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Pa. museum presents exhibit from Italy's Uffizi

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — A museum known for its focus on American art, specifically the Pennsylvania Impressionists who called the region home, is hosting its first-ever international exhibition with a blockbuster show of Italian Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces.

"Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi Gallery" opens Saturday at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, its only stop in the northeastern United States. It will be on view through Aug. 10.

The 45 religious paintings and tapestries from the Uffizi in Florence, one of the world's oldest and most revered museums, are touring America for the first and perhaps only time. They are joined at the Michener by six additional works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The old masters presented in the show include Tintoretto, Titian and Parmigianino. The showstopper, however, is Botticelli's "Madonna with Child," painted around 1466, and presented in the exhibition with a frame from the same period.

The work has little painted flourishes that were added hundreds of years later to the Madonna's garments — perhaps the reason why it isn't exhibited in the Uffizi. That shouldn't detract from appreciating the Italian master's genius, said consulting curator Diane Cole Ahl, an art history professor at Lafayette College and scholar of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art.

"A restorer decided to add little items to this to appeal to 19th century tastes," she said. "But nonetheless, this is a Botticelli ... soft brushstroke, luminous colors, the dynamic relationship between the two of them."

Another key work is "Mary with Child and Saint Catherine," a work from around 1550 associated with the workshop of Titian, if not the master himself. It was specially cleaned for the exhibition and "revealed an unsuspected depth and glorious color ... and the color and short brushstroke for which Titian is famous," Ahl said.

The pieces all are based on biblical stories or characters and grouped by theme. That allows viewers to see how artistic interpretations of classic motifs like the Crucifixion of Jesus and the Last Supper changed with aesthetic and cultural sensibilities, from the composed rationality of the Renaissance to the passion and drama of the Baroque.

"Everybody comes to this work with different religious beliefs, which in a sense are irrelevant," Ahl said of "The Ascent to Calvary," Luca Giordano's epic 1685 painting. "This is an opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the history of Judaism and Christianity but just to look at this (from) the perspective of the painting."

Botticelli and company came to Bucks County, thanks to a just-completed expansion of the museum that allows for traveling exhibitions like "Offering of the Angels," which museum officials expect will attract upward of 125,000 visitors

Named after the late author James Michener, a Doylestown native and museum benefactor, the private museum 25 miles north of Philadelphia opened in 1988 inside what had for a century served as the county prison.

Most of its 3,000 works are from the early 20th century Impressionists who lived and worked in the region, and that emphasis won't change, museum director Bruce Katsiff said Friday.

"It's all about institutional aspiration: bringing in the best art we can get our hands on to the region, attracting increasing crowds that are interested in us," Katsiff said. "We're just upping the ante."

The Uffizi, visited by more than 1.5 million people annually, was built in the 16th century by the Medici, the powerful Florentine dynasty who shaped the political, cultural, scientific and religious landscape for generations.

Many of the landscapes, portraits and still life works presented in "Offering of the Angels" were never on public display at the Uffizi because of space limitations — until museum director Antonio Natali began pulling items from its "secret rooms" for the traveling exhibit.

"It was an experience to see the installation of this, where every workman walked in here, stopped and gazed at these paintings and didn't want to move," Ahl said.

"Offering of the Angels" was a hit for the Uffizi and toured Spain before its U.S. arrival. After its run in Doylestown, "Offering of the Angels" travels to the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wis., and the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Ga. It was previously on view at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art.