Map of Italy, 1500
There are several options open to me. I can choose to divide Italian painting up into “schools” tied to geographical regions. Alternatively I can try to match styles, and their subdivisions, to specific painters in centres like Venice and Milan. Or I can do a form of close analysis focusing on specific, “canonical” works that are representative of the renaissance, bringing out their importance to the society and culture of the time. Michael Baxandall’s great book Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy is a good example of this.
|Summit of Mount Ventoux.|
Last term when teaching a course on Northern Italian art, I experimented by creating a hybrid of travelogue and stylistic analysis based loosely on Crow and Cavalcaselle, Berenson, and Freedberg. I read somewhere that Berenson had in his mind a mental image of the whole of renaissance art as it unfolded: every artistic trend observed; every connection noted; every picture memorized. You could call this a synoptic view of the renaissance, everything seen broadly at a specific point in time, like looking down from a high peak. Petrarch’s clear vista from the summit of Mount Ventoux in 1336 comes to mind.
From his mental vantage point, Berenson oversaw the landscape of renaissance art with the eye of memory, and later the artificial eye of photography. In teaching my courses I tried to attain this view from the summit by studying survey texts of renaissance art. This led me to Sydney Freedberg, an acolyte of Berenson, but the pupil's view from the top of the peak was much more complex than the mentor’s.For a start, Freedberg favours a more variegated scheme based on geographical schools and a stylistic chronology that includes such difficult concepts as “Late Counter Maniera.” Though bursting with wonderful observations and insights across a broad range of artists, I found the model too complex, certainly for teaching purposes. The view from the summit was obscured by clouds.
|The view from Beck’s Peak.|
“No special effort has been made to create a balanced coverage among painters from Italy’s various regions. A situation of natural selection gives Tuscany, and especially its main centre, Florence, a decided edge over other places during that time when the first generation flourished. Much as the Florentine dialect became the literary language of Italy by the fifteenth-century, so the artists of Florence- sculptors and architects as much as painters- had an unmistakeable impact on the entire peninsular. No representatives from Milan are to be found in this book, although it was the capital of Lombardy, a region of immense wealth and political and military power. That region failed to produce a painter of first rank. Nor have the number of representatives from the lyric and monumental currents been artificially equalized.”
Florence, cradle of the Renaissance.
“It would be short-sighted to underestimate the powers of local habits and preferences, but for a broadly based treatment of Italian Renaissance painting, division into schools can be overly limiting. Artists travelled widely; virtually every major painter of the period moved from his place of birth and training, that is from his “school,” to accept assignments elsewhere. Such interchange took place in many directions constantly, often obliterating the “school” as a center of style.”
Nevertheless, Beck’s criticism of Lombard art reflects the influence of Berenson who as stated previously on this blog was highly suspicious of artists who came from centres such as Ferrara, Milan and other cities in the north. Quite simply, painters from Emilia, Verona and similar centres didn’t measure up to the very high standard set by the Tuscans. To give one example, Padua is only saved by the fact that Donatello and other Florentines visited it and influenced the artists there. Like Beck, Berenson regarded the Tuscans, especially the Florentines, as the pinnacle of Italian renaissance art. And even when Berenson came to write his essay on Central Italian Painting (1897), it is significant that it comes after his essay on Florentine art (1896), and precedes his essay on Northern Italian Painting and the Decline of Art (1907). Though Berenson acknowledges the achievements of Central Italian painters, you get the impression that he’s not entirely convinced by them, despite their undeniable achievements. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement:
“The consistent pursuit of the Florentine painters was form and movement; of the Venetians, splendour and harmony of colour: what did the Central Italians contribute to the magic of Renaissance art? Rarely does colour penetrate the senses and warm the heart more quickly than in certain frescoes or panels of Simone Martini or Gentile da Fabriano, of Perugino or Raphael. Yet even these great masters could be at times indifferent, or indeed harsh, while their inferiors have slight merit as colourists. Seldom have problems of form and movement been better solved than by Signorelli; but he had few, if any, followers. It is not with the magicians in colour and the creators in form that the Central Italian painters, as a school, hold high rank. What is it, then, that gives them their place not only with the greatest, but with the most popular names in art? Our present quest, if successful, will yield an answer.”
Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, (Strozzi Altarpiece), 1423, Florence, Uffizi, tempera on panel, 303 x 282 cm.
|Gentile da Fabriano,Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1423, Florence, Uffizi, tempera on wood, 32 x 110 cm.|
Beck wasn’t keen on Berenson’s “rise” and “decline” paradigm dependent on “early” to “high” periods in renaissance art. creating a chronological model tied to style; neither was he interested in formulating a complex evolution of style like Freedberg. Though Friedberg tried to nuance the development of renaissance art from its classical youth to its “senility” in mannerism, he ended up with a historiography detoured by too many stylistic signposts. When conceiving his own methodology, Beck took style into account, but made his system elegantly simple. He divided the art in his book into the “lyric” and “monumental” currents.” As Beck admitted though, this was similar to later stylistic oppositions as “romanticism” and “classicism” and though it had its limitations, it was a model of clarity compared to Freedberg’s convoluted model of styles. The “lyric” was probably easier to detect, especially in the early quattrocento, because it was heavily influenced by the International Gothic style. Consisting of graceful movement, delicacy, curvilinear design, and an emphasis on contours, it may be discerned in artists such as Masolino, Fra Angelico, Lorenzo Monaco and Gentile da Fabriano. Beck also tied the lyric current in with naturalism, particularly depiction of the natural landscape, as with this predella panel from Gentile’s Strozzi’s altarpiece; the depth of realism is astonishing for such an early work.Monumental however constituted gravity of forms, volumetric three-dimensional modelling, figures shown full-face or in sharp profile; included here were artists like Masaccio, Fra Lippo Lippi and DomenicioVeneziano.
There were problems with this, as with any arbitrarily devised system. Take colour for example: both Angelico and Lorenzo fall into the “lyric” group, but their colours could hardly be more dissimilar. Of the two, Monaco’s palette is more “lyric”, in Beck’s definition, colour “used for its own sake rather than as a vehicle to produce readability” of the story. Angelico’s seem more decorative too, though his powdery blues might be associated with natural conditions than Lorenzo's shimmering yellows and pinks which seem the product of the artist’s imagination.
|Fra Angelico, Descent from the Cross, 1436-40, Florence, Museum of San Marco, tempera on panel, 176 x 185 cm.||Lorenzo Monaco, Adoration of the Magi, 1420-22 Florence, Uffizi, (?), tempera on panel, 144 x 177 cm.|
What makes Beck’s approach so distinctive- and why I’ve chosen to use it- is that he tried to deploy a generational model that can be mapped onto individual careers as well as the evolution of Italian painting as a whole. Beck again:
“The birth dates of the principal painters of the Italian Renaissance do not fall neatly into acceptable units, but it is still possible to organize them into three generations that roughly span the period. The first generation consists of those masters born in an arc of years around 1410, that is, who emerge as independent painters in the 1420s and 1430s when the artistic vocabulary in Italy was expanding radically in the hands of sculptors and architects.The second generation is made up of painters born around 1445, and the third generation of artists was born around 1480. In every case as many as fifteen years on either end of the central are sometimes needed to round out each generation”
Age Graph of Renaissance Artists, 1200-1600. Take a bow whoever did this!
Notice the gap between the first and second clusters. I don’t know if this graph was influenced by Beck’s thinking, but both separate the first generational cluster from that of the group composed of artists like Cimabue, Giotto, Duccio and others. Whilist thoroughly respectful of this group, Beck wanted to separate the two clusters because he believed that the renaissance really began with this first generation of innovators, particularly Masaccio. In order to do this, Beck identifies a transitional “moment” before the first generation of renaissance painters get into their stride. Artists like Lorenzo Monaco (not shown on the chart), Gentile da Fabriano, and Masolino da Panicale who had their artistic training and apprenticeship before 1400. Concluding his opening chapter on his renaissance framework, Beck makes his intentions and beliefs clear:
“Any division of the material will cause some inconveniences. What should be recognized is that Masaccio, Fra Angelico,, and some other leading painters of the first generation, whether characterized as lyric or monumental were together responsible for the first phase of Renaissance painting. Some of the artists were simply greater, more imaginative, or painted pictures that were more beautiful than some of the others.”
|Giotto, The Lamentation, c. 1305, Padua, Arena Chapel, fresco, 185 x 200 cm.|
Of course this raises the question of whether we should begin any survey of Italian renaissance art with Giotto’s generation, but that brings us to Berenson and his idea of “tactile values”, which I’ll leave for another post.
Meanwhile, it’s forward to the 16th century and back to the Malmesbury Judgment of Paris………
James Beck, Italian Renaissance Painting, (New York, 1981).
Bernard Berenson, Italian Painters of the Renaissance: 2, Florentine and Central Italian Schools, (Oxford, 1952). These essays first appeared around the turn of the 19th century, Venetian (1894), Florentine (1896), Central Italian (1897), Northern Italian and the Decline of Art (1907). They were combined into two volumes (Venetian Painting and Northern Italy, Florence and Central Italy by Phaidon Press in 1952. The paperback version has the same text and plates as the original.
Sydney J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy, 1500-1600, (Pelican History of Art), 1993.