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theartsdesk in Florence: The Springtime of the Renaissance | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Florence: The Springtime of the Renaissance

theartsdesk in Florence: The Springtime of the Renaissance

A monumental display investigates the Florentine debt to antiquity

A startling oxymoron: Altar Frontal by Portigiani and Michelozzo (?), 1449-52

It’s an instinct of curators to put the pieces back together, to reintroduce works of art which time and market forces have scattered to the four winds. In recent memory, exhibitions have reunited in one space all of Monet’s haystacks, Cézanne’s card players and, in the case of the National Gallery’s momentous Leonardo show, both versions of The Virgin on the Rocks. A new exhibition opened this week in Florence which takes the business of synthesis to the next level.

The Florentine Renaissance – as implied by the name conferred on it by Burckhardt in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) – gestated in an antique womb. To put it highly reductively, the statuary and reliefs commissioned in the early decades of the 1400s in Florence were inspired by the rediscovery of classical form. The Springtime of the Renaissance goes in search of that relationship, the causal link between Quattrocento Florence and pre-Christian Rome (and by extension, beyond it ancient Greece).

And what an overpowering spectacle it is. Occupying the first-floor gallery of the Palazzo Strozzi, it establishes in 10 rooms that what the city’s millions of casual visitors may think of as primarily a painterly movement – Botticelli’s Venus is the face of Florence on all the apps and aprons – was first carved in stone and cast in metal. Take the star exhibits of the first room. The accepted year zero of the Renaissance is 1401, when the competition to design the bronze doors of the Baptistery yielded two works which have been exhibited side by side more or less ever since. You can see perfectly serviceable copies of The Sacrifice of Isaac by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti in the V&A. What you can’t see are the hunks of classical marble from which the two young goldsmiths explicitly drew their inspiration. But here they both are: a Boy with Thorn from the first century BC whose bent-over pose is precisely echoed by one of Brunelleschi’s shepherds (see gallery), while the rippling trunk of Ghiberti’s Isaac quotes the twisted marble Torso of a Centaur (both pictured above) from the first century AD. The connection could not be clearer.

Nor could the skies over Florence on the day the exhibition is shown to the media. It feels naturally fitting that the first day of real spring greets The Springtime of the Renaissance. Above the open courtyard of the Palazzo Strozzi, a rectangle of blue looks down as the Italian press delegation strips the hospitality table like locusts. In a city which has few places to mount temporary exhibitions, in recent years the Strozzi has become an accommodating and, more to the point, enterprising host. (Pictured above, Model of Palazzo Strozzi, 1489)

Its flamboyant Anglo-Canadian director James Bradburne is that considerable rarity, a foreigner at the helm of an Italian institution. Since landing the job in 2006 he has made it his task to reintroduce Florentines to their own city. Thus shows on Bronzino in 2010 and, last year, Botticelli made a virtue of the fact that, while not all of the relevant exhibits can be shipped in and put on display, many hang on nearby walls. For each exhibition the Strozzi publishes what it calls a passport – in reality a booklet with germane destinations in Florence and Tuscany. If the holder pays to see five sites in the passport, and gets the stamp to prove it, they get into the Strozzi show for free.

For no exhibition is the passport fuller than The Springtime of the Renaissance. Venues that can be visited include the recherché Horne and Bardini museums, both devoted to private collections of seductive bric-à-brac, as well as the Duomo’s excellent museum and the much-loved church of Santa Maria Novella, where Masaccio’s architectural fresco of the Trinity is very much part of the story. But the really key venue is the Bargello. Florence’s glorious sculpture museum is the co-curator of The Springtime in the Renaissance alongside the Louvre, where the show moves in September (it’s a measure how organically Florentine this exhibition is that, for the first time in its history, the world’s greatest museum has consented to go second).

Both museums are heavily represented at the Strozzi, alongside pieces from all over the world, some restored for the event, one or two never seen in public before, several reintroduced to one another after centuries apart. One of the most pleasing results is the return to his home city of the Florentine doctor Chellini, the subject of Antonio Rossellino’s portrait bust, wattled neck frothing under a forthright chin. He crops up again as the recipient of the Chellini Madonna, an exquisite bronze roundel with which Donatello settled a medical bill. Marc Bomand, the wafer-thin, moustachioed curator-in-chief of the Département des Sculptures at the Louvre, reports that requests for loans had an unprecedented strike rate of 90 percent. (The regular figure is closer to 50.)

