From the Spring 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
What is this a picture of? It’s called Il Tramonto (The Sunset). Its title was given to it just last century, by the great Renaissance critic and writer, Roberto Longhi. But the painting existed for 400 years or so without this title.
Is it of, or about, a sunset? Below centre, in the shade under a spare and spindly poplar or mountain ash, a couple of men, an older man and a younger, are sitting on rocks and on the ground. The younger man seems to be looking pensively down or maybe writing something in the actual earth or on the rock surface on which he’s sitting. The older man, below him – is he a servant? He seems to be massaging the younger man’s leg. There’s a stick on the ground – a walking stick? – and what looks like a little barrel, maybe water or wine. Is this a picture of a rest-stop on a journey? Behind and above, to the right of the couple on another rocky little promontory or stage, there’s a knight on a horse, made tiny by perspective, and it looks like St George, since he’s lancing a (rather unimpressive sized, if creepily tentacled) dragon to death, and there, behind this in the shadows, there’s a figure emerging from a cave. Is it a St Anthony? There’s a great deal going on in the shadows. Below, in the murky pond next to the old and young man, there’s what looks like a pig poking out of its own water’s-edge cave (which would comply with St Anthony, since pigs, caves and St Anthony often come together in Renaissance stories and figurings), but the pig is the least of the water’s beastliness, since those dark rocks in the foreground of the water might be a monster and there’s a Bosch-looking bird with an angry beak emerging at the shore near the men. The rocks on the other side of the men, under a sheaf of very dark foliage, have ghoulish faces. Or is it just random rock alignment?
Is this a picture of saints, then? Of hell? Of a psychological landscape? Of a realism edged with and ignoring icons and omens? Of a mythical story where an old man tends to a young lame man? Is it about servitude? Innocence and learning, hidden grotesqueries and dangers? Leaving a mark on a landscape, or on nature, as we pass through it, or, more correctly, below it? Putting all this adventuring, iconographing and questioning in the shade, even with so very few leaves and branches to do it, is the figure held at the true centre of the picture, the spindly, graceful curve of a tree, aloft above realisms, allegories, nightmares and saints with a kind of untouchable elegance, behind it a rolling tawny landscape of fields, buildings, a harbour, an opening wedge of brightness where the picture suddenly surges off to the side into blue, a blue that’s brighter and more uncanny than the sky’s blue which is itself lit with an underscore of gold, and the promise of an intenser gold just slipping out of it at its left edge.