The Lost Generation

John Haber
in New York City

Bartolo di Fredi and Renaissance Siena

Somewhere in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, a painter in Siena outdid himself. Bartolo di Fredi took on his most ambitious assignment, a large altarpiece—perhaps the first ever on the theme of the adoration of the Magi.

The three kings kneel, crowned and haloed in hammered gold, in a small pyramid close to the picture plane. They have journeyed to a rocky landscape far from Jerusalem, but for the artist, they are at the center of the cosmos. He seems determined to pack in everything about a world in turmoil, from the newborn god before them to the attendants and horses rearing behind them. Should he, too, have a central place in history, and what would that say about the Renaissance? Was he an imitator, a conservative, an inventor, or an irrelevancy? The answer may offer insights into the chaos and pleasures of art today as well. Bartolo di Fredi's Adoration of the Magi (photo by Museum of Biblical Art, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, c. 1475–1485)

Bartolo takes in the entire narrative from Matthew, beginning "In the time of King Herod" and ending on a note of triumph, before the holy family must flee to escape a massacre. He also looks to the future, in the rising Italian city in the distance. He connects present and future doctrinally as well, in a Crucifixion that forms a separate predella panel, or horizontal base. And then, by no later than 1816, the altar was torn apart and sold in pieces, at least one piece not found to this day. Long before that, the painter had all but dropped out of the textbooks, along with pretty much his entire time and place. Call it a lost generation.

Now the Museum of Biblical Art attempts a reconstruction, not just of a "masterpiece" but of an artist's reputation and the very origins of the Renaissance. It assembles the surviving pieces with four other works, including two by Bartolo in New York museums. Bruce Boucher, director of the University of Virginia Art Museum (which originated the show and which owns a fragment), and Francesca Fiorani, also of the university, supply a time line and a careful description of early Renaissance technique. That is all one needs to look closely, to figure out what has been recovered and what was lost. It will not turn Bartolo into a headliner, but it does make art history a little more complicated and a lot more vivid. If it reminds you of the perils of looking ahead in art now, welcome to the club.

Reconstructing the Renaissance

What will people think when they look back at art today? They may nod to Damien Hirst and the extreme high end of the market that so preoccupies CBS News and others who cry fraud, but then what? (Surging prices for a few Upper East Side penthouses may not say all that much about this country's depressed housing market either.) Gertrude Stein may have called her days the lost generation, but it seems to have made it through the lost and found quite well, thank you. It upset the very definition of art, while ensuring the long dominance of Modernism. Then came another brief unsettling, in Postmodernism, but now what—with so many artists looking every which way and none?

And so it was in Italy. The fourteenth century had weathered a long dominance, too, in the late Middle Ages, and then a brief but incredible unsettling. The shocks began with sculpture in the 1280s, but also the collision of influences from France to the north and the Byzantine empire to the east. The greater weight and humanity of Giotto broke right through those influences in 1305, while the greater refinement of Cimabue in Florence and Duccio in Siena managed to unite them. Yet it took till around 1400, well after Taddeo Gaddi, with Lorenzo Ghiberti and others, for the Renaissance to begin in earnest.

That, at any rate, is how the story so often runs, and even few art majors will have heard of Bartolo. A 1951 classic by Millard Meiss tried to account for half a century lost to conservatism and tradition. His Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death argued that religion, culture, and society turned in the face of disaster to firm but repressive hierarchies. Think of aging white males voting Republican. Maybe, but a plague took its toll in more concrete ways, too. It meant a financial hit, where a breakthrough in art took patronage, and just plain fewer people around to create.

A half century of scholarship has eaten away at the picture from the opposite direction as well. Revisionists see not repression, but pluralism and growth—not unlike the mess today. Maybe art was turning more and more from great churches, just as the huge cast in attendance at Bartolo's Crucifixion may mean that he worked for the Dominican order. Maybe painters were quietly sustaining Giotto's legacy after all through thick and thin. Maybe, too, they were creating the future. One could imagine Bartolo, who died in 1410, as just that combination of looking backward and looking forward, in a last burst before the action heads for Florence.

