Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 10, 2015
Renaissance Splendors of the Northern Italian Courts Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: March 31–June 21, 2015
Thumbnail
Large
Pisanello. The Conversion of Saint Paul (ca. 1440–50). Tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, silver leaf, and ink on parchment. 5 9/16 x 3 1/2 in. (14.1 x 8.9 cm). J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 41, verso.

Northern Italian courts served as vital incubators for Renaissance artists, yet they are often overshadowed by larger cities such as Rome and Florence. Powerful rulers, discerning collectors, and taste-making humanists resided in these autonomous principalities. Renaissance Splendors of the Northern Italian Courts provides some much needed attention for these important artistic centers. Curated by Bryan Keene, the exhibition focuses on fifteenth-century manuscripts produced in Ferrara, Mantua, Urbino, and other Italian court cities. Despite being limited to a single gallery, it features works of art commissioned and produced by some of the most influential patrons and artists of the era. The show is accompanied by a virtual exhibition that was created in conjunction with several Italian institutions.

Renaissance Splendors features more than two dozen objects, the majority of which come from the permanent collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Keene illustrates how the sumptuous commissions functioned as conspicuous signs of wealth, taste, and erudition within the high-status court environment. Virtually all of the works are from the quattrocento, and most are manuscripts. These limited parameters enable a potentially obtuse topic to become comprehensible, even for a general audience.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: courtly style, court artists, and court patrons. At first glance the thematic breakdown seems arbitrary, but no other criterion would have been nearly as effective. Arranging works by artist or location would have been confusing, as manuscript illuminators traveled between courts and worked for several different patrons. A chronological organization would have been equally ineffective, because almost all of the objects were created in the fifteenth century, and little stylistic or technical development is perceptible among those exhibited. The tripartite division provides a framework within which viewers can meaningfully encounter Renaissance courtly culture.

Featuring works by some of the greatest painters of the fifteenth century, the section dedicated to court artists is the most impressive part of the exhibition. It includes a manuscript page attributed to the quintessential court artist of the mid quattrocento, Pisanello (Initial S: The Conversion of Saint Paul, Ms. 41, verso [1440–50]), as well as a drawing by Andrea Mantegna (Two Standing Male Figures [ca. 1456]), the preeminent court artist of the late quattrocento. Mantegna’s pen and ink sketch, possibly a preparatory drawing for the Ovetari Chapel in Padua, hangs beside a manuscript page by the lesser-known Girolamo da Cremona (Pentecost, Ms. 55, recto [ca. 1460–70]), which allows for an instructive visual comparison. Girolamo’s Pentecost is rendered in painstaking detail, as even the bindings of books in the scene’s background have been clearly articulated. The exacting style of the artwork illustrates Mantegna’s influence on the manuscript illuminator. Unsurprisingly, Girolamo spent a portion of his career in Mantua, where Mantegna was employed as the official court artist.

One of the most intriguing objects in the court patrons section is a manual on combat by an unknown artist (Examples of Equestrian Combat, Ms. Ludwig XV 13, fol. 45v [ca. 1410]). Commissioned by Niccolò III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, it features illustrations of several types of equestrian battle scenarios, all of which are accompanied by written instructions. Niccolò was more interested in classical learning than martial endeavors, but the handbook indicates that the ideal Renaissance prince needed to foster the active life along with the contemplative. Visually distinct from the numerous fully illuminated pages in the show, the images are monochrome with only the occasional detail highlighted in gold leaf. Both the style and content of the commission demonstrate the range of objects produced for courtly patrons.

Perhaps the one deficiency in an otherwise excellent exhibition was that virtually none of the text in the manuscripts was translated into English. Iconographic and literary elements are both essential components of the works of art. Translating portions of these mostly Latin texts could have clarified how images worked in conjunction with language in order to communicate messages to viewers.

