Never let it be said that I avoid going the extra mile for my graduate students. Indeed, in the past day, I have been an extra fifty-five miles – and back again. Ahead of the Translating the Past course visiting the library of Florence’s Convent of San Marco tomorrow, I went to make the acquaintance of its little sister