In the next sentence a character declares that she has never heard of Alessio Baldovinetti, ignorance of the painter that is still common today. Trawl through the usual journals: a few articles. Look in vain for a significant representation in books and monographs; hardly any volumes devoted to him. There was a monograph written on him by Ruth Wedgwood Kennedy in 1938, but as far as I know there has been no major study of him undertaken. And are we surprised to learn that Baldovinetti doesn’t make the renaissance team in Beck’s survey of Italian painting; he’s relegated to the ignominy of an appendix, along with other cruelly overlooked artists left to languish on the touchlines. Somebody’s got to root for Baldovinetti, so here I am again, putting the case for yet another marginalised artist in the mould of Tura and Francia.
|Possible Self-portrait. Fragment of destroyed frescos in Gianfiliazzi chapel (Bergamo, Accademia Carrara)|
A few facts are known about Baldovinetti, although much remains in the realm of speculation. Born in Florence in 1427 to a family of wealthy merchants, he was a member of the Guild of St Luke. Vasari tells us that Alessio was trained by Domenico Veneziano, who’s only slightly more recognized than his pupil. Most of Baldovinetti’s work is documented and we even have a “Libro di Ricordi” in which he gives us details of kinds of colours he has purchased for commissions. His favourite method was to paint a secco with a mixture of yolk of egg and varnish. He seems to have been an experimenter in the mould of Leonardo; his frescos like the great Florentine’s haven’t fared well over time.
|Alessio Baldovinetti, (previously att. to Piero della Francesca)Madonna with Child, Musée du Louvre, Paris, tempera on wood, 106 x 75 cm,|
There’s another reason for this post: to link Baldovinetti with Berenson’s ideas on Florentine landscape and spectatorship, an idea I’m using in a course I’m currently teaching on Central Italian art. It was actually Berenson who was the first to take the artist seriously. In an article written in 1902, Berenson challenged an attribution to a painting acquired by the Louvre. A Madonna and Child set against a magnificent landscape with cliffs, rivers, pools, bridges and hamlets, it had been purchased as a Piero della Francesca, and Berenson was quite rightly determined to re-attribute the painting to Baldovinetti. This was comparatively easy; there are distinctive stylistic elements in Alessio’s art which help the connoisseur to identify him, and to disentangle him from the cluster of mid quattrocento painters like Piero, Veneziano, Andrea da Castagno and others. Compare the two Madonnas below: the colour scheme is uniform, lapis and vermillion for the Virgin; a pearly tone for the sky. But the dead giveaway is the landscape. In the words of Vasari, this artist “delighted in drawing landscapes from nature exactly as they are, whence we see in his paintings rivers; bridges, rocks, plants, fruits, roads, fields, cities, exercise grounds, and an infinity of other such things." Piero paints similar landscapes, but as Berenson pointed out, Piero’s landscape are more descriptive, cartographical; but Alessio’s use space in a different way; almost as an envelope surrounding the Madonna, wrapping round her like a kind of atmospheric garment. Berenson called it the “poetry of space.”
|Alessio Baldovinetti, Madonna with Child, 1460-65, Musée du Louvre, Paris, tempera on wood, 106 x 75 cm,||Alessio Baldovinetti, Madonna with Child, 1455-60, Jacquemart-André Museum, Paris, tempera on canvas, 90 x 74 cm|
After Berenson completed his essay on Venetian painters in 1894, he embarked on the most famous essay in the series- Florentine painters, published in 1896. Unlike the Venetian essay, which suffers from being too much in the shadow of Ruskin, Berenson used his Florentine essay to launch a number of ideas, most notably tactile values and the spectator- which we’ll look at another time. Then, the concept was linked with the figurative: the two dimensional character of painting being supplemented by a third dimension, which the viewer could imagine, if he or she looked as Berenson looked. However, Berenson didn’t confine himself to figurative art; he also extended his concept to landscape.
