Magazine article The Spectator

Golden Decade

Magazine article The Spectator

Golden Decade

Article excerpt

Renaissance Florence: The Art of the 1470s

(National Gallery, till 16 January)

The past, notoriously, is another country. But some parts are a good deal more foreign than others. I suspect one would fairly soon find one's feet in Impressionist Paris, say, or even Dr Johnson's London. In 15th-century Florence, however -- familiar though it may seem from innumerable Tuscan holidays - they really did think and do some things very differently. It is part of the achievement of the excellent and intelligent exhibition Renaissance Florence: The Art of the 1470s at the National Gallery that it makes some of those differences clear.

Some oddities merely remind one that this was a long time ago. Painters, then, were members of the Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries - because their pigments were sold by druggists. One small cameo was worth 20 times more than the most valuable painting in the Medici collection. Others affect the way we look at the art, an art with which we have been obsessed for nearly two centuries.

This exhibition helps the visitor look through 15th-century eyes in two important ways. First, it restores the unity of the arts. Although a particular artist might specialise in one art or another, to Renaissance Italy, the arts were fundamental to all departments of disegno - meaning drawing, or more generally design. A leading artist might as easily find himself designing a carnival float or a candlestick -- a magnificent specimen of the latter by Verrocchio is on show - as painting an altarpiece or making a sculpture.

Verrocchio and Antonio del Pollaiuolo -- the leading artists in the 1470s and the heroes of this show - both produced an amazing variety of art. Pollaiuolo, starting off as a goldsmith, went on to produce sculpture in bronze, textile designs, paintings and one of the greatest Renaissance engravings, the 'Battle of Nude Men'. Verrocchio was equally versatile.

A drawback of our contemporary demarcation between one art and another is that it breaks up this unity. Paintings go to Trafalgar Square, sculpture and knickknacks to South Kensington, prints and drawings to the BM. But this exhibition puts it all back together.

Thus in the second room you can see the range of production of Verrocchio's studio, including that candlestick. There are also enormously beautiful terracotta sculptures, a full-scale masterpiece in the form of the 'Putto with a Dolphin' - represented by a cast - paintings and drawings. And the order of excellence among these works is not exactly what one might expect.

We tend to think of painting as top art, but in Verrocchio's workshop it looks like a low priority. The most beautiful of the exhibits are the drawings and small terracottas: a 'Sleeping Youth' that looks forward to the pastoral world of Giorgione and Titian, a couple of angels that show exactly what Verrocchio's prize pupil learned from the master, a design for a tomb in Pistoia which is verging on baroque in its complexity of fluttering angelic drapery.

The cast of the 'Putto with a Dolphin' lacks some of the amazing refinement of finish of the original. But it is possible - as it is not when looking at the original in the Palazzo Vecchio - to walk around it and see how from every angle it rearranges itself into a new, but always suave, composition (there are also a couple of dubious Verrocchio-ish busts, among the few mistakes in the selection).

In comparison, none of the paintings -- even the best, the National Gallery's 'Virgin and Child with Two Angels' - is up to much. …

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