At the Uffizi from June 19 to November 4, 2012, is an exhibit called Bagliori Dorati, Il Gotico Internazionale a Firenze 1375-1440. Curators Antonio Natali, Enrica Neri Lusanna and Angelo Tartuferi wish to reconsider this period of art history which they contend is not a break with the heritage of Giotto but a continuation that flows logically into the Early Renaissance. Is this still a question in Italian scholarship? And is it a question that the general audience of summer visitors to the Uffizi will appreciate?
The exhibit is unquestionably beautiful: its display is sumptuous and it contains more than a hundred paintings, sculptures and illuminated manuscripts from the late trecento and first half of the quattrocento. It is expertly curated – Natali is, in my opinion, an excellent scholar – and intelligently displayed by Antonio Godoli (more on his work below). It is an exhibit years in the making, with many difficult to obtain loans, and the stamp of approval of Cristina Acidini and the Polo Museale Fiorentino. Perhaps this is why, to date, nobody seems to dare critique the show. The articles so far are all essentially press releases with little or no changes or comments, and all in Italian. Perhaps an Italian viewer will simply accept the thesis of this exhibit, and perhaps as an outsider I am conditioned to question it. I do not want to in any way offend or belittle the work done here, which has been massive and admirable, but simply to provide a North American art historian’s reflection on a period about which I am not exactly an expert.
At the press conference and in the catalogue published by Giunti, Prof Natali frames the work of this exhibit by his own – and many italians’ – art historical / cultural baggage passed down by Roberto Longhi. He reminds us of the classic text in which Longhi distinguishes between the hands of Masaccio and Masolino in the Brancacci Chapel, exercise that I have carried out with my students, as my professors once did with me. I love the term he uses for this separation: forbici longhiane (Longhi’s scissors) (p. 44). Natali brings up the logical question: if Masaccio and Masolino thought along such different lines, surely they would not have worked together? And then how to account for works by Masaccio that seem too ‘retrograde’ to be his, such as the Madonna col Bambino e i santo Bartolomeo, Biagio, Giovenale e Antonio abate in Cascia di Regello (circa 1422), in which devout followers of Longhi in fact deny the hand of the Renaissance master. A traditional looking tryptich with a gold background, a massive Madonna enthroned and rigid baby Jesus, this painting looks like it could be by any International Gothic master, athough it lacks a delight in patterning that we more often see in, say, Gentile da Fabriano or Lorenzo Monaco (my two favourites of this period).
I once took a course with my thesis advisor Charles Cohen on Giorgione and connoisseurship, a practise in art history that I had never had a chance to study but disdained somewhat for its apparent lack of solid proof behind its conclusions. I learned a lot, including to have a lot of respect for those scholars capable of good connoisseurship, and I developed a tiny bit of the instinctual eye that is necessary for this practise. What I took home most from this course was: you must consider the entire range of possible styles of an artist and accept divergences when there are even more congruent elements. And better yet if there are documents.
Some of the most fascinating artists of the later Renaissance had an impressive ability to alter their style based on location, patronage and function – Lorenzo Lotto is perhaps the best example. There will always be a little bit of the hand of that artist that lets us know it is him, even when the whole looks – almost – like it might be by someone else. The same rule can be applied to the period of International Gothic in a manner that allows us to accept work by Michelozzo that looks a lot like Donatello, or by Paolo Uccello that looks like a very traditional devotional Madonna (Madonna col Bambino, Collezione Martello, Fiesole, fig. 4 on page 21). And this is what Prof. Natali is getting to in his study.
Natali furthermore wishes to suggest that humanism is not a proprietary movement that is present only in the work of those artists we consider ‘in the modern style’ (ie Brunelleschi, Donatello), but that international gothic style and artists are fully of that movement, in part because they were often commissioned by the same patrons associated with humanist interests. This is a secondary thesis that is more difficult to communicate within the space of the exhibit, and even in his essay ‘Complessità dell’Umanesimo’ I am left wishing for more visual or textual evidence.
The extension of the period of the exhibit to 1440 is done on purpose to include the newly restored Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello. The Uffizi panel – one of three – has indeed been gloriously cleaned, allowing us to now see much more detail, so that the gold accents flatten less than before, while the artist’s naturalistic approach to botany is made clearer, and thus more closely connected to his gothicising peers like Gentile da Fabriano. An extensive report of the restoration is included in the catalogue.
Speaking of Gentile, it is precisely the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi that I wish to speak. It’s part of the exhibit although it has not been moved from its permanent location to the temporary exhibit in the same museum. It seems to me that the continuity between International Gothic and Renaissance has always been a matter of note in the work of Gentile da Fabriano, and that the predella of this altarpiece has been used an example of this for many years. I certainly learned this as a student and seem to recall reading it in Hartt. I have pointed out, to numerous students, readers and tourists, the left-most predella in which the light emanating from the Baby Jesus who is being adored by Mary is carried through naturalistically in this night scene.
It is clear that Uccello, master of perspective, was ‘contaminated’ by his contemporary, Gentile da Fabriano. Both worked in the same city at the same time within the tastes of the same patrons. And thus it seems to me that the issue upon which this show is based – a need to requalify International Gothic because it’s not a retrograde or less important movement than the Renaissance – is really not an issue at all. Certainly not in the Anglo literature or tradition; perhaps still somewhat in the Italian tradition, if they are still using Longhi as a textbook. In which case, they ought to change textbooks.
On an entirely different note, I had the pleasure of exchanging a few words with Antonio Godoli at the visit following the press conference – he is the architect responsible for the new rooms at the Uffizi and for this temporary exhibit, as well as being the director of Orsanmichele. He was very generous with his time and extremely nice! He explained to me something that is also mentioned in the catalogue in his note on the display of the temporary exhibit in question: he believes in respecting the historical structure, so that in the permanent display you must see the architecture of the museum. In this temporary space, he prefers to create a clearly temporary structure that covers the original architecture though allows it to be seen at the top, where the rooms’ arches are not only visible but dramatically lit. He has created boxes along the walls, lined with ultramarine blue cloth, and niches with glass into which the paintings are placed, lit by LED lighting that does not emit heat. The floor has also been covered with panels of what appear to be marbled MDF; this is the first time that I have especially noticed a temporary flooring in this space, though now that I think about it, sometimes it is covered in black plywood, while otherwise the original cotto is visibile. The effect is indeed very temporary seeming – honestly I wouldn’t mind a finish that looks a bit more complete like that used at Palazzo Strozzi – but it results in a dramatic jewel-box effect for the paintings. (Sculptures are left out in the open.)
A propos of Palazzo Strozzi, recognizing the excellence of Ludovica Sebregondi in the writing of didactic labels, the organizers called upon her for this job. And the English texts are in real English, as they have been translated by Stephen Tobin.
An exhibit with a lot to see, but at the end of the entire Uffizi gallery and during the crowded summer months, I wonder how many die-hard art historians will make it over?
Bagliori Dorati, Il Gotico Internazionale a Firenze 1375-1440
June 19 to November 4 2012
Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze, www.unannoadarte.it