From Flanders to Florence: an artistic ‘dialogue’
I was in Florence last week, speaking at what proved to be a successful conference on the Italian Renaissance and the British Isles — the first, we hope, of several. While I was in that inspirational city, I had a couple of hours when I was able to cross to the Oltrarno and visit the Palazzo Pitti, to catch in its final days a small but impressive exhibition on ‘Firenze e gli antichi Paesi Bassi 1430 – 1530, dialoghi tra artisti.’ The artistic commerce between the Mediterranean and northern Europe has become a fashionable area of research in recent years and this exhibition demonstrated both how fruitful an area of investigation it can be and how it is ensnared with potential pitfalls.
The strengths of the show, as well as its evidential problems, are well encapsulated by the first display encountered in the gallery. It brings together three works of art, all of outstanding quality. The basic comparison is between Jan van Eyck’s small image of ‘St Jerome in his Study‘ (now housed in Detroit) and Ghirlandaio’s fresco of the same subject, usually seen in its original location of the church of Ognissanti, on the opposite side of the Arno, where it vies for attention with Botticelli’s ‘St Augustine.’ Placing the van Eyck and the Ghirlandaio together brings home the undoubted debt of the latter work to the former in the structure of its composition. Ghirlandaio must have been able to study van Eyck’s oil painting, which, therefore, can be identified with painting of that description in the Medici inventory of 1492 (priced at 30 florins). There is an undeniable and remarkable association. The question arises of how the van Eyck reached Florence, and the third painting on display tries to provide an explanation — but succeeds only in demonstrating the problems inherent in this type of research. It is another famous and powerful work, a portrait by van Eyck usually identified as Niccolò Albergati, cardinal and papal diplomat. However, the name of the sitter is provided only in a seventeenth-century description, which hardly makes it definite (though, it might be asked, why should an art-dealer two hundred years later make up such an identification). In the late twentieth century, doubts were expressed about whether this was Albergati, and other possible sitters mooted. The exhibition at the Pitti sides with the traditional identification, but on grounds that can not convince. Van Eyck’s ‘Jerome’ displays on the saint’s desk a letter on which the address is legible: ‘al reverendissimo padre e signore in Cristo, Signor Girolamo, cardinale presbitero della Santa Croce di Gerusalemme.’ It has been assumed that, as Jerome was not in fact cardinal of the church of Santa Croce di Gerusalemme in Rome, this must refer to the wearer of the red hat at the time of painting, who would have been Albergati. What this exhibition suggests is that there is a similarity between the depiction of the face of Jerome and that of Albergati in the portrait. Personally, I can not see this association: the round-faced, late-middle-aged sitter (whoever he was) has little in common with the smooth-faced, sleepy Jerome who, it might be said, is painted with less attention to detail than the books that cluster in the cupboard behind him. As for the letter sitting on his desk, its address might well refer to the saint, sometime hermit and long-time inhabitant of Jerusalem, city of the Holy Cross, without us guessing at another explanation.
In other words, one direct link – between the two ‘Jeromes’ of van Eyck and Ghirlandiao – is irrefutably established, but let us be satisfied with that, rather than imagining that we can rush ahead and find a ready explanation for the sets of quandaries the relevation naturally raises. That is a principle which is worth carrying with us when we look at other exhibits brought together in this Pitti gallery.
The second set of exhibits centres on yet another Low Countries painting of stupendous beauty: Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘Entombment of Christ‘ (Uffizi, Florence), with its statuesque scene played out on a remarkably realised carpet of leaves and flowers. It is presented in the Pitti beneath a terracotta ‘Resurrection‘ by Andrea del Verrocchio, with the suggestion that this may have been the original layout of the altarpiece in the Medicean chapel in the villa in Careggi. If this were so, it would be a notable combination of different media (leaving aside the contrast of artistic styles) which might make us think again about some aspects of Renaissance interiors. The exhibition groups with van der Weyden’s painting a 1470s missal with a full-page illuminated miniature of the same subject, but the similarities are too generic and the differences too notable to make a direct association convincing. More striking is the similarity with a scene from a predella by Bartolomeo di Giovanni (San Marco, Florence) which is, indeed, close in composition to van der Weyden’s painting — but the lines of association are complicated by the fact that, as the catalogue explains, both appear to echo another predella scene (now in Munich) by Fra’ Angelico. That reference, in fact, is a rare reference to a possible two-way exchange of ideas: though the title refers to a ‘dialogue’, it seems for the most part a one-way conversation in which the Flemish did all the talking, and the Florentines rarely got a word in edgeways.
The show goes on with an array of impressive images drawn from a wide catchment area of present locations, with again and again clear and direct links made. Only once, at the end of the display, does the level of argument slide down from proving connexions to proposing ‘influence’ — a descent into the speculative conditioned, one presumes, by the fact that the tondo on show is from the Pitti’s own collection: a fine Filippo Lippi of ‘The Virgin and Child’ in which the construction of space is said to be ‘an indicator of Flemish influence’. Too general a similarity to have much meaning, in my view. More generally, however, the quality of this exhibition persuades the visitor. For the viewer, there is a fascination in playing high-brow snap, tempered for some — on the basis of conversations I overheard — with a tinge of disappointment at catching Old Masters making ‘simple copies.’ (Though, in some cases, like the Ghirlandaio ‘Christ in Benediction‘, it might arguably surpass its portotype, in this case Hans Memling’s depiction). As I have suggested, the main question which dogs the meticulous work which underpins the exhibition is the old one of what constitutes sufficient evidence to prove an association. When, so to speak, can one shout ‘snap’, without risking a high forfeit.
To achieve the level of certainty we should hope we can gain, we need to move beyond the images themselves and consider their immediate context. The question is often not so much ‘did B emulate A’, as ‘could B have known the particular work of A that seems to be emulated?’. That is to say, to reach a conclusion we need to look at not at the end-point as much as at the lines of communication, the methods by which artistic motifs travelled. This exhibition does not set itself the challenge of investigating such matters, though it does display drawings by both Andrea del Verrocchio and Piero di Cosimo which show them recording for themselves northern images, something which, of course, became much easier and more frequent in the age of print. But the wider matter of the availability of images is one which would be a worthy subject for an exhibition as scholarly and as enthralling as that which I will remember for a long time having visited in the stately surroundings of the Palazzo Pitti one autumn morning late in October 2008.