"The Italian Primitives"
Exhibition of recently restored works by Giotto, Lorenzo Monaco, Botticelli and many others in the Jacquemart-André Museum.
from 25th October 2000 to 25th March 2001.
The Italian collection of Nélie Jacqemart and Edouard André, two famous art lovers and connoisseurs in Paris, is second only to that of the Louvre Museum or the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence. In addition to the prestigious collection that has been available to the public to date, this special exhibition brings together 30 lesser-known, yet equally important masterpieces of Italian art, from the end of the 13th until the 16th century, that have been recently restored.
Their "Italian Museum" is now a complete and essential path to study and understand the evolution of different schools in Italy and the dominant role played by the Florentine school that opened the path and led to the Renaissance. Prominent figures such as Giotto, Lorenzo Monaco, Signorelli, Bramantino, Bernardino de Conti and Salviati are proposed along with other recently rediscovered painters, some of them from provincial schools, such as Zanobi Strozzi a disciple of Fra Angelico, or Francesco Vecellio who was Titian's brother.
These so-called primitive works were the stepping-stones that paved the way from early Byzantine paintings through Cimabue, Giotto, Lorenzo Monaco, Fra Angelico to advance further with Masaccio, DomenicoVeneziano, Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Paolo Uccello, Filippo Lippi, Boticcelli, and Bellini to arrive at the high Renaissance of Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Titian. So, to study their role is of utmost importance to understanding the roots of the Renaissance and it's powerful imprint on Western civilization.
What strikes you as soon as you enter the part reserved to the "Italian Primitives", as this special exhibition is named, is the overwhelming beauty of the colors that have been retrieved thanks to the admirable restoration of these masterpieces that were, for some of them, in a state that could not have permitted an exhibition to the public.
There has also been progress made with the identification of some works such as Neri di Bicci's altarpiece from the San Leonardo church in Arcetri, as well as with the reconstitution of some polyptychs from disparate fragments, a remarkable example being the Miracle of Saint Nicholas by Giovanni da Rimini.
Remarkable also is how, as early as 1882, these enlightened connoisseurs that were Nélie Jacqemart and Edouard André recognized the truth in Vasari's assertion that the Renaissance should be traced back to the Trecento rather than Quattrocento, giving Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337) and the Florentine school the merit of the new paradigm.
It is now commonly accepted that Giotto is the father of Western art, the flame from whose impetus the Rennaissance was born, or as Vasari wrote "the one who brought painting back to life". This new route that Giotto took, distinguishing himself from primitive painters of the orient and the Byzantine, positioned him as the golden bridge between the old and the new. Admittedly, before Giotto there was Cimabue, whose given name means "the insolent" which tells a lot about his innovating spirit. But Giotto went further: it was in his studio that for the first time perspective, human and animal anatomy, botany, optical effects etc. were systematically studied and applied.
It is also true that sculptors such as Giovanni and Nicola Pisano influenced Giotto, but to get a general picture it is essential to be able to recognize the two major trends of 13th century Italian painting. The first trend gave birth to the Sienese school that was Byzantine and Medieval in nature, with decoratively linear patterns tending to abstraction emphasized by gold backgrounds, delicately sweet spirited in substance, reminiscent of Persian or Chinese miniatures, depicting the Bible stories in a fairytale manner enhanced by the techniques of tempera. A master painter of this Sienese school is Duccio di Buoninsegna (1268-1319).
The second trend was to engender the Florentine school that followed the tradition of ancient Roman paintings with a more realistic approach giving the illusion of three-dimensional effects to figures and placing them in a more rational spacial arrangement, preferring fresco (large paintings on freshly damp plaster) to tempera.
Giotto was the pivotal figure of the Florentine school. His genius was acclaimed in his own time, and although some critics put more emphasis on his ability to turn his art into a lucrative business, his paintings are to me a synthesis of art and spirituality of one who has experienced great faith. A sort of a solid, tangible, palpable faith permeates from the dramatically expressive scenes that seem so real to us even today thanks to his innovative techniques such as the use of modelling and the realistic integration of figures in his dynamic compositions.
Prominent in the present exhibition is Giotto's Saint John the Evangelist, whose personality seems so well defined you could say that the "casting" was perfect had Giotto been a film maker. Some small devotional paintings such as "The Two Angels" of Giovanni Baronzio (14th century) or Lorenzo Monaco's Madonna & Child shine in their chromatic preciousness and simplicity of design, and are simply enchanting (Fra Angelico worked as an illustrator of manuscripts in Lorenzo Monaco's shop). And the Tondo representing the Madonna and child attributed to Botticelli (1445-1510) with delicate colors and subtle and natural attitude is so Florentine in essence.
Yet the 15th century Madonna with the child St. John and two angels attributed to Pier Francesco Fiorentino seems to be of a more primitive nature than Giotto's work, which brings us to the fact that Giotto was understood, followed and surpassed only a century after his death. Many of his contemporaries or artists of the following generation seem not to have attained the same artistic heights, but nevertheless their work is imprinted with beauty and charm. However, Masaccio surpassed Giotto and in some aspects Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) from the school of Padua took a leap towards the "Rinovatio" as the Renaissance was referred to by it's contemporaries.
Mantegna's Ecce Homo (pronounced by Pontius Pilate presenting Jesus to the accusing crowds) is one of the great masterpieces exhibited here, where Jesus' dignity in suffering and despair contrasts with the hideous figures that accuse him; the rope and crown of thorns symbolize the injustice of man as opposed to God's gift of the transparent aura that crowns his head.
Moving and tragic is also Giovanni Antonio Bazi's "The Martyr of St. Sebastian" (1477-1545), another step further towards the high Renaissance.
These last two works demonstrate the exchange that existed since the 15th century between Florence and northern Italy with painters travelling from and to Padua, Venice and Florence for work. The Venetian works exhibited after restoration date from 1500 to 1600 and include masterpieces such as "Adam and Eve" by Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti 1519-1594) that denotes his moderate mannerism in the evanescent dematerializing figures with a masterly Venetian spirit of color inherited from his master Titian.
The collection of portaits in this exhibition is also hand picked by Nélie Jacuemart who, as a painter specialized in portraits, was a connoisseur in this genre. From traditional medal-like profiles by Schiavone (1436-1504) or Scheggia we see the evolution of portraiture through Solario and Boltraffio, but Salviati's (Francesco de' Rossi 1510-1563) Lute Player stands out as a masterpiece remarkable for it's execution and subtle mannerism.
This is also an occasion to visit the rest of the "Italian Museum" in the same building, with incomparable masterpieces, especially the Madonna and child series of Baldovinetti, Perugino, Boticelli, Botticini, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini. Paolo Uccello's St. George and the Dragon is amongst some 82 masterpieces of the 14th and 15th century, and another 15 from 16th century Italian paintings.
If you visit the other rooms of this refined town house you will find superb works by Canaletto, Chardin, François Boucher, Fragonard, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun (favorite portraitist of Marie Antoinette) and J.L. David, as well as three beautiful Rembrandts (including an outstanding "Disciples of Emmaus" charged with mystery), an almost Romantic landscape by Ruysdael, and a monumental Tiepolo.
Art Lovers' Paris