Bagliori Dorati: International Gothic in Florence 1375-1440, Uffizi Galleries, Florence

There are artists who seduce and artists who stun. Gentile da Fabriano was of the latter camp. Commissioned in 1423 by the Florentine merchant and banker Palla Strozzi to create an altarpiece for his family chapel, the Umbrian-born painter saw it as a a golden opportunity to flaunt his talent as draftsman, storyteller and decorator extraordinaire.

Into one canvas, “The Adoration of the Magi”, he crams a fairytale world of castles, mountains, gardens and exotic animals including a monkey perched on the back of a camel. Such melodrama would overwhelm the sacred story in the foreground did its characters not glitter in robes and halos of unbridled sumptuousness. A highlight of the Uffizi Gallery’s permanent collection, “The Adoration” is one of the touchstones of International Gothic, the artistic style at the heart of this new exhibition.

Spanning the latter part of the 14th and early 15th century, International Gothic sprang out of a world where, thanks to flourishing new European trade routes, artists travelled more widely than ever before. Equally influential was the circulation of illuminated manuscripts between different courts. As men like Strozzi demanded art that reflected their new-found wealth and sophistication, artists fused the mannered, linear elegance of traditional Gothic with a new celebration of the natural world and abundance of rich pigment, gilding and anecdotal detail.

The only problem with this otherwise magnificent ensemble is that, Gentile’s masterpiece aside, true examples of International Gothic are scarce. Indeed, when I toured the galleries with curator Antonio Tartuferi, he admitted that International Gothic never really took root in Florence. (The other great Florentine example is an “Adoration of the Magi” fresco (1459-61) by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici in Florence). Instead, early 15th-century Florence was a city where Late Gothic art – the boundaries with its International offshoot are blurry but essentially it was marginally less exotic and less blessed with perfectly drawn specimens of flora and fauna – existed in creative tension with the burgeonings of the Renaissance.

Traditionally, historians have presented this period as a schism whereby the flagbearers of the new style, which was rooted in classical values and spatial perspective, swept away the daintier aesthetic of the old guard. Key actors in the first camp are Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio; in the second, reside artists such as Lorenzo Monaco, Masolino and Lorenzo Ghiberti.

The purpose of the Uffizi show Bagliori Dorati (Golden Glimmers) is to convince visitors that the rapport between Late Gothic and Renaissance was far more fluid. If they succeed, it will be thanks to spectators’ willingness to decipher the visual codes for themselves, because the wall texts, though elegantly translated into English, offer no more than rudimentary information on these different styles.

Fortunately, attentive gazing is no hardship here. Building on the Uffizi’s indigenous core of wonders – most rivetingly, a newly restored “Battle of San Romano “by Paolo Uccello – the curators have pulled together a panoply of paintings, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts and goldsmithery that testify to the cultural rebirth of a city that had been ravaged by the Black Death of 1348.

Conceived as a sequel to the 2008 show Giotto, Art and Florence 1340-1375, the current display reveals how late-14th-century masters refined Giotto’s robust, colourful boldness with a new, more opulent delicacy. The showstopper, not least because it is usually hidden in a private collection, is “Madonna and Child and Twelve Angels” (1390-95), by Agnolo Gaddi.

Flanked by two columns of weightless, sinuous angels whose leaders bear a ruby-encrusted gold crown above her head, the porcelain-skinned Madonna is nearer to a celestial princess than to one of Giotto’s solid Tuscan matriarchs. Her ethereal glamour, and the symmetry which lends the scene its sense of spectacle, is echoed in a painting, “Madonna with Child among Saints John the Baptist, Nicola di Bari and Four Angels” (1405-10), by Starnina.

