamarine of Aegean waters, the incandescent yellow of the wild daisies that carpet Cretan fields in early summer, the ravishing delicate violet of crown anemones that he transferred to the shawl that wraps around a redheaded Mary Magdalene in a gorgeous early painting that dies when it is reproduced: no printer’s ink can reproduce that fantastic mauve (or the cornflower blue of the sky above it) with anything resembling accuracy. El Greco in Toledo is irresistibly, simply glorious, an immigrant who fit as well as any other immigrant into a city built from the mingling of Arab, Jewish, and Christian cultures.

Despite his nickname, the Greek never called himself a Greek; he signed his paintings as “Krês”—Cretan. At least since the Bronze Age, the largest of the Greek islands has always been a world unto itself, culturally and politically. In the sixteenth century, with most of the mainland under Ottoman rule, Crete stood out as a venerable colony of Venice, ruled since 1212 by a military garrison that may have made up one tenth of the island’s population in El Greco’s day. By then, centuries of coexistence had blurred many of the initial distinctions between the resident Venetian aristocracy and the native Greek middle class, creating a remarkable blend of arts, music, customs, languages, and religious rites, especially in Candia, the capital city, where the artist was born into a merchant family, most probably in 1541 or 1542.

His elder brother Manuel, nicknamed Manousos, served the Venetians as a tax collector, at least until bankruptcy drove him late in life to seek refuge with his brother in Toledo. El Greco painted him then as an elderly man swathed in lynx with a silver hoop dangling from his left ear, an exotic presence among the black-clad Spaniards with their carefully tended goatees above elaborate ruffs of starched and pleated lace. The Theotokopoulos brothers seem to have set up house on their own fairly early, suggesting that their parents must have died when Domenikos was still a young man. They belonged to a native Cretan bourgeoisie that lived comfortably, though clearly not without financial risk.

Set among remnants of the Byzantine past on the route that linked the Sublime Porte of Istanbul with the Italian West, sixteenth-century Candia created its own distinctive culture, what is sometimes called the “Cretan Renaissance.” The Venetian governors built their forts and public buildings in Italian style; books and prints spread Italian ideas about art and architecture. But the islanders of Crete also cultivated the legacy of Byzantine Greece in art, poetry, church architecture, and religious rites, painfully aware that the Ottoman Empire might take them over as Constantinople had been taken in 1453. Navies swarmed the seas around Crete, flying the flags of Venice, Genoa, the Sublime Porte, and the Knights of Malta, and in the middle decades of the sixteenth century there was no way of knowing which side would win.

The Cretan Renaissance blossomed, then, with all the urgency of imminent doom, producing eminent scholars, most of whom emigrated to Venice, and two individuals of transcendent talent: the great artist Domenikos Theotokopoulos and the greatest Greek writer of the period, Vintzentzos Kornaros (1553–1613/4). Kornaros, despite his Venetian name (Vincenzo Cornaro), almost certainly spoke Greek as his first language, and his most important works are two long, beautiful poems in the Italian-inflected Cretan version of that language, incorporating echoes of Ariosto and Virgil (and perhaps even Giordano Bruno) as well as Homer into a Byzantine poetic meter.

His ten-thousand-line epic romance, Erotokritos, composed around 1600, would become an enduring symbol of Greekness when Crete finally did fall to the Ottomans in 1669. Set to an instrumental accompaniment of lute and Renaissance viol that combines Venetian instruments with Byzantine tonalities, Erotokritos was still sung by Cretan resistance fighters in World War II in the same way that classical Greek soldiers once sang the Iliad, and is recited from memory today by Greek rappers as well as traditional balladeers. But Vintzentzos Kornaros also wrote poetry in Italian and Latin, and his brother Andreas established an Italian-style gentleman’s academy in Candia that counted the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Marino among its members when Marino served as a mercenary soldier for the Venetian Republic.

