Haunted Garden | The Artist Room

I visited this small exhibition of young Italian painters on opening night. Only a couple of others were there with me; the curator was smoking moodily out back. The works on show differed wildly in quality. But it was Valentina, pictured below, that caught my eye.

It’s a tiny, jewel-like image of a girl with a severe centre parting, in three quarter view, against a lush landscape of fruit trees and mountains. The composition, by Michele Cesaratto, is knowingly reflective of the early Renaissance portrait. Its materials are too: the artist used egg tempera, just like his Italian ancestors did, half a millennium ago.

Michele Cesarotto, ‘Valentina’ (2023)

You make this kind of paint by combining pigment and egg yolk. Sometimes you add honey, too. The painting is hard to work with: it dries so quickly, and every mixture is unique, meaning that replicating colours across large surfaces is close to impossible. But the colours the painter does leave are uniquely sharp - jewel-like - and remain so for centuries.

Cesarotto’s girl, with her red shirt, her nose piercing and silvery eyebrows, her ruddy cheeks and overbite, is tiny, marooned on her wooden board in the centre of a white wall in Soho. She stares stoically ahead.

The exhibition as a whole is called Haunted Garden; this girl’s garden is haunted by her artistic forebears, from da Messina to della Francesca, who painted similar faces in similar landscapes with the same kind of paint.

The Haunted Garden is at The Artist Room (London). 18 January - 17 February 2024