Approaching the Renaissance

John Haber
in New York City

Taddeo Gaddi and the Circle of Duccio

Taddeo Gaddi had little interest in history, and he never dreamed of New York. Somehow, though, he has pride of place at the New-York Historical Society, like one more emerging artist in the metropolis.

Where New York boasts of its place in a global art world, Taddeo in Florence, like the circle of Duccio before him, edged cautiously toward the Renaissance. Does that make either of them an Italian primitive?

Primitivism in Italy

Hard to believe, but not so very long ago, painters before Raphael did indeed come with the dismissive label "Italian primitives." Hard to believe, because they include an artist as popular as Sandro Botticelli—or as central to the new humanism as Piero della Francesca. They found their champions in the nineteenth century in such artists as the Pre-Raphaelites, Duccio's Madonna and Child (Metropolitan Museum, c. 1300)such historians and connoisseurs as Bernard Berenson, and such collectors as Thomas Jefferson Bryan. Now an exhibition focuses on a single work from what Bryan called his "Christian artists," and you know what? Taddeo Gaddi turns out to look awfully primitive. Yet he also suggests the tensions bubbling up in the 1330s that would give rise in the next century to the Renaissance.

Hard to believe, too, but the Society once had its share of art history. Bryan built his collection of nearly four hundred works in lower Manhattan, before donating it all to the institution in 1867, three years before the founding of the Met. A portrait by Thomas Sully, from 1831, portrays him as suitably dashing and intelligent, from his raised open collar to the highlight on the tip of his nose. The museum has since exhibited Annie Leibovitz and Reginald Marsh, and it has found a permanent home for Thomas Cole and his Course of Empire, a showpiece of the Hudson River School. It also has on display the stage curtain by Pablo Picasso that, sadly, will never again grace a beloved New York restaurant (at least for those who could afford it), the Four Seasons. Still, its mission lies elsewhere, with New York and with history, and it has sold off almost the entirety of Bryan's gift.

Taddeo's triptych has itself dispersed. A small panel in the museum's collection depicts a Maestà, or enthroned Madonna, a motif common enough in a time still dedicated to religious devotion and rigid hierarchies. People had good reason to seek a powerful intercessor, too, given the plague that decimated Florence soon after. Meanwhile the wings ended up in private hands. Each also split in two while entering the market, separating its front and back. Scholars have connected the pieces based on their size, the traces where hinges once joined them, and similar incisions on the backs.

A video imagines them in their original frame, opening and closing for private worship and private pleasure. Closed the owners would have seen Saint Catherine and Saint Christopher, presumably their namesakes and patron saints, and the work would have opened only for them. Inside they would have seen the principal scenes from the life of Jesus in which his mother plays a part. The left wing stacks an Annunciation and a Nativity, attended by shepherds. The right wing holds a Crucifixion, with Mary the tallest figure recoiling from the cross. The central panel finds room for ten saints, starting with the patron saint of Florence, John the Baptist.

The exhibition, to the quaint accompaniment of hushed lighting and early Renaissance music, marks the central panel's return to New York, after restoration at the Getty Museum in California. It was in sad shape. Once the restorers cleaned the panel, little was left. Jesus had lost his entire body, and the saints appeared largely as their overlapping haloes against a gilded ground. The restorers were thorough but properly cautious. The inscription on the cross at right is still faint, and the blue of Mary's dress throughout has lost its richness.

Has it restored a masterpiece? Giotto opened the century with a majestic new style, of figures fully in the round—their weight, gestures, and moving glances all contributing to a newly human drama. Taddeo was a follower, if not what the curator, Roberta J. M. Olson, calls his "major disciple." Either way, though, art was drawing back, and people still debate why it took until the 1400s for a fresh start, with the visionary realism of Masaccio in painting or Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello in sculpture. Did the plague or politics discourage hopes, or did artists set aside Giotto's grandeur in search of expressive possibilities, much as in moving two hundred years later from the High Renaissance to Mannerism? Taddeo's son Agnolo made his name with just that. And that leaves the father caught between the Gothic and the future.

Observing a miracle

Textbooks remember Taddeo most from fresco, to the extent that they remember him at all. His open skies above a rocky landscape capture a seemingly natural light, including what could be painting's first great night scene. In much the same way, he is at his best on the exterior panels of the triptych, set against a dark colored background. Currents sparkle past Christopher's legs as he fords a river with the infant Jesus on his shoulders. Catherine's wheel, on which she was martyred, turns at an angle to the picture plane, adding to the saint's presence. Still, neither has feet planted firmly on the ground, and things get more conservative on the gilded panels inside.

Each scene closely follows other artists, with little individuality or innovation. The Nativity takes place under the wooden shed of Gothic art set into a rock face, as with Giotto, with Joseph once again asleep in the foreground. Yet Giotto uses Joseph as a bridge from the viewer's world to the divine, and he leaves the front of the manger with ample space to circulate and to stand. Taddeo packs everyone in, with barely room for the human or a revelation. He flattens Mary and the angel of the Annunciation into a single plane almost in line with the house front behind them. Mary and John at the cross barely gesture, unable to express their terror or their grief.

