The Forms of Florence

Jasper Rees

Magazine issue: 
#4 2013 (41)


It's an instinct of curators to put the pieces back together. In recent memory, exhibitions have reunited in one space all of Monet's haystacks, for example, or Cezanne's card players or, in the case of the National Gallery's momentous Leonardo show, both versions of "The Virgin on the Rocks". "The Springtime of the Renaissance" takes the business of synthesis to the next level - across the centuries.

The Florentine Renaissance was - as implied by the name conferred on it by the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt in the 19th century - an artistic development which planted its feet on antique shoulders. To put it somewhat reductively, the statuary and reliefs commissioned in the early decades of the 1400s in Florence were inspired by the rediscovery of classical form. "The Springtime of the Renaissance" goes in search of that relationship, the causal link between Quattrocento Florence and pre-Christian Rome (and, behind the latter, ancient Greece).

The result is a spectacular anthology. Occupying the first-floor gallery of the Palazzo Strozzi, it establishes in ten rooms that what the city's millions of visitors tend to think of as primarily a painterly revolution - after all, Botticelli's "Venus" is the face of Florence on all the apps and aprons - was first cast in stone and metal. To be specific, the material in which the Renaissance took its first less-than-tenta-tive steps was bronze, but bronze impersonating the cool hard forms of marble. The star exhibit of the first room sets next to each other the two most celebrated entries for the competition, announced in 1401, to design the bronze doors of the Baptistery.

You can see perfectly serviceable copies of "The Sacrifice of Isaac", the two quatrefoil bas-reliefs by Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghi-berti, in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. What you can't see, even in Florence's Museo dell'Opera del Duomo where the originals normally reside, are the hunks of classical marble from which the two young goldsmiths explicitly drew their inspiration. But here they are: a "Boy with Thorn" from the first century BC whose bent-over pose is precisely echoed by one of Brunelleschi's shepherds, while the rippling trunk of Ghiberti's Isaac quotes the twisted marble "Torso of a Centaur" from the first century AD. The connection could not be more overt.

There is an excellent exhibition catalogue, a hefty volume that weighs probably not much less than one of the signature rustic bricks of the Palazzo Strozzi itself. In one of its essays, the important point is made that Brunelleschi's loss in the competition to design the bronze doors was posterity's gain. Ghiberti would not finish the job for 22 years, leaving his rival free to design the self-supporting dome of the cathedral that remains the city's miraculous symbol (and a frequent feature of this exhibition).

Despite the vast shadow cast by that cathedral and the city it protects, over the decades Florence has fallen behind the major cultural capitals of the world as a host of blockbuster shows. While it may be the cradle of modern civilisation, it is nowadays a conservative place, and its conservatism is underpinned by the lack of dynamic exhibition spaces. For years the great paintings have hung on the walls without curators feeling an overwhelming need to make them work any harder to earn their keep.

A significant change in the cultural ecology of the city came in 2006, however, when the Palazzo Strozzi appointed as its director the flamboyant Anglo-Canadian James M. Bradburne. His previous postings had included the Metropolis Science and Technology Centre in Amsterdam and the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt - in short, his background was not in the Old Masters. In Florence he is that considerable rarity, a foreigner at the helm of an Italian institution.

Since landing the job at the Strozzi Bradburne has made it his task to reintroduce Florentines to their own city. Thus shows on Bron-zino in 2010-11 and, last year, Botticelli made a virtue of the fact that, while not all of the relevant exhibits can be shipped in and put on display, many of them hang on nearby walls. For each exhibition the Strozzi publishes what it calls a "passport" - in reality a booklet with relevant cultural destinations in Florence and Tuscany. If the holder pays to see five sites in the passport, and gets the stamps to prove it, they get into the Strozzi show for free. Next year a much anticipated fresh look at the work of the great Mannerists Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino will take the same approach.

With no exhibition has the Strozzi's passport book bulged more invitingly with options than it does for "The Springtime of the Renaissance". Venues that can be visited include the recherche Horne and Bardini museums, stationed either side of the river Arno as it enters the city centre. Both devoted to private collections, they are much less frequently visited than the better-known tourist attractions - and all the more pleasant for that. There is also the Duomo's excellent workshop museum and the church of Santa Maria Novella, where Masaccio's architectural fresco of the Trinity is very much part of the story. But the really key venue to visit is Museo del Bargello, where it's possible to nip over and inspect the Donatellos which didn't make the journey - his heroic, intellectual St. George and his ravishing, sensual David.

