By Richard P. Townsend
One name suffices to conjure up the glories of the Early Italian Renaissance—Giotto. The exhibition Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350, closing the 10th February at the J. Paul Getty Museum gives this towering figure of Western art and his times a thorough going over through the lens of a less well-known contemporary, Pacino di Bonaguida. Along the way, the fungibility between modes of painting—between larger-scale painting on panel or plaster and miniature manuscript illumination—is explored. This is an utterly fascinating exhibition—both beautiful to behold and intellectually engaging—and it travels to only one other venue, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, where it can be seen the 16th March to the 16th June 2013.The year 1300 and the following decades witness the birth—with Giotto as mid-wife—of painting in the modern era. Giotto’s artistic sensibility—his grasp for the figure’s form, volume, and expressivity as well as for story-telling in an organized, linear narrative—upended preceding centuries of Byzantine and Medieval tradition and began a renewal of a naturalism not heeded since Antiquity.
Pacino, although a younger contemporary to Giotto, was in some ways a dinosaur, practicing a type of artistic production born of an earlier time as a member of a guild. He demonstrated a fluidity between media, excelling at both panel and manuscript painting, and even stained glass design. He was, in short, an artisan par excellence. That said, Pacino was talented and prolific, organizing a large workshop by the end of his forty-or-so-year career and engaging the talents of younger artists such as the Master of the Dominican Effigies to work alongside him. And most of all, Pacino is responsible for one of several of the most glorious Italian illuminated manuscripts, particularly the Laudario of Sant’Agnese of 1340-50.
Giotto and his circle’s artistic dominance is immediately announced in the exhibition’s first gallery with his Madonna and Child (1320-30; National Gallery of Art) paired with a panel painting of a female martyred saint by Bernardo Daddi (who along with Taddeo Gaddi—also well represented in the show—were Giotto’s two main followers). In this Madonna, the modeling of the mother and child’s flesh and the literal human touch, with the infant squeezing his mother’s finger, proclaim the new (or re-newed) humanistic sensibility. The baby Christ is shown in a quasi-heroic mode, with noble physique and profile, Giotto fusing naturalistic concerns with an apparent interest in the ancient past.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the exhibition’s title, Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance hosts an unprecedented gathering of seven paintings by Giotto—a mini-retrospective—unprecedented in North America. It is thanks in part to former acting Getty director David Bomford—to whom the lavish, scholarly exhibition catalogue is dedicated by talented curators Christine Sciacca and Alexandra Suda—who encouraged them and their team to think beyond a manuscript exhibition and to widen its purview, providing the sort of unparalleled artistic contextualism that we enjoy in the present exhibition.
Nearby is the first example by Pacino di Bonaguida, a panel painting of the Crucifixion of c. 1315 (Fondazione Roberto Longhi, Florence). The exhibition here clearly lays out its arguments for the relationship between panel painting and manuscript illumination and the close relationship between Giotto, his circle, Pacino, and an artist with whom the latter worked closely, the Master of the Dominican Effigies. The last is so-called because of a triptych he made for Santa Maria Novella, a major Domenican foundation in early Renaissance Florence (tourists will know it as adjacent to Florence’s train station). The central panel is featured here depicting the highly unusual scene of Christ, the Virgin and 17 (count ‘em!) Dominican saints. To hammer home the illustration, just next to the panel painting is the Master’s illuminated manuscript the Specchio Umana (the Mirror of Man; c. 1325-35) from the Biblioteca Laurenziana, itself famously designed for the Medici by Michelangelo two centuries later.
The next room may represent the exhibition’s apogee for sheer beauty alone, while certainly aided by highly significant works by Giotto, his pupil Gaddi, Pacino, and Daddi. Taddeo Gaddi’s Maestà (or Majesty, c. 1330-34; New-York Historical Society ) shows the enthroned Madonna and Child in celestial, golden glory and reflects on a small-scale his master’s rendition in the Uffizi. Although much damaged, Gaddi’s central panel from a triptych is possibly reunited with its wings from a private collection and represents the transference of compositional and stylistic innovations between types, scale and media of works in the early Trecento. This and the Harvard Stigmatization of St. Francis (c. 1325; on view in a later gallery) are important examples of Gaddi reutilizing Giotto’s subject matter.
The Peruzzi Altarpiece showing Christ Blessing, surrounded by the Virgin and saints on either side, is the only example of a complete altarpiece by Giotto and his studio in North America, now one of the principal treasures of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Its name refers to the family and their chapel for whom it was probably made, in the Franciscan basilica in Florence, Santa Croce. The Franciscans were amongst his most significant patrons. The far right panel here is particularly noteworthy and most agree that Giotto himself must have been responsible for this acutely observed and rendered image of St. Francis, a frequent and powerful subject in Giotto’s oeuvre.
Of Santa Croce’s four chapels which were early identified as being decorated by Giotto and Gaddi—frescoes, and presumably altarpieces as well—only one of the latter remains in situ, the Baroncelli Altarpiece in its eponymous chapel. Remarkably, a fragment—the pinnacle of the central panel—separated from the polyptych after a reframing in the later Renaissance, is in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art and on view here. Despite its compromised condition, the unusual iconography of God the Father with dazzled angelic host can still be appreciated.
