Rooms 5-6. International Gothic.
Like Rooms 2 and 3, Rooms 5 and 6 were curated during the 1950s. Unlike Rooms 2 and 3, however, Rooms 5 and 6 house pieces that document the transition from Late Gothic to Early Renaissance art, a period known as International Gothic. As its name suggests, the International Gothic period witnessed a blend of the elegant Gothic style favored in northern European courts with the emerging naturalism seen in Italian art over the 13th and 14th centuries. It is typified by bright, jewel colors, slender, elongated figures, increased interest in the “exotic,” detailed depictions of nature, crowded picture planes, and an increase in the movement of figures’ bodies. The depiction of Mary also changed during this period. Inspired by the chivalric tradition of the north, Italian artists shied away from depicting the Virgin as a homely, formidable matron, choosing instead to show her as the fair maiden so often mentioned in French romances. She was now a beautiful young woman, slender and elegant, dressed in luxurious robes and always gracefully posed.
This work by Agnolo Gaddi was produced during his later years, around 1390, and thus is a transition piece between the Giottesque and the International Gothic.
Gaddi trained in his father’s workshop, alongside his brothers Giovanni and Niccolò. This work’s relatively small size indicates that it may have been part of a predella to a larger altarpiece, which has since been lost. It is unique for its inclusion of a tremendous amount of figures, all with his or her own individual expression. At the foot of the Cross are Mary and St. John, while the unrepentant thief is shown dying on Christ’s left. His soul is being taken by the devil. Beneath the impenitent thief are soldiers casting lots for Christ’s tunic.
Perhaps one of the greatest proponents of the International Gothic style was Piero di Giovanni, better known as Lorenzo Monaco (“Lorenzo the monk”), the name he took when he entered the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence. It is likely that Lorenzo Monaco got his start doing miniatures in his monastery’s choral books, but he later trained in Agnolo Gaddi’s workshop and became the leading painter in Florence during the first decade of the 15th century. His most celebrated work, Coronation of the Virgin (1414), was commissioned by Zanobi di Cecco del Frasca for the high altar of Santa Maria degli Angeli. According to the inscription, the work was finished in February 1413 (1414 according to the modern calculation of time; Florentines began their year on the 25th of March, the feast of the Annunciation, rather than on the more conventional 1st of January).
The work depicts Jesus crowning his mother Mary, flanked by angels and saints, including (from left to right) St. Benedict, St. Peter, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. Andrew, and St. Romuald. St. Benedict and St. Romuald are of special note as this altarpiece was destined for a Camaldolese church (and was painted by a Camaldolese monk). St. Romuald was the founder of the Camaldolese Order, a reformed branch of the Benedictine Order founded by St. Benedict. Lorenzo Monaco portrays the two men in white robes because, according to legend, Camaldolese monks adopted white robes after St. Romuald dreamt of men in white ascending the stairway to heaven. Mary is also depicted in white, eschewing her usual blue, to emphasize her relationship with the Camaldolese monks, especially important here due to the placement of this altarpiece at Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels).
Like his contemporaries, Lorenzo Monaco practiced a technique known as cangiante, derived from the Italian word “to change.” Cangiante was a technique used to create depth when an artist did not have the tones of color needed to depict shadows. Indeed, at the time, artists used tempera, a mixture of egg yolk, water, and pigment, to create color. This mixture lacked the layering abilities of oil paint (which was to become popular during the mid to late 15th century) meaning that it was very difficult to create shades of a particular color. Thus, rather than use a darker/lighter hue of the original color, the artist would change the color completely to a darker/lighter color. For instance, look at St. Andrew’s robe. Lorenzo Monaco changed parts of the robe from the original yellow to coral when he needed to add depth.
Lorenzo Monaco also created depth in his paintings by adding movement. Indeed, as mentioned above, the International Gothic school placed a higher importance on movement within the painting. Here, for example, Lorenzo Monaco inserted movement via angels swinging censers, giving the work depth, energy, and life.
