Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art

A recent symposium at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) offered new insights into how art was created in Florence at the dawn of the Renaissance. As part of their exhibition Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art, the AGO hosted some of the leading experts in this field of medieval art.

A large audience was on hand for the Symposium, which was held on March 23, 2013. Here are our summaries of the four presentations:

The Impruneta Antiphonary: Reframing the Collaborative Process in Works Attributed to Pacino di Bonaguida

Presented by Bryan Keene and Nancy Turner of the J. Paul Getty Museum

Between 1335 and 1340, the Basilica of Santa Maria all’Impruneta, which lies in a small town on the outskirts of Florence, commissioned an Antiphonary, a liturgical book that would be used by choirs during Mass. The Impruneta Antiphonary consists of five volumes that offer 1300 pages of songs. Producing this work would have taken months, and Keene and Turner have determined that at least six different artists took part in creating over one hundred illuminations in this text.

The Impruneta Antiphonary has been previously been attributed to Pacino di Bonaguida, a Florentine artist who has produced dozens of panels and manuscript illuminations. The historians from the J. Paul Getty Museum have determined that in several of his works, these artistic creations were made by at least two different people, made up of people working in Pacino’s workshop or his followers. Nancy Turner adds that sometimes these artists were “working side by side in almost a tag-team way.”

In examining the Impruneta Antiphonary, one can see that there were four different styles of creating frames around the illuminations, with the artists using different techniques and brushes. Keene and Turner speculate that the different framing styles allowed the artists to indicate who did which page, so that they would make sure they would be paid for their work.

The Impruneta Antiphonary serves as a good example of how Florentine artists collaborated during the Early Renaissance.

Conserving Science: Painting in 14th-century Florence

Presented by Catherine Schmidt Patterson, Yvonne Szafran and Karen Trentelman

The next presentation explained some of the research being done by the Collections Research Laboratory at the Getty Conservation Institute, where scientific and technical analysis is bringing a new understanding about the history of art. While part of this work involves authentication of certain works, most of the focus by the laboratory deals with learning more about artists’ materials and techniques, and figuring out ways of better preserving these works of art.

The Collections Research Laboratory is able to use a wide range of non-invasive techniques to examine works of art, such as infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray imaging that allows research to see things that cannot be seen in regular light. They were able to use these scans on a depiction of Saint Sylvester created by Pacino di Bonaguida, which is located in a private chapel within Florence’s Santa Maria Novella. They revealed that Pacino made use of various chemical elements in this painting, including lead, mercury and copper. In one area of the painting, he combined orpiment and indigo to created a rich dark green colour, while egg yolk or whole egg was often used as a binding agent. Meanwhile x-rays revealed old nails and framing elements which suggests that this painting was originally part of a triptych.

Their work on medieval art pieces often reveals how they change over time, with paint layers disappearing or being altered over the centuries. In the Chiarito Tabernacle, another work by Pacino di Bonaguida, their research shows that large areas of the painting, which now have a dark, almost black look to it, were originally blue. It seems that since 14th century, the many times this tabernacle was cleaned and revarnished led to a gradual change in colours.

A Conversation about Giotto 2013

Presented by Cecilia Frosinini and Carl Strehlke

Frosinini, one of the leading historians of Florentine art, and Strehlke, an adjunct curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, talked about how research over the last twenty-five years has changed our understanding about Giotto di Bondone (1266/7 – 1337), the famous Florentine painter. Most historians now discount the story that Giotto was a shepherd boy outside of Florence when he was discovered by Cimabue – evidence shows that his father was an ironsmith who was living in Florence in 1276. One source reveals that Giotto was originally an apprentice to a wool merchant before joining Cimabue’s workshop.

Giotto is best known for his masterpiece frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua and the St. Francis frecoes at Assisi. Frosinini and Strehlke show that these works were done in a collaborative effort by Giotto’s workshop. It may have been that Giotto was recognized and selected so early in his career to complete these works not only because of his artistic abilities, but his organizational skills.

One other interesting element to Giotto’s work is that he made use of templates – underdrawings that depict faces, bodies, etc – which could be used again and again. New research is now being carried out in the Peruzzi and Bardi chapels in Santa Croce, Florence, which also contained works by Giotto. Although whitewashing and poor restoration has now left these works a pale trace of the original, ultraviolet scanning is now able to show new details about these frescoes.

See also Giotto’s beautiful art can once again be seen through ultraviolet light

The Master of the Saint George Codex

Presented by George Bisacca and Sasha Suda

The final talk of the day was given by George Bisacca of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Sasha Suda, Assistant Curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. They look at anonymous manuscript that was made at the Papal Court in Avignon between 1321-1330. Because the work deals with Saint George, the illuminator has been given the name the Master of the Saint George Codex.

The presenters add that this artist, or his workshop, was also responsible for creating diptych panels, of which two pieces are kept in the Bargello in Florence, and two more at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. These works show similarities to each other, such as the use of halos on saints and border decorations.

Sasha Suda speaks more about the Master of the Saint George Codex in this video where she describes the Revealing the Early Renaissance exhibition:

Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art runs from March 16 to June 16, 2013. Presented in partnership with the world renowned J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art brings together an unrivalled collection of more than 90 rare paintings, manuscripts, sculptures and stained glass from the 14th century to show how the artists of one city gave birth to the Renaissance.

To learn more about this exhibition, please visit the Art Gallery of Ontario website.

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