A Secret Renaissance

John Haber
in New York City

Early Renaissance Florence

What if the real Renaissance took place in secret? What if centuries of Western art were born in miniature?

An exhibit at the Met of painting and illumination lets one enter a fascinating, unfamiliar world. Here monks labored to illustrate prayer books that few would ever hold or see. Before I describe its beauty, however, I have to explain what makes it so perplexing. Giotto's Lamentation (The Arena Chapel, Padua, c. 1305)

Public displays . . .

It sounds trite, but the Italian Renaissance really was a new epoch. People saw new possibilities for their lives, even looked at themselves as if for the first time. And it was artists who made that change possible and undeniable.

Florence was now creating a civic space. The changes gathered force from learning in the arts and sciences alike, but also from an expanding commercial elite. Republican sentiments arose, but so did a far stronger aristocracy. It was an uneasy mix, but every component of it demanded to leave its mark for all to see.

Churches and plazas gave Tuscany its new focus, as with Lorenzo Ghiberti's sculpture for the Baptistery. Artists like Cimabue created the panels, frescos, and sculpture that gave it meaning. The profession of panel painting, apart from decorative arts, was itself part of the story. Whereas key painters in northern Europe worked on paper, Italian artists reconceived a heritage of icons and alters. Art was a series of bombs going off in public.

Giotto's bombshell landed not long after 1300, and the fireworks came increasingly often after Masaccio, a century later. In their firm, dazzling light, narrative art could be deciphered at a glance, as befits public display. For the new elite, the explosions uncovered a more powerful city and a more coherent earth, ruled by an idealized humanity and equally human gods.

. . . And private stories

The Met traces a wholly different, more private lineage. It sees Giotto's achievement sustained and nurtured not in altarpieces of the 1300s or such followers as Taddeo Gaddi, but in the borders of rare manuscripts. It basically says to forget Masaccio. Instead, it takes the quattrocento, or 1400s, to arrive a bit later, with Fra Angelico. This artist, known for his airy colors and simple stories, marks the show's conclusion.

The exhibition is so enjoyable because it is varied and lovely—and because old books and music are themselves a delight to behold, with a remarkable variety from region to region. It has the virtue of showing only a few artists in depth—as many as thirty or more paintings by each one. Besides, its story can build intelligently on American holdings. When I first heard the exhibition's title, I imagined the Met ransacking the churches and museums of Europe. Instead, European panels are used to fill out the identity of artists working on paper.

The show's first images do look very much like the new civic theater of naturalism I have described. In its very first altar, the dead Christ forms a stiff horizontal; he is really dead. Nearby a figure fills the space with only an immense back, bending in sadness and sympathy. Above, the tortured angles of small flying angels raise the emotional pitch. All those tricks are Giotto's.

Before long, however, comes a view of the Renaissance much more colorful and delicate than familiar histories. Look at how the artists fill an "initial." This large letter of the manuscript page left room for paint, but in this art it also intrudes into the story.

An especially playful leaf by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci allows the initial to loop in and out of the scenes. Silvestro carries the device of overlapping layers within the scene too, showing the nooks and crannies of back rooms, linking foreground and background with his intense colors. Another artist lets each huge letter frame a single large, convenient space. Two holy figures meet across the central curve of an S, like traders dealing over a counter.

A hidden naturalism

This art is less grand, coherent, and clear than that of the Renaissance artists I might recognize. Certainly it looks forward in one way, to a demand for individual styles, even within an older artist's workshop. That change would one day lead to shifting relationships between artists and the academies.

Mostly, however, it is a throwback to earlier times. When Lorenzo Monaco paints a night scene, he offers the happy illogic of five sources of light rather than a revelation. In a row of prophets, his highlights pick out two from the left, two from the right. His means are modern and innovative, but his end is to decorate and to soften forms, not to mold them.

Still, all this variety of lighting and architecture gives hints of a naturalism yet to come in grander art. Many of the artists, for example, abandon Giotto's awkward double scale of large people in small landscapes. The artist might throw in an extra layer of rock face to accommodate Saint Joseph or the shepherds. Such hints of a wider, more unified space will be realized only many decades later, maybe even after the High Renaissance.

The story lines show traces of a growing humanism, too. The Virgin plays a larger part than princes, who are left to the borders. Along one, the three kings argue anxiously and a little foolishly over how to get to Bethlehem, while a careworn servant plods on patiently before them. Naturalistic touches are especially interesting, in that the official art before Masaccio and Fra Filippo Lippi briefly grew authoritarian and reactionary when a plague hit the city. I guess the monks could remain safely optimistic behind their walls.

Renaissance and revisionism

The show's playful delicacy succeeds, but its thesis fails. This is just not the Renaissance. Even the portrayal of Fra Angelico is a stretch. His annunciation is surely the most beautiful painting I saw. His smooth light, carefully modeling skin tones, makes each face a marvel of concentration. Other works the Met has assigned to him, however, are lesser ones.

A few are even unlikely to be his. One problematic panel is strewn with figures, many poorly foreshortened, and all marked by a wiry outline in their features. It is supposed to be an early painting by Fra Angelico, but to me it closely resembles neither the artist's mature output nor his teacher's. It is probably by a reasonably creative follower.

The wall plaques never admit to gaps and controversies. The curator is too unwilling to spoil his scholarly coup. The museum is throwing its weight around when it claims to be helping. It is reinforcing a museum's institutional power while it claims a postmodern revisionism.

The exhibition also masks the changes in art history that made it possible. It was a feminist art history that gave attention to "lesser" forms, such as manuscripts. Yet while the show has a few pointedly anonymous fabrics, it takes for granted the growing professionalism of illumination for the connoisseur and the clergy. That meant men only, of course. It makes no effort to test its thesis against the practice of northern European artists, like the Limbourg brothers or the Master of Catherine of Cleves, who really did work in miniature.

Somehow, though, the exhibition stays more than a self-involved scholar's thesis. It may even work best for the nonspecialist, who will be less likely to complain. Right at the start, I read a wall plaque calling some obscure painter the greatest follower of Giotto. I wanted to shake the curator roundly and shout a few other names. But hey, most visitors may not have heard of them either. Go ahead and enjoy Don Silvestro's resplendent overlap of colors and spaces.

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"Painting and Illumination in Early Renaissance Florence" ran through February 26, 1995, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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