From 8 July to 7 November, portraits are back as protagonists at the Royal Museums of Turin with the exhibition How a portrait speaks. Little-known paintings from the royal collections, housed in the Discovery Space of the Sabauda Gallery. Born as part of an educational-training project launched in 2018 with the Historical Studies Department of the University of Turin, the exhibition focuses on the themes of portraiture and the liveliness of figurative culture at the Savoy court. Amidst the revival of international models - from Titian to Clouet, from Van Dyck to Meytens - local suggestions and reinterpretations, the exhibition proposes a series of hypotheses that deserve new insights, both on an iconographic and attributive level.
Divided into four thematic sections that underline the different aspects of Savoy and European portraiture ("The image of power", "The female court", "Family ties. Childhood" and "International alliances"), the exhibition traces three centuries of history, illustrating the diplomatic strategies developed by the courts, the value of female portraits as a tribute to power, the family "snapshots" sent to the court for possible marriage alliances and the images of children, symbol of a childhood displayed and in the at the same time denied.
The sequence of the portraits examined highlights the role they played in the solemn and celebratory representation of political and military power, in the description of the wealth and prestige of the subjects portrayed, but also the illustration of the affections, physicality and psychological sphere of the immortalized characters. In fact, there are many elements that guide the reading of an image: the gaze and the expression of the face allow us to see beyond appearances to capture the personality of those who are depicted, bringing to light emotions and inclinations, beyond of their sometimes unknown identity. The pose, the hand gestures, the surrounding space also contribute to the definition of the representation, aspects that frequently respond to rigidly codified social rules. A fundamental role is then played by inscriptions, heraldic elements, clothes and jewels often loaded with symbolic meanings. The ornaments and honors that the characters wear with pride attest to their social status, power and wealth achieved. Often in the composition there are also elements that allude to the function of the portrait and its meaning, such as some animals evocative of the virtues of the people portrayed, clues that one is not always able to interpret. The portraits, functional to the ceremonial of the ancient court palaces and to the dynastic history, can bring some pitfalls, such as manipulations undergone over time with false inscriptions for iconographic updates, changes in dimensions or insertions in subsequent frames or almost insurmountable problems of attribution, faced with the rarity of documented works with which to propose comparisons.
This complex and fascinating theme was addressed by a group of 40 students from the Master's Degree Course in Art History, in dialogue with teachers, scholars, conservators and restorers. The goal was to bring students closer to the needs of conservation, research and enhancement, thanks to the use of the different skills of the two important cultural institutions.