Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 8, 2010
Katherine Smith Abbott, Wendy Watson, Andrea Rothe, and Jeanne Rothe The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy Exh. cat. Middlebury, VT: Middlebury College Museum of Art, 2009. 116 pp.; 50 color ills. Paper $24.95 (9781928825067)
Exhibition schedule: Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, MA, February 9–May 30, 2009; Middlebury College Museum of Art, VT, September 17–December 13, 2009
Modeling Devotion: Terracotta Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance
Exhibition schedule: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, February 25–May 23, 2010
Lippo d’Andrea. Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari (ca. 1410). Tempera and gold on panel. Middlebury College Museum of Art. Purchase with funds provided by the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Fund and the Walter Cerf Art Fund. 2005.056. Photograph Ted Merrick, Vermont.

A grey-green architectural screen with an arcaded view of late medieval Florence—an enlarged detail of the fourteenth-century fresco of the Madonna della Misericordia in the Loggia del Bigallo—drew visitors to the Mount Holyoke Art Museum and into the Harriet L. and Paul M. Weissman Gallery where they encountered the realm of the sacred. Twenty objects dated from ca. 1385 to ca. 1475 comprised The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy, including two sculptures and a cassone. These were installed on and against subdued jewel-toned walls of blue and red.

The works were arranged singly and in groups, beginning at the left of the main entrance to the gallery with the oldest painting in the exhibition, Giovanni del Biondo’s Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Catherine (ca. 1385), on loan from the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. One of the several noteworthy aspects of the Art of Devotion exhibition was that eleven collections lent their fragile paintings (and one sculpture) to provide a rich visual context for the catalyst of the show, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari (ca. 1410), attributed to Florentine artist Lippo d’Andrea and purchased in 2005 by the Middlebury College Museum of Art where the exhibition originated.

A wall text by Katherine Smith Abbot of Middlebury College, the show’s curator, introduced visitors to “The World of the Florentine Artist,” stressing the fluidity of the boundaries between late medieval and Renaissance Italy that art historians have come to recognize and appreciate, and to which conversation this exhibition significantly contributed. The following two narratives addressed iconographic and devotional issues. Together they revealed that these works of art are complex visual texts, purposefully designed for specific audiences and locations—church, chapel, or home. As all but six of the paintings and sculptures in the show were representations of the Virgin and Christ Child, the means by which artists underscored the sacred nature of Mother and Child, obvious to a Trecento or Quattrocento viewer, was communicated through a few, easily identifiable examples that included the expensive blue of Mary’s mantle, the gilded splendor of a Cloth-of-Honor, and the seemingly playful objects accompanying the Christ Child, such as a bird or an apple.

Moving around the gallery in a clockwise direction, the penultimate work was Ventura di Moro’s Madonna and Child Enthroned between Saints Thaddeus and Simon, Anthony Abbot and Leonard (1430–40). Lush and imposing, the painting illustrates the success a talented artist could achieve by fusing the late Gothic style with early Renaissance features. In it the Christ Child holds an apple, signaling one of the niceties that characterized this finely tuned exhibition. Directly across the room was the wall text that made note of the apple, thus connecting the two across space.

Three paintings were executed by well-known artists, including a luscious, delicately textured Enthroned Madonna and Child with Two Angels (ca. 1410) by Gentile da Fabriano and two works from the collection of the Mount Holyoke Art Museum: a half-length Virgin and Child (ca. 1465–75) by Sano di Pietro and a bust (of a saint?) from a pinnacle of Duccio’s Maestà (1308–11), most recently ascribed to Duccio by Laurence Kanter. Otherwise, the exhibition focused a critical eye on works by lesser-known artists, considering the historical place occupied by artists such as Lippo d’Andrea who, a generation ago, as Kanter makes clear in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, was unknown “except as a name occasionally cited in documents” (13–14).

