'Van Dyck in Sicily’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery belongs to a species of exhibition now nearly extinct: the small-scale, tightly curated thematic display with a first-rate catalogue. Subtitled “Painting and the Plague 1624-1625”, it focuses on the 18 months the Flemish painter spent in plague-stricken Palermo when no one was allowed to enter or leave the city. The curator, Xavier F Salomon, uses newly discovered documents and a rarely seen sketch book to tell a rattling good story set in the exotic city in which the Byzantine, Lombard, Muslim and Norman civilisations had all left their mark.
The colourful cast of characters includes the doomed Viceroy whose portrait Van Dyck had come to paint, an elderly witch on trial for her life by the Spanish Inquisition, and the artist’s best customer – an art dealer who would soon figure in the biggest diamond heist of the 17th century. What’s not to like?
In 1624, the 25-year-old Van Dyck was in Northern Italy painting those glamorous full-length portraits of the Genoese aristocracy in all its pride, remoteness and grandeur. Enveloped in robes of black silk trimmed with ruffles of stiff lace, these rarefied creatures are captured in their natural habitat – the splendid palaces in which they lived surrounded by servants, slaves and children. Such images helped spread Van Dyck’s fame throughout Europe and explain why the Spanish Viceroy of Sicily Emanuel Filiberto of Savoy invited him to Palermo to paint his portrait.
At this date most of the Italian peninsula south of Rome belonged to Spain. The Viceroy governed Sicily by reason of his birth and upbringing. Though born in Turin at the court of his father the Duke of Savoy, he was the grandson of Phillip II of Spain through his mother the Infanta Catalina Michaela.
In Van Dyck’s state portrait, Emanuel Filiberto’s martial credentials are proclaimed by his suit of superbly incised and richly gilded Milanese parade armour, the sword at his hip and the plumed helmet at his side. But all this is symbolic. His pale pink complexion does not suggest a man who spent much time out of doors, and those soft plump hands would be more useful for embroidery than battle. Van Dyck flatters his subject, but not too much.
From The telegraph