Gothic Heralds of the Renaissance Dawn ; How Florentine Art of the 1400s Gave Rise to Flowerings of a New Age

By Morris, Roderick Conway | International Herald Tribune, August 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Gothic Heralds of the Renaissance Dawn ; How Florentine Art of the 1400s Gave Rise to Flowerings of a New Age


Morris, Roderick Conway, International Herald Tribune


The rich and varied ground of late 14th and early 15th century art in Florence gave rise to the first flowerings of the Renaissance.

Gentile da Fabriano's "Adoration of the Magi" of 1423 is one of the supreme masterpieces of any era and widely recognized as the apex of late Gothic painting. But it marked a beginning as well as an end.

Not only did it exert a powerful influence over Gentile's contemporaries and successors, from Masolino, Fra Angelico and Uccello to Jacopo Bellini and Domenico Veneziano, but it also was returned to for inspiration by artists decades later, including Leonardo and Michelangelo.

More than a century and a half later a Florentine guidebook declared that the "Adoration" was revered "as an object of antiquity and because it comes from the painter who first gave birth to the beautiful style that flourishes today."

This "Gothic" work was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, one of the richest men in Florence, an advanced advocate of humanism and an early scholar of Greek. The "Adoration" is lavishly adorned and embossed with gold in the traditional Gothic fashion, but also achieves a new naturalness in its lighting and in the three- dimensionality of its figures. In one of the predella panels is a painting of the first true nocturnal scene with realistic shadows, and in another is a depiction of the dawn breaking over the countryside, the rising sun's rays illuminating foothills and a hill- top town while the valley beyond the mountains remains in half- light.

The late 14th and early 15th centuries were a period of transition in which no single style dominated in Florentine art and, as the two paintings that mark the beginning and the end of a stimulating exhibition -- Gentile da Fabriano's "Adoration" and Paolo Uccello's newly restored "Battle of San Romano" -- amply demonstrate, what was later to be viewed as old-fashioned happily co- existed with more radical trends. Indeed, it was this rich and varied ground that gave rise to the first flowerings of Renaissance art.

For practical reasons, "The Gleam of Gold: The International Gothic Style in Florence 1375-1440," curated by the Uffizi's director, Antonio Natali, starts in Rooms 5 to 7 of the gallery's permanent collection. They are devoted to the International Gothic and Early Renaissance, and contain two monumental altarpieces -- Gentile's "Adoration" and Lorenzo Monaco's "Coronation of the Virgin" (his only signed and dated work) -- as well as smaller pieces by Masolino, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Uccello, Domenico Veneziano and others.

After these first rooms, visitors wishing to follow the logic of the special exhibition should fast-forward along the main east and west corridors of the gallery, by-passing the next 350 years of art, down to the continuation of the show in the new Temporary Exhibition Rooms.

The first of these rooms -- "14th-century Roots," "Construction Sites" and "Humanist Preludes" -- reveal a world in which sculpture in particular was leading the way in the rediscovery of ancient art. A curious pair of marbles by Giovanni d'Ambrogio, from the 1390s, of the Virgin and the Angel of the Annunciation, with bodies in the medieval style but heads like those of classical statues, even today leave us wondering which is Mary and which the divine messenger, the only indicator being the open book in the Virgin's left hand.

A large central room -- "The Several Paths of Humanism" -- brings together masterpieces from the first three decades of the 15th century, by Ghiberti, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Masolino, Lorenzo Monaco and Uccello, well illustrating in their strikingly different modes that the development of Florentine art was far from linear.

The most consistently Gothic of these artists was Lorenzo Monaco, possibly born in Siena but who ran a workshop outside the walls of his Florentine monastery. He was the least touched of them by mathematical perspective and other innovations, but this did not prevent him pushing the tradition out of which he came to new limits. …

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