Lorenzo Monaco’s other work in this room, Adoration of the Magi (c. 1420-1422), done in collaboration with Cosimo Rosselli, also demonstrates his desire to show movement in his paintings. For instance, the figures in the background of this piece are more contorted and elongated in an effort to convey motion. Moreover, the subject matter of this piece is not a static Madonna Enthroned or Coronation. Instead, it is a narrative subject matter, a subject matter wherein travel and motion are intrinsic to its depiction.
Also incredibly innovative is Lorenzo Monaco’s choice to include a receding landscape (albeit a rather fanciful one) as the background rather than the traditional gold. The receding landscape reinforces the notion of travel, as the Magi have no doubt transversed the harsh terrain to place their gifts at Christ’s feet. Interestingly, Lorenzo Monaco also departed from the traditional tricuspid altarpiece shape, instead opting for a rectangle, although he kept the conventional three arches.
A stark contrast to Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration is Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration (1423), which is generally thought to be the most important example of International Gothic painting in Italy. Not only does Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration retain the traditional tricuspid shape, it is also steeped in realism, as opposed to the otherworldliness of Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration. The colors, lighting, focus on details, and naturalistic figures of Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration all combine to create a very different picture of the exact same episode. In fact, many scholars argue that it is the first painting in history to use a single natural light source.
Gentile da Fabriano’s work was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a Florentine banker, for his family chapel in the Church of Santa Trinita in Florence. The Strozzi family was a chief rival to the Medici, and therefore Palla used the occasion of this commission to show off his wealth and power, hence the heavy use of gold. His desire to “out do” the Medici, as it were, likely informed the subject of the painting; the procession of eastern kings with their retinues gave occasion for Gentile da Fabriano to paint luxurious silks, rich brocades, and “exotic” animals, as the “East” was commonly associated with luxury and splendor at the time.
The altarpiece is centered on “threes.” Indeed, it depicts the journey of the three wise men in three distinct stages, each separated by the arches of the frame. First, the wise men see the star; second, they pause at Herod’s palace; third, they return home. Moreover, the three wise men represent the three stages of life: old age (represented by the kneeling wise man), middle age (the bowing wise man), and youth (the standing wise man).
Behind the standing wise man is a portrait of Strozzi, holding a falcon, a nod to his family name (strozzieri was the Tuscan word for “falconer”). Many times patrons would include themselves in the works of art that they commissioned. Although, here, rather than include himself as a devout worshipper, as was generally the case in previous work, Strozzi chose to portray himself looking out and connecting with the viewer, as if to say, look at what I – and my wealth – created. Art was becoming less of a means of worship and more a method of displaying power.
The predella (the platform that forms the base of the altarpiece) portrays scenes from Jesus’ childhood, including the Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple (which is actually a modern copy, the original is located at the Louvre), and the Flight into Egypt.
Beginning signs of the Renaissance can be detected in the predella, where Gentile da Fabriano used blue rather than the traditional gold background to depict the sky, thereby showing artists’ new attention to nature that would serve as a foundational element of the Renaissance.
Gentile also included the loggia of Brunelleschi’s Spedale degli Innocenti in the cityscape of the Presentation at the Temple panel.
Rooms 7-8. The Early Renaissance
The next room houses those paintings that began what we now call “The Renaissance.” In these paintings, the focus shifted from the simple act of worship to the more complex question of defining man’s relationship to God.
Tommaso Cassai, better known as Masaccio, is generally believed to be the first “great” painter of the Italian Renaissance. Masaccio was influenced by the great sculptors and architects of his time, Brunelleschi and Donatello, and derived his use of mathematical perspective from their work. Those influences tend to give his work a more formalized and monumental style, which is accentuated by his lack of concern for ornamentation and details, as well as his use of a single source of light. His work Saint Anne Metterza (c. 1424), done in collaboration with Masolino, was originally intended for Sant’Ambrogio Church in Florence; it was commissioned by Nofri d’Agnolo del Brutto, a cloth merchant. Art historians believe that Masolino painted St. Anne and the angels (aside from the angel on the top right), while Masaccio painted Mary and Jesus.
