Sunday, August 16, 2015

Art, Engagement and the Renaissance

I have always loved art history, for the stories a work of art can tell us of its time, place and the people who lived at that particular point in history. Although I note the formal elements of a work, I am more interested in engagement with art on a personal level- how does it make me feel, think, understand. I had a particularly profound experience in a museum this June that touched on all these elements of engagement and more...

I caught the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from the Florence Cathedral at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York on the last day of the exhibit, the last day of the museum, as a matter of fact.  I came to the show to see masterpieces that had never before left Italy in a totally new setting (it would have been sacrilegious for me to not visit such greatness when it was at my doorstep) but left with a new awareness of the greatness of the Renaissance.

The wonders of the Renaissance are awe-inspiring, to be sure, but for people from non-Western cultures they require a certain lexicon. Even though humanism was one of the main driving forces of this period in history, the context for most commissions were embedded in the Judea-Christian culture. I remember once overhearing a young man in a museum saying "It looks beautiful to be sure, but I wish I understood what it meant..." as he gazed at a 16th century painting of the four evangelists.  Of course no one needs anything except the use of their eyes when gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the majestic sculptures of the great masters filling Florentine museums but my experience at the MOBIA exhibit was different even those moments.

Being up-close and personal with these sculptures, so far removed from their original context, I was able to engage with them as magnificent works of art that moved me. I could not only see but feel the humanism embedded in these works... the intensity, the anguish, the contemplation.  The experience was so powerful that I left with a new understanding and appreciation for the greatness of the Renaissance.

So, what was so different about the works of display on this exhibit than all those other masterpieces of the Renaissance we encounter in museums regularly? Those living outside of Italy can experience the Italian Renaissance mostly through the paintings on museum walls and encountering these monumental works, in such close proximity created a very intimate level of engagement that surpassed any type of intellectual admiration. This was a traumatic experience for someone who is a wholehearted believer in the relevance of context above all else. So, how could I be so moved by these works without any context? or was the context present in the knowledge of knowing their authentic place and purpose? Didn't we need the Cathedral with its doors and niches for which these works were created? How about the tight streets of Florence that surround the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, shaded by the Duomo? These sculptures come from the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, a museum that houses the original sculptures from the Cathedral and the Baptistry from the natural elements, but due to their close proximity to their original location (around the corner from the entrance of the Cathedral and the Baptistry) I feel it is still a vastly different experience to encounter them in a small exhibition space of a museum in New York.

I will share my photographs of the exhibit with some of the gallery labels and let you decide for yourself...


Attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi, Model for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, ca. 1420-52

Attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi, Model of the Lantern for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, 15th or 16th century
In the years that Donatello was carving the bell tower prophets, his friend and youthful companion, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, began work on the final architectural component of the Duomo, the vast cupola rising above the church's nave and transepts. Lifted high over the building's roofline by a massive drum, the dome remains the most imposing part of the entire complex, visible not only from the surrounding city streets and squares but from the hills that ring the city and, across miles of Arno river valley plain, from the neighboring city of Pistoia...
The two wood models exhibited here, however - believed to have been made in the 1430s to the architect's specifications to illustrate structural features of the cupola and lantern - put us in touch with the excitement of those last years of the cathedral project, when Florentines saw the immense building their ancestors had begun reach completion.

Attributed to Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello, Profetino, ca. 1406-9
 This "Small Prophet" once crowned the left pinnacle of the Porta della Mandorla. Perhaps datable around 1406-9, the work has a remarkable resemblance to Donatello's first documented freestanding sculpture, the David carved in 1408-9 for the cathedral's buttress (and now in the Museo del Bargello in Florence), and thus may represent his first effort ever to carve a statue. 

Attributed to Nanni di Banco, Profetino, ca. 1406
This statue, originally perched atop the right-hand pinnacle of the Porta della Mandorla...The figure has a stylistic affinity with a large statue of the prophet Isaih done by Nanni in 1408, now inside the cathedral. 
Nanni de Banco or Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi (Donatello),Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrows), ca. 1407-9
 This work, made in the 1404-9 phase of the Porta della Mandorla's evolution, served as the keystone of the arch that dominated the door's upper register. 
Nanni di Banco or Donatello, Hercules, ca. 1404-9
 This small relief carving of Hercules originally occupied a place in one of the outer archivolts of the Porta della Mandorla. It was one of five such images of the legendary mythological hero included in the program...The profusion of Herculean imagery... resulted from the hero's exalted place in Florence, where since the 13th century, when he appeared on the city's seal, he was considered an emblem of the Christian virtue Fortitude.

Attributed to Giovanni d'Ambrogio, Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation, Late 14th century

Attributed to Giovanni d'Ambrogio, Virgin Mary of the Annunciation, Late 14th century
The statuary group is likely the work of Giovanni d'Ambrogio, arguably the most esteemed sculptor in Florence during the final years of the 14th century... Although the original destination of the group is uncertain, it is known to have inhabited the tympanum above the door by 1414, where it remained until 1490, when a large mosaic - also depicting an Annunciation - took its place...Interestingly, the Virgin May's head is based on a Roman portrait type used for adolescent males. 

