"The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy"

By Grassi, Marco | New Criterion, November 2009 | Go to article overview

"The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy"


Grassi, Marco, New Criterion


"The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy"

Middlebury College Museum of Art, Middlebury, Vermont.

September 17-December 13, 2009

Over the past several decades, students and connoisseurs of Italian art have come to a fuller understanding of how it evolved, particularly in Florence, which was, incontestably, the locus of the Renaissance. Since Vasari's Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects was published in 1568, the story has been cast as a progression of momentous innovations, starting with Giotto and culminating with Michelangelo; each generation, over three hundred years, furthered the "ascent" of the arts by virtue of a handful of pioneers like Masaccio, Andrea del Sarto, Raphael, and Leonardo, as well as a few others of perhaps only slightly lesser genius. In this reading, the fulfillment of their collective contributions constitutes the essence of the Renaissance: it was their vision, innovation, and creativity that forever transformed the medieval construct of visual representation. While this account has never been significantly challenged, and, indeed, has only become more compelling over time, it is nonetheless true that there are sub-chapters to the story that have only more recently emerged and come into focus.

Thanks to modern archival research and advances in the study of artists' techniques and materials performed in conservation studios, it is becoming ever more evident that the Renaissance was not merely an artistic movement spearheaded by a succession of heroic pathfinders who left a legion of lesser lights striving in their wake. The amount of visual material available for study has multiplied in recent years, revealing a production of artworks arrayed in a far wider spectrum of quality and diversity than previously imagined. The complex and still not fully understood relationships between the great "innovators" and their contemporary followers are now seen as subjects of particular pertinence. "The Art of Devotion" recently installed at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, is perhaps the first ever exhibition to devote its attention exclusively to some "lesser lights" in the context of the larger events that shaped the early Renaissance.

Several years ago, the museum acquired at auction a beautifully preserved anconetta, or small tabernacle, originally intended for private domestic devotion. It depicts the Virgin and Child, two standing male saints, and four attendant angels set against a background of gold and a richly embroidered carpet. After careful restoration, the painting and its elaborate framing device are once again a precious and colorful example of the kind of object that enjoyed immense vogue in Florence during the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and was endlessly replicated. The work is attributed to Lippo d'Andrea, known to have lived from about 1370 to 14-51, but until recently a mere name encountered in documents of the period. D'Andrea is a minor figure: what a previous generation of art historians described as a hopelessly retardataire craftsman, hardly worthy of more than a footnote. Only now is a tentative catalogue of his paintings being compiled, and it is composed almost exclusively of works previously classed under the conventional name "Pseudo-Ambrogio di Baldese."

The curator Katherine Smith Abbott and her Middlebury colleagues have gathered sixteen paintings and works of art and displayed them intelligently and tastefully to surround the museum's recent acquisition, resulting in an exhibition that is innovative in its focus, thoroughly enlightening, and a joy for the senses. The accompanying catalogue is essential reading if one is sincerely curious about not only the material at hand, but also the larger questions explored in the undertaking. How, in fact, can the contemporary relationship between the innovators and the lesser lights in early quattrocento Florence be imagined? What part did patronage and the market play in the very conspicuous output of artistic material during those years? …

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