by Roderick Conway Morris

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Lost and Found

By Roderick Conway Morris
VERONA 21 September 1996
Louvre, Paris
Portrait of a Princess by Pisanello, 1435-45



The birth date of Antonio Pisano, known as Pisanello, remains a tantalizing mystery, but he was certainly active by 1415. He became the most celebrated Italian artist of the first half of the 15th century, and while poets and humanists sang his praises, Leonello d'Este Marchese of Ferrara voiced the general opinion of Pisanello 's eminent patrons when he declared him 'the greatest of all painters of this age'.

Time and ill luck have devastated Pisanello's monumental works: not a trace survives of his frescoes in the Grand Council Hall of the Doge's Palace in Venice, and only fragments of his cycle of frescoes from the nave of the St. John Lateran Church in Rome still exist, along with a few of his paintings. Another potentially spectacular work at the Gonzaga Ducal Palace in Mantua - the dynamic underdrawing for which came to light only in the 1960s - was, inexplicably, never completed.

The number of Pisanello' s stunning drawings that have survived, however, is among the largest of any 15th-century artist, and many of his marvelous bronze portrait medals have come down to us in pristine condition. An outstanding exhibition at the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona (until Dec. 8) now brings together an expertly balanced selection of about 120 works and gives ample evidence of why every major government, court and prince in Italy once strived to obtain the artist's services.

The centerpiece of the show is Pisanello's fascinating 'Legend of St. George' fresco, which originally surmounted the arch leading into the Pellegrini family chapel in the Sant' Anastasia Church in Verona. The fresco was detached at the end of the last century to rescue it from damp, and has since been displayed in various parts of the church, in positions and in lights that have made it difficult to appreciate fully.

Pisanello achieved a unique distillation of medieval courtly splendor and Renaissance sophistication and realism, yet there has been a tendency to see the sumptuous and seemingly exotic facets of costume, animal life and landscape of the 'Legend of St. George' as primarily decorative. Ulrike Bauer-Eberhardt, nevertheless, in an admirably lucid and persuasive essay in the beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue, demonstrates that the fresco represents an extraordinarily close reading of the Domenican Jacopo da Varazze's then highly popular account of the story.

In this version, St. George (who, through some tortuous and fanciful etymology, supposedly had a special relationship with the aristocratic Pellegrini family who commissioned the fresco), comes upon the city of Silena in Libya, which is being terrorized by a dragon. The dragon demands two sheep a day but when the supply of animals runs low, a person, drawn by lot, has to be substituted. St. George arrives at the critical moment when the king's daughter has drawn the short straw and, attired in her wedding gown, is about to give herself up to the implacable reptile.

Much of the impact of the fresco lies in Pisanello's choice of the stage of the story: not when St.George fights the dragon, but when he bars the way of the princess - who, in da Varazze's story, begs him to flee and save himself - and is about to mount his horse, casting a glance at his ferocious opponent awaiting him on the other side of the lake at the center of the picture.

Numerous drawings and watercolors for the individual figures, faces, horses, dogs, birds and other components of the fresco are displayed in cases in front of the finished work, providing a unique opportunity to experience the intensity of effort and sharpness of eye that went into the preparatory stages, and bearing witness to the process that combined these raw materials into a vibrant, myth-laden moment, encapsulating doctrinal loftiness and emotional drama.

The presence of illuminating drawings play an equally strong role in the show's second principal section devoted to his medals.

The artist more or less invented the portrait medal, which was inspired by ancient coins but was expanded in size and took on a new meaning. The medal was an archetypal Renaissance artifact. Glorifying and commemorating its subject, the bronze medal's value lay not in its materials but its artistic excellence and the message it embodied.

Here Pisanello proved himself the master both of miniature portraiture and the all-important emblems on the medal's reverse side. Formal heraldry was far less developed in Italy than in the more centralized, minutely graded societies of northern Europe, and thus the Italian 'impresa', or personal symbol, summing up the character, attributes, aspirations, achievements and self-image of the person, was a far more inventive, suggestive and fluid art form.

And it is significant that Pisanello, the personification of an age in which the esteem accorded to exceptional artistic and intellectual brilliance was beginning to make possible for a person of lowly birth to demand equality with those with hereditary advantages, should surround his devices on the reverse of his medals with his own name - boldly asserting that the long-term preciousness of the work resided not in the transient status and temporal power of those portrayed, but in the genius of the hand that portrayed them.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023