Perspective as Contradiction

John Haber
in New York City

Fra Carnevale: The Making of a Renaissance Master

Fra Carnevale traveled in the right company. Like Sandro Boticelli, he apprenticed under Fra Filippo Lippi, perhaps the most advanced painter in Florence. As a student of Masaccio, Lippi had assisted on the frescos that gave birth to Italian Renaissance painting. Fra Carnevale's Birth of the Virgin (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1467)

Sometime after 1450, Carnevale returned to his native Urbino, where another itinerant painter, Piero della Francesca, curried favor with one of the most powerful and ruthless men in Italy. Art like Piero's took many of its cues from architecture, sculpture, and mathematics, and Carnevale, too, turned to design and engineering. He worked on Urbino's first Renaissance church, which came to completion under Luca della Robbia, one of Florence's leading sculptors and a pioneer of terra-cotta as a decorative building material.

As a Dominican monk, Carnevale continued his artistic career. However, contemporaries attest to only one major painting—an altarpiece that survives in fragments.

In other words, he serves as a footnote to some of the most distinguished names in art history. He also sounds like a recipe for something the Metropolitan Museum does suspiciously well—inflate a curator's pet thesis to a central dogma of art history. Surprisingly, an exhibition in the Lehman wing offers a convenient look at the early Renaissance. Along with some good painting and modest claims, it does have a quirky thesis, but it is not the puffery that you might expect.

Reunion and community

Seventy years ago, the Met acquired the first of two tall panels, painted by 1467 for the church of Santa Maria della Bella in Urbino. With its companion in Boston, they most likely stood on the altar of the confraternity, in an oratory adjacent to a hospital. The panels depict The Birth and Presentation of the Virgin—and a good deal more.

Dozens of characters occupy the fantastic architecture. Men and women, rich and poor, they share the slow, stately pace of a ritual, but little else. Some engage in conversation in tidy Renaissance groupings. Others pass in the foreground or stream in from distant hills. The paving stones and lines of the open portico, in precise but puzzling perspective, lead the eye every which way—to a church interior, to the edges of the panels, and beyond.

Statuary, above the porticos in low relief, outlines human pleasures and the stages of life. The large cast below describes a vast but orderly community. Meanwhile, the architecture and its central figures suggest the place of the confraternity and hospital at the center of it all. The plaza offers a home to lame men or beggars, women in prayer, and of course the birth and presentation.

In the 1600s, the panels come into the possession of Cardinal Barberini, the nephew of a pope, and they remained in Rome until 1935. Now, documents have confirmed their history and given the Master of the Barberini Panels a name—Giovanni di Bartolomeo Corradini, alias Fra Carnevale. No one knows why, on assuming orders, he chose a name after carnival and lent. At least it has a pleasing irony after the legends surrounding his teacher. Lippi, after all, moved in the other direction, from the church, through an illicit romance, and into art.

The exhibition, then, celebrates a discovery. It reunites the Boston and New York panels, along with anything else plausibly related to the artist. It offers a lesson in how attributions like this come about. It gives others a chance to judge, too, based on the stylistic evidence in front of one's eyes. One also gets to evaluate whether the painter should make it into the textbooks come the next edition.

Best of all, the exhibition is content to let Fra Carnevale remain a revealing footnote. The first half brings together much of what American collections have to say about his influences. As surveys of the early Renaissance go, it cannot exactly compete with a trip to Florence. Still, it has the commanding Madonna and Child by Piero della Francesca, all the way from the Clark Institute in Williamstown, its cube of architectures and angels like a spooky armed guard. Above all, it uses Lippi—his workshop and those he himself admired most—to describe unexpected directions for art in Florence and the early Renaissance.

The ins and outs of the Renaissance

Actually, even Piero comes across here as a footnote to Lippi. So do della Robbia, Pesellino, and a host of other names you may or may not know. One may as well linger on those first paintings, then. They have that much impact.

How does one get from the drama of the first quattrocento paintings to Boticelli's grace and precision of Boticelli? Lippi clears the ground and starts over, adding the complexity piece by piece. One can see it in action, with a small panel from the Frick Collection. Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child Enthroned (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1434)

It strips an Annunciation down to its essentials—the angel, Mary, and the bare chamber that holds them. The door behind Mary is a dark rectangle, the window behind the angel a mere sliver of light. A central pillar, part of the painting's frame, further defines the two halves of the diptych as the divine and the human, but Mary has no obvious creature comforts, no furniture or even a cushion.

Yet the angel's bowed head exceeds in humility even Mary's gesture of acceptance. So does the angel's hand, delicately lifting his cloak from the ground. Like his rich fabric, the dove at Mary's cheek lends the moment of conception a human sensuality. The light, signifying the entry into her womb, also makes most sense as a human presence, as Mary's cast shadow. One remembers that Masaccio before had dared that kind of symbol, with the rare subject of Saint Peter healing with his shadow. The stage set, with its clear perspective, unites the figures, while the carved wooden frame and the pair's sculptural mass carry that architecture forward, into the viewer's private life and actual world.

Lippi loves that paradox of a spare richness. He loves to combine perspective as mythic space, the space of vision, with figures and architecture that exceed their own confines. It comes down to the mystery nagging at art right through Antonello da Messina in Venice and then the High Renaissance, of the human and divine. To conquer it, Lippi makes the space of a painting continuous with his own, but in contradictory ways—as an ideal geometry and a messy tactility.

