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13.09.17, Sciacca, ed., Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance

13.09.17, Sciacca, ed., Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance

The catalogue was published in conjunction with the exhibitions held at the Getty Art Museum in Los Angeles (November 13, 2012-February 10, 2013), and the Art Gallery of Toronto in Ontario (March 16, 2013 to June 16, 2013).

Ten years of effort lie behind the superb quality of the works in this exhibition. Over forty panels and fifty manuscripts were included--with some appearing in North America for the first time, as in the Codex of St. George from the Vatican Library. The curators wisely did not include Giotto's name in the exhibition title, given its ambitious goal, and one largely achieved: to present the remarkable variety of images in different media, including crucifixes, altarpieces of all sizes, manuscripts, stained glass, and sculpture, and their uses in conveying the meaning and liturgy of the Christian faith in Florentine society of the early Trecento.

The museum installations achieved an exceptional balance between maintaining the visual autonomy of the object and the objective of informing the viewer through information accompanying the works, a balance that other major museums, such as the National Gallery in Washington, would do well to emulate in displaying their permanent collections. The curators and designers chose "gateway" objects, such as Giotto's large polyptych (probably for the Peruzzi chapel in Florence), and in some instances provided interactive content on an i-pad attached to the display cases. Several of the rooms contained altar-like supports and niches and low lighting. In the era of electricity and museums filled with natural light, it is easy to forget how dark church interiors were before artificial lighting. The golden glow reflecting off of gilded panels and the gold leaf of manuscript illuminations attests to the desire to transform natural light for religious purposes, effects complemented by candle light and stained glass in the original settings.

Organization of the catalogue and notable works:

Two artists dominate the exhibition: Giotto and Pacino di Bonaguida.

The most important works either by Giotto or his school include the so-called Peruzzi Altarpiece (Cat. 1), the Goldman Madonna from the National Gallery in Washington (Cat. 2), and the pinnacle from the Baroncelli Altarpiece (Cat. 23). Giotto's magisterial dignity of expression is fully displayed in the figures of these panels, although I have always wondered if the same artist that painted the firm hands grasping the child in the Ognissanti Madonna could have painted the lovely but more passive, less structured hands of the Washington Madonna, and the latter's dreamy expression leads directly to the work of Nardo di Cione in the later Trecento. There has also been some discussion of whether recent restorations of the Washington Madonnahave affected its present appearance.

In any exhibition claiming to include so many works from the hand of Giotto or his workshop, attribution controversies still loom over collections and exhibitions. To be fair, curators of exhibitions usually have no choice but to label a panel as by Giotto if the lending institution gives it to the master. But to accept every panel in this exhibition as actually being by Giotto, "all Giotto all the time," still results in an impossibly varied repertoire given to one artist, particularly in the Trecento. The catalogue entries do attempt to present a variety of opinions on attribution problems for some works. The discussion of the polyptych possibly painted for the Peruzzi Chapel (Cat. 1) presents an excellent summary of previous scholars willing to take a stand on its attribution and provenance. Angelo Tartuferi, the author of the entry on the seven small panels attributed to Giotto (Cat. 32), presented the attribution controversies and then wisely moved away to the arguably more interesting problem of how these panels were, if at all, connected with each other.

The exhibition catalogue includes an extremely useful grouping of heads from works painted by Pacino di Bonaguida in various media on one page (343), and here, the attributions to him hold up. A similar grouping of the heads from various paintings attributed to Giotto in the exhibition would have demonstrated the visual impossibility of all of the attributions to Giotto being correct--but perhaps would have been too drastic a challenge to some of the lending institutions. Another example of attribution problems appears in attributing the two saints from Chaalis and the St. Stephen from Florence to Giotto, illustrated on facing pages (88-89); these panels cannot all have been painted by the same artist, and Victor Schmidt correctly states that the paintings come from two different polyptychs.

