When Renaissance men discovered art
(especially the genius of Leonardo Da Vinci)
(Second in a series of articles about the National Gallery of Art.)
Traveling backwards chronologically through the main floor of the National Gallery’s older West Building, we now enter the age of the Florentine artists of the 15th Century, with their razor-sharp light and bright, clear colors.
The premier grandees of this epoch were undoubtedly the Medici, so it seems fitting that we enter a room and are at once surrounded by Medici faces. Sandro Botticelli renders Giuliano (1478-80) as a thin-faced thoughtful fellow—but Art deceives quite shamelessly at times, and that same Giuliano turns up in Andrea del Verrocchio’s terra-cotta portrait bust (1475-78), looking for all the world like a plump-faced hairdresser to the beautiful people. Well, you say to yourself, these people couldn’t have been such a big deal— but then you are stopped in your tracks by the scowling face of Lorenzo.
Here is all of the life-and-death power of this clan made manifest. The painted terra-cotta portrait bust (dated 1478-1521) might be a copy of an earlier work, but it exudes authority. Here is the face of raw power—and yet the man behind it was also a passably talented poet, much like those samurai in far-away Japan who would have been his contemporaries.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Ginevra de Benci (1474-78), a rather uncomplicated head-and-shoulders portrait of a young woman, easily eclipses everything else in these rooms and explains more eloquently than any words why Leonardo is held in such high regard. He is a magical artist— even his backgrounds are alive.
Sienese art, where the Middle Ages hang heavy
As opposed to the Florentine art, the Sienese art of the same period seems more stylized and less luminous. The Middle Ages hang more heavily over these works, whose creators were perhaps more reluctant to turn their backs on tradition in search of Something New. Neroccio di Bartolommeo (Landi)’s Claudia Quinta (1490-95) somewhat resembles a Botticelli but is less accessible. This lady holds her own counsel. The Master of the Griselda Legend’s Joseph in Egypt (1490-95) is hung as if it is a companion piece to Claudia Quinta, but actually it isn’t. The two paintings do fit together nicely, though, sharing pronounced similarities in both the poses of the figures and the color schemes employed.
A comparison of Girolamio de Benvenuto’s Portrait of a Young Woman (1508) to Leonardo’s Ginevra makes the difference between these two schools of art immediately apparent. While Leonardo strives to capture reality itself, Benvenuto is merely content to offer us a representation of life.
A slow-witted Christ child
The painted sculpture of the period is quite nice; some pieces are more stylized than others, but I especially like the Madonna and Child (1430) executed by a member of the circle that gathered around Giovanni di Turino, because the Christ child seems rather slow-witted as he sucks on his fingers, not at all like the little Buddha we sometimes see.
Matteo Civitali’s Saint Sebastian (1442) is startling in its realism— one wonders if golden or silver arrows once protruded from the tiny holes studding the figure. At about two feet high, it seems a bit small for ecclesiastic uses; perhaps it was created for private devotion. It now resides quite comfortable in a little wall niche just inside the doorway to its gallery.
David and Goliath on a shield
When Renaissance men discovered Art, they couldn’t get enough of it. They even had their shields painted! Andrea del Castagno’s David and Goliath (1450-55) rendered a fierce David standing over the severed head of Goliath, his left hand upraised in warning, guaranteed to give any rival knights pause. (Though I doubt that such an accomplished work of art was ever carried into combat. It was probably used purely for ceremonial occasions.)
Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi both worked on a large circular painting of The Adoration of the Magi (1440-60), a piece which, in the best Renaissance manner, tells several different stories simultaneously. This technique found its way into great and small paintings.
Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1461-62) moves the scene of the saint’s martyrdom from the dungeon of Herod’s desert citadel to a small anteroom (somewhat resembling a confessional) of the banquet hall, where a demurely-clad Salome dances before the king. Once again, time has been scrambled: The saint is being executed before the dance has been completed and the dancer can request her reward.
Miraculous occurrences amid frozen custard
Domenico Veneziano’s Saint John in the Desert and Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata (both 1445-50) both depict miraculous occurrences in isolated places whose rocky landscapes resemble frozen custards and project a dream-like sense of unreality.
The paintings and sculpture of the Italian Gothic Period, which are more nearly contemporaneous with Saint Francis, display none of these atmospheric qualities: They’re flat, closed and complete hieratic in nature. Yet it was just such a piece of art— a crucifix by an unknown painter hanging in the small church of San Damiano— which is said to have started the saint on his journey.
Second of a series of articles on the National Gallery.
To read Andrew Mangravite’s first article, click here.
To read Part 3, click here.
To read Part 4, click here.
To read Part 5, click here.