Even today, in an age of virtual realities, it is difficult to view Jan van Eyck’s Virgin of Canon van der Paele of 1436 without being shaken by it. The level of illusionism attained in this picture is, bluntly put, mind-boggling. Jan has rendered an entirely credible interior space—cropped on all four sides by the sides of the painting—receding behind the picture plane and ending at a distance that appears measurable. This fictive space, representing the choir of a Romanesque church with an ambulatory wrapped around it, is occupied by figures that are three-dimensional in all but actuality. There are parallels for this both in earlier and contemporary painting outside the duchy of Burgundy. What is without parallel however, is Jan’s extraordinary talent in rendering the substance of things, ranging from the silkiness of hair to the reflective properties of polished armor, and from the softness of fur to the irregularities of brocade. This painter makes you feel what he paints, and this picture—which includes light hitting and pouring through glass, and heat rising from flames—suggests that there is no form or material this artist could not paint. Things seen in Jan’s painting achieve the status of facts. Viewers unable to believe they are actually seeing two saints and a donor gathered in sacred conversation around the Virgin and Child are, in theory at the very least, unable to trust whatever else they see. Jan was a master at dissolving the boundaries separating truth from fiction, or, to put it differently, the real from the ideal. His and Rogier van der Weyden’s extraordinary powers of illusionism, coupled to their remarkable powers of invention, are the reason why these two Flemish painters were the most famous artists of fifteenth-century Europe. Their paintings, and those of their followers, were prized by some of the outstanding patrons and artists of Italy.
The subject of Paula Nuttall’s From Flanders to Florence: The Impact of Netherlandish Painting, 1400–1500 is the impact early Netherlandish painting had upon fifteenth-century Florentine painting and patterns of collecting. As she points out, paintings of the order of The Virgin of Canon van der Paele, which did not leave Bruges, struck Italian patrons and artists with the force of revelation. During much of the period under consideration, Italian easel paintings were executed either with tempera or distemper, media that do not lend themselves to rendering air, light, and textures in the way infinitely malleable oil paint can. Oil painting, developed in northern Europe as early as the thirteenth century, was only mastered by Florentine painters toward the end of the fifteenth. Nuttall notes that once these painters possessed this previously mysterious medium—which rapidly supplanted tempera and distemper painting—they turned away from most Flemish painting, which had little more to teach them.
Nuttall’s book comprises twelve chapters divided into four parts. The first part, titled “Contexts,” touches in chapter 1 upon the similarities and differences between Netherlandish and Florentine painting from 1420 to 1450, and in chapter 2 upon fifteenth-century Italian literary accounts of Flemish painting. Part 2, titled “Contacts,” is divided into four chapters covering, respectively: the Florentine colony in Bruges; Florentine patrons in Bruges; the procurement of Flemish painting and tapestries for patrons in Florence; and Flemish artists in Florence. The third part, titled “Ownership,” has a chapter on the Medici as collectors of Flemish paintings and a chapter on the other known owners of Netherlandish painting in Florence. Part 4, titled “Influence,” covers: the ways in which Florentine painters picked up ideas derived from Flemish painting; the technique of and visual effects inherent to oil painting; the influence of Flemish landscape painting and portrait painting on Florentine painting; and how the sentiment of great piety so strikingly conveyed through Flemish painting was appropriated by certain Florentine artists. The book has three appendices. One lists references to Netherlandish paintings in the Medici inventories, another lists the paintings and tapestries recorded in the inventories of the Magistrato dei Pupilli (the Magistracy of Wards) for 1439–1510, and a third lists the remaining references to Netherlandish paintings in Florentine inventories of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Unfortunately, the book lacks a conclusion.