Attribution problems also haunt the works given to Taddeo Gaddi. The panels from the New York Historical Society and the Alana Collection (Cats. 11 and 12), do not reveal much of Taddeo's presence. Here, the eye of Andrew Ladis should still prevail. Similarly, the attribution of the Virgin and Child with a Donor (Cat. 22) to Bernardo Daddi cannot hold up in a comparison with a panel almost certainly by Daddi himself, the Virgin Mary with Saints Thomas Aquinas and Paul from the Getty Museum (Cat. 6). One problem with attributing so many works of followers to a major artist is that the intriguing idiosyncrasies of the followers are often ignored: they either "disappear" behind the attribution to the greater artist, or the "variations on the theme" become viewed negatively, as discrepancies away from the style of the master.

In addition to the remarkable assemblage of panels by Giotto, his workshop, and his followers, the other "stars" of the show are the manuscripts. Although a touch of hyperbole occasionally informs descriptions of Pacino's artistic status, his shop was arguably the most prolific in Florence in the early Trecento. The manuscripts by Pacino and his workshop include some of the most important books created in Florence during this time, notably the Laudario of Sant'Agnese, (Cat. 45), commissioned around 1340 by the confraternity of Sant'Agnese, located in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. The pages from the Laudario were displayed in a separate room, and one of the two essays by Christine Sciacca is devoted entirely to this manuscript. Four other essays discuss Pacino and his workshop, as well as technical aspects of his work as a painter and illuminator. The quality and variety of the manuscripts assembled for this exhibition make it a once-in-a-generation show, for many of these will not travel again for decades. The liturgical manuscripts included antiphonaries, graduals, missals, and commentaries on decretals, with informative descriptions of their uses in the catalogue. The show also included the spectacular Codex of St. George (Cat. 17), a five volume antiphonary from Impruneta, a treatise on the Virtues and Vices (Cat. 39), an Italian version of the French Somme le Roi (Cat. 40) and a magnificent Bible from the Trivulziana Library (Cat. 30). The three copies of Dante's Divine Comedy, dating from the 1330s, demonstrate the immediate popularity of his poem, and also indicate a primary preoccupation, persisting up to the present day, with how to visualize the text.

Because religion informed all aspects of daily existence, the new "realism" of the Trecento favored the inclusion of details from the vernacular in illustrating religious narratives. For example, the delightful scene of St. Eloy in a goldsmith's shop (Cat. 46) shows an Eastern carpet covering the main table in the shop, and gold chains hang from the ceiling. The combination of religion and economic realities also appears in the interior of Orsanmichele and its grain market, as in the Specchio umano by Domenico Lenzi (Cat. 9), the Florentine grain merchant immortalized by this manuscript. The close integration of religion and economic life recalls the phrase written at the top of ledger sheets or business contracts of the 14th century: "in the name of God and profit."

With regard to the organization of the catalogue, the essays were grouped into different sections and not numbered individually; the reader had to remember the part under which each essay was placed, leading to much shuffling back to the table of contents. Essay illustrations were occasionally embedded within catalogue entries, and both systems used decimal numbers (such as Fig. 3.5 and Cat. 36.3). Having the catalogue entries grouped at the end of the catalogue would have been in better service to the reader.


Most of the essays are well balanced in their contributions to an engaged general audience as well as to the academic community. The introductory essay by Eve Borsook contains some errors with regard to the religious order of the Humiliati and their church of Ognissanti, which contained several works from Giotto, including the Ognissanti Madonna. The crucifix by Giotto for the church of Ognissanti was not painted for "nuns" there, as nuns never occupied the church, and the altarpiece of Beata Umiltà painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti was painted for the Vallombrosian church of Santa Trinita in Florence. The premise that Giotto "ignored earlier painting" could have been more nuanced--many of his basic compositions and details therein are based in earlier traditions of Byzantine and Italian painting. These errors could have easily been rectified through a better editorial review process, and the essay as a whole presents a comprehensive introduction to the artistic and social context of Florence in the fourteenth century, in the best tradition of her writing.