The several paintings in the show grouped under Lippo d’Andrea’s name included the largest painting on view, a Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints (1420), which stood against the back wall of the gallery. This majestic painting, along with four others attributed to Lippo hanging nearby, introduced the visitor to Middlebury’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari, installed in a semi-circular space at the center rear of the gallery. Although not the first work of art the visitor encountered, it was the object to which the entirety of this outstanding exhibition was directed.

Recognizable differences among the works on view attributed to Lippo raised questions concerning workshop practices and introduced issues of connoisseurship. Of particular interest in this regard was a painting loaned by a private collector, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist, Saint Anthony Abbot, Saint Peter, and Mary Magdalene, dated to ca. 1430, which in major respects mirrors the earlier Middlebury panel. Nevertheless, the firmer, less delicate rendering of the Virgin and Child sets the work apart from the earlier painting, which the difference of a decade might—or might not—explain.

An account of the conservation of the Middlebury altarpiece opened a dialogue between viewer and object concerning artists’ materials and techniques that reached a crescendo in the final section of the exhibition. A didactic copy of Sano di Pietro’s Virgin and Child, created by Anne O’Connor expressly for the Mount Holyoke venue, and a recreation of the upper portion of the Middlebury panel by Kate Gridley, accompanied a parade of artists’ tools and materials, including minerals on loan from Yale University and a small basket of brown eggs. Excerpts from Cennino Cennini’s Il libro dell’arte lined the wall.

Two paintings attributed to the Master of 1419, recently associated by Kanter with Battista di Biagio Sanguigni (exh. cat. 94), underscored for me what this exhibition so successfully addressed, namely, the highly subjective nature of connoisseurship, but not directly in regard to this little-known artist. The earlier work, a Virgin and Child of ca. 1415, is a charming painting in nearly pristine condition that probably was created for an intimate setting. A Madonna of Humility supports her child across her lap, while the child tugs lightly at his mother’s filmy, transparent veil. It is a warmly human depiction of Mother and Child, sumptuously painted and gilded, with extensive use of delicate mordant gilding, sgraffito, and punch work. The lower third of the painting—a curvilinear sgraffito pattern of red and gold—is treated as if it were a Cloth of Honor, against which the Madonna appears to hover, its linear grace echoed by the mellifluous, gilded border of her generous mantle. Space is virtually absent, and the lower half of Mary’s form is left to the imagination.

In contrast, the Virgin and Child Enthroned, a much larger, more formal painting dated to 1419, doubtless made for public display, contains an architectural throne in which the tall, solid figure of the Madonna comfortably sits. The base extends outward onto a strip of tiled flooring, the two together defining a distinct foreground plane. The Virgin’s features, although related to those of the Virgin of ca. 1415, are more elongated—as is the Virgin herself—less round and graceful, lacking the sweet “air” of the earlier painting. The extent of Mary’s broad lap is delineated by simple folds that conform to the pull of gravity, and the fluid, gilded hem is less mannered than in the earlier work, the overall effect noteworthy in its three-dimensionality and monumentality. Although a familial resemblance between the two is unquestionable, are these paintings, in fact, by the same hand?

Other issues of a less specific sort related to connoisseurship were consciously introduced by the inclusion of two sculptures that reflect in some manner the art of Lorenzo Ghiberti. These half-length, life-sized reliefs of the Virgin cradling the Child in her left arm, their heads touching, the Virgin’s face the picture of sorrow, represent a type of sculpture that was made of terracotta, gesso, or stucco forte using press-molds and intended for a wide audience. The Virgin and Child of stucco forte (ca. 1420s) belonging to the Mount Holyoke Art Museum is a particularly beautiful example among the approximately fifty that survive. Its restoration in the late 1970s and early 1980s uncovered creamy-pink flesh tones and traces of a delicate floral pattern on the figures’ garments. The base, decorated with a classically inspired swirl of foliage flanked by stemmi, differs markedly from that of the polychrome, terracotta Virgin and Child (ca. 1450) on loan from the Cleveland Museum of Art, where a recumbent figure of a woman is contained in an oval niche—the variety of bases available, of which at least five types have been identified, offering one means by which these mass-produced sculptures could be individualized. This reclining figure closely resembles the Eve Ghiberti incorporated into the frame of his second set of bronze doors for the Florentine Baptistery (1425–1452), thus providing one of the primary pieces of evidence in support of some manner of intervention or influence on the part of Ghiberti or his workshop in the design and manufacture of these otherwise anonymous sculptures (exh. cat. 98).