Nuttall focuses upon Florence because of the wealth of information that exists for all things Florentine, though—sadly—few of the paintings mentioned in the documents survive. This fact notwithstanding, the author states: “The number of important extant Netherlandish paintings associated with Florence far exceeds that of any other Italian centre. . . . If it were possible to demonstrate the influence of Netherlandish painting in the foremost centre of renaissance art, then its contribution to the development of Italian painting would surely be difficult to ignore” (x). In the fifteenth century, Italian artists looked at the antique for ways to translate the world of natural appearances into compelling images. Since little classical painting survived, it is unsurprising that they were inspired by the school of painting that came closest to emulating the effects of nature, and thus, perhaps in these artists’ views, both the mimetic and haptic qualities—though not the content and sentiment—of the lost paintings of antiquity. Florentine artists had become adept at adapting foreign traditions to their own needs—witness their transformation of the Gothic style in architecture. However, as far as we know, not one Florentine painter traveled to Flanders in the fifteenth century—very few Italian artists did—and only one major Flemish painter perhaps traveled to Florence, namely Rogier. Paintings, drawings, and prints, on the other hand, made it to Florence, as there was a market for them. “Most of the woodcuts and engravings circulating in Florence . . . were probably German, not Netherlandish. . . . Florentines would not have distinguished between German, Netherlandish or other northern European works: for them they were all examples of a ‘Northern manner’ which was governed by a Netherlandish aesthetic” (x). As Nuttall explains, the willingness of patrons to allow artists to view the Flemish paintings in their collections—for almost none were on public display—precipitated changes in the style, content, and emotional tenor of the work of certain painters in Florence. The acquisition of Flemish paintings by Florentines is a significant part of Nuttall’s story. Their owners were competing with aristocrats and patricians throughout the peninsula to obtain these goods: “Netherlandish painting was doubtless associated in Italian eyes with the Burgundian court, which in the fifteenth century represented the beau idéal of princely magnificence” (3).
Sadly, this book, which has reproductions of uneven quality, shows almost every painting without its frame. Van Eyck used classicizing frames, painted to resemble mixed marble or porphyry, with words painted on them to look as if they were carved out of the (fictive) stone. Did these frames influence Italian frames? If not, why? Nuttall does not say a word about frames. This book bypasses other interesting problems as well. For instance: although triptychs with mobile wings were not entirely absent from fifteenth-century Florence—witness, pace Nuttall, Fra Angelico’s monumental Linaiuoli Tabernacle (1432)—the author makes no attempt to explain why this format popular in Flanders was almost completely ignored in Florence. If Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1475) is informed by a (lost) portrait of a woman by Petrus Christus, that would imply that the canon of ideal female beauty was the same in Florence and Bruges, which would require explanation. Nuttall is not forthcoming. Were Florentine viewers interested in what Flemish paintings could tell them about Flanders and its people, aside from the fact that the latter were perceived as being particularly pious? Did Flemish painting affect Florentine taste and customs beyond the realms of painting? Nuttall also does not discuss Erwin Panofsky’s now somewhat controversial theory of hidden symbols in early Netherlandish painting, and consequently does not tell us if a comparable use of symbols was redeployed in Florentine painting.
Since fifteenth-century Florentine and Flemish painting—as well as their interaction—have proved such popular subjects for investigation, this book cannot help but cover a lot of familiar ground. Unfortunately, there is also repetition in the book itself, which makes for occasionally tedious reading. Although Nuttall has read a great deal on her subject, with which she has been involved since the late 1970s, significant gaps jump off the page. For example, I cannot fathom why the recent standard monographs on van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes, by Dirk de Vos and Elizabeth Dhanens respectively, are not cited. Also, am I alone in wishing that all bibliographic references be included in the bibliography? Why are certain articles dealing with the connections between Flemish and Florentine fifteenth-century painting tucked away in the endnotes, while other articles of comparable date and relevance are listed in the bibliography? Tighter editing and greater conceptualization and risk-taking would have made for a better and more daring book. That said, this work undoubtedly adds to the knowledge of the acquisition and reception of Netherlandish paintings by collectors and artists from Florence.
Professor, School of Art, Rochester Institute of Technology
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