Renaissance Byways

John Haber
in New York City

Duccio and the Unfinished Dürer

Art history sometimes sounds like one of those old newsreels, in which science marches on. Duccio, for one, still enters textbooks on the early Renaissance as a glorious also-ran, while Giotto triumphs. Albrecht Dürer still has to live up to his prints, his High Renaissance aspirations, and the apocalyptic fervor of Europe. Stories like these tell of breakthroughs. They might lead to a greater naturalism or a higher reality. They might lead to art as a personal vision or to impersonal art institutions, to popular culture or to the avant-garde.

Does it matter if these sound contradictory? Not necessarily, not when together they bring art progressively closer to how it looks today. Without a little incoherence here and there, the story hardly could capture familiar experience. Of course, one may sometimes spot a contrary narrative, in a turning backward, as in the whole idea of the Renaissance. Getting back to basics, however, sounds rather like science, too. Even Postmodernism, with its skepticism about art history as a profession, sounds awfully like an advance. Duccio's Madonna and Child (Metropolitan Museum, c. 1300)

Or maybe not. Sometimes the blur of voices becomes the real story. Every so often, turning points in art history look more like hidden byways. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has made headlines with an acquisition by Duccio di Buoninsegna, and it exhibits three unfinished paintings by Dürer. With these, the origins of the Renaissance and the High Renaissance acquire a few dirt roads. In each, however, I found a sign or two leading back to the highway.

How to enter the Renaissance

I could understand if you did not rush to see the Met's costliest acquisition ever, a Madonna and Child by Duccio. I could even understand it if you did follow the hype uptown—and yet left the display puzzled. You would have found a single painting, destined soon enough for permanent display. You would have looked at art dating more than 200 years before many familiar works of the High Renaissance. Almost the same gap separates Michelangelo and his Last Judgment from the American Revolution.

Perhaps you have some previous acquaintance with Duccio and his followers. You may recall him, along with Giotto, as a central figure in the dawn of the Italian Renaissance. You may have encountered the two in an undergraduate course, on facing screens. Perhaps Duccio came after Cimabue in the classroom or served as a whipping boy, so that you could better appreciate Giotto's grandeur and humanism. In effect, you were already looking past the work, toward a psychological and spatial depth that fully takes hold in art only a century later. Another show at the Met this spring, of Fra Carnevale, explored just such changes.

The Met itself seemed to grope for a way to commemorate the occasion. Rather than hastily assemble a show, the curators set a display case in the room for art of its time. Where its Giotto usually stands, a bare spot and formal marker calls attention to the temporary nature of the installation. The room's sparse hanging reflects the intimate scale of these works for private devotion. And the display case's bare back permits one to assess the panel's state and the facture. Still, it may look as though the Met were warehousing the piece, while deciding where it belongs.

The wall text tries to help, but it suffers from the museum's preference for self-congratulation over understanding. The room cannot illustrate anyway how the panel fits into Duccio's career. Nor can the Met clarify how his and Giotto's concerns differ. The collection just does not have the goods to display them and their influence. The wall text also perpetuates an old claim—that Giotto forged his style in Assisi. You will not see so much as a hint that many consider the Assisi frescoes the work of a follower instead. I assume that it helps solidify a curator's pet thesis, not to mention relations with Italian art historians with emotional and institutional ties to the town.

Still, the museum seems to be doing its best to take Giotto down a notch. Does the Met have to prove that its acquisition looks progressive enough? Perhaps you turned to other sources for insight and still had trouble locating references to this Madonna. Or perhaps you read the reviews and simply gave up. The head critic of the Times calls it his favorite painting at the Met, but his second favorite just happens to be the Met's next most expensive purchase. Perhaps he works on commission.

Still curious, I hope, about what makes this work so valuable? Go ahead: allow yourself that initial confusion or disappointment. Savor it, in fact. Take in the painting's size, just smaller than a printout of this page. Anyone, it must seem, could possess a work like this. Then get up close, as if you did.

Gold as image and object

Someone once did. Unlike many textbook works from the Renaissance, this one did not command an altar. Nor did it hang on display for a duke and his privileged guests. It served instead as a ritual object. It still shows the marks of private worship: devotional candles scarred two indentations along the base.

Its owners revered the image, but not as an icon of fine art. It was a literal icon—with an end other than itself. Ever wonder about the gold background in old painting? Blue sky would look so much more reasonable now, and one takes for granted the painted illusions from later centuries. Yet gold testifies to the icon's value, its function, and its subject matter. Imagine, in fact, the radicalism of letting something other than gold leaf suit a god.

Right away, then, the work signals its closeness to the viewer, but also its larger-than-life subject. In this way, it brings the divine into the lives of its beholders. In the years ahead, art would dramatically develop that same paradox. Renaissance artists used sculptural and pictorial illusion to convey both nature and a timeless, higher reality. Duccio achieves much the same end in a different way: he creates not just an image, but also an object.

Over time, images became more and more powerful. Artists used the illusion of real life to break through walls. They glorified emperors and the everyday. They glorified the imagination—and the artist as an imaginer. The more real art became, the more it became larger than life. It took Modernism's rediscovery of the art object to return painting to earth.

Duccio anticipated the puzzle of the imaginary. That aim helps account for his impulse toward the decorative. It drives the unexpected delicacy of his image. He has a softer, more personal range of color than one expects from a conservative icon, as in the robe on the infant Jesus.

