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2 Renaissance masterpieces reunited after 400 years

Frick collection display YouTube

The Frick Collection | Fair Use via YouTube

V. M. Traverso - published on 12/27/23

The artworks, once owned by Venetian merchant Contarini in the 16th century, will be on display in New York City until February 4, 2024.

Stories about fragments of Renaissance panels finally reassembled after some lucky discovery are not unheard of in the art world. But this winter, New Yorkers and visitors to the Big Apple will be able to experience the intentional reunion of two Renaissance masterpieces that have been separated for more than 400 years.

The Frick Collection, currently found in its temporary home at the Frick Madison, announced that two masterpieces that used to belong to Venetian collector Taddeo Contarini will be displayed in the same room during a special exhibition that will run from November 9, 2023, until February, 4 2024

Contarini was a Venetian nobleman who collected several notable artworks in his palazzo in the parish of Santa Fosca. According to descriptions by scholar Mercantonio Michiel, who visited the palazzo in 1525, two paintings, one by Giorgione and one by Bellini, particularly stood out. The two artworks displayed a similar color palette of pastel colors, and composition, with the main scene situated on the right of the canvas.

The first painting, titled “St. Francis in the Desert,” was completed around 1490 by Giovanni Bellini and depicts St. Francis of Assisi as he experiences a divine vision while walking on Mount Verna in Tuscany. The second painting, titled “Three Philosophers,” was completed by Giorgione in 1509 and displays three philosophers – a young one, a middle aged one, and an old one – discussing with each other.

The Bellini painting was acquired by Contarini sometime before 1525 while the Giorgione painting was likely commissioned by the merchant, who had a strong interest in spirituality, as a companion to the Bellini. And so they were companions, for 30 years, until in 1589 the Bellini was moved to Palazzo Giustiniani after the marriage of Contarini’s great-granddaughter Elisabetta. 

“It would be difficult to think of a more fitting conclusion for our temporary residency at Frick Madison than this once-in-a-lifetime installation,” said Ian Wardropper, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Director of the Frick, “These two complex Renaissance paintings have prompted an enormous amount of commentary over the years, and we are delighted to present the pair together as an exciting farewell to this fascinating chapter in our institution’s history.”

The Bellini painting was already part of the Frick’s collection, while the Giorgione artwork was obtained on a rare loan from the Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. The two paintings have been installed opposite to each other so asto stress their role as companion paintings. Visitors will be able to be moved and inspired by these two masterpieces in the same way that their commissioner envisioned more than 400 years ago. 

“Despite the attention that has been lavished on the paintings from his collection, Contarini remains an elusive figure, one we can understand only through some glimmers of information about him,” said Xavier F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at the Frick, who organized the presentation of the two works and curated a book about their history. “The reunion of these two paintings brings an important part of Contarini’s collection back to life.”

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