As Fernando Marías notes in his welcome new monograph, El Greco: Life and Work—A New History, the litterati of Candia inhabited a different world from the artists and artisans, separated by the gap between a scholarly, philosophical education and practical training in a professional skill. Yet the unknown Cretan icon painters who instructed the young Domenikos Theotokopoulos in their sacred craft also took part in the Cretan Renaissance, experimenting with new ways to combine Byzantine grace with a Western spatial sense, scouring the marketplace of Candia for exotic new colors to apply to their gilded panels of poplar wood: teal blue, terra-cotta pink, varying shades of gold leaf.

Cretan icons are nearly always recognizable for their experimental quality, but they seldom look alike. Marías observes, however, that the borrowings are largely a matter of form rather than engagement with underlying ideas. El Greco was unique, he argues, in wanting to understand Western style from the inside out. As a precocious inductee into the painters’ guild, the younger Theotokopoulos brother may never have had access to the humanistic education of Vintzentzos Kornaros (whom Marías does not mention, though he draws an excellent comprehensive picture of cultural life in Renaissance Crete), but the Greek had something just as good: a penetrating curiosity that would lead him in the same directions, to the same realms of the spirit and intellect. In the Venetian hinterland, his Italian friend Andrea Palladio was following a similar self-educated path.

One of the three surviving icons signed by the young Domenikos Theotokopoulos shows Saint Luke, the patron saint of artists, finishing a portrait of the Virgin Mary in a formal Byzantine style, with fine gilt lines to emphasize the folds in her wine-red mantle and the highlights of her long-nosed, aristocratic face. Luke, on the other hand, shifts on his chair, moving in three dimensions like the miniature angel who hovers before him, unfurling a banderole with a faint inscription. At the very beginning of his career, then, El Greco is already playing two artistic traditions and two moods against each other: heavenly calm against earthly agitation as well as West against East. It is a contrast to which he will return again and again, in different materials, different styles, and different media.

If some of the Greek’s exceptional cultural curiosity came from his Cretan heritage, so, in all probability, did his lifelong love of litigation. Candia, as a stop on the route from the Levant to Venice, was a hotbed of hagglers, for exotic commodities and for the captives that Ottomans, Venetians, Genoese, and Knights of Malta brought ashore for ransom. One of the handful of documents that survive from El Greco’s Cretan years settles a lawsuit by arbitration. Another records him as an icon painter (sgouraphos), and a third suggests that he had already established a household in his early twenties. By 1568, another document shows that he has moved to Venice. He could have seen at least one painting by Titian in Candia; in Venice, he met Titian himself.

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Toledo Cathedral
El Greco: The Disrobing of Christ, 1577–1579

Icon painters work with egg tempera on gesso-coated, gilded wooden boards, a technique that permits minute strokes of tiny brushes and produces hard, smooth surfaces with the suggestion of an inner glow. Titian excelled at fresco and panel painting, but he mostly worked with oil paints on coarse-woven canvas, using his fingers as well as a range of brushes to create peaks and blotches of paint that sometimes resolve into intelligible figures only when seen from a distance.

The luster of oil made it an ideal medium for conveying the sheen of velvet or the twinkle of an eye, though El Greco’s three early icons already show him striving to achieve the same effects in tempera, experimenting with silvery white highlights on drapery and exposed flesh. His icons are exquisite miniatures, but in Venice, painters like Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto were working large, on huge altarpieces and the monumental decorations for the doge’s palace.

The Greek adapted, first to the new medium of oil, and then to the change in scale. He experimented early on with two small, detailed versions of an agitated Western-style scene, Christ driving the moneychangers from the Temple of Jerusalem. In both paintings, the sacrificial pigeons and rabbits have taken advantage of the chaos to escape as Jesus flails away at the shopkeepers with a whip; in the lower right-hand corner of one panel, a lone lamb lies placidly, still trussed for slaughter, a harbinger of what will happen shortly to Jesus himself.

In the other version of the work, the portraits of four men occupy the lamb’s place: Titian, Michelangelo, the Dalmatian miniaturist Giulio Clovio, and a clean-shaven younger man with long hair who looks rather like self-portraits of Raphael. Marías argues that the youth, with coarser features and a longer nose than handsome Raphael, is probably meant to be the Greek himself, paying homage to the artists he regarded as his new teachers (though he may be thinking of Raphael as well). Michelangelo had died a few years before, in 1564, but Titian and Clovio were very much alive, and paying close attention to the young man from Candia who uses this little panel to announce both his sensational ambitions and his sensational abilities.

