Four years in planning, the research for this intriguing exhibition involved curator Xavier Saloman traveling by boat from Genoa to Palermo, almost 500 years after Van Dyck took this very same route to Sicily.
While on the island, the artist was to complete not only the major commission that took him there, but at least 16 other works that have survived to be shown here. An outbreak of bubonic plague kept Sicily in quarantine for that extended residency, during which time the main subject, Viceroy Emanuel Filiberto, grandson of Philip II of Spain, succumbed to the disease.
A court portrait is accompanied by the actual tournament armour worn by Emanuel in the painting that forms the centrepiece of the first room, a made-to-measure metal suit fashioned for him aged 18, a "bespoke Ferrari of the time" as the curator infers. Except in the painting he is a mature adult, too large for such a small garniture. Van Dyck has applied artistic necessity by blending a posed portrait of the Viceroy with an enlarged still life of the armour imposed upon the figure, using a 17th century equivalent of digital retouching. Curiously the horseless subject sports the jousting chestpiece, while the combat version is also on display alongside, both bearing the unknown Turin master craftsman’s mark of engraved castles. It is a joy to see that most rarefied of juxtapositions, the artwork and the original costume displayed alongside each other, reunited after half a millennium.
Constructed realities run as theme throughout this show with a fragment of a much larger canvas cut down to a single portrait and an x-ray of a self-portrait revealing an original figure in the elegant catalogue.
There are multiple versions of St Rosalia, posed above the city, seeking a panacea for the plague, commissioned by the Senate of Palermo, one wonders if as variations of public information.
Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague runs at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 27 May. Gallery and exhibition £8, Seniors £7, Concessions £3. Free entry for Children and Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Image: Maestro del Castello de Tre Torri, Armour of Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, c. 1606, etched steel, partly gilt, Armeria Real, Madrid © Patrimonio Nacional
By Harry Urgent