Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Ten Years Tasting the Delights of Tuscany

Christie's introduce an Old Master auction with a difference

Christie's, the London fine art auctioneers, have introduced a new kind of Old Master auction bringing together early Flemish and Dutch paintings, Italian Renaissance masterpieces and great works from the 19th century. The first sale under this mixed dispensation takes place on July 7.

The mixture of works holds well together. Turner and Van Dyck, Ingres and Winterhalter, Greuze, an unusual Watteau of a wild scene with waterfall, good English family portraits by Nathaniel Dance and Joseph Wright of Derby, are all put together in a harmonious way. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Pride of place in the sale belongs to a very beautiful Fra Bartolommeo of the Madonna and Child with Saint Elizabeth and the infant St John the Baptist. This is a rare example of his work to come on the market and a very fine example at that. With an estimate of €2.3m to €3.4m it holds the leading place within a very choice collection assembled for the sale. It comes with a good modern provenance dating back to the middle of the 19th century when it was acquired by a very serious and successful English collector, Francis Cook, who in turn was guided by Charles Robinson of the South Kensington Museum. He was a wise guiding hand who believed, quite rightly, that great collections owed their assembly to a good eye, not a deep pocket.

Fra Bartolommeo was recognised by Bernard Berenson as a pupil of Piero di Cosimo and was admired by the great American scholar for his "delicate, refined, graceful" temperament. He was revered as a draughtsman influenced by Leonardo and by Michelangelo.

However, he went astray, painting colossal works depicting prophets and apostles or paintings that Berenson describes as "pitch-dark altar pieces".

The picture that comes to market in July displays all that is good in Fra Bartolommeo, a dainty sensitivity, soft treatment of the background landscape, lovely animation in the figures of the children and a fine rounding of love and concern in Mary and Elizabeth.

Such works have been on my mind recently as a result of yet another trip to Tuscany, one that was dominated by a visit to the Pitti Palace in Florence. For 10 years I have been going to this part of Italy with a group of friends to discover Renaissance art, but never to the Pitti. It is an immensely rich collection. Raphaels crowded in one room or two rooms, Andrea del Sarto paintings, wonderful portraits, examples of Giorgione and Van Dyck.

Whether consciously or otherwise, the visits we have made were modelled in part on Boccaccio and the creation of the Decameron.

Readers will remember the charming fiction, of how seven young ladies and three young men leave the city of Florence during the plague in 1348 and retire to neighbouring villas where they tell each other stories, each person telling one tale each day. This seems to keep them all in good health for 100 days, thus producing a collection of 100 stories by the great humanist writer and friend of Petrach, Giovanni Boccaccio, whose Decameron became a source book for many other writers around the world.

Within our group -- not of 10 but of 12, though the balance of the sexes was not dissimilar from that in 1348 -- there was a writer who gave us all vivid insights into Dante, Boccaccio, Petrach and others, as just one of the threads of knowledge pursued each day and debated each evening.

Nothing is what it seems and in fact Boccaccio wrote the tales for the Decameron over many years. But there is some truth to the story that the first three days of the Decameron took place in Palagio del Poggio which overlooked Florence from the Fiesole hills. It later became Poggio Gherado and was owned by that family from 1433 until 1888. It was then bought by Henry and Janet Ross. Aunt Janet, as she was universally addressed by people like Kenneth Clark and Bernard Berenson, was a formidable figure memorialised in many books, among them A Tuscan Childhood, by Antony Beevor's mother, Kinta Beevor.

Exploring this side of Florence and the Renaissance art was justified by the fact that the rediscovery of much of this art, and its re-identification, belonged, in part, to the age of Berenson and was fostered and publicised by the international community in Florence from the first half of the 19th century.

Nevertheless, our modern Decameron, made up of carefully written papers delivered each evening in the warm radiance of the declining sun over glasses of prosecco, spread a good deal further. Nor were our travels, during those 10 years, confined to local places, such as Siena and Arezzo, from which bustling and lively centre we used to take the train north to visit the Uffizi. We also went to Urbino and Bologna, Lucca and Ravenna, and at an even earlier stage spent time exploring Caravaggio paintings in Rome and seeing that breathtaking and magnificent example of classical architecture, the Pantheon.

The painting of it shown here is French and 19th century. Jean-Victor-Louis Faure was influential -- he taught Corot and Daubigny -- and he was himself much influenced by the vedutista Bernardo Belotto and his uncle, Canaletto. He was part of a stream of artists from more northerly parts of Europe who travelled to Italy to learn.

Our group has been doing the same for 10 years and the enjoyment and rewards are an indescribably pleasant way of engaging in foreign travel. No country has more to offer than Italy in terms of both classical and Renaissance riches.