Art about town

(Daniela’s unreliable history of Italian art, No. 1)

So, if you’re more interested than travelling than art, this one isn’t going to interest you. It’s all about art, what we’ve seen and been learning so far. The focus is on Renaissance Art. Being in the intertidal zone around Florence, this shouldn’t be surprising. And when we talk Renaissance, we talk Vasari.

Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574)was a 16th century mannerist painter, but he is better known for his narrative account of Italian, especially Florentine, art. He is regarded as the first art historian, and as such, he set the scene – everyone afterwards was taking him into account, reflecting themselves off him, critiquing him, using his approach as a model. Funny how we do that, isn’t it? Once the scene is set, the stage is a stage and there is nothing but the play. Only that isn’t true, there are plenty of other plays around; it just gets really difficult to figure out how to get from one of them to the next. We’ve always got to think about what went before. Slightly constricting, don’t you think?

But there’s some rationale for this… after all, isn’t history a help? If you want to learn from history’s mistakes, you’d better know some history; no? Back then though, in the ‘new dawn’, people saw it a little differently: it was rather, if you want to escape from the darkness of the present, and get back to a purer, more perfect place, an Eden, then you need to know more about Eden. You need to strive to get to know the ideal; to attain truth and perfection. Petrarch wrote, in the 14th century:

“this slumber of forgetfulness will not last forever. After the darkness has been dispelled, our grandsons will be able to walk back into the pure radiance of the past”.

Collective memories can last a long time. Europeans, certainly those who were writing, thinking and creating art, continued, through all of the ‘dark ages’, the medieval period, to remember an Edenic past: Rome. They preserved what fragments of it they could, and continued to strive for its ideals, especially empire, and within it, the pax Romana. Here and there were little glimmers of it – under powerful leaders, when wealth flowed: Charlemagne, the Norman conquest of England, the crusaders knew what they were after…

Then there was Florence. Little bits of Italy got rich enough to invest in other diversions. Pieces of Rome were uncovered, or perhaps recovered, fascinating, thrilling stuff, unlike the somewhat stultified art that prevailed in medieval manuscripts and ecclesiastical works. Despite its efforts to preserve truthfulness to the past, it had become boring. The Madonna was always being painted the same way, in the Byzantine style, how she was first painted, by St Luke, thought to be a truthful likeness. You see her here.



The Madonna’s status, and her child’s, were signified by her size (“those giants of old”). They were adorned with only the most prized, most worthy materials – gold, lapis lazuli, tyrian pinks and purples. But when it’s all prescribed, what’s there left for an artist to do but get bored with this? Only, what are you going to do to make a living? Maybe some artists got reckless. Luckily some people got rich and they got together. I reckon the rich ones were bankers. Banking is a no no for a good Christian, so these people had to start looking elsewhere for the meaning of life. That’s where it gets confusing I think. All sorts of pagan stuff started to be uncovered. Not just the old legal and ecclesiastical texts that had been preserved so far, but statues and frescos full of grotesque passion and emotion. The uncovering of Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea, put paid to people’s understanding of Classical art; if you’ve learnt anything about Classicism, you’ll have learned that the expression of emotion and the portrayal of that perfect other world that people like Petrach were longing for do not go hand in hand. Emotion was all too human and a sign of imperfection. So what’s going on here? On the one hand we have the Renaissance declaiming that it’s all about rebirthing the glorious Classical past, on the other, the expression of emotion burgeoning in paintings also teaming with the representation of nature in all its lawlessness.  Here are some examples of the ‘progression of art’ according to Vasari –

In stage 1 artists like Duccio (di Buoninsegna, c. 1255/1260 – 1318/1319) and Giotto (di Bondone, 1266/7 – 1337) began to depict the Madonna and Child as though they were alive, affected, interacting with one another and perhaps others in the scene around them. They began to paint backgrounds that the figures could plausibly inhabit, naturalistic scenes, even if their use of perspective was still a little wonky. Gone were the solid gold backgrounds. Probably to the relief of their patrons. In fact, maybe that’s how they got a start.

Duccio’s Madonna and child, which is meant to be displayed in the central transept of the Duomo of Sienna, where it would have been illuminated from above.The panels below are some of a series illustrating the life of Christ, and would have been on the reverse side of the above image. Note how there is some attempt at a naturalistic setting for the Madonna, on her throne, even if the scale and perspective are odd. The images below show better, however, how Duccio broke with tradition, placing characters in landscapes (or townscapes) and interacting with one another, rather than isolated from one another (even if the perspective is a bit off). In the largest image below, notice how the boys (giants!) in the trees add a quirky element, perhaps intended to give different viewers different characters to identify with in the scene. 


These innovative fellows were soon surpassed however, by the agents of progress. Along came Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, c. 1386 – 1466) and Brunelleschi (Filippo, 1377 – 1446) to shake off the bonds of painting and burst out into the three dimensional world with their architecture and sculptures. Painters were sick of being bound by two dimensional picture planes it seems. They wanted to be true to nature. Donatello placed his Madonnas and Baptists in three dimensional spaces that responded to the viewer’s position as well as truthfully depicting the three dimensionality of architecture. Not just any architecture either, but the architecture of the ancients – classical columns adorned with Acanthus for the Virgin; Ionian capitals for government, all in accordance with Vitruvius’ ordering of architecture (that’s Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, c. 80–70 BC to after 15 BC).

Lippi (Philippo) – Madonna col Bambino tra i santi Stefano e Giovanni Battista (Madonna and Child with Saint Stephen and John the Baptist. Note the ‘progressive’ naturalistic environment and appearance of interaction between the subjects. Don’t know about the rock balancing on St Stephen’s head though. It looks like it should have rolled off long ago (it is a symbol of his martyrdom, so that we know it’s St Stephen. John has a shaggy coat and beard, the feral).

Finally, for Vasari, there was Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, 1475 – 1564), who achieved “everything possible in the imitation of nature”; in fact antiquity and nature themselves seemed to have been superseded; which is to say, artists like Michelangelo were thought to have succeeded in more closely than anyone in representing the truth of the eternal world beyond the perceptions of humankind. And there is indeed something of the grotesque in the statues of Michelangelo, they are full of brutish power and force, more animal than divine (here’s David*). Why would the highflyers of the Renaissance have so appreciated this art as to claim that it was the apogee of progress? Did they see themselves as somehow beyond the reach of the church and its god, rather as more akin to gods themselves; perhaps as gods like the ancient pagan gods, untamable forces of nature, liberated from the laws of the church?

*We haven’t visited David yet, so I can’t include a photo.


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