Until February 11th, 2924


Crete, Venice, Rome, Toledo: these are the four fundamental stages in the artistic and personal development of one of the most popular old masters, the Cretan painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco.

The exhibition is held at Palazzo Reale in Milan, until February 11th, 2024. Thanks to a series of important international loans, visitors are invited to follow the visionary artist’s career through 41 masterpieces, frequently sided by the works of the many (mostly Italian) painters who inspired him.

The first of the five sections, CROSSROADS, reconstructs his beginnings on the native island of Crete (for many centuries a Venetian territory),

where he was trained as a painter of icons. At the age of 26 Domenikos moves to the ‘capital’, Venice, where he stays for three years, absorbing the modes, techniques and colors of Titian, Tintoretto, Jacopo Bassano.

Masterpiece of this period of apprenticeship in Western painting is the delightful Modena portable tryptic, a traditional Byzantine format, where elements and characters from Titian and Tintoretto are reinterpreted in a most personal fusion. The warm colors are reminiscent of Titian, the sinuous human figures with dramatic gestures owe much to Tintoretto.

Menegos, this is how he was familiarly called in Venice, moved on to Rome, where he was introduced by the illustrious miniature painter Giulio Clovio to the powerful cardinal Alessandro Farnese. The promising Cretan artist, presented as ‘Titian’s disciple’, had the chance of living in the cardinal’s house and worked for him decorating his new villa at Caprarola.

Both Michelangelo and Raphael had already died, but their influence in Rome was still enormous. By this time most painters followed ‘la maniera’, the Mannerist style, with its self-conscious, artificial, sophisticated way of painting. Italian Mannerism boosted El Greco’s tendency towards elongated figures in bizarre poses, acid palette, unnatural perspectives.

He also visited Padua, Verona, Mantua, and Parma, where he c0uld see the works of other masters, such as Correggio, Parmigianino, Giulio Romano.

El Greco (this is how they called him then) was also exposed to Ancient Classic art, and could see the Laocoon, that will later inspire his only mythological painting (Washington Museum of Arts), present at the exhibit.

In 1572 he opened his independent workshop in Rome, where he employed one or two assistants. The artist is now much appreciated for his powerfully psychological portraits (that owe so much to Titian and Tintoretto). Portrait painting will be fundamental through his whole career.

However, probably because of his character and strong criticism against Michelangelo as a painter, that was ill-received in the Roman intellectual circles, ha did not receive any commission for important altarpieces.

The DIALOGUES WITH ITALY (second section of the exhibit) end with the decision of moving to Madrid, where, thanks to his good connections, the master hoped to become Philip II’s court painter. Unfortunately, he was not able to conquer the King’s favors, and in 1577 finally settled in Toledo.

Toledo was for El Greco the ultimate destination, where he found the right spiritual atmosphere and an intellectual circle of friends and patrons that allowed him to bring his style to maturity and his career to great success.

PAINTING SANCTITY, the central section of the exhibition, deals with El Greco’s early period in Toledo, where his most personal style encountered the aims of the Counter-Reformation, giving life to intensely dramatic religious visions. Huge, elongated altarpieces that express the artist’s mystic afflatus with his famous hypnotic, hallucinated compositions.

Francisco Pacheco, painter, and writer, who visited El Greco in Toledo describes the presence in the master’s studio of some wax, plaster, and clay figures from which he worked at staging his scenes. El Greco had certainly learned this in Venice from the great ‘scenographer’ Tintoretto.

St Martin and the Beggar from Washington National Gallery, The Disrobing of Christ from Toledo’s Cathedral, the Annunciation from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid, are some of the most representative paintings from this period. El Greco has finally found his signature style.

THE ICON AGAIN focuses on the final years of El Greco’s ‘labyrinthine’ career, during which, sided by his workshop, his brother, and his only son, the painter consciously recovers his Byzantine artistic training (throughout his life he always signed his works in Greek characters, often adding the word “Kres” = Crete, and goes back to frontal representations of religious figures, powerfully expressive, such as the St Luke and the Christ Carrying the Cross. No longer distracted by the spatial composition, the worshipper can develop a more intimate prayer, and a more personal meditation.

At the close of the exhibition, we find LAOCOON (Washington National Gallery of Art), created between 1610 and 1614 (year of his death), that he always kept in his studio. The tragic story of Laocoon is the only mythological theme he ever interpreted. The representation of the city of Toledo in the background casts a shade of mystery on this most dramatic painting, that might contain a hidden meaning, still greatly debated today.

Like other painters El Greco was little considered for many generations, his style considered too eccentric and unnatural, to be rescued from oblivion by the Romantic critics of the XIX century. Modern masters, such as Cezanne, Picasso, Franz Marc and the artists of the Blaue Raiter openly admired him and draw inspiration from the ‘mystic Mannerism’ of his art.