REVIEW // The Moment of the Beholder. How Images Use Us

Matteo Chirumbolo

Maskers at the Mondo Novo i Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Maskers at the Mondo Novo, ca 1765, oil on canvas, 34 x 58.3 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid © Photographic Archive Museo Nacional del Prado.

L’ora dello spettatore. Come le immagini ci usano / The Moment of the Beholder. How Images Use Us
Gallerie Nazionali Barberini Corsini, Rome
2 December 2020 – 28 February 2021, extended through to 5 April 2021

What role does reception play in the process of artistic creation? This question has long concerned scholars in Rezeptionsästhetik, which, in the definition of Wolfgang Kemp, ‘is on the perpetual lookout for the implicit beholder, for the function of the beholder prescribed in the work of art’.[1] The exhibition L’Ora dello Spettatore. Come le Immagini ci Usano and its curator, Michele di Monte, embark from this theoretical premise, setting out in search of this ‘implicit beholder’ through the display of twenty-five paintings, mostly from the Dutch and Italian tradition, hung over seven rooms in the Palazzo Barberini.

As they walk into the temporary exhibition space on the piano nobile of the Palazzo, visitors are first met by a pair of Baroque mirrors. The one on the left reflects their image, whilst in the mirror on the right, the viewer catches a glimpse of Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Maskers at the Mondo Novo (ca 1765), hanging on the opposite wall. The reflections intelligently draw out the content of the painting into the exhibition space: fellow exhibition goers, who stand in front of Tiepolo’s canvas, seemingly imitate the action of the maskers, as if they were also awaiting to look into the peep box at the centre of the composition. Such a carefully orchestrated encounter foreshadows the experience of the exhibition’s newcomer in front of the painting, inviting reflection on the act of looking itself, as well as on the agency of pictures, before visitors move on through the exhibition.

In the following room, titled La Soglia (‘The Threshold’), the show focuses on devices such as curtains, ledges and niches in portraits by Rembrandt, Gerrit Dou and Scipione Pulzone. The wall text and labels invite the visitor to consider the unsettling ambiguity that the inclusion of such features produces in the painted image. The choice of works complements the argument put forward by the text – Rembrandt’s Girl in a Picture Frame (ca 1645) from Warsaw Royal Castle being a case in point – whilst the restrained arrangement of the paintings encourages visitors to engage at length with each picture. Likewise, the curatorial narrative intelligently exploits the grouped display of artworks. To make but one example, in the section dedicated to the ‘curious beholder’ (Il Curioso), a triad of paintings gauges the extent with which the viewer’s presence is implied in the picture. From right to left, Jusepe de Ribera’s St Gregory the Great (1614-1615) is so engrossed in his study that he fails to notice the presence of the beholder by his desk, which is instead perceived by the dove at the back of the canvas. Immediately next to it, one of the Boys at the Easel (ca 1645), painted by Jacob van Oost the Elder, turns his head towards the intruder situated beyond the picture frame, who has distracted him from his sketchbook. Finally, Giovanni Savoldo’s Mary Magdalene (ca 1533) from the Galleria degli Uffizi pierces the visitor with her alluring gaze. As proposed by Mary Pardo in a seminal article from 1989, aptly referenced in the exhibition catalogue entry, the Magdalene turns to acknowledge the risen Christ at the sepulchre, his presence symbolised by the source of light emanating from the right of the spectator’s viewpoint. In standing beside the Risen Christ, the viewer in turn ‘becomes the painter’s accomplice, but also his creature, assuming an essential role in the space between two fictions’ – one painted, the other solely imagined.[2]

The absence of Caravaggio from the show is resolved by the inclusion of works by artists who closely followed his trail, such as Simon Vouet and Mattia Preti, and by Sebastian Schütze’s informative essay in the catalogue.[3] On the other hand, the inclusion of Hans Memling’s Scenes of the Passion of Christ (ca 1470) from the Galleria Sabauda in Turin, which hangs alone in a corridor, raises questions on the intellectual framework of the exhibition. While its compositional complexity is undeniable, Memling’s work belongs to a visual tradition that predates the sixteenth century, or, to quote Hans Belting’s formula, ‘the crisis of the image’ that followed the Reformation.[4] As such, not only does its inclusion break the show’s chronological consistency, but it also introduces a different mode of looking at and interpreting religious images. Whilst the wall texts and labels help to frame the engagement with such considerations in the space of the museum, the lack of a broader contextual analysis in the catalogue is problematic. Likewise, a clearer definition of the term ‘image’, which features in the exhibition title, as distinguished from that of ‘artwork’ would have further clarified the curator’s methods of selection for the paintings on display.

The irony that a show devoted to the ‘beholder’s share’ risked losing its audience due to the winter closures imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic was certainly not lost on the visitors. Luckily, an extension of the loans allowed the Gallerie Nazionali Barberini Corsini to lengthen its opening dates. On the whole, the show achieves the aim it sets for itself, provoking the visitors to consider the relationship artworks establish with their viewers. Indeed, since exhibitions dedicated to the artistic production of the early modern period often develop teleological and monographic narratives, L’Ora dello Spettatore demonstrates that alternative curatorial approaches can be pursued fruitfully.

Maskers at the Mondo Novo
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Maskers at the Mondo Novo, ca 1765, oil on canvas, 34 x 58.3 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid © Photographic Archive Museo Nacional del Prado.



  1. Wolfgang Kemp, ‘The Work of Art and its Beholder. The Methodology of the Aesthetic of Reception’, in Mark A. Cheetham, Michael Ann Holly and Keith Moxley (eds), The Subjects of Art History. Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 183.
  2. Mary Pardo, ‘“The Subject of Savoldo’s “Magdalene”’, in The Art Bulletin, 71.1 (March 1989), 74.
  3. Sebastian Schütze, ‘La Pittura come Spectaculum: Caravaggio e il doppio Gioco del Naturalismo’, in Michele di Monte (ed), L‘Ora dello Spettatore. Come le Immagini ci Usano [exhib. cat.] (Rome: Campisano Editore Srl, 2020), 60-77.
  4. Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence. A History of the Image before the Era of Art, transl. by Edmund Jephcott (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 472.