Donatello, St John the Evangelist, 1408-15
Donatello's first monumental work, this seated figure of St. John the Evangelist occupied a position of great visibility at the cathedral, the niche directly to the right the main portal.
When Donatello undertook to carve the statue he recognized that its base would be set roughly four feet above human height, and made formal adjustments to accommodate this low vantage point. Not only are John's proportions far closer to nature when observed from this angle, but his presence is much more formidable. John's solemn gaze - lost somewhere in the distant space of thought - makes it clear that the artist meant to depict the courage of this old man who, exiled for his faith, heard and saw mysterious truths which he communicated in writing to his fellow persecuted Christians. A century later, this depiction of the Evangelist would inspire one of the most powerful Renaissance explorations of unfolding movement, Michelangelo's Moses. Michelangelo, a Florentine born in 1475, would have seen Donatello's St. John every time he passed by the Duomo.
Nanni di Banco, St. Luke the Evangelist, 1408-13
Like other three Evangelists for the facade, Nanni's St. Luke was finished and set in its niche - immediately to the left of the main portal - by October 1415.  Of the four statues, Nanni's is the most conspicuously dependent on classical models. Nanni, who admired ancient roman sculpture, gives his St. Luke tousled hair, a close curled beard, and active drapery derived from ancient prototypes, along with an unfolding movement that suggests spontaneity. When placed in its architectural container, the figure would have seemed to gaze down and to his left, as though forcing his attention on those passing him and entering the cathedral's main portal. Passersby were perhaps meant to understand their action as interrupting him. As if momentarily distracted from a text he had been reading (possibly the Gospel he had himself authored), Luke glanced down toward churchgoers, projecting  an intellectual vitality consistent with what Scripture tells of the Evangelist's character. 
Attributed to Donatello or Nanni di Bartolo, Prophet, ca. 1410
Attributed to Donatello or Nanni di Bartolo, Prophet, ca. 1406-10 

Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo, Abraham and Isaac (the Sacrifice of Isaac),1421
Of the 16 statues completed for the bell tower, Donatello's Abraham and Isaac is the lone work that relates to a narrative. In this two-figure group, Donatello captures the dramatic culmination of the Old Testament story that Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and others had illustrated in their 1401-2 trial reliefs for the bronze baptistery doors. With the assistance of the sculptor Nanni di Bartolo, Donatello extracted from a single block of marble two closely intertwined figures. anticipating what later masters including Michelangelo would perfect: the so-called figura serpentinata e moltiplicata or "coiled, multiple-figure group." Donatello chose a point in the story where Abraham hears the angel's voice and understands that his son will live. 

Donatello, Prophet (possibly Habakkuk), known as the Zuccone, 1435-36
The Zuccone or "Squash Head," as the figure was popularly known, was probably the last statue that Donatello completed for Florence's bell tower. There is little consensus over the specific identity of this prophet, in part because the relevant archival sources do not name the figure explicitly. It may be that the Opera's interest - and Donatello's - centered not on who the prophet was, but on how he evoked the Old Testament ethic that he preached. Here, Donatello pares the figure down to its emotional nucleus. The sculpture has no decorative adornments or iconographic prompts; even the scroll is done away with to enhance the prophet's psychological urgency, neck thrust forward as though addressing the populace some 70 feet below. So extraordinary was the statue's lifelikeness and individuality that later Renaissance writers would claim that while carving the Zuccone Donatello ordered it to speak to him.

Luca della Robbia, The Art of Music, 1437-39
Luca della Robbia, The Art of Dialectic, 1437-39

Luca della Robbia, The Art of Grammar, 1437-39
Luca della Robbia and Antonio di Salvi Salvucci, Processional Cross: Christ Crucified, the Evangelists, Allegory of the Sun, 15th century (after 1460, before 1475)
Donatello, and workshop, Head, ca. 1439
Donatello, and workshop, Head, ca. 1439
These bronzes likenesses, which appear to be copied directly from an ancient prototype, bear vivid testimony to Donatello's engagement with antiquity following his visit to Rome in 1430-32. So closely do the heads resemble classical portraits, in fact, that they were, until their arrival at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in the 1930s, classified as ancient bronzes. Donatello originally set this pair of heads below the projecting face of his cantoria, each piece nested against a disk or purple porphyry, and each inclined downward toward the pavement below. As a document from October 1439 implies, these heads are, in reality, the same person portrayed twice: an adult male, brows knit with concern, seemingly caught on the horns of some internal predicament. Because of their subtly different interpretation of the antique there, however, the heads are believed to be by different hands, one being assigned to Donatello himself, the other to his collaborator Michelozzo. 
Although the specific function of the heads is uncertain, it is clear that the Opera deemed their aesthetic impact important. This may be inferred from the fact that in 1456, some 17 years after the heads were installed, the Opera made arrangements to have them gilt with gold leaf (traces of which still remain). In all probability, the Opera, or Donatello himself, found that the dark bronze objects were not sufficiently visible within the shaded recesses below the gallery, and required gilding to make them more eye-catching. 

Art has always been a fundamental part of my life to help me make sense of the world and my place in it. We come to this world, we breath, we exist and we feel... There is something reassuring in seeing our human emotions expressed so beautifully in great masterpieces such as these statues.  And its always humbling to see the height of achievement a human being can obtain in the pursuit of excellence.

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