Bartolo was maybe seven when Giotto died, in 1337, but his wise men are still in search of the action. The central panel, from the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena, combines scenes as in a graphic novel. In the far distance, they enter Jerusalem, in search of "the child who has been born king of the Jews." Their questioning gives Herod the requisite frights, but they slip safely out of town by another gate. Their journey carries them forward, past city walls and barren hills. It culminates in the still point at the front of the picture, but Herod shares his unsettling with the universe.

At left, five horses stomp and rear, heads tossed against one another. In this fantasy of a wider world, each has its own color. A single servant holds the reins, for the rest of the train presses toward the miracle. The oldest king has set his crown aside, to touch the infant's feet. Jesus offers his blessing, while Mary, in a shelter decorated like a canopy of stars, hardly moves. Joseph stands calmly, holding the gift of the Magi, his gold halo joining theirs in dignity.

Stopping short and starting over

Bartolo prefers drama and fancy to observation and anatomy. Mary's hands have soggy string beans for bones, although Giotto subordinated anatomical detail to his own superb drawing. Her dark, flat robe and the child's harsh shadows alike belong to the past, although they have suffered abrasion. This artist cannot individualize characters, although he comes closest with Joseph's weathered face and hands. Still, change was in the air, just as in the recognizable landscape—a claim, the curators note, of Sienna as the new Jerusalem. The striped cathedral within its walls was then still under construction.

As in Matthew, which begins with a genealogy, a city was at a crossroads in no small part because of its respect for tradition. The exhibition includes a life-size Crucifix from perhaps 1370 by Francesco di Vannuccio (along with a smaller painting attributed to Naddo Ceccarelli, less familiar still). The subject belongs to the 1200s, but this Jesus drips blood and almost leaps off the cross. From even a modest distance, it looks like carved wood. Yet the best case for change comes from Bartolo himself. One can watch it happen in the course of his three paintings.

The oldest, in the Cloisters, forms a natural companion to the Magi, with the Adoration of the Shepherds. Painted by 1375, it, too, has successive stages in a narrative. The shepherds fall back in wonder as an angel peels off a row of seven in the sky, and they drop to their knees with the artist's usual joyous exaggeration. Jesus still lies wrapped in swaddling, punning on a funeral shroud but denying him much of a life. Still, Bartolo has compromised between the older model of the holy family in a cave and the newer model of a rustic human shelter, by shaping rock itself as if by the hand of a master. With the altar from Sienna, painted somewhere between 1375 and 1385, the dwelling becomes architecture, while the rock stands apart as landscape.

Around 1390 Bartolo returned to the Magi, in a panel now in the Met's Lehman wing, as if demanding a correction. The hubbub has died down, and the secondary tales are gone, along with their disruption in the painting's scale. One remembers most a single white horse, as calm a center as in a mural by Diego Rivera, beside Joseph, the fully human element in a divine story—traditionally reduced to a minor actor or a joke. More than ever, gold leaf represents not highlighting, as for Byzantium, but the actual luxury of a king's robe, amid the still greater glory of pigments in blue and red. The lead Magi has laid down his crown in full view, as if renouncing an older art. Someone later cut off the top of the painting, including the gold of the sky, to bring it more fully into the next century's realism, grandeur, and humanity.

Bartolo never quite got there. Looking at the fragments of the central altarpiece and the cracks between them, one may hesitate to speak of a reconstruction. One fragment has fallen to the Lindenau-Museum in Altenburg, Germany, and one may never be found. The whole looks remote behind its modern transparent shielding, and the background narrative was always too small to see clearly. As late as the Lehman version, the perspective makes no sense except as part of a ritual. Up close, Mary's canopy envelops the viewer as well.

Maybe a masterpiece has not been reconstructed, because no one can reconstruct it. It would mean embracing a moment all too far from the Renaissance. It would mean locating a point of continuity and a point of origin, when those terms are precisely what a new history should call into question. One could imagine an alternative history to the whole idea of progress, in which Bartolo, who (as Meiss noted long ago) usually avoids overlapping figures, packed everything he had into one painting, overwhelmed by the attempt. Maybe he was at his most progressive to either side, from stripping the adoration down to two shepherds to stripping it down to Joseph and a white horse. Maybe the Renaissance had to start over half a dozen times, and so does art now.

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"The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed" ran at the Museum of Biblical Art through September 9, 2012.


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