Danielle Trynoski takes in the new Renaissance Splendors of the Northern Italian Courts exhibit at the Getty Center in Lost Angeles
In April, I made a very special journey up a hill on the north side of Los Angeles; a journey akin to a pilgrimage for many art enthusiasts. I was fortunate to have a talk and tour with Bryan C. Keene at the Getty Center, co-curator of the exhibit “Renaissance Splendors of the Northern Italian Courts.”
Our discussion started at the beginning, with a question about the source of the idea for the exhibit focus. The development of the concept was a collaborative effort amongst graduate interns and Getty staff including curators, conservators, and research scientists. Exhibit focus and the development of its supporting themes are based on multiple factors including past and upcoming exhibits involving Italian and illuminated manuscripts, recent acquisitions and research at the Getty, and potential and/or future loans. Exhibit selections draw from difference sources including the Getty’s manuscript collection, the Getty Research Institute, and private collections. The curatorial team works with conservators to determine which pieces or pages are available for inclusion, after considering recent time spent on display, condition, and gallery placement.
Significant time was spent evaluating the story flow. Discussions with the curatorial team, installation team, and design staff affected layout and concept, e.g., which gallery entrance received more usage/higher volume historically. Past studies of visitor flow showed that the majority of visitors entered the gallery through an interior gallery entrance rather than the more direct entrance off of the Getty Center’s main courtyard. This finding affected the final layout of objects, such as arranging the entry sightline to feature the smallest physical object (a book) framed by the largest physical object (a notation page from a choral volume). A stand-alone case shows the method and materials involved in the production and illumination of manuscripts.
Three main themes support the main exhibit focus: Courtly Style, Courtly Artists, and Courtly Patrons. Exhibited materials are grouped within these three themes. Different media is paired together to show relationships within each theme. A prominent example includes a pair of painted panels, likely from a marriage chest, exhibited alongside drawings within a bound manuscript which was likely commissioned. Nearby, contemporary pen-and-ink drawings provide additional context and comparison of early Renaissance techniques and subjects. While these three themes are distinct within the exhibit, the careful selection draws them together.
In the Courtly Style section, artwork is grouped by region to highlight technical similarities such as highly saturated colors in Verona, lines and attention to detail in facial shapes in Milan, and specialty pigments in Venice. The Venetian examples featured a light blue color known as ‘smalt’ which is a glass-based pigment. Prior to scientific research at the Getty and elsewhere, smalt was earliest seen in the 17th century but is prominently featured in the 15th century materials included in the Getty’s collection. These examples of its prominent and prevalent use show close ties to the glass industry in Venice.
Francesco di Giorgio Martini, considered by many to be an “early da Vinci,” is featured in the Courtly Patrons section as an artist who enjoyed very specific patronage from wealthy Italian families. These patronized artists created products for special family occasions such as marriages or coming-of-age events, while incorporating the trendiest art techniques and styles. Martini’s panels Oenone and Paris use Romanesque characters and costuming to pay homage to Classical art and literature. Examples of Equestrian Combat includes drawings by an unknown artist for illustrating The Flower of Battle by Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da Premariacco. Three copies were likely commissioned for the three sons of Niccoló III d’Este, the Marquis of Ferrera for nearly 50 years (1393-1441). In addition to the exquisite renderings of the horses and equestrians, the subject matter was relevant to courtly lifestyle and the projected image of a young man’s conduct.
Keene’s favorite piece in the exhibit is Initial E: David Lifting Up His Soul to the Lord by Franco del Russi (1455-63). It depicts David holding a harp in one hand and lifting up a silhouette of his soul towards heaven in the other. The initial was removed from the Antiphonal (choir book) of Cardinal Bessarion and illustrated in the court of Ferrara. The coat of arms of the cardinal is featured near the bottom of the page. It is exhibited in the Courtly Style section and is very distinctive in the Ferrara tradition. Works from Ferrara are a particular strength in the Getty’s collection, especially pieces by Cosmé Tura such as Initial D: Saint John the Baptist (1470-1480). In this initial, gourd vines are prominently featured. This detail was a historical mystery until archaeobotanists working in Ferrara’s palatial complex identified candied gourd seeds contemporary with the manuscript. Keene also shared that based on records of court projects and expenses in 15th century Ferrara, a complete manuscript cost more than many of the palace’s frescoes to produce. The curator’s knowledge of each individual piece and the context for the exhibit materials ran deep, and his enthusiasm for the topic was apparent and energizing.
He pointed out (with a touch of glee) an illustration by Giovanni Antonio Decio, Initial D: The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew (1480), on loan from a private collection, in which the artist had signed and dated the work. Prior to the publication of this piece, this artist was primarily known as a sculptor. Displayed in the Courtly Artists section of the exhibit, it was a prime example of how artists in residence would be responsible for, and excel in, multiple media.
Connecting the exhibit to the world outside of the gallery is a priority for the Getty staff. Videos online show how manuscripts were illuminated and produced, and other programs such as curator tours and regional wine tasting events are scheduled to accompany the exhibit. Curators and graduate interns work with undergraduate classes to provide additional context for the exhibited works, and coordinate with the Getty’s educators to provide lesson plans and classroom connections. On a larger scale, there is a collaborative online exhibit of over 100 objects curated by Keene and drawn from collections at the Getty and in Ferrara, Mantua, Milan, Venice, and Verona. You can explore this unique collection here. The Archivio Storico e Biblioteca Trivulziana in Milan is also displaying a complementary exhibit with the same title as the Getty’s show. If this is too much glamour for you, then explore the exhibit currently at the Getty online at this website, including images of the artwork and the exhibit labels.
Whether you make the pilgrimage up the hill to the majestic Getty Center or explore the online exhibits, I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse behind the scenes of “Renaissance Splendors of the Northern Italian Courts.” I wish to extend my thanks to Bryan Keene for graciously guiding me through the exhibit and taking the time to answer my questions in a thorough and engaging manner.
This exhibit will be on display at the Getty Center through June 21, 2015. To plan a visit to the Getty Center, use the information listed here.
Danielle Trynoski is Medievalists.net West Coast Correspondent. Click here to read more articles by Danielle.