The result is a quite staggering anthology. It begins, in fact, in the port city of Pisa. In the 13th century Florence’s historic rival was a melting pot of influences arriving from far and wide. In the process of creating the Baptistery font for the Campo dei Miracoli (home also to a certain listing campanile), the sculptor Nicola Pisano was first among many to fall under the inspiring spell in particular of the Talento Crater, a first-century Roman urn with Bacchic bas-reliefs which happened to be sitting around in Pisa. Placing it squarely at the entrance to the exhibition, the curators argue that this is very much Exhibit A in the story of the Renaissance.

The plot continues through rooms which each explore different aspects of Florence’s cultural rebirth. One investigates the fusion of Christian imagery with the values of Republican Rome, as exemplified by the Altar Frontal attributed to Portigiani and Michelozzo. In this startling oxymoron, a manifestly classical sarcophagus plays host to an image of the holy trinity (main image). Another room is devoted to imagery of putti, those tubby little infants via which pagan and religious symbolism innocently merged. The rise of the condottiere and the equestrian statue are considered, as is the spread of sculptural forms into painting (pictured above right, Paolo Uccello's Jacopone da Todi, c 1433-4). One room sums up in a handful of pieces the Florentine discovery of the vanishing point. As the story lengthens into the second half of the 15th century, civic wealth finds public works making way for private commissions – frank bust portraits by Mino da Fiesole and Desiderio da Settignano, and ravishing altarpieces which could be cheaply reproduced using the new technique of glazed terracotta developed by Luca della Robbia (pictured below, the Genoa Madonna, 1445–50).

A catalogue produced for the exhibition feels like the only introduction to the Renaissance you will ever need. Weighing in at 4kg, its heaviness is sometimes mirrored in ponderous, latinate prose translated from Italian. But among many excellent essays, the book makes the important point that Brunelleschi’s loss in the competition to design the bronze doors was posterity’s gain. Ghiberti would not finish the job for 22 years, leaving his rival free to design the self-supporting dome of the cathedral that remains the city’s miraculous symbol (and, even before its completion, a frequent feature of this exhibition).

The longest shadow cast over The Springtime of the Renaissance is not by either of the above, but another sculptor whom posterity sometimes seems to take for granted. If ever there were an advertisement for the wide-ranging and deeply connected genius of Donatello it is here in his beautiful Madonnas (pictured top, Pazzi Madonna, 1420-5), his monumental saints, his fleshy candle-wielding putti, his epic horse’s head for the unfinished Monument to Alfonso V of Aragon. It is as if there is nothing he cannot do. His Herod’s Banquet is an airy riff on the tradition of the thickly crowded Roman bas-relief. Making use of a depth of only a few millimetres, he contrives to populate the scene not just with the dancing Salome and the Baptist’s head on a salver but figures massing in the background, mere ghosts and faint rumours summoned into clarity by the hand of a master.

None of these nuances will be lost on visitors to Palazzo Strozzi, an exhibition venue which has introduced a mini-revolution of its own: tablet-sized user-friendly labels that do not require visitors to cluster like bees round a honey pot - or media round a hospitality table. The result is a show whose totality thrills on every conceivable level: intellectually, aesthetically and, above all, emotionally. Get your passport.


For more images visit our The Springtime of the Renaissance gallery

  • The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence, 1400-1600 at the Palazzo Strozzi until 18 August, then at Musée du Louvre from 26 September to 6 January 2014

Jasper Rees on Twitter

See photo credits overleaf


Page 1

Classical Roman art, Torso of a Centaur, 1st century AD, rosso antico marble. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © 2012.  Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Firenze

Lorenzo Ghiberti: The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401, partly gilt bronze. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photograph by Antonio Quattrone. By permission of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali

Model of Palazzo Strozzi, 1489, by Giuliano da Sangallo or Benedetto da Maiano, carved wood, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photograph by Lorenzo Mennonna. By permission of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali

Page 2

Donatello, Madonna and Child (Pazzi Madonna), c. 1420–5, marble. Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Paolo Uccello, Jacopone da Todi, c. 1433–4, detached fresco. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Prato. Fototeca Ufficio Beni Culturali Diocesi di Prato

Luca della Robbia, Madonna and Child, 1450–60, glazed and gilded terracotta. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © 2012.  Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Firenze


By coincidence, "Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art" has just arrived in Toronto from the Getty. There is obvious overlap and I wish I could see bote - but, thanks to Jasper Rees, I have at least ordered the catalogue of "The Springtime....."

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