Probably a pupil of Gaddi, this Florentine-born painter’s cosmopolitan travels earn him a place in the spotlight here. After a spell at the court of Juan I of Castile in Spain, he returned to his home city determined to dazzle with Iberian special effects such as sunset-bright lights on a flame-red robe and golden floor tiles that contrast flashily with a saint’s embroidered cloak. Between them Gaddi and Starnina tutored Masolino, a painter famous for assisting Masaccio, considered the first true Renaissance painter, on the fresco cycle in the Brancacci chapel in Florence’s Church of Santa Carmine.

Usually Masolino is held up as the Gothic half of this majestic double-act. Here, a lovely juxtaposition between an early and late work show that, in reality, Masolin’s style evolved. Painted in 1415, his “Madonna dell’Umiltà” purifies the chromatism inherited from Starnina, wrapping his Virgin in a cloak of inky blue lined with shell-pink and devoid of ornament, save a subtle layer of silvery light.

Ten years later, Masolino’s detached fresco of a “Vir Dolorum” (Man of Sorrows) shows how Masaccio’s rigour had left its mark. The firm, bone-white torso of Christ seems hewn from the same marble as the sarcophagus from which he rises, while the saints who bear him droop and weep with touching naturalism.

To fully appreciate Masaccio’s breakthroughs – from ephemerality to substance, from shallowness to depth, from decoration to austerity – a visit to the Brancacci Chapel is essential. On show here, is the Uffizi’s own “Madonna and Child with St Anne” (c1424-25). Considered another collaboration with Masolino, it challenges the viewer to distinguish between hands. (Experts consider the Virgin and Child and green-garbed angel to be sufficiently weighty for Masaccio and attribute the rest to his partner.)

The real curatorial triumph, however, is the presence of the Alana Collection’s portrait of a young man (1425-27), whose authorship is unknown. One of only a handful of portraits in existence from such an early date, his superb realism – the flawless profile balanced by the pillowy coils of his scarlet turban – leads curator Antonio Tartuferi to hazard attribution to Masaccio.

The first artists to make the leap from Gothic gaucheness to Renaissance dignity were Florence’s sculptors. A magnificent section includes several statues originally made to adorn Orsanmichele, the church of the city’s powerful guilds. The game here is to compare and contrast: for example, Lorenzo Ghiberti revitalised the ancient tradition of lost-wax casting to make splendid bronzes such as “John the Baptist” (1413-16), on display here. At first glance, the latter is the essence of Roman pomp, thanks to his strappy sandals and antique scripture. Yet set his fluid, passionate figure next to Donatello’s marble St Mark (1411-13), blessed with truly senatorial sternness, and Ghiberti’s Gothic roots are revealed.

Ghiberti passed on his fusion of old and new to his pupil Paolo Uccello. This exhibition offers a sparkling opportunity to see a rare, early work, the “Annunciation” (1415-20), on loan from the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford, under the same roof as Uccello’s masterpiece, “The Battle of San Romano” – now re-dated to the late 1430s, some 20 years earlier than previously thought – whose pendants are in London’s National Gallery and the Louvre.

From a droll attempt at a realistic dove, who peeks out at the Virgin while hovering behind a column, to the flimsy angels and cramped loggia, the Ashmoleon painting is a delightful attempt to apply Renaissance theory with Gothic practice.

Twenty years later, however, Uccello – the painter who, according to Vasari, refused to go to bed because he was having too much fun practising perspective – had mastered his maths. In his legendary battle scene, the chestnut horse in the foreground kicks up his heels so violently spectators may want to step back, while a thicket of spears criss-crosses through the tangle of bodies to stretch our gaze to a hunting scene on distant hills. A tour-de-force of optical tricks, the painting has never looked so spectacular, thanks to a restoration that has brightened the whole surface, adding in particular a luminous gleam to the soldiers’ armour and horses’ tackle.

Thrilling, too, was the restorers’ discovery of Uccello’s own fingerprints on certain areas of paintwork. There could be no finer proof that Renaissance masters, for all their avant-garde methodology, were never averse to getting their hands dirty.

Until November 4, www.uffizi.com

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