Taddeo Gaddi's Enthroned Madonna with Saints (New-York Historical Society, c. 1334)His copying and conservatism are even more obvious in the Maestà, again after Giotto. The older artist's throne no longer tightly frames Mary's head and knowing smile, and his angels have given way to three strict rows of saints. Halo upon halo lock them into the background's gold leaf. None of them kneels in front of the throne, removing yet another point of intercession between worlds, and none has a distinctive story to tell. The museum's wall label has a thumbnail image of Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna from 1310, now in the Uffizi in Florence. As one glances down from Taddeo's painting, the throne seems to plummet forward and downward a foot or two under its own weight and dignity.

The Society wraps up its cautious footnotes to history with two more paintings from its collection. One, also a Crucifixion, is by a follower of Duccio, Giotto's rival but in early Renaissance Siena rather than in Florence. Here even a follower releases feelings at which Taddeo can only hint. Mourners and tormentors form two masses to either side of the cross, rather than the separate actors of the Renaissance still to come, but as a single torrent of agony and wonder. A soldier's raised arm unites the composition and directs the viewer's glance. Blood dripping down the cross still looks fresh, and the skull of Golgotha still looks menacing.

The final panel, from the mid-1400s, once decorated a cassone, or wedding chest, and its half-forgotten artist specialized in furniture as well as painting. Giovanni di Ser Giovanni, called Scheggia (or "splinter," whether for his work in wood or because he was short), was Masaccio's younger brother. Yet his graceful cast would look at home in the art of Masaccio's more genteel and less courageous collaborator, Masolino. A procession accompanies Caesar to the gates of Rome, with a delightful variety of noblemen, servants, citizens, and horses, one with its white butt smack in one's face. Florence considered itself a second Rome, but this Florence is in a lighter mood. Its procession is moving forward, in high spirits, but its art is looking back.

Taddeo, too, is looking backward, to the vertical composition and compressed space of Cimabue more than a generation before him. He thrives not on depth but on rhythms within the picture plane, such as the successive curves of the angel of the Annunciation, Mary's robe, and a doorway between them. Yet he is also expressing his struggle with the space between this world and the next. He places a star and the sun to either side of the cross, a traditional enough motif. Could they, though, reflect a solar eclipse in July 1330—and could that seeming night scene in fresco really be an eclipse in summer daylight? It will take the Renaissance proper to reconcile personal observation, inward emotions, and heavenly signs.

The Renaissance without Florence

After more than a decade, Duccio still introduces the Renaissance. In 2005, the Met made its most costly acquisition to date, in the Sienese artist's Madonna and Child from around 1300. Then as now, it placed him at the start of a new century and a new art. Could the panel live up to the hype? It is by no means his largest or most innovative painting, and it has suffered over the centuries from darkening and damage. In 2017, it was time for a fresh look.

The museum still opens its rooms for Western painting not with Cimabue at the very start of an independent Italian painting, nor with Giotto and an altogether new style. It seems almost unconcerned for new ideals of order, mass, and space—or for new appeals to narrative and nature. One might never know that Dante skips right past him in the Divine Comedy, in his wonder at how art gave way from Florentine to the other. Duccio's painting stands right in front of the visitor on entering, with its gilded background and delicacy. A sign states loud and clear that he also stands amid those he influenced. I shall not repeat my fuller review on the occasion of the panel's appearance in New York (so do check it out), but allow me to catch up with him and his circle.

As with so much of the Met, it is always great to be back home. For starters, I could walk around the pedestal holding the Madonna, to see just what Duccio left behind. A Nativity preserves many of the motifs of earlier Byzantine and Italian art. As for Duccio in a painting at the National Gallery in Washington (meant for an altarpiece that also included a panel of the temptation of Christ as a community of Italian hill towns, now in the Frick), the infant Jesus comes swaddled in the fashion of child rearing back then, but to the point of a mummy in anticipation of his death. Mary lies on red carpet on the ground, and Joseph looks inert. Unlike Duccio, though, his unknown follower utterly flattens them all.

Walk back around to the front, and the Madonna looks a good deal less confining. Her robe still covers her head, but its folds run every which way, to combine quiet hints of volume with exquisite shades of blue. Jesus, too, has little to do with foreshortening, but he gets to sit up straight. Not every earthly child can treat his mother's arms like a throne. Not every child can reach up to grasp the scarf by his mother's cheek either. It marks him as in charge of his destiny, but also with a very human love.

Another follower, perhaps Ugolino of Siena, relies on gentle rhythms to humanize the divine, too. He throws in Saint Francis, along with the usual cast at the foot of the cross—because the Franciscans were part of a newly welcoming and natural order. Think of Francis in sunlight for Giovanni Bellini at the Frick, from around 1478. The fourth figure also adds symmetry, which the artist can then break. Their outlines to respond to one another, as in a dance. Small angels just under the arms of Jesus pick up the more emotional rhythms of angels in flight from a Lamentation by Giotto, in the Arena Chapel in Padua.

Take just one more artist as a bridge to Florence and the future. Saint Matthew, by Simone Martini, has the stern features of tradition, but also of the Gospel writer who scorned religious leaders. His restlessness extends from his eyes to the robe falling awkwardly from his neck. His fingers cannot quite embrace the book he wrote, because Martini cannot pull off that kind of realism. Yet they allow its red cover and gold edges to thrust outward, much like the saint's tangled beard and sleeves. Duccio's delicacy has become a clarity and detail that bring him alive.

BACK to John's arts home page

Taddeo Gaddi ran at the New-York Historical Society through March 20, 2016, and I stopped in at the Met in August 2017. Related reviews look further at Cimabue, Giotto, and that panel by Duccio.


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