A large vitrine is dedicated to didactic material explaining the process of making an illuminated manuscript. The display case includes raw pigments, artists’ instruments, and a replica of a manuscript page that is brought to completion in six steps. The labor-intensive process, foreign to a twenty-first-century audience, is laid out in a clear and logical manner. A small touchscreen display has four short videos that give additional information on binding and parchment making. The multimedia component is limited to a single screen in the corner of the gallery, which prevents the technology from upstaging the art and overwhelming viewers. The videos are also available at http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/renaissance_splendors/.

The online exhibition was realized in collaboration with several Italian institutions, including the Cini Foundation in Venice and the Biblioteca Trivulziana in Milan. This virtual display is accessible to the public, but it will function primarily as a resource for scholars. Wall text and artwork from the physical exhibition are included, as are several additional objects from the Getty’s collection. Dozens of manuscripts owned by Italian libraries and museums are also featured online, many of which relate directly to those owned by the Getty. Coincidentally, numerous manuscript digitalization projects were already underway in Italy when work began on Renaissance Splendors. Several curators agreed to take part in the virtual exhibition, which was spearheaded by Keene.

Artists, patrons, and style—the criteria used in the gallery—are also employed as a means of guiding viewers through the website. A major difference between the real-life exhibition and the virtual one is the number of cross-media comparisons. While the Getty show has three panel paintings, the virtual exhibition features several altarpieces and drawings, as well as one sculpture. These objects provide greater stylistic context for the manuscripts, and they help establish patrons’ tastes as well as trends in subject matter. The tooled gold surface of Gentile da Fabriano’s altarpiece (Coronation of the Virgin [ca. 1420]), for example, resembles the ornament on many of the manuscripts. It is clear that the same opulence suited for a publicly displayed panel painting was also required for personal items such as prayer books. The significant resources invested in these works of art makes clear their role as prestige objects.

The quality of images on the website does not disappoint. The artworks are reproduced in extremely high resolution, and the interface allows viewers to zoom in and inspect miniscule details. From cracks in the gold leaf to subtle shading of faces, one can arguably see more online than in person. Users are led through the images in a linear fashion. This creates the sense that one is receiving a guided tour of an actual exhibition rather than simply accessing a museum database. Additional features facilitate research by means of keyword searches, sorting of results, and side-by-side comparisons through a drag-and-drop function.

Naturally, the online exhibition accomplishes things that would be difficult, if not impossible, to carry out in a gallery setting. Most of the works of art are sensitive to light and can only be displayed for limited periods of time, but on the website they will be on view indefinitely. Multiple pages from a bound manuscript are featured in the virtual exhibition, as are the recto and verso of a single folio. Large-scale works of art function as visual comparisons, yet it would be far too costly to transport them for an exhibition. With tentative plans to update both the interface and the object list, the website can gradually evolve, unlike a static exhibit or an exhibition catalogue.

In-depth analyses of specific patrons, artists, and cities are carried out online. Milan receives little attention in the gallery, but numerous works of art from the powerful court are featured in the virtual exhibition. Seven pages from a manuscript commissioned by Cardinal Bessarion (Antiphonal of Cardinal Bessarion [1455–63]) are also illustrated on the website. A prominent Greek cleric and associate of multiple popes, Bessarion was a leading supporter of humanistic studies. It would be possible to include all of the pages from his manuscript in a gallery, as they are no longer bound; but such a display would be rather redundant. The virtual setting gives scholars the opportunity to examine numerous pages in order to draw conclusions about a full commission.

The courts of northern Italy are an important part of Renaissance art, but with so many patrons, artists, and cities it is difficult to accurately represent their contributions in a small-scale exhibition. Combining a gallery show with a larger online exhibition was an ingenious way of approaching this challenging task. The digital realm is ideal for experimentation and collaboration between international institutions. Even without the website, Renaissance Splendors stands on its own as a valuable and effective presentation of courtly art. Keene successfully distilled a complex topic to its essential components. By focusing on manuscripts, he was able to showcase the wealth of objects in the Getty’s permanent collection while highlighting crucial characteristics of these powerful centers of artistic production.

James Fishburne
Adjunct Lecturer, Department of Art History, UCLA

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.