The Gothic Italian exhibit "Sacred Treasures," from a period when art served religion, offers glimpses of intellectual and artistic currents that fed into the Renaissance.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published June 15, 2003
[Images courtesy of John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art]
Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Christ Child, 1500-1510, oil on panel.
Michelangelo di Pietro Mencherini (Master of Lathrop Tado), Assumption of the Virgin with St. Thomas, c. 1500, oil on panel.
Francesco di Vannuccio, Crucifix with the Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist and St. Mary Magdalene, 1380s, tempera on panel.
SARASOTA - "Sacred Treasures: Early Italian Paintings from Southern Collections" is a narrowly defined exhibition covering a narrow period of Italian art that opened a large window. Even without examples of frescos, sculpture and architecture, the show at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art carries the viewer through the currents of change during this crucial period of Western art - if you know how to look at it.
The 40 or so paintings are nothing short of gorgeous, rendered, with a few exceptions, by artists whose names will mean little to those who aren't scholars. They span the 13th to the early 16th centuries, when Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages, on the cusp of the Renaissance, during a period known as Gothic Italian. Its finest examples were products of two rival Tuscan city-states, Florence and Sienna.
Italy at this time was not a unified country but a mosaic of independent fiefdoms united only by their religion and fealty to the pope. With an emerging class of prosperous merchants and bankers, arts patronage, in the past the province of royalty and highly placed clergy, began to include these freshly minted rich, who built sumptuous private chapels.
Except this wasn't considered arts patronage. This was the Age of Faith, and the focus of intellectual life was based in theology. So, wealthy as they might have been, these patrons, concerned like everyone else with their souls' salvation, gave up their disposable income, at least nominally, to the glory of God.
Their commissions, no matter how beautiful, were rarely referred to as "paintings." They were altarpieces, crucifixes, votive offerings of thanks, portraits; their subject matter was limited to narratives of events such as Bible stories and saintly miracles or cult images such as the Virgin Mary. Personal vanity wasn't ignored; a patrician commissioning an altarpiece painting for his private chapel could have himself or members of his family included. One example is The Annunciation with Donor, c. 1375-1380, by Jacopo di Cione, in which an unidentified benefactor is kneeling in thanks or supplication between Gabriel and Mary.
But these works were valued first as religious objects for veneration or instruction. They were executed by workshops of "craftsmen," specialists in certain parts of the creative process, with more senior ones members of a guild, like laborers. Some of these artisans were so talented, they rose above group anonymity, but like their artistic brethren who crafted Byzantine icons, they were not considered artists who created beauty for itself alone. Rarely did they sign or date their work; identifying them has often been the task of historians in later centuries who combed through church records to find bills of sale and contracts between patron and artist, or who sometimes just made educated guesses.
All the works in this exhibit are "panel paintings," meaning they were painted on pieces of wood, and the majority are tempera, pigment mixed with egg yolk that was preferred over oil paint until the 15th century. Tempera dries quickly, leaving no room for error or changes of heart. It lacks the gloss and color-saturated depth of oil-based paints. It worked well in the service of images not meant to be interpreted freely but were finished with enamel-like precision. When a vivid color was used, in the red robe of a holy personage or the lapis of Mary's cloak, it stood out in relief against the matte tones of tempera. And, of course, gold leaf, a visual code for holiness and the light of heaven, proliferated.
The exhibition is arranged more or less chronologically, with some thematic groupings. Most of the works are fragments, parts of multipaneled altarpieces that were broken up for easier sale in later centuries. The size often reflects the importance of the subject within the context of the work. The elaborate frames that surround these works are not original, and a few have suffered "restoration." The most glaring example is di Cione's Annunciation, in which God was replaced by a half-figure of the Christ child.
Many smaller paintings are of saints, and there was a host from which to choose: name saints, familial saints, patron saints (for one's occupation) and civic saints, believed to protect a region or city. A mostly illiterate population was given visual clues to the characters, easily identified by their facial features, clothes and attributes.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, a 14th century work by Bernardo Daddi, typifies this saint's depiction always as a beautiful maiden. She wears a crown signifying her royal birth and often holds a book and a palm frond, references to her learning and status as a virgin martyr. A spiked wheel upon which she was tortured usually rests nearby. St. Catherine can be picked out in other paintings by these details.
The most popular subjects were the Madonna and baby Jesus. The shape and size of these paintings indicate that they usually occupied the center portion of altar pieces. Mary was the most powerful intermediary for a people who believed in direct intercession for personal problems and the efficacy of prayer to specific holy personages. She was a sympathetic mortal, a nurturing, adoring mother who is often pictured in the adoring company of saints and angels.
