Masterpieces from an Italian Workshop ; Prato Show Features Treasures of Renaissance Art

By Morris, Roderick Conway | International Herald Tribune, October 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Masterpieces from an Italian Workshop ; Prato Show Features Treasures of Renaissance Art


Morris, Roderick Conway, International Herald Tribune


The golden age of Prato is the subject of a revelatory exhibition "From Donatello to Lippi: the Workshop of Prato," in the city's newly restored Palazzo Pretorio.

This Tuscan city was once the scene of one of the most romantic scandals of the Italian Renaissance. Here, the artist and Carmelite monk Fra Filippo Lippi was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the convent of Santa Margherita, and happened to meet there an attractive young novice, Lucrezia Buti. The couple had an affair, and in around 1457 produced a child, Filippino Lippi, who was to become a celebrated painter in his own right.

It says a great deal about the status of artists in Italy by the mid-15th century that Pius II, instead of visiting some terrible punishment on Filippo Lippi and his lover, absolved them of their vows. Perhaps the pope, a connoisseur and patron of art and architecture, was swayed by the fact that Lippi was then in the middle of painting a groundbreaking cycle of frescoes in Prato's principal church, St. Stephen.

The golden age of Prato is now the subject of a revelatory exhibition "From Donatello to Lippi: the Workshop of Prato," curated by Andrea De Marchi and Cristina Gnoni Mavarelli. The show brings together works, including elements of some beautiful altarpieces, that are now widely dispersed in collections on both sides of the Atlantic. The venue is the newly restored Palazzo Pretorio, which will later house the city's historic art collection and provide space for temporary shows.

Although modest in size compared with nearby Florence, 14th- century Prato already possessed outstanding artworks by Giovanni Pisano, Agnolo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi and Giovanni da Milano. In the first half of the 15th century the town became one of the most important artistic crucibles in Europe, as its leading citizens attracted first-rate artists to adorn the ancient church of St. Stephen (now the Duomo, or cathedral) and other religious foundations.

Both Donatello and Paolo Uccello had worked as assistants to Lorenzo Ghiberti, one of the founding fathers of the Renaissance in Florence, in the creation of his first set of bronze doors for the city's baptistery. The two clearly found Prato -- whose civic patrons seem to have afforded those they commissioned a large measure of freedom -- a congenial environment in which to experiment and find their styles as independent masters.

The first of the great sculptural additions to St. Stephen was entrusted to Donatello and Michelozzo di Bartolomeo in 1428. The commission was for a pulpit on the exterior of the church, from which a famous relic, the Girdle of the Virgin Mary, could be displayed to the crowds of pilgrims who flocked to Prato every year. The sculptors came up with a revolutionary solution: an almost circular, canopied balcony projecting vertiginously out of the right- hand corner of St. Stephen's facade. Its parapet was embellished with a marble relief of classically inspired dancing putti -- a decorative scheme that Donatello went on to use again in the choir loft in Florence's Duomo. …

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