Apr 222013

The first thing to be said about this exhibition at The Palazzo Strozzi (till June 6th,  after to go to the Louvre) is that it is not to be missed. It contains many masterpieces of sculptural observation from the richest ground: The Florentine Renaissance.

The exhibition sets out to show how much that springtime owed to Roman and French influence. A worthy aim, and it gets nearly halfway to the truth. The loan of the tiny, ivory “Timbal Madonna” (1260-70) from the Louvre allows us to compare the very human exchange between the French mother and child with the more symbolic treatment of the subject from Giovanni Pisano a generation later. It also allows us to understand how immediate was the flow of this new spirit into the hearts of Italian artists and patrons.

For those of us who believe that The “Duccio” Window was entirely the product of the stained-glass team from northern Europe who were then working in Assisi and from whom it was in fact commissioned (1288); it is quite clear that those masters were so far ahead of their Italian contemporaries at depicting the three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface that it took the Italians over 100 years to catch up. (This advanced knowledge from northern Europe is not discussed in the exhibition.)

The imports from Rome are also understated. Roman three dimensional geometry had a very strong influence on the vision of such masters as Desiderio da Settignano, Mino da Fiesole, and Rosselino, all well represented here; yet the three examples of Roman portraiture in the show look more towards Greece than to Rome and therefore fail entirely to make the looked for connection.

My main gripe against the scholars is my usual one of their strong bias in favour of classical references. They pay too much attention to the half remembered poses from antiquity and not enough to the intense and prolonged observation that is the driving force of the figurative arts at their best. The sequence of brilliant individualized portraits in this exhibition must surely leave us in no doubt that the observation of life was the chief motor for the “springtime”. The hunger for antique example found in both Ghiberti’s and Brunelleschi’s entries for the competition for the Baptistery doors, and well  demonstrated in the catalogue was surely but a needed stepping-stone towards greater realism.

The catalogue (good value at 39€) is well-informed on this hunger for the example of antiquity among artists and patrons of the period but weak in the acknowledgement of direct observation from life, which must surely be at the root of these artists’ sustained enthusiasm.

For those artists who still worship the gods of observation Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria is a shrine for annual pilgrimage. They will be disappointed to find that this masterpiece is not represented by so much as a cast or photograph in the catalogue. In fact Luca, is represented by a string of mainly sentimental products of his terracotta workshop. To add injury to insult his two bronze putti (we must now learn to call them “spiritelli”) have been re-attributed to Donatello! contrary to the judgment of Pope Henessey and the word of Vasari. Indeed, it is hard to find a trace of Donatello’s treatment of this, his favorite subject, in either of them. Is it at all likely that having set up this comparison of the work of the two great masters that the confrontation would have been fudged by placing the putti of “Donatello” on the cantoria of Luca?

Re-attribution has become an art historical game that should be questioned with the utmost severity on every occasion. Modern connoisseurship has lost sight of the artist’s habitual patterns of thought which we used to call “form” and which are a much better guide to authorship than the minutiae of chisel marks, particularly in a case like this where the bronze is most likely to have been worked by artisans. (The re-attribution of Donatello’s Uzzano to Settignano seems to me equally misguided.)

Which brings me to my final gripe about the conception of the exhibition:- Verrocchio, who by any measure must have had the greatest influence on posterity: the summertime of the Renaissance, (also the strongest proponent of observation) is all but excluded, being only 25 at the terminal date of 1460. He is represented by one pedestrian portrait re-attributed to him but more likely by Rosselino. Let us hope the organizers are saving Verrocchio and his wonderful school for a second great exhibition.

In spite of these gripes, this is a feast not to be missed.

Apr 102013
Monument to Elaine Morgan - tenacious proponent of the aquatic ape hypothesis

Monument to Elaine Morgan - tenacious proponent of the aquatic ape hypothesis