by Roderick Conway Morris

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Uffizi, Florence
'The Battle of San Romano' by Paolo Uccello, 1438-40

Gothic Heralds of the Renaissance Dawn

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 11 August 2012


Gentile da Fabriano's 'Adoration of the Magi' of 1423 is one of the supreme masterpieces of any era and widely recognized as the apex of late Gothic painting. But it marked a beginning as well as an end.

Not only did it exert a powerful influence over Gentile's contemporaries and successors, from Masolino, Fra Angelico and Uccello to Jacopo Bellini and Domenico Veneziano, but it also was returned to for inspiration by artists decades later, including Leonardo and Michelangelo.

More than a century and a half later a Florentine guidebook declared that the 'Adoration' was revered 'as an object of antiquity and because it comes from the painter who first gave birth to the beautiful style that flourishes today.'

This 'Gothic' work was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, one of the richest men in Florence, an advanced advocate of humanism and an early scholar of Greek. The 'Adoration' is lavishly adorned and embossed with gold in the traditional Gothic fashion, but also achieves a new naturalness in its lighting and in the three-dimensionality of its figures. In one of the predella panels is a painting of the first true nocturnal scene with realistic shadows, and in another is a depiction of the dawn breaking over the countryside, the rising sun's rays illuminating foothills and a hill-top town while the valley beyond the mountains remains in half-light.

The late 14th and early 15th centuries were a period of transition in which no single style dominated in Florentine art and, as the two paintings that mark the beginning and the end of a stimulating exhibition - Gentile da Fabriano's 'Adoration' and Paolo Uccello's newly restored 'Battle of San Romano' - amply demonstrate, what was later to be viewed as old-fashioned happily co-existed with more radical trends. Indeed, it was this rich and varied ground that gave rise to the first flowerings of Renaissance art.

For practical reasons, 'The Gleam of Gold: The International Gothic Style in Florence 1375-1440,' curated by the Uffizi's director, Antonio Natali, starts in Rooms 5 to 7 of the gallery's permanent collection. They are devoted to the International Gothic and Early Renaissance, and contain two monumental altarpieces - Gentile's 'Adoration' and Lorenzo Monaco's 'Coronation of the Virgin' (his only signed and dated work) - as well as smaller pieces by Masolino, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Uccello, Domenico Veneziano and others.

After these first rooms, visitors wishing to follow the logic of the special exhibition should fast-forward along the main east and west corridors of the gallery, by-passing the next 350 years of art, down to the continuation of the show in the new Temporary Exhibition Rooms.

The first of these rooms - '14th-century Roots,' 'Construction Sites' and 'Humanist Preludes' - reveal a world in which sculpture in particular was leading the way in the rediscovery of ancient art. A curious pair of marbles by Giovanni d'Ambrogio, from the 1390s, of the Virgin and the Angel of the Annunciation, with bodies in the medieval style but heads like those of classical statues, even today leave us wondering which is Mary and which the divine messenger, the only indicator being the open book in the Virgin's left hand.

A large central room - 'The Several Paths of Humanism' - brings together masterpieces from the first three decades of the 15th century, by Ghiberti, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Masolino, Lorenzo Monaco and Uccello, well illustrating in their strikingly different modes that the development of Florentine art was far from linear.

The most consistently Gothic of these artists was Lorenzo Monaco, possibly born in Siena but who ran a workshop outside the walls of his Florentine monastery. He was the least touched of them by mathematical perspective and other innovations, but this did not prevent him pushing the tradition out of which he came to new limits. His 'Adoration' of around 1420, on show here, has not only a sympathetic and convincing portrait of an African, but a stylized, shocking-pink arched stable like a minimalist modern stage set and monochrome landscape backdrop of rocks, shepherds and sheep so elongated and extreme as to border on the surreal.

Ghiberti's 'St. John the Baptist' of 1413-1416, a landmark work, the first monumental bronze statue since antiquity, and - an astonishing technical feat - cast in one piece, combines the most refined elements of the Gothic sensibility and the ambitions of a Renaissance artist to emulate the achievements of the classical age. Masolino in his 'Man of Sorrow' fresco of the mid-1420s shows a parallel ability to blend the old with the new.

Paolo Uccello's unmistakably Gothic 'Annunciation,' from around 1415-20, sumptuously decorated with gold leaf and costly ultramarine paint, seems worlds away from his later works, yet is learnedly based on a fourth-century homily and shows in the architectural setting a firm grasp of measured perspective.

There are further intriguing pieces, blending Gothic and emerging Renaissance elements.

A unique traveling altar in the form of miniature church from a private collection, attributed to the Master of the Sherman Predella and dated to around 1430, has an exterior decorated in the white, black and green geometric style of Florence's Baptistry and Alberti's Santa Maria Novella facade. Its hinged doors open to reveal delicately painted images of the traveler's patron saints Nicholas and Julian, and the Virgin and Child.

The 'Sherman Predella' from which this Master takes his name is also here, with its scenes of Christ and of saints, and an extraordinary nocturnal backdrop of sand dunes, surf-capped waves and cobalt-blue night sky.

Other memorable pieces are a finely executed (possibly posthumous) portrait of a young boy (tentatively attributed to Masaccio) and a lovely Madonna and Child posed against a bank of rose bushes by Domenico Veneziano that is strangely reminiscent of Mantegna.

The Battle of San Romano of June 1, 1432, was little more than a skirmish during an inconclusive and ruinously expensive war with Lucca and its Sienese allies, but Paolo Uccello's three panels painted a few years later turned the incident into a magnificent display of arms and a resounding military victory for the Florentines.

Long thought to have been executed for Cosimo de' Medici, it has now been shown that the paintings were commissioned by Leonardo di Bartolomeo Bartolini Salimbeni, who witnessed the action. To commemorate a recent event in this manner was then a novel idea.

The panels were later peremptorily seized by Lorenzo the Magnificent in the 1480s, returned to the family of their rightful owners in the 1490s, when the Medici were driven into exile, but repossessed by the Medici in 1598. Two scenes were auctioned in 1820, ending up in the Louvre and the National Gallery in London.

The Uffizi can comfort itself that their 'Battle of San Romano' panel, showing the Sienese commander being unhorsed by the lance of a charging knight (more as if in some festive joust than in a serious battle), is the best preserved of the three.

But a deteriorating layer of yellowing varnish had darkened its surface, obscuring many details and masking the vibrancy of the original colors - a situation significantly reversed by a program of restoration by Muriel Vervat.

Now tellingly visible, too, are areas of the silver leaf that gilded the armor of the warriors, a profoundly Gothic decorative element in this splendid composition, in which Uccello also displayed his up-to-date mastery of perspective and illusionistic foreshortening in the figures of the fallen and retreating knights and horses.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023