Curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings, National Gallery of Art.

Anna Gavina, Jacqueline Schnabel and I have lunch with David Alan Brown in the French restaurant of the National Gallery in Washington, DC. The coq au vin and the various salads are great. We talk about the fact that many Italian politicians have visited the Gallery over the years and David remembers President Pertini, President Napolitano and Silvio Berlusconi.  We speak about the museum, about Washington and the fact that David Alan Brown has been the curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings of the National Gallery of Art for forty years.

“They created the job for me in 1974. It was the perfect job for me and I have never wanted to change, even when they made me other very interesting offers.  At the National Gallery our collection of Italian paintings is the best in the USA, and I also very much like living in Washington.”


What are the Gallery’s masterpieces?

Five Raphaels, eight by Giovanni Bellini, Titians….

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci, c. 1474/1478, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1474/1478, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

Which is your favorite painting?

The little Saint George and the Dragon by Raphael. We also have the Ginevra de‘ Benci by Leonardo. It is the only one in America, unless the newly discovered Salvator Mundi that is in this country is certified, but we don’t know where it is.

 Why such a large Italian collection?

The collectors: among them Andrew Mellon, the Wideners and Samuel Kress.  They all believed that any great Museum had to have Italian paintings.

 When did they buy them?

In the early 20th Century, partly from Duveen, Berenson and Contini Bonacossi.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italian, 1526 - 1593 ), Four Seasons in One Head, c. 1590, oil on panel, Paul Mellon Fund

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italian, 1526 – 1593 ), Four Seasons in One Head, c. 1590, oil on panel, Paul Mellon Fund

Are you still making acquisitions?

Yes, like the new Arcimboldo and a wonderful Bellotto. We are buying more Italian Baroque paintings because the collection was weak in that area.

 You are the only Gallery owned by the American people. Who gives you money?

Congress pays for salaries and maintenance, but acquisitions are all made by private funds.

 How many visitors come to the gallery?

Five million a year.

Recent Venetian vedute show, including actual gondola.

Recent Venetian vedute show, including actual gondola.

In “The Secret of the Gondola”, your new book published by Skira, the painter is Canaletto?

We have ten Canalettos at the National Gallery, but I was inspired by an exhibition that took place in 2011, “Venice: Canaletto and his rivals”. I was the co-ordinator.  The curator is the expert, the co-ordinator is the one who does all the work and gets no credit. At the beginning I did not particularly like Canaletto because I am a specialist in Leonardo, Bellini and the Italian Renaissance, but during the exhibition I got to know Canaletto’s work much better and realized that in his own field of “Vedutismo” he was a genius.


Because he took topographic views of places, mostly Venice, and turned them into great works of art.

 One of his works of art is the protagonist of your book?

Yes, the painting The Square of St Mark’s. It is the centerpiece of the story, which is about a student who makes a journey to find another Canaletto. This one is very different. And the story concerns his discovery of a mystery due to the digital age.

 Why has it emerged?

Our hero discovers the secret using his smartphone and he repeats the process that Canaletto used to paint the secret with the camera obscura, the mobile device of his own day. The painting invented by me in the book is in a museum in South Carolina, and Canaletto depicted a crime that went unnoticed for centuries until the protagonist discovered it.Gondola Book

Why did you have this idea?

Because I believe that there is a privileged viewer and that is a viewer who looks closely and comes to understand the artist’s intention. That can be a gifted and sympathetic individual who comes along many years after the artist.

 Is it autobiographical?

Somehow, because the story raises a number of issues that greatly interest me, like the use and abuse of technology.  Also the fact that the hero is a dreamer and his girlfriend is practical and scientific and successful. He hopes at the end of the story that his discovery will redeem him in her eyes. His tragic fate suggests otherwise.

 Do you think that nowadays there is less interest in Old Master paintings?

Yes, but in writing my book I hope to show the deep satisfaction that such paintings can provide to people who are willing to allow an artist to speak to them through his work.

 How should one look at a work of art? How should one visit a museum?

In museums today there are too many works of art to give each one the attention it deserves. I think it is much better to allow your curiosity to lead you to a work which will repay the kind of close scrutiny that the artist intended.

Raphael, Saint George and the Dragon, c. 1506, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

Raphael, Saint George and the Dragon, c. 1506, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

Why is Saint George and the Dragon by Raphael your favorite painting in the National Gallery?

Because I think that it combines Raphael’s deep interest in Leonardo, in other words his ambition as an artist to equal the older master, it combines that ambition with his own sensibility which always led him to a kind of perfectionism, a perfect grace. It is “the union of opposites”.


April 26th, 2014

The National Gallery of Art