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‘Treasures from the Uffizi’ at the Michener MuseumBY: Anne R. Fabbri 04.24.2012
As the Michener Museum’s remarkable current exhibit demonstrates, Renaissance art was above all about rediscovering the human body, last in vogue among the Greeks and Romans.
“Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi.” Through August 10, 2012 at Michener Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa. 800-595-4849 or www.MichenerArtMuseum.org.
When artists rediscovered the human formANNE R. FABBRI
“Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi” is the art surprise of the year. Who would expect an institution known for its collection of Bucks County artists to exhibit 43 paintings and two tapestries from the early Renaissance to the 17th Century, borrowed from the renowned Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy?
This is a unique opportunity to view rarely seen works of art by great artists. These are not the major works of art that attract more than 1.6 million visitors a year to Florence— more like masterpieces usually safely stored in the Uffizi archives.
The exhibition’s chronological narration from the Old Testament’s creation of Adam through the New Testament’s life of Jesus might be the magnet for its popular support. But you don’t need to be religious to savor all the exhibit’s proofs of the Renaissance motto, “Man is the measure of all things.”
During the Renaissance, after all, artists weren’t necessarily religious either. They were craftsmen commissioned by the church or wealthy families. If the local religious order wanted a Madonna, an artist often used his mistress or the popular prostitute of the moment, perhaps a bit idealized, as the model. As the artist became increasingly famous, he signed his work and became selective about accepting a commission. At one point a king was reputed to have bent down to retrieve Titian’s paintbrush for the artist.
The Renaissance was all about depicting the human figure as realistically as possible. Due to the development of one-point perspective, spatial depth could be indicated and, beginning with Giotto, the figures could communicate with each other. Gothic art had been set in the celestial sphere; Renaissance and Baroque art portrayed this world. Renaissance art is a balanced composition with, in sculpture, a front and a rear; baroque art has diagonal compositions and is more fluid and emotional. Since the Michener exhibition is installed chronologically by story line, we have an opportunity to compare the differences between early Renaissance and Baroque art on view in the same gallery.
The Annunciation (c. 1670), by the Venetian artist Pietro Liberi, is a delightful example of the Baroque in Venice, with its diagonal movement and its architectural elements. The Virgin, a well coiffed maiden clad in a clinging red jersey gown, is notified of her selection by a hefty archangel Gabriel, who, despite his huge wings, seems too fleshy to soar through the air. The dove is lifelike, so I suppose the pigeons were in St. Mark’s square even then.
Compare this work to a painting 120 years earlier, Alessandro Bonvincino’s Nativity With the Shepherds. It seems refreshingly naïve— not great drama but a gentle narrative.
19th Century smiles?
One of the exhibition’s great treasures is Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna with Child (1466-67), still in its magnificent original frame. Note the architectural setting of the loggia and the landscape beyond. Although the painting was restored in the 19th Century and again more recently, you can still discern some of the gold flakes of the original composition.
Both the Madonna and Child have a half-smile, not usually seen in work from that period. Might that be the result of a 19th-Century reinterpretation? It’s food for thought. The figures look real, expressing the loving bond between a mother and child.
Another delightful painting in the same gallery is Mary with Child and Saint Catherine (c. 1550), from Titian’s workshop. It’s a worldly looking threesome without the martyr’s wheel of St. Catherine. The Christ child wears a gold and coral bracelet on each wrist and a similar necklace, reputed by Venetians to ward off disease. Perhaps not coincidentally, Venice was then a center of the coral trade. (Fake coral “horns” are still sold there today. Perhaps the superstition still survives.)
The Last Supper (c. 1550), by Bonifacio De’ Pitati, is a magnificent version of a subject usually associated with Leonardo da Vinci but popular with other painters as well. It’s a huge painting and carefully detailed in every aspect. You might even find yourself wondering if the bread rolls in the baskets are fresh enough.
Look for the diagonal composition, so typical of the Baroque, in Luca Giordano’s Climb to Calvary (1685-86). And don’t miss Christ Crucified Among the Suffering Virgin, Saint John and Mary Magdalene, (c. 1395-1400), a small but very important early painting on parchment, originally in a book of prayers, by the early Renaissance artist Lorenzo Monaco.
Monaco, a monk, portrays the scene in a celestial sphere, late Gothic without Renaissance naturalism. Note the hand painted decorative border patterns.
At the Michener, the gallery walls for this exhibition are painted a glowing shade of red, enhancing the art and the frames. It’s a joy to linger in that atmosphere, absorbing the humanity of the art from an era when, finally the beauty of the human body was re-discovered from the Greek and Roman classical culture.♦
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