The austerity of the faces is of the Byzantine tradition, but their softness is of the 15th century. The Christ-child is also very 15th century; he is not portrayed as more-or-less a child in adult form, but as a true child. Moreover, his build reflects the emerging influence of classical sculpture.
The term Metterza was derived from the medieval latin word “met,” meaning “the same,” and tertius, meaning “third.” It was used to describe the common iconography of Mary sitting between her mother’s legs and the Christ child sitting between his mother’s legs. The depiction demonstrated St. Anne’s place as third in the hierarchy of the divine family as well as her role as protector of Mary and of Mother Church. It is not for nothing that the silhouette of il Duomo can be made out in St. Anne’s protecting embrace. As il Duomo protects Florence, so too does St. Anne protect Mary.
Although Masaccio’s overall structure was influenced by Brunelleschi and Donatello, you cannot miss Giotto’s influence in the drapery of Mary’s cloak, demonstrating Giotto’s continuing importance, even beyond the Gothic period and into the Renaissance.
Masaccio himself was also a major influence on artists, including another of Florentine’s most famous artists, Guido de Pietro, better known known as Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico was a brother at the recently constructed San Marco Monastery, which he had a major hand in decorating. Although all of his works are of a religious nature, they took on innovations that spurred what is known as the High Renaissance. Room 7 contains Fra Angelico’s Pontassieve Madonna (c. 1435).
This piece was likely originally part of a larger altarpiece, the side panels of which have since been lost. The work is typical of Fra Angelico, however, as can be seen in the soft features of the faces, elongated fingers, monumental posture, and statuesque folds of cloth. These attributes are echoed in his Coronation of the Virgin (1435), also in Room 7 of the Uffizi.
In Fra Angelico’s Coronation, the angels act as the meditators between the divine company and the human world. Beneath the Virgin and Christ is a mass of winged heads; the blue wings indicate that they are cherubim (as opposed to the red wings of the seraphim; seraphim had red wings to reflect that they were inflamed with the love of God). Also beneath the Virgin are clouds, subtly, yet effectively, enhancing the perspective produced by the foreshortening of the angels in the background. Fra Angelico’s focus on movement goes even further than the motif of the angel swinging a censer and includes angels actually dancing, their robes swishing with motion.
Fra Angelico’s Coronation was commissioned to pair with Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration, discussed above, in the Church of Sant’Egidio.
Whether to match the shape of its companion piece or to make some other statement, Fra Angelico also did away completely with the tricuspid shape and opted for a fully rectangular altarpiece.
One of Fra Angelico’s most successful successors was Fra Filippo Lippi, who lived from around 1406 to 1469. Filippo Lippi was a frequent house guest of Cosimo de’ Medici. He had been a Carmelite monk, but allegedly left the order after a scandalous affair with a nun. According to Giorgio Vasari:
It is said that he was so amorous, that, if he saw any women who pleased him, and if they were to be won, he would give all his possessions to win them; and if he could in no way do this, he would paint their portraits and cool the flame of his love by reasoning with himself. So much a slave was he to this appetite, that when he was in this humour he gave little or no attention to the works that he had undertaken; wherefore on one occasion Cosimo de’ Medici, having commissioned him to paint a picture, shut him up in his own house, in order that he might not go out and waste his time; but after staying there for two whole days, being driven forth by his amorous—nay, beastly—passion, one night he cut some ropes out of his bed-sheets with a pair of scissors and let himself down from a window, and then abandoned himself for many days to his pleasures. Thereupon, since he could not be found, Cosimo sent out to look for him, and finally brought him back to his labour; and thenceforward Cosimo gave him liberty to go out when he pleased, repenting greatly that he had previously shut him up, when he thought of his madness and of the danger that he might run. For this reason he strove to keep a hold on him for the future by kindnesses; and so he was served by Filippo with greater readiness, and was wont to say that the virtues of rare minds were celestial beings, and not slavish hacks.Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing.