The excellent essay by Victor Schmidt focuses upon types of religious paintings and their patronage, as well as on contextual issues of display. Particularly interesting is the issue of covering and revealing images to the worshipper, apparent in the Madonna of Impruneta and the Madonna of Orsamichele, the latter by Bernardo Daddi. The enclosing and revealing of a sacred image may be alluded to in a diptych by Pacino (Cat. 26), where the Madonna and Child appear to emerge from a tabernacle or triptych, with painted shutters flanking the throne opening to reveal the holy figures inside.

Schmidt's use of the words "icon" and "super-icon" is a bit puzzling, for these terms blur the nomenclature distinguishing Byzantine icons from Western images, especially since many Western European paintings were displayed directly on or above altars, a function that Byzantine images never had during this period.

The essay on liturgical manuscripts by Bryan Keene, "Preparing the Soul for Heaven," rightly focused as much upon how manuscripts were actually used as upon issues of attribution.

Discussing what people were thinking about as they used liturgical manuscripts could have been expanded. As stated in his essay, the goal may have been "to direct the minds and souls of the devout toward heaven" (93), but a comparative illustration from a missal in the Getty collection (96), showing monks singing during the Mass, also includes a naked tonsured monk directly below displaying his bare buttocks to the reader. Other drolleries include nude women and lecherous beak-nosed men cavorting in the borders of this page, a missal commissioned by a cardinal during the year he became Pope (Innocent VII). Humor deserves a place in explaining some of this imagery, or perhaps an examination of Michael Camille's interpretations, such as the possibility that erotic drolleries could represent "the horror of the flesh" for the clergy.

The relationships between compositions in panels and those in manuscripts, and issues of framing in manuscripts, could have been explored more fully. For example, in the beautiful Annunciation (Cat. 14) the architectural setting for the scene was replaced by the foliate patterns of the initial M. Was this substitution intended to emphasize that the figures are enclosed within a manuscript initial denoting Mary's name, rather than depicted on a panel? Was the striking wooden grain below both figures a proleptic reference to the cross, since no other reference to a domestic interior appears?

Manuscript illuminators had much more freedom in creating frame formats than panel painters. For example, on one page in the Laudario of Sant'Agnese (Cat. 45.9), there are four frame shapes, rectangles, circles, a mandorla, and a mandorla oriented horizontally at the base of the page. What meanings might underlie these choices? In other manuscripts, major figures are excluded from the narrative field and appear in the borders, so that "the viewer must visually draw them together" (239). Perhaps divided fields reinforced the manuscript itself as the source of divine knowledge, for the reader is "fixed" in the present and called upon to meditate or sing from left to right, as represented in the scene. An exemplum often appears--the Dominican nun witnesses the devotion to the cross outside the scene at the lower left of the page (Cat. 50), or the confraternity members kneel, supported by the foliate pattern of the manuscript itself as they sing, presumably the hymn appearing on that page (Cat. 45.10). The drama of Christ's calling of his apostles is reiterated by his separation from them (Cat. 45.2). This play of borders and their transcendence also appears in the illustration from the Specchio Umano (Cat. 9), in which the Florentines take in the starving Sienese outside the gates of Florence; between the two cities facing each other on the folios, the Florentine reaches across the margin to welcome the Sienese.

The exhibition also emphasized the contrast between intact manuscripts and framed cuttings--an eloquent demonstration of how manuscripts have been dismembered for sale, as pointed out by Sciacca, since the fourteenth century.

Some of the "frontispieces" for essays contained images unrelated to the topics of those essays, as in the detail of Giotto's Descent into Limbo, a panel with Franciscan patronage, facing Pasut's essay on manuscripts illustrating The Divine Comedy. The attempt in this essay to discuss a large number of manuscripts, including some that were neither illustrated nor part of the exhibition, made the organization difficult to follow. Suda's essay also occasionally displayed the same problem of emphasizing works not contained in the exhibit, such as her discussion and large illustrations of Taddeo's panels for the sacristy of Santa Croce. The choice of the Louvre Stigmatization by Giotto as a comparison for Taddeo Gaddi's Stigmatization (Cat. 33) is also puzzling. The better comparison, in both dating and influence upon Taddeo, which was included in the catalogue entry for Taddeo's panel, would have been Giotto's fresco of the Stigmatization above the Bardi Chapel in Santa Croce. The "audience" for small predella scenes below altarpieces would have been the celebrants of the Mass and the religious of the church, rather than laypeople, who could not have seen them from the nave, or beyond a choir screen.