Duccio's combination of the familiar, the divine, and the decorative extends to the image, too. The child ruffles and loosens the edges of his mother's cloaked figure. This open gesture has a real playfulness and sensuality, and it suggests surrounding space. However, it also follows the rigid line of Mary's shoulder and her long nose out of Byzantine art. It testifies to a Jesus as a human child, capable of fancy, rebellion, and love. It also testifies to a prematurely independent Jesus, able to sit up straight and to offer a regal blessing.

A splendid experiment

Sadly, the deep blue of the Madonna's cloak has faded largely to black. (The Met does not try to simulate what a visitor might be missing.) With all the abrasion, one can almost overlook Duccio's tooling of the gold as well. The artist's care extends well beyond outlining halos, to an ornamental impulse all his own.

The parapet, perhaps the first of its kind in Renaissance art, implies a continuous space projecting outward, into the real. At the same time, it separates the figures from the viewer. And it, too, has a decorative pattern, with light colors and a fantastic geometry. It comes closer to a Necker cube or to Classical floor tilings than to single-point perspective, which came to Italian art a full century later.

In the next decades, Giotto's greater illusion helped produce a growing grandeur. As a conservative reaction set in, art's severity only increased, before his influence blossomed at last, a hundred years later in Florence. Duccio's Siena and its heirs, like Bartoli di Fredi, do not fit easily into that narrative, and this work fits even less. I cannot call it simply backward looking, progressive, or even an alternative to both. Rather, it represents a splendid experiment along the way.

Art history remembers the innovation of Duccio's first works. In the Rucellai Madonna of the 1280s, he is at his most Byzantine—and yet most defiant of gravity. History also remembers his more progressive Madonnas after 1300. Above all, it remembers the Maestà, his multi-panel altar of around 1310. Its central panel is its crowded, varied, and never less than majestic. Little else in the Renaissance resembles it.

Little, too, can match Duccio's sense of fantasy and his verve for storytelling. In a small panel at the Frick, the devil tempts Jesus with seven hills. Amid the gold and bright colors of the world in miniature, the devil's brown tones and funny face look sly and almost appealing. He always makes me think of Richard Nixon obsessed with his five o'clock shadow. A figure of fun can do a lot of damage.

Without Duccio's entire career, the Met's acquisition is radically incomplete. Painted in roughly 1300, it lacks support from the Met as well. It stands for a lot of money and a lot of empty boasting. It marks a turning point for the Renaissance nonetheless.

Finishing school

Just a corridor away, the Met explores another uncompleted journey in art history. Around 1503, Albrecht Dürer began three panels. In each, a single religious figure has the dignity, reserve, and physical ease of the High Renaissance. Yet each figure seems to come forth from another world. To add to their austerity, Dürer left all three unfinished.

A half-length savior of the world, from the permanent collection, has the sweetness of Dürer's youth. Yet Jesus's bony features are spare of flesh, his head leans away, and his eyes barely engage those who will receive his blessing. Every gesture creates a bar between worlds. It recalls the thirty-year-old artist's own hands and fixed stare in a commanding self-portrait a year or two before. (It will serve later as an example for "Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible" at the Met Breuer.) The other two panels, on loan from Bremen, depict saints in the wilderness.

Do the three form a lost altarpiece? Well, no. The Northern Renaissance painter leaves different parts unfinished in each—Jesus's hands and face in contrast to a richly colored robe and background, the remote landscape behind the carefully painted saints. The lines of the landscape in the Bremen panels imply a continuous space and sense of scale that the Salvator Mundi could only disrupt and destroy. Besides, the painter left other work of that time in fragments, too, as he explored future avenues for an astonishing career. Nonetheless, the three together offer show a great painter's working methods and early maturity.

The German artist escapes the usual categories. He has confidence in his virtuosity, his knowledge of Giovanni Bellini and the Italian Renaissance, and his explorations of the natural world. He also shares the intense feelings of art halfway through the millennium. Hieronymus Bosch was about to reach his peak, and, further away, Savonarola had gone to his death after frightening Florence—and Michelangelo—with threats of political upheaval and the wages of sin. Dürer had just completed his Apocalypse prints. His painting was just starting to darken from the calm control of his Nativity in Munich, known as the Paumgärtner altarpiece.

Dürer, a careful draftsman, took time deciding what to do next. He drew on the primed surfaces, then brought things from bare outline to underpainting and finally to completion. He did that for each part of the composition, and he took each part one at a time. He is not alone in letting a unity of colors take care of itself. Think of the laurel wreath, surrounded by bare canvas, in Jan Vermeer's Art of Painting.

Dürer's prints, with all their exquisite detail, go down easily. The unfinished panels help make his painting, which often looks stiff compared to his rivals or models, more accessible. One senses an apartness from the world, like that of his subjects, that may seem surprising given his rapid output. Erwin Panofsky, the pioneering art historian, referred to these years as a period of "rational synthesis." One can see the artist moving beyond the fully rational or the fully synthesized, toward the constant exploration of his last twenty-five years, even as copyists like Jan Gossart "improved" him. And that exploration starts to sound more than ever like the High Renaissance.

BACK to John's arts home page

Duccio's inaugural stay at The Metropolitan Museum of Art ran through June 13, 2005, "Left Unfinished by Albrecht Dürer" through March 27. A related review returns to the same early Renaissance panel at the Met to explore Duccio and his circle.


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