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“Portrait of Guido Guardi with his Sons”, by Santi di Tito,  painted in two stages, c.1564-68 and c.1570-80 (©Private collection)

Feminist critics may find these images offensive in their invitation to the male viewer to assess these women, and women in general, entirely according to how sexually attractive they are. If you share their attitude, you will move with relief into the rooms in the exhibition devoted to portraits. There are some stunning paintings here, and they can safely be enjoyed without any anxiety that they might be generating impure or improper thoughts.

One of the most remarkable paintings is Santi di Tito’s triple portrait of Guido Guardi with his sons, where the family resemblance is just discernible in the features of the three men, despite their very different expressions and physiognomies. Santi di Tito apparently added the portraits of the sons a decade after he painted the father. He developed a system for portraiture where his pupils did everything apart from the faces, allowing him to churn out portraits with great rapidity, but making secure attributions today very difficult.

There is also an extraordinary portrait of a young woman — no one has yet succeeded in identifying who she is — by Girolamo Macchietti. Macchietti is now almost unknown, but he was clearly a very gifted artist, as this and the other works by him on show in the exhibition demonstrate. There are also two remarkable portraits in stone by Ridolfo Sirigatti. Sirigatti depicted his parents, and his carving, particularly in the portrait of his mother, is exquisite. What is particularly astonishing about it is that Sirigatti was not a professional sculptor. He was an amateur. His day job was being an official for the Medici government, and when he got time off from that, he was a merchant. How he learned to carve so expertly, and how he managed to maintain his skill at such a high level, is a mystery. But this amateur was thought expert enough to give some instruction in sculpture to a professional: one Pietro Bernini, the great Gianlorenzo Bernini's father.

As you walk back into the rooms with massive religious paintings, it is hard not to think that with many of them, the parts are greater than the whole. There are some sublime individual figures — Mary in Bronzino’s Deposition, the fainting woman in Allori’s Miracles of St Fiacre, the sleeping guard in Santi di Tito’s Resurrection, for instance — but often the overall compositions are too crowded and too confusing to be comprehensible. In the tangle of legs and arms, of winged putti and smiling angels, you start to understand why the stark, brutal realism of Caravaggio was necessary.

Your eyes, though, will inevitably wander back to Giambologna’s extraordinarily graceful bronze depicting the prelude to rape. And you can’t help wondering: should I be enjoying this work? Should it even be here? It is worth visiting the exhibition just to find out whether you can answer those questions.
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