To Florence (via the National Gallery)
Several years ago when reading Art History at University I managed to get away with not studying a single painting from the Italian Renaissance. Shameful. At the time I was into all things Medieval, and got myself far more wrapped up in the wonderful politics and religious troubles around the Northern Europeans such as Durer, Cranach and Holbein. Happily I’ve been on a mission of late to fill in the gaps of my education by reading about the period and when possible, supplementing it with drawing. The mission started with making new acquaintances in the National Gallery, and has more recently been encouraged by discovering the historical novels of Linda Proud. Set in fifteenth-century Florence, she tracks the lives of artists, writers and philosophers caught up in the web of the powerful Medici family. I’m only a couple of books in so far, but already enjoying learning about the period of history through the ‘eyes’ of Filippo Lippi, Allesandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi.
After finishing A Gift for the Magi I went to ‘meet’ Filippo Lippi at the National Gallery and see the two door panels painted for Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici that Linda describes. Whilst the Annunciation is well-known and beautiful for its humble angel, afraid to cross into Mary’s realm, I was also taken with his ‘Seven Saints’, showing the patron saints of the family. Instantly it brought to mind her description of the birth of the new Platonic Academy, as supported by the Medicis. These saints, set in a group discussion chaired by John the Baptist, yet distracted by their separated debates, or in Cosimas’ case, turn to heaven for an answer, could just as easily have been a group portrait of Cosimo amongst the artists and philosophers of his own Academy.
Botticelli’s The Mystical Nativity is a new painting to me, and blew me away. There is so much to be read and wondered on its purpose, painted when the artist clearly felt the end of the world was nigh, that I can’t go into now but you can get started here. But the most moving characters are the set of angels raising men at the front ground. Three in sequence gradually are pulled up from the cracking earth and supported. The angels appear to meet them face-to face, mouth-to mouth, as if resuscitating them. But the three pairs also have a sense o struggle in them, of a struggle much like I’d expect to see in the story of Jacob wrestling the Angel. Perhaps this half-embrace of life, half-wrestle, is appropriate given they were apparently heretics that twisted and turned their own version of Christian truth.
Elsewhere, I enjoyed getting to grips with the intricacies of triangles, arches and hierarchies of Raphael’s composition in this relatively small painting. Annoyingly I haven’t caught anything of her face right, but the more important aspect of the painting is the relationship between the three, the space within of Christ’s and John the Baptist’s hands meeting, passing a carnation, and the weight of the Old Testament being passed onto the New.
I’ve always had a soft spot for St Sebastian pictures, and that probably started with seeing this years ago, it’s one of my favourite paintings in the gallery. It’s also great fun to draw, to dissect the picture into half, quarters, diagonals, and chart the movements of the archers, who mirror and turn on each other as if the artists, a pair of brothers, had drawn from the same model, but each working from different sides. Sebastian its set so high that he’s practically ascending to heaven before he’s dead, but in the meantime his upturned face has the effect of being like a sun, and radiates over the rolling hills and landscape behind.
Sadly, I’ve never been to Florence. But I have a feeling I’ll have to go very soon…