Titian may have been El Greco’s model, but the Cretan’s adventurous handling of oil paint also reflects his close study of Tintoretto, whose bold, brilliant slashes of paint could even imitate the falling rain. The painter of icons tried his hand at portraiture, exchanging the supernal faces of Christ and his All Holy Mother (as she is called in Greek) for the imperfect details of personality. His skill as a Western painter swiftly proved as exceptional as his skill as a creator of holy images whose every movement of the brush had been an act of prayer. From Tintoretto, especially, he learned to use black, to darken his reds, and to model figures in three dimensions. Icon painters worked up from pure color to light; in Venice, El Greco began to paint darkness as well.

Venice must be the place where he began to collect books, most of them in Greek and Italian. His library numbered more than 130 volumes, more than ten times the number of Caravaggio’s, half the number owned by Gianlorenzo Bernini, one fifth the size of the library amassed by the architect Francesco Borromini. El Greco not only bought books; he also read them carefully, writing his own thoughts in their margins. Fernando Marías rightly suggests that there can be no more intimate glimpse into an artist’s working methods.

The purchases are those of an intellectually ambitious all-around artist, not just a painter. El Greco bought a copy of the new revised edition of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1568) and filled its margins with notes written in Italian. He also bought Daniele Barbaro’s edition of Vitruvius with illustrations by Andrea Palladio, as well as Palladio’s own treatise on architecture. He must have felt some immediate sense of kinship with Palladio, who had begun life as a stonecutter and only began to acquire his education at the age of thirty. He also admired Palladio’s architecture, with its clear classical lines and its suggestion of titanic forces surging just beneath the surface. Like Michelangelo before him, Palladio knew how to bring architecture to life by throwing in a curve, an asymmetry, an oversized ornament, some element just strange enough to transform a placid, predictable design into something uncanny. El Greco understood, and eventually designed the huge ornamental Spanish frames called retablos in the same spirit.

In Venice, too, the Greek could examine sculpture, both antique and contemporary, an art form virtually absent from Byzantine churches. He must have seen ancient statues in Candia, but we have no idea what they might have been, and he knew nothing at all about the Minoan civilization of Bronze Age Crete, however closely many of the women he eventually painted seem to share their pert profiles, their raven hair, and their captivating grace. It seems strange now that a Greek, of all people, should have had to discover the classical world in Italy.

From Venice, El Greco moved on to Rome in 1570. There, on Clovio’s recommendation, he joined the entourage of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, taking up residence at Palazzo Farnese in the center of the Eternal City. For the next seven years, he made good friends in Rome but failed to please the cardinal. To be sure, the Farnese were an old aristocratic family, wealthy, powerful, intellectually inclined, and supremely generous as patrons, but their collective taste ran to big, ostentatious displays; they owned the Baths of Caracalla and its colossal statuary as well as much of the Palatine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum, and their palazzi could be as gaudy as any ancient Roman emperor’s. The Greek may also have made an unsatisfactory courtier, accustomed as he was to the comparatively egalitarian principles of the Venetian Republic and the Greek Orthodox Church.

Cardinal Farnese may have failed to see the point of El Greco, but Fulvio Orsini, his librarian, certainly did. Orsini owned at least seven paintings by the Greek, including the affectionate portrait of Clovio that hangs in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. In 1572, the Cretan painter joined the prestigious artists’ guild of Rome, but in the next few years he received no major commissions, and eventually Cardinal Farnese dismissed him. By the spring of 1577, he was bound for Spain, the wealthiest power in Europe, and the court of King Philip II, hoping, clearly, that this famous admirer of Titian might feel the same way about the master’s recent protégé. Philip failed to respond, but the Greek made an impression on Diego de Castilla, dean of Toledo Cathedral, and in Toledo the wandering Cretan finally found his home.