Even more to the point, Santa Croce was a highly important center of activity for not only Giotto and Gaddi, who worked alongside the master, but Pacino. Two examples of stained glass windows designed by Pacino are seen here, one of a Deacon-Saint and one of a Pope-Saint, both removed from their positions in Santa Croce’s nave’s north side aisle and now in the basilica’s museum. In their original setting, nearby were windows designed by Giotto himself, datable to around 1310. Pacino’s stained glass—doubtless made by the same glassmaker as Giotto’s—have been dated to around the same time. The importance of this moment is hard to overestimate, as it is as close as we can get placing the two artists together in a location (not however that Florence was that big of a city). Who knows but that perhaps Pacino was hired by or with Giotto to work on the group of windows? By this time, the slim documentary evidence (from 1303) suggests that Pacino is already a principal associate in the painter’s guild and that he was already collaborating with other artists, and that in addition to having his own workshop, he (eventually) hired others such as the Master of the Dominican Effigies to help complete large manuscript commissions. One’s overall impression of Pacino’s style—despite the fact that he certainly has his own artistic personality which combines a conservative approach with some genuine innovations—is of Giotto’s overarching influence.
In Pacino’s work, one can see the echoes of the monumental, volumetric figures and almond-shaped eyes of Giotto, Gaddi, and Daddi. Consistent and highly characteristic throughout Pacino’s three media—panel painting, manuscript illumination and stained glass design—is the schematized figures—flat, Roman-nosed faces—and mitt-like hands.
One of the greatest masterpieces in the exhibition is Daddi’s Virgin Mary with Saints Thomas Aquinas and Paul (c. 1330), acquired by the Getty Museum in 1993. In pristine condition and monumental in concept and composition, this triptych may well have served as an altarpiece or alternatively, a very expensive, large private devotional picture. There is—compared to the gravitas of Giotto (such as is seen in the Peruzzi Altarpiece) and the sobriety of Pacino—a sweetness in Daddi’s work, much in evidence here. It is especially useful to have this example in proximity to the equally sumptuous, large-scale manuscript illuminations by Pacino for the Carmina regia or Appeal by Prato to Robert of Anjou (c. 1335-40; The British Library). A remarkably preserved, full folio illumination of a seated Christ with shooting gold leaf tongues or rays of glory—about a foot tall—stares out at us from the page with almond eyes and majestic mien. This is, then, the direct link from manuscript to panel painting in every sense, from scale to grandeur of composition.
Farther on comes a fascinating gallery devoted to the state of conservation of Trecento paintings and changes to their condition. The room is dominated by Pacino’s Chiarito Tabernacle (c. 1340s), a striking and unusual devotional painting in the Getty’s collection since 1985. This, the Getty Daddi triptych and the Getty’s subsequent acquisition over a decade of three sheets from the Sant’Agnese Laudario is a commendable example of how a museum can sharply focus its collecting and bring its collection to bear on a major scholarly exhibition.
In the Chiarito Tabernacle, Pacino shows his innovative side by combing a gilded pastiglia (gesso relief) central panel with narrative wings in the fashion of an illuminated manuscript. The iconography is even more daring, showing Christ feeding His Apostles—and the Blessed Chiarito, a contemporary of Pacino, whose convent commissioned this work—through gilded tubes emanating from His belly. It is an extremely rare depiction of the doctrine of transubstantiation (the Eucharist transformed into Christ’s actual body and blood).
The last rooms of Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance turn in to a monographic examination of Pacino, his circle and his workshop practices. The exhibition’s final flowering—saving the most fragrant for last—is an entire gallery devoted to the reconstruction of the afore-mentioned Laudario of Sant’Agnese. This is a remarkable feat, reuniting all but four of the 28 surviving leaves and fragments broken up around 1838. It was a lavish hymn book for the lay confraternity of St. Agnes at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine (think of a 14th-century version of the Rotary Club or better yet, Knights of Columbus). At some point, Pacino brought in the Master of the Dominican Effigies to help complete the commission; several leaves by him are on view here, his distinctive brown and gray-green flesh tones indicating his participation.
The surviving reassembled illuminations are arranged on a semi-circular wall, as if we are paging through the book but without turning its pages, while a recording of the stark yet serene hymns featured in the manuscript plays in the background. It’s an emotional moment, where we seem to come close to the sense of the communal spirituality shared by these faithful so many centuries ago, viewing the illuminations that inspired them while hearing voices recreate their songs.
As a piece of scholarship it is a triumph, for Sciacca and conservator Yvonne Szafran, have been able through scientific analysis to refine our understanding of the Laudario and re-order the progression of its pages, even though only about one fifth of the manuscript survives. Significantly, we have here the opportunity to consider Pacino’s illumination format. The clarity of narrative—indeed its geometry and architectonic quality—seen in the Laudario and especially in The Morgan Library’s manuscript of Scenes of the Life of Christ (c. 1320)—the volume and expressivity of figures, and blue-field box format owe much to Giotto.
Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance provides many prisms through which to view the first half of the 14th century in that cradle of modernity. There is the work of that giant of Western culture, Giotto. There is the first-ever comprehensive look at Pacino di Bonaguida, an artist firmly in the orbit of Giotto and much in demand for his ability to move effortlessly between media. His art was firmly grounded in the past, but with enough innovation to appeal. Then there are the other, even more shadowy figures in this milieu, which taken together provide a helpful context here. It all adds up to the most comprehensive view of artistic expression in the first half of the 14th century in Florence that we may have had thus far. It was quite clearly a rich and exciting moment, one abruptly interrupted in 1348 by the Black Death. It swept away a generation including Bernardo Daddi and perhaps even Pacino himself, signaling the long but steady decline of manuscript illumination in favor of modern painting.