The Virgin Mary nursing the baby Jesus was the favorite pose for early Gothic painters. The earliest example in this exhibit is Madonna and Child (Madonna del Latte), 1375-1380, by Giovanni del Biondo, who studied in the di Cione brothers' workshop, one of the finest in Florence in the mid 14th century. This Mary has the accoutrements typical in most representations: a crown of gold, a starburst on her richly detailed robe that refers to her status as spiritual guide. The nursing baby looks more like a little man; he sucks at her breast, which is positioned as an outgrowth of her neck.
Compare it with one painted in 1470 by Cosimo Rosselli. The identifying details are the same, but the figures are more natural. Jesus looks like a well-fed baby. Mary looks more anatomically correct, and instead of a background of gold leaf, she is placed on a thronelike chair in a garden setting.
Later portraits of Mary, such as Assumption of the Virgin with St. Thomas, c. 1500, humanize her further, placing her in richly detailed landscapes very much like local ones. But they more often focus on her role as Queen of Heaven, the result of changing church doctrines that legitimized the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Scholars have had trouble attributing this work's authorship; it is now believed to be by a painter named Michelangelo di Pietro Mencherini (no, not THAT Michelangelo), also called Master of Lathrop Tondo.
One of the rarest works in this show is Crucifix with the Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist and St. Mary Magdalene, 1380s, by Francesco di Vannuccio. Curators have hung it high on a wall by itself, emulating its original placement suspended above the altar in a church, probably in Sienna. (Crosses were not put on altars at that time, possibly because the celebration of the Mass on them made crucifixes redundant.) This is a monumental one. It hews to standard treatments visible throughout the exhibition that emphasize Christ's suffering. In addressing the brutality of the act, the painting is a unique departure. Thick red paint gushes from his wounds, looking viscously real. In contrast to his wracked body is the gossamer cloth wrapped around his thighs.
The crown of thorns is also delicately rendered, as if to say that it and the droplets oozing from it were a minor prelude to the pain on the way. On Jesus' left and right are a desolate Virgin Mary and a distressed St. John, who wrings his hands and turns away helplessly. Beneath Christ's blood-drenched feet is Mary Magdalene, looking like one tough broad threatening off anyone else who messes with her master.
It's an incredibly expressive work and addresses the temporal, but very real, pain of death mitigated by the promise of God's ultimate grace. (Remember, the Black Death had killed off an estimated 50 percent of the population in Florence and Sienna fewer than 40 years earlier, so mortality was much on people's minds, along with spiritual redemption.)
The big name in the exhibition is Sandro Botticelli, whose painting Adoration of the Christ Child, 1500-1510, is the most recent and one of only two in the show painted in oil. It's a tondo, a round painting that became popular in 15th century Tuscany.
By that time, the powerful Medici family ruled Florence as the acknowledged leaders in business and arts patronage. Botticelli was a leading Florentine painter; Primavera, one of his most recognized paintings, a secular work celebrating spring, was commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici. Humanism was on the rise, and faith, though still a central part of people's lives, was being reshaped to accommodate a new belief in man's ability to determine his destiny.
Beginning in the early Renaissance, patrons began to collect art for personal enjoyment and intellectual edification, as well as for spiritual comfort and instruction. Tondi were usually commissioned for homes of the wealthy, so their subject matter was more domestic. The nativity, not a common subject in earlier Gothic art, became a scene of choice in this context.
Botticelli, who painted this tondo near the end of his life, had not worked with oils for most of his career, and this painting reflects his tentative approach to that medium, working it more like tempera. In it, Mary, clad in a gold-trimmed cloak adorned with her starburst, hovers over the baby wrapped in a sheer cloth that verifies his fully human body. Unlike earlier adoration scenes in which baby Jesus is awake with arms outstretched toward Mary or touching his lips, this one sleeps, perhaps a foreshadowing of his death.
Joseph sleeps, too, and the dream in which an angel commanded him to flee to Egypt with his family is painted as a real scene in the distant landscape. Behind Mary, shepherds linger. It's humble and opulent, a straightforward narrative packed with details. It is not among Botticelli's finest works, but it is done with the poetic beauty we associate with Botticelli, though void of the lavish decorative elements that adorned his earlier paintings.
Exhibit organizers have provided thoughtful collateral displays, too. One shows the steps in creating a panel painting. Accompanying one of the show's stars, St. Jerome in his Study, is a 16th century copy of St. Jerome's fourth century translation of the Old and New Testaments from Hebrew into Latin, called the Vulgate.
This exhibition was curated by Perri Lee Roberts, a University of Miami professor and expert in Italian Renaissance Art. It arose from her efforts, with a group of fellow scholars, to catalog all early Italian paintings in public collections in North America, a daunting task never before attempted. She was assigned the southern states, and she culled work for this show from 23 institutions, including five belonging to the Ringling. Many are part of the famed Samuel H. Kress Collection. These works probably will not be allowed to travel again for a while, and to see them in such a disciplined, representative way is an opportunity not to be missed.