Florence may have been the fulcrum of the Renaissance, yet as two new shows on the art of Siena and Prato demonstrate, great artists did not confine themselves to Dante’s home town.
The Jacquemart-André Museum has a show of Sienese and Florentine painting spanning 1270 to the late-15th century from the collection of Bernhard August von Lindenau, which spent much of the past 50 years behind the Iron Curtain. A diplomat from the eastern German city of Altenburg, Lindenau visited Italy in the mid-19th century, just at the time of the re-evaluation of early Renaissance art, acquiring 180 paintings.
The curators have chosen just 50 Lindenau works, which allows for an intimate, uncluttered story about Sienese painting and its complex rapport with Florence, its chief political and artistic rival. Sienese painters generally rejected the robust, classical realism and spatial perspective embodied by the early Trecento Florentine artist Giotto, in favour of a fusion of Gothic daintiness and Byzantine mysticism. This happy if conservative marriage is responsible for most of the exquisite, ethereal saints and Madonnas who are this show’s main cast. Lippo Memmi’s “Virgin and Child” (1320-1322) has particular Gothic splendour, with the pale-skinned mother’s curving profile ideally balanced against the Arabesque sweep of an ornate gold cloth.
As the Trecento unfolded, the Gothic influence in Siena intensified, culminating in paintings such as “Adoration of the Magi” (1470) by Michele Ciampanti, which sets the kings against a landscape devoid of perspective yet made exquisite by fruit trees, galloping knights and fairy tale castles.
Sienese painters seeking a more realistic vision turned to predelle, small paintings of biblical scenes that ran below the altarpiece: this show contains a plethora of these delightful miniatures. Most intriguing are those painted by Guido da Siena around 1270, vividly choreographed cameos that are alive with gesture and naturalistic colour.
A painting of St John the Evangelist (1328) by Giotto that is not part of the Lindenau collection dominates the Florentine Trecento section because of its spookily convincing aspect and penetrating gaze. Yet the clumsy attempts at perspective in the Florentine paintings around it – the plates on the perilously tilted table in Agnolo Gaddi’s “Supper” (1395) look doomed to hit the floor – demonstrate how his peers struggled to follow his lead.
Giotto’s true heirs were the great Florentine Quattrocento painters, such as Fra Angelico (1395-1455) and Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), who calculated spatial distance according to mathematical formulae. Angelico’s “Ordeal by Fire” (1429) is a typically harmonious composition by the friar-turned-artist. Lippi possessed a more whimsical imagination; his “St Jerome and a young Carmelite” (1435-1436) is splashed with a sinister, eau-de-nil light and its figures have ghostly, sepulchural complexions.
In 1452, Lippi was called to Prato to fresco the cathedral after Angelico turned down the job. His 14-year sojourn is the peg around which the Musée du Luxembourg has built its exhibition. Prato’s ecclesiastical commissioners wanted their wealthy city to be in the vanguard of the Renaissance. In the 1430s, Donatello and Paolo Uccello – both trailblazing talents – worked in Prato cathedral; their lucid yet poetic vision is illustrated here by Donatello’s terracotta tabernacle of the Virgin and Child and Uccello’s fresco of Jacopone da Todi.
In choosing Lippi, Prato’s clerics showed they could compromise piety for talent. Although a Carmelite monk, he was a womaniser and frequently in debt, but his heart-faced Madonnas, playful perspectives and a feeling for colour and detail made him one of the most respected painters of his age. Although none of his masterpieces – not even the Louvre’s Barbardori altarpiece – has made it here, “The Virgin and swaddled Child” (1445-1450) possesses great charisma. Framed against an icy, scalloped trompe l’oeil niche, the translucently pale, sculptural Madonna seems to hail from a chillier planet than that inhabited by Siena’s gilded sirens.
Such undiluted froideur is rare for Lippi. Painted for various Prato churches and convents in collaboration with his pupil Fra Diamante, three altarpieces – “The Nativity with St George and St Vincent Ferrer” (1456), “The Virgin of the Belt” (1456-1465) and “The Presentation at the Temple” (1467) – dominate the main room like sumptuous tapestries woven with painterly details – lapis skies, jewelled head dresses, flower-bedecked robes, lush suede boots, feathery, veined marble.
It is likely that St Margeret’s delicate profile in the “Virgin of the Belt” was inspired by Lippi’s amour Lucrezia Buti, a young nun seduced by the painter who bore him two children: Filippino – who became a renowned painter himself – and Alessandra.
The second half of this show concentrates on the story of Filippino and his contemporaries. Here, the centrepiece is Lippi’s own “Virgin and Child with St Etienne and St John the Baptist” painted in 1503 for Prato’s City Hall. Framed by hills dotted with classical ruins and bathed in a divine light, the regally robed adults gaze at the baby as he twists out of his mother’s hands towards St John the Baptist. Monumental yet intimate, the painting is a dazzling forerunner to this section’s most welcome discovery: the “Virgin and Child” (1511-1515) by Lippi’s pupil Raffaellino del Garbo, which sets a plump, Titian-haired Madonna against a verdant plain peppered with trees, rocks and mist-shrouded towers. Intensely idealised yet profoundly real, these paintings must have awed contemporary spectators as much as they do today.
‘The Italian Primitives: the Altenburg Collection’ runs until June 21, www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com
‘Filippo and Filippino Lippi: the Renaissance in Prato’ continues until August 2, www.museeduluxembourg.fr
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