The director of Florence's glorious sculpture museum, Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, is the co-curator of "The Springtime of the Renaissance" alongside the curator-in-chief of Musee du Louvre's Departe-ment des Sculptures, Marc Bormand. Both museums are heavily represented at the Strozzi, and the synthesis goes beyond marrying up the classical and the Quattrocento: this is also the fusion of two great collections. It will be interesting to see how the Louvre accommodates the narrative. That said, it's a measure how organically Florentine the show is that, for the first time in its history, perhaps the world's greatest museum has consented to go second with opening a show.

Back at the exhibition, pieces have come from all over the world, like ambassadors and legates attending an once-in-a-lifetime conference. Bormand, at the Louvre, reports that requests for loans had an unprecedented strike rate of 90 percent (the regular figure is closer to 50 percent). It seems no one wanted to be left out: one is put in mind of the Council of 1439, part of the great attempt by the Roman and Orthodox traditions to find common ground. Attended by the Pope, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Eastern emperor, its considerable side effect was to put Florence at the heart of Christian civilisation.

Quite a few of the exhibits have been restored for the event -funding such work is one of the Palazzo Strozzi's key bargaining chips - while one or two have rarely or never been seen in public before. In the conversations between exhibits, one of the subtlest features a fresco by Bicci di Lorenzo, "Pope Martin V Consecrates the Church of Sant'Egidio in 1420". Over the left door of the church is a painted terracotta of "The Coronation of the Virgin". The original terracotta (minus its paint) by Dello Delli is exhibited alongside the fresco for the first time. Such a charming juxtaposition is part scholarship, part showmanship.

Other pieces are reintroduced to one another after centuries apart. Take, for example, the massive statues which once perched in the niches of the Orsanmichele. This former granary in the heart of the city became in the early Quattrocento an open-air exhibition space for a revolution in sculpture as guilds competed with one another to commission pious statues of the saints to occupy the niches on its exterior walls. Two are reunited here: Ghiberti's "St. Matthew" and, freshly restored, Donatello's astonishing "St. Louis of Toulouse". Then there is a lovely reunion of pieces from Michelozzo's "Funerary Monument of Bartolomeo Aragazzi" in the Episcopal Palace of the pretty Tuscan hilltop town of Montepulciano. It was broken up in the 17th century. His ravishing marble "Two Adoring Angels" from London's Victoria & Albert Museum is exhibited alongside the only surviving fragment of the monument's gilt bronze "Inscription".

Both these reunions appear under the theme "Romanitas". It argues that the growth of civic confidence, the product of peace and prosperity, persuaded the city to see itself as the inheritor of the values of the Roman Republic. Hence Leon Battista Alberti, the great theorist of Quattrocento aesthetics, portrays himself in bronze like a Roman noble in profile. Or Ghiberti's bronze shrine cites a classical sarcophagus depicting the triumph of Dionysus. This single piece in Cortona seems to have been profoundly influential. It impressed not only Ghiberti but, according to the Renaissance's first great historian Giogio Vasari, Donatello spoke of it so glowingly that Brunelleschi walked the 120 kilometres to Cortona to see it for himself.

But "The Springtime of the Renaissance" begins not in Rome or Florence, in fact, but in the port city of Pisa. In the 13th century Florence's historic rival was a melting pot of influences arriving from far and wide. In the processing of creating the Baptistery font for the Campo dei Miracoli (also home of a certain listing bell-tower), the sculptor Nicola Pisano was first among many to fall under the inspiring spell of the Talento Crater, a first-century Roman urn with Bacchic bas-relief figures who twist their way round the cylinder in beguiling style; it just so happened to be hanging around in Pisa. Placing it squarely at the entrance to the exhibition, the curators argue that this is very much "Exhibit A" in the story of the Renaissance.

The plot continues through rooms which each explore different aspects of Florence's cultural rebirth. Perhaps the most enchanting space is devoted to Spiritelli (spirits), and the images of putti. It was through these with their puffy cheeks and plump bottoms that classical forms innocently infiltrated religious symbolism. Thus, for example, we find the classical Roman marble "Putto with a Goose" from mid-1st century AD, which was a type of statue known to Florentines, acting as a possible template for Donatello for his bronze Spiritelli from the cathedral's hugely popular Choir Loft.