Lippi’s Coronation of the Virgin (c. 1435), once located on the main altar in Sant’Ambrogio, was produced in collaboration with various artists, including Piero di Lorenzo, Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini da Urbino, Fra Diamante, Manno de’Cori, and Domenico del Brilla. In this Coronation, Lippi includes St. Ambrose and St. Eustace (kneeling with his two sons and wife, Theophista). On the right, in a mantle of red, is the donor, kneeling next to the inscription, “IS PERFECIT OPUS” (“He finished the work”). Interestingly, Lippi’s focus is on the spectators rather than the actual coronation (unlike the depictions done by Fra Angelico, which centers on Mary and Jesus). Lippi was deeply interested in the individual and would model his angels off young women that he saw in the street.
Cosimo de’Medici commissioned Filippo Lippi to paint another altarpiece, known as The Novitiate Altarpiece (c. 1445), for the recently constructed Novitiate Chapel in the Franciscan Basilica of Santa Croce. Lippi paid homage to his patron by including red Medici balls across the top of the frieze and inlaid in the marble. He also included the Medici patron saints, Cosimo and his late twin brother’s namesakes, St. Cosmas and St. Damian (on the left and right of the Madonna, respectively). The other two saints are St. Francis, the patron saint of the church for which the altarpiece was destined, and St. Anthony of Padua.
The architecture is classical in nature, although the classical scallop shell ceilings allude to the Virgin and the divine conception. (Many confuse the concept of “immaculate conception” with the divine conception; the immaculate conception actually refers to Mary’s birth, free of sin, not Christ’s birth, divinely inspired). Scallop shells were often symbols of fertility in ancient times, a meaning which Christians co-opted and subsequently narrowed to signify only the birth of Christ rather than births and fertility in general.
Another great early Renaissance artist, Domenico Veneziano, also moved away from the traditional medieval triptych with his Santa Lucia dei Magnoli Altarpiece (c. 1445). Like Lippi, Veneziano places his Virgin in the same space as the saints.
Additionally, Veneziano emphasizes his innovative attention to architecture by placing his scene in a classical setting, dominated by three arches inlaid with green and rose marble, remenscient of the marble used in the Duomo.
This piece is considered a masterpiece due to the innovative use of light. Indeed, you can see the shadow crossover the Virgin and Child, and St. John the Baptist’s foreshortened foot casts a shadow over the floor. In the foreground are (from left to right) St. Francis, St. John the Baptist, St. Zanobius, and St. Lucia. Also look at St. John’s subtly defined musculature in his right arm. Such a detail looks much more classical than Gothic.
The predella is distributed between the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, U.K., and the Berlin State Museum in Berlin, Germany. One of the episodes depicted in the predella (and located in D.C.) is Saint John in the Desert.
In this episode, Veneziano depicts St. John exchanging his worldly clothes for a camel shirt. Shying away from traditional iconography of St. John as an old hermit, Veneziano chose to depict him at the moment of his spiritual conversion and thus as a young man in the classical model. Interestingly, this work is one of the earliest known depictions of such a model that would become the norm throughout Renaissance art. The piece, however, still retains several gothic elements, most glaringly of which is the representation of the mountains. They are more symbolic than realistic and are not at all in proportion to St. John.
Another episode (also in D.C.) is St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata.
Here too, the proportions of the figures are not in keeping with the landscape. For instance, look at the small red book next to Brother Leo, St. Francis’ secretary. Yet, the episode demonstrates the growing concern for realistic landscapes and increasing reluctance to depict events “out of time” as they had been so often during the previous centuries.