Toledo offered El Greco a steady stream of commissions, but the peculiarities of the place also stimulated his development as an artist in ways that might have been impossible elsewhere. The city’s dramatic physical setting on a promontory above the River Tagus provided him with an endlessly suggestive play of sky, cloud, and landscape, commemorated in his two painted portraits of the city, both of them willfully distorted to serve artistic ends.

The majestic scale of the city’s churches demanded, and received, a majestic response from the new arrival. The chancels of Spanish churches of the era had developed a distinctive architectural backdrop, the retablo, that rose to dizzying heights behind the main altar, and was divided into a series of compartments for displaying paintings and sculpture. On a smaller scale, side chapels and freestanding altarpieces also required their own elaborate frames. El Greco therefore designed his own retablos, picture frames, and sculptural decoration as well as paintings, contrasting the stately solidity of his classical architecture with the wild exuberance and airborne lightness of his painted visions, the warm golden glow of his gilded frames with the cool shimmer of his silvery pigments.

Against massive whitewashed interiors, he could let his palette run wild, as in the cathedral sacristy, where his Disrobing of Christ shows Jesus in a dazzling crimson robe that dominates the room. Furthermore, El Greco’s famously elongated figures turn out to have been perfectly calibrated to the monumental spaces around them. Seen from a distance beneath a lofty vault they look graceful, stately, elegant rather than distorted; it is an old trick perfected by Byzantine mosaicists centuries before El Greco applied it to the churches of Toledo.

With its lofty ceilings, the Museo de Santa Cruz is the perfect venue for displaying large paintings, whereas the low ceilings and horizontal spaces of so many modern museums end up cramping the refined artistry of this supreme master of light, form, and color. El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin belongs in its intended venue, the soaring, sunlit, whitewashed chancel of Santo Domingo, rather than a dark, squat, windowless gallery of the Art Institute of Chicago. It is a privilege, therefore, to see the intact chapel of San José, with its retablo, its statues, and the touching image of Saint Joseph with Jesus as a young boy, embracing his tall, kindly father with simple affection.

Fatherhood seems to have been the most deeply felt relationship in El Greco’s life. He was captivated from the outset by the beauty of Toledo’s women, and within a year of his arrival, in 1578, one of them, Jerónima de las Cuevas, had borne him a son, Jorge Manuel, whose double name honored both his grandfather, Giorgos Theotokopoulos, and his uncle Manousos. The couple never married, and Jerónima seems to have died not long after Jorge Manuel’s birth. El Greco had high hopes for his son’s career as a painter, but Jorge Manuel wanted to be an architect. It is a father’s wishful thinking, then, that animates the portrait of Jorge Manuel, painted when he was about twenty-five (circa 1603), a handsome, sweet-faced dandy. Fernando Marías calls attention both to the poignant detail of the palette and brushes that Jorge Manuel would gladly have exchanged for an architect’s rule and compass, and to the virtuosity with which El Greco registers the shadow that Jorge Manuel’s right hand has cast across this black velvet doublet, a triumph of black on black.

Jorge Manuel also appears in the foreground of the painting that is usually acknowledged as El Greco’s masterpiece, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, a fourteenth-century grandee who was miraculously accompanied into the grave by Saints Stephen and Augustine, who appeared in person to take up his body. Like so many of El Greco’s works, this one was designed for a specific architectural setting, another lofty whitewashed chapel whose spare expanse helps to concentrate the effect of the blacks, silvers, and yellows of this huge, magnificent painting. The figures of the lower register meet us eye to eye, portrayed with a startling immediacy.

And then strange things begin to happen. In the midst of the funnel-like cloud formation that dominates the center of the painting, the count’s tiny pale soul moves upward toward an assembly of holy figures: Christ, the Virgin, and a company of saints, all of them as diaphanously unreal as the figures below seem to be made of solid flesh, tucked into cloud formations that call to mind the Gospel of John (14:2): “my father’s house has many mansions.” El Greco, as Fernando Marías puts it, was a consummate painter of unreality, who never let go of an icon painter’s task of committing heavenly visions to a play of colors distilled from earth.

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