Another room more sternly investigates the rise of the mounted condottiere. Here the long shadow is cast by the so-called Medici Pro-tome, a Greek horse's head in bronze (which has been roaming wide lately: it was seen in the Royal Academy's hugely popular "Bronze" exhibition in London in 2012). There is little information on its provenance but less doubt that, as a possession of the Medici family, it was a significant influence on Donatello. Donatello set out for Padua in 1443 to work on the first great equestrian statue since the iconic Roman statue of Marcus Aurelius (a small bronze copy of the latter by Filarete shown here is typical of the reproduction of ancient works that became popular in Florence as the taste for antiquities spread). Donatello's Gattamelata of course remains on its Paduan plinth, but here there is his study for the head of the final statue, and alongside it his "Carafa Protome", a vast horse's head which (unsurprisingly, given its spectacular size) was all he managed to complete of the even grander monument commissioned from Alfonso V of Aragon.

A horse and its rider also stalk a famous Florentine wall. It is in the cathedral that the causal link between monumental sculpture and painting was made in Paolo Uccello's frescoed equestrian tribute to the condottiere Sir John Hawkwood. Hawkwood was an English mercenary to whom Florence had had reason to be grateful towards the end of the previous century, and the city's thanks took the form of Uccello's two-dimensional statue in paint. This was the first public monument to an individual in a republic not given to glorifying its citizens - and almost the only one until the Medici were installed as dukes in the 1530s. In Florence the original can be visited in the cathedral of course, while a "cartonetto" will be on display in Paris only.

Uccello is one of the important links in the chain connecting the three-dimensional marvels of Donatello et al and those working in the flat plane of the fresco. As the discoverer of the vanishing point in painting, Uccello figures in the part of the exhibition exploring the spread of sculptural mass and architectural depth into painting alongside the development of techniques in achieving perspective. Uccello's gaunt "Jacopone da Todi" stands in his niche, one foot obscured by the frame while the large toe of another peeps over the edge and breaks the plane. The same joke with the third dimension is played in a splendid quartet of portraits of "Famous Men and Women" by Andrea del Castagno for the loggia of a villa outside Florence - the feet of the Cumaean Sibyl and Queen Tomyris wittily poke out, casting shadows over Latin inscriptions underneath.

As for perspective in sculpture, fresh miracles were achieved above all by Donatello. Taking his cue from the crowded bas-reliefs of Roman sarcophagi, he introduced the concept of the vanishing point in marble with his early predella of "St. George and the Dragon". More astonishingly still, his "Herod's Banquet" delivers architectural heft and narrative flow with only a few millimetres of depth to play with. It contrives to populate the scene not just with the dancing Salome and the Baptist's head on a salver but figures massing in the background, mere ghosts and rumours summoned into clarity by the hand of a genius.

It will be clear that the longest shadow of all cast over "The Springtime of the Renaissance" is not that of Brunellschi's dome, or by one city's collective memory of another. In the end, in making its larger argument this show cannot help press the claims of an artist whose genius posterity sometimes seems to take for granted. If ever there were an advertisement for the wide-ranging and immortal genius of Donatello, it is to be found here, in room after room, as his interests and discoveries span across these momentous decades. There is one teasing glimpse of his mortality in an exquisite bronze roundel of a "Madonna and Child with Four Angels". It is also known as the "Chellini Madonna" because one Doctor Chellini was gifted it by the artist in settlement of a medical bill. As Donatello is thought to have lived four score years - he died in 1466 - it seems that the lucky doctor was doing something right.

Chellini crops up again as the subject of Antonio Rossellino's portrait bust, his wattled neck frothing under a forthright chin. This comes towards the end of the exhibition, as the story lengthens into the second half of the 15th century and Florentine wealth began to fund commissions migrating from the public sphere to the private. The finest examples include bust portraits by Donatello's younger peers Mino da Fiesole and Desiderio da Settignano. Meanwhile, ravishing faux-marble altarpieces could be cheaply reproduced using the new technique of glazed terracotta developed by Luca della Rob-bia. The spread of private wealth in republican Florence eventually created a taste for celebrating the personal.

It was the rise of the individual - Lorenzo the Magnificent, Savonarola - that is implicitly predicted in this expansive tour of a city in its intellectual and moral pomp. A bas-relief by Mino da Fiesole of Julius Caesar alludes to the displacement of the Roman Republic. Florence itself would not enjoy its republican status for much longer. But that is another story.





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