|Antonio Pollaiuolo, Tobias and the Angel, 1460, tempera on wood, Galleria Sabauda, Turin, dimensions unknown.|
“Before Verrocchio, his precursors, first Alessio Baldovinetti, and then Pollaiuolo, had attempted to treat landscape as naturalistically as painting would permit. Their ideal was to note it down with absolute correctness from a given point of view, their subject almost invariably the Valdarno, their achievement a bird’s eye view of this Tuscan paradise. Nor can it be denied that this gives pleasure, but the pleasure is only such as is conveyed by the tactile values. Instead of having the difficulty we should have in nature to distinguish clearly points near the horizon’s edge, we here see them perfectly and without an effort, and in consequence feel great confirmation of the capacity for life. Now if landscape as most people vaguely believe, is a pleasure coming through the eyes alone, then the Pollaiuolesque treatment could be equalled by none that has followed, and surpassed only by Rogier van der Weyden, or by the quaint German “Master of the Lyversberg Passion,” who makes us see objects miles away with as great a precision and with as much intensity of local colour as if we were standing off from them a few feet. Were landscape really this, then nothing more inartistic than gradation of tint, atmosphere, and air, all of which help to make distant objects less clear, and therefore tend in no way to heighten our sense of capacity. But as a matter of fact the pleasure we take in actual landscape is only to a limited extent an affair of the eye, and to a great extent one of unusually intense well-being.”
What’s notable from the above passage is the idea that renaissance landscape can fill the spectator with a sense of immense well-being, hope even. For Berenson, landscape is linked with pleasure, not scientific abstraction, although the precise rendering of natural objects in space, conveying distance or proximity is important. Pleasure is less allied with the sense of rational sight, but instead with depth psychology: landscapes create the feeling in the spectator that anything can be achieved, a sort of therapeutic working through of problems through viewing landscape. This is an example of what Berenson calls the “life-enhancing” or “life-confirming” function of art, an idea that he developed from reading the philosophy of Nietzsche at Harvard, individuation achieved through aesthetic means,- a far cry from the traditional connoisseurship for which he is known.
|Masaccio and Masolino di Panicale, The Tribute Money (and others), Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria della Carmine, Florence, 1426-7, fresco.|
Sometimes, Berenson’s prose takes on a decidedly Nietzschean tone, as when, for example, he describes Christ and the Apostles in Masaccio’s Tribute Money as a race of supermen fit to inhabit the new earth (actually Masolino’s mountainous landscape) that the painter has prepared for them. “Then what strength to his young men, and what gravity and power to his old! How quickly a race like this would possess itself of the earth, and brook no rivals but the forces of nature”! The exclamation marks have a Nietzschean flavour about them too!
|Alessio Baldovinetti, The Nativity, |
1460-62, Santissima Annunziata, Florence, Fresco, 400 x 430 cm.
The opposite of “life-enhancing” is “life-denying” when the horizon of expectations is closed down leaving the spectator closed up in a confined space. Perspectives of hope are narrowed, and consequently that capacity Berenson talks of is diminished. It is the painter’s function to convey “the consciousness of an unusually intense degree of well-being.” To demonstrate this in Baldovinetti’s case, Berenson presents the wonderful landscape in Baldovinetti’s Nativity, a fresco in Santissima Annunziata. This landscape contains a horizon which could symbolise hope, the future, the salvation of the world, an appropriate idea because of the presence of Christ himself born into the world.
|The “immense well-being” of landscape.|
Perhaps we could identify with the figure looking into the depth of the picture, out across the Tuscany landscape. We can follow his gaze out over the valley patterned by snaking paths and rivers that wind with a mazy motion under bridges, until our eyes reach further to the distant mountains. This landscape suggests the beginning of a new day, a new era of Chris, and the morning of the world. Baldovinetti’s painting opens up to the spectator with the result that the pleasure of looking is transmuted into potential. The spectator is uplifted- not in a moral- but in an aesthetic and psychological sense. The promise of a better world becomes visible, made manifest through Baldovinetti’s naturalistic skill and his poetic evocation of the Italian countryside.
Bernard Berenson, “Alessio Baldovinetti and the New “Madonna” of the Louvre, in The Study and Criticism of Italian Art, (1902).
Bernard Berenson, Italian Painters of the Renaissance: Florentine and Central Italian Schools (Oxford, 1952).
E.M. Forster, A Room with a View, 1908, and appendix, "A View without a Room” (1958).
Roger Fry, “Three Pictures in the Jacquemart-André Collection”, Burlington Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 134 (May, 1914), 78-85
Herbert P. Horne, “ A Newly Discovered “Libro di Ricordi” of Alessio Baldovinetti”, Burlington Magazine, Vol. 2, no. 5, (1903), 164-174.
Ruth Wedgwood Kennedy, Alessio Baldovinetti, (New Haven, 1939).