The final painting in the exhibition—Virgin and Child Enthroned between Saints Lawrence and Stephen, with the Archangel Michael and Saint George (ca. 1425–26) by Giovanni dal Ponte—is exceptional for its brilliant palette and stunning color juxtapositions. The solid gold background above a unified ground plane and the slight but solid figures indicate an artist who was able to achieve a unification of traditional and innovative elements so skillfully balanced as to all but dissolve the stylistic boundary between the late Gothic and the early Renaissance.

In fact, a majority of the paintings represented artists who looked both to late Gothic traditions and early Renaissance innovations for inspiration. Products of artistic training and proclivity, the patron’s taste also played a substantive role in the fashioning of these works. Of the highlighted paintings, none was more illustrative of this complexity than Gentile da Fabriano’s Virgin and Child with Angels (ca. 1410). The subtle blend of elements from the International Gothic with early Renaissance tendencies produces a work that must have been treasured as much for its exquisite beauty as for its usefulness as a devotional object. The Madonna and flanking angels clothed in brilliant yellow are firmly grounded and accessible, the massive presence of the Virgin in this relatively small painting tempered by the elaborate, lyrical folds of her mantle.

This splendid exhibition, as finely crafted as the paintings and sculptures that comprised it, was complemented by a handsomely illustrated catalogue modest only in length. The introduction, written by Laurence Kanter, Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and consultant to the exhibition, includes the reasons behind the choice of several of the paintings, thereby increasing an awareness of these works in relationship to Lippo d’Andrea’s oeuvre. Three essays follow, authored by Katherine Smith Abbott, curator of the exhibition, by Wendy Watson, curator of the Mount Holyoke Art Museum, and by Andrea and Jeanne Rothe, the conservators responsible for the Middlebury panel. Although the essays are not without an occasional error (the Florentine Baptistery has no west doors (26)), they are admirably informative, clearly written, and accessible to a general audience.

One might say that Modeling Devotion: Terracotta Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, on view earlier this year at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and organized by Alan Chong, William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection, was both long overdue and right on time. Until this exhibition, Gardner’s collection of glazed and polychrome terracotta sculpture (and related works of stucco and wood) had been largely overlooked. The most recent guide to the collection, published in 1995, includes a detail of Giovanni della Robbia’s monumental Lamentation (ca. 1515) located in the Long Gallery (it remained in place during the exhibition), but ignores the sculptures that were on display in the Special Exhibition Gallery. Modeling Devotion corrected this oversight, called attention to Gardner’s famously eclectic taste, introduced to the public a medium until recently little regarded by art historians, and reintroduced a masterpiece of great power, the Deposition of Christ with Carlotta of Lusignano (ca. 1480).

The timeliness of the exhibition hinged on the construction of an addition to the Gardner Museum that will provide spacious accommodations for special exhibitions such as this one. However, the intimate nature of the current exhibition space was perfectly suited to the works on view, inviting contemplation of and communion with them.

Included among the nine sculptures were works by some of the finest artists of their day. The acquisition of these objects is evidence of Gardner’s desire for the exceptional, while her tenaciousness as a collector is illustrated by her procurement of one of these works—the Virgin and Christ Child (ca. 1480) by Matteo Civitali, obtained in spite of the no doubt daunting efforts of art collector Wilhelm Bode, Berlin’s director of museums, who wanted the sculpture for himself.

A life-sized figure of Mary, hands extended in prayer, adores her child, as the kneeling Christ Child ardently gazes up at her in the same attitude of prayerful reverence. In this tender exchange between mother and child, Civitali created a compositional novelty, reinterpreting to profound effect the popular devotional image of the Virgin adoring the child as he lies at her feet. The lifelikeness of Civitali’s figures is reminiscent of the terracotta and polychrome sculptures of Guido Mazzoni, who was known for the verisimilitude of his figures and who was at work during this same period.