The differences between Giotto's monumental style and that of Pacino and his followers, representing more of the so-called "miniaturist tendency," receive a great deal of discussion in the essays, reflecting the stylistic divisions between these groups of artists. Yet these two groups constantly permeated each other. For example, in the four panels attributed to the Master of the St. George Codex (Cat. 34), Giotto's influences could have been discussed more specifically: the overlapping of the haloes in the Coronation of the Virgin originate with the Ognissanti Madonna, and in the Lamentation, the saint with his clasped hands near the bier is a direct quote from Giotto's Dormition in Berlin. But in the Lamentation, the remarkable placement of Christ's head between the legs of his swooning mother, with his arched stiff neck and open mouth evoking rigor mortis, seems to evoke northern European sensibilities. This fascinating eclecticism could have been explored further.

Technical aspects:

Some panels, such as Pacino's Tree of Life, were not included in the exhibition; the panel was represented through a copy so that it could be examined in comparison with other works by Pacino there. The extraordinary photography of the original panel published in the catalogue revealed many small details of the composition that remain nearly invisible to the naked eye, so that these aspects of narrative could be compared with larger versions in panels, frescoes, and manuscripts. Particularly noteworthy was the project involving the Chiarito tabernacle (Cat. 56), and the essay on technical aspects of the paintings and reconstruction of original appearance using analyses of original pigments. The azurite backgrounds of the triptych, now darkened, were digitally reconstructed with a simulation of the original dark blue of the pigment (Fig. 5.29). Photographs of manuscripts under ultraviolet light reveal details of drapery no longer visible to the naked eye, but remain clear under ultraviolet light. This virtual time travel back to the originals has its equivalent in the ultraviolet photography of Giotto's frescoes, particularly those of the Peruzzi Chapel. These photographs are now being published by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, as reported by Cecilia Frosinini in her presentation at the Getty Institute in conjunction with this exhibit. These techniques bring us as close as we can ever be to how these works originally appeared.

Some omissions:

The importance of the Sienese contribution to Florentine painting was not sufficiently addressed in the catalogue. It is impossible to understand some narrative scenes, such as the Crucifixions by the Master of the Codex of St. George (Cat. 34.1) and by Bernardo Daddi (Cat. 8), or even the panel by Giotto's shop of Virtues and Saints with its animated figures (Cat. 25)--without considering the influence of Duccio and of the Lorenzetti brothers, or even Simone Martini. And Giotto himself responded to Sienese painters, particularly to Duccio, as evident in the profound influence of the Rucellai Madonna upon the Ognissanti Madonna. The "Florentine" Renaissance, as the scholars of Sienese art remind us, is inconceivable without Sienese painting from Duccio up to the Lorenzetti. Thus Hayden Maginnis chose Duccio's Rucellai Madonna for the cover of his book Painting in the Age of Giotto, a book omitted from the bibliography for the catalogue. Ironically, Borsook ascribed the "invention of one-point perspective" to the Sienese artists of the Trecento, but one-point perspective was invented by Brunelleschi in the early fifteenth century. Yet Brunelleschi stood on the shoulders of Duccio and of the Lorenzetti brothers in his achievement.

In conclusion, the consistently outstanding caliber of the works contained in the exhibition, and the quality of the writing in the catalogue, outweigh issues regarding methodology and attribution. Their spectacular quality invites contemporary viewers, as they did for those in the 14th century, to explore the varied aspects of human experience underlying their forms and expression.