The Met also reunites the panels of a triptych, of the Madonna and child with four saints, that further pushes Lippi's spare complexity to its limits. The perspective requires such a close vantage point that the throne spreads outward. With its heavily marbled base, it does not fit into the area that one can see. Two angels unroll scripture toward the viewer, and Jesus, too, holds an open bible. What the gesture lacks in the way of tenderness it makes up with the commanding presence of a god and the petulance of a child.

Diversity and coherence

Geometry—the geometry of architecture and of perspective—always has an expressive purpose, including but not limited to the expression of reality. The Met lingers on that fact as a key to Fra Carnevale. It also lingers on the expressive additions, from decorative surfaces to natural light and landscape.

The curators have a subtly revisionist view of the Renaissance. Lippi's influences—and his influence on the fifteenth century—starts with sculpture and a more naturalistic rendering of people in three-dimensional space, something still visible in portraits from Hans Memling to the High Renaissance in Venice. However, they argue for a greater diversity of interchanges, right at the start of Florentine painting. When they see a throne cut off by the frame, they see a wildness that perspective cannot tame. When they see a touch of landscape through a window, they see the influence of Venice or the Northern Renaissance. When they see incised lines amid paint or the marbling of that throne, they see a partial return to the Gothic.

I think they claim too much. From the rectangular frames of his Annunciation to the round arches of his Madonna's throne, Lippi broke decisively with Gothic style. His solid forms and cluttered rooms, too, accord with the stern logic of the Renaissance. The side panels, on loan from Bremen, make the space around the throne look more coherent still. A saint's gesture in the left panel, acknowledging the viewer and pointing into the picture, derives from Masaccio and further establishes the scene's reality. And if their original carved frame existed today, as it does for the Frick Annunciation, the free play with the panel's edges might look even more coherent.

The selection at the Met also reflects some special pleading. One might expect a show starting with Lippi to climax with Boticelli rather than Piero. Or it might end with Lippi's son Filippino, a student of Boticelli. One might hope, too, for something of the gentler and more assured Lippi of his textbook work, much as the Met hopes to show off its somewhat limited permanent collection.

The curators have not lost touch with reality entirely, however. Others have speculated that Lippi might have learned of northern painters. In another painting, not in the exhibition, he places a glass vial in the foreground, with a transparency that recalls Jan van Eyck. Besides, the rest of the exhibition further introduces the diversity of the Renaissance and its decorative and narrative skills, in the hands of Domenico Veneziano, Pesellino, della Robbia, and many others.

Besides, the exhibition has a case to build—for the painter of the Barberini panels. To identify that artist with Fra Carnevale, who really did serve in Lippi's workshop, the Met has to find something of Lippi's aims and style. And to make Carnevale worth taking seriously, it has to find expressive purpose in the panels' architectural madness, courtly figures, and unfocused narrative.

A portrait of two artists

And the Met makes its case well for a new discovery and a largely unknown artist. Or rather, it makes the case for two views of Fra Carnevale.

One goes with the altarpiece traditionally ascribed to him. A few saints survive, but no hint of an architectural or thematic design. A few other tentative attributions on the opposite wall seem close to these saints in style. They all come from the hand of a skilled draftsman but lousy anatomist. A harsh line accentuates their heavy jowls and rigid, almost Plasticine hair and robes. This artist may well have something in common with Lippi, but mostly things one likes to forget, such as his inability to paint convincing hands.

For the second idea of Carnevale, one has the twin porticos, plus an Annunciation from the National Gallery in Washington. Like the Barberini panels, it contains slimmer people, more clearly drawn limbs, and an attention on architecture and perspective bordering on an obsession. One could imagine the two versions of the artist as a product of his development, except for one minor detail: the Washington painting may well date from 1448, almost twenty years before the porticos—perhaps even before Carnevale left Florence.

One might even see those twenty years as a progression in the very use of perspective, from the mystical to the everyday. If one places the Barberini panels side by side, but in the wrong order, they turn out to share a vanishing point. The actual sequence, from the Madonna's birth to her presentation at the temple, creates opposing vanishing points, like the opposing ideas of perspective in Lippi. Here the opposition disperses the eye, placing the religious events and present-day church amid the continuity of a larger world and an increasingly secular culture.

Carnevale's early Annunciation, too, has a dual perspective, but its duality speaks instead of human access to the divine. The height and foreshortening of the angel and Mary establish one point of view, near the painting's foreground and close to the earth. The lines of pavement and of the buildings to either side tightly embrace the angel's wings, as they rush toward a vanishing point much higher up. They converge on a garden, which a viewer then would have recognized as the "closed garden" of Mary's virginity. Contrary to tradition, access to the symbolic garden is open, through an ungated portal. It is open, however, only to an ideal geometry and to vision, a world apart from the tangible space of the foreground and viewer.

At first glance, then, one has two distinct artists, the geometrician and the painter of big, hefty saints. Perhaps all that unites the two is a tendency toward flattened noses and high brows. I am willing, for now, to trust the research behind claims for something more. I am even willing to see the two artists as two sides of Lippi's influence. One side treats the puzzle of human and divine massively and sensually, the other through vision and intellect. It the Met has got this one right, Lippi's conflicts may sum up the Italian Renaissance.

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"From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master" ran through May 1, 2005, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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