Benedetto da Maiano was represented by two sculptures: a bust-length John the Baptist from ca. 1480 and a large tondo of ca. 1495 with a charming Virgin and Child at its center. The distinctive treatment of the two works is instructive of artistic practice in the service of individual taste. The polychromy of the Baptist renders him as fully present as possible (“but for breath”), while the tondo was painted white and parts gilded so that, as the museum plaque suggested, the molded terracotta would look more like carved marble. Gardner’s choice of objects, in fact, illustrates the diversity of treatment possible with terracotta, ranging from a dark patina intended to look like bronze, to glaze (or paint) emulating marble, to the startling realism of Benedetto’s Baptist.

Two images of young women introduced the visitor to the penumbral realm of art forgeries. A serenely beautiful, glazed terracotta Bust of a Woman, in the style of Desiderio da Settignano or perhaps Andrea del Verrocchio, was purchased by Gardner as a work of Luca della Robbia on the recommendation of Bernard Berenson. Soon after, it was discovered to date from the nineteenth century. The bust recently was attributed by Anita Moskowitz to the accomplished nineteenth-century sculptor Giovanni Bastianini and dated to ca. 1860. (Forger? He said he was not.) The other Bust of a Woman acquired as a fifteenth-century work also was created in the nineteenth century. This exquisite sculpture, made of painted and gilded wood and plaster, was fashioned, according to the Gardner Museum website, by “a French imitator of Renaissance work.” Formally, the sculpture is reminiscent of a reliquary bust; stylistically, it is more Pre-Raphaelite than it is Renaissance. That Gardner kept these sculptures after the truth of their authorship was made known to her inserts into the larger conversation regarding her collection the knotty problem faced by museums today: what is the appropriate place of “forgeries” in a world-class museum?

Without question the centerpiece of the exhibition was the larger-than-life-size relief of the Deposition (ca.1480) by Giovanni de’ Fondulis. Its realism and emotional intensity is indicative of the type of large-scale terracotta sculptures that gained popularity in the last decades of the fifteenth century, and continued to be made well into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the form of three-dimensional life-sized, realistic figures acting out sacred narratives. Comprised of half-length figures of the Dead Christ, Mary, and Saint John, the Gardner Deposition recalls paintings of related devotional subjects, such as Giovanni Bellini’s Pietà (ca. 1468–71) in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, recalling Giovanni de’ Fondulis’s roots in the Veneto. The work long hung in dark obscurity above one of the main staircases of the museum. Newly restored for this exhibition and recently attributed to Giovanni de’ Fondulis (also called Giovanni da Crema) by Giuliana Ericani, Director of the Museo Civico, Bassano, who presented her findings at a symposium held at the Gardner on March 30, 2010, the relief has been connected to three life-sized, free-standing terracotta statues of Christ, Saint Peter, and Saint John the Evangelist owned by the Museo Civico, Padova,

It is fitting that Modeling Devotion: Terracotta Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance was the final exhibition held in the gallery carved out of the original museum. In some respects this exhibition was a very personal one, offering insights into Gardner’s tastes, acquisition methods, and her devotion to the objects she purchased. Unlike other exhibitions held in this space, all of the works on view were purchased by her. Thus, individually and as a group, these sculptures reflect the diversity and superior quality of the Gardner Collection, upon which the indomitable woman who guided its formation was so intent.

The complementary nature of The Art of Devotion and Modeling Devotion is striking, in that each brought attention to little-known masters and, particularly in the case of the Gardner exhibition, little-understood media. Each showcased masterpieces by artists who had fallen into obscurity—artists not today in the art-historical forefront, but artists who ran lively businesses, who were more numerous than their more famous contemporaries, and who produced sought-after works for an appreciative public.

Ellen Longsworth
Professor Emerita, Department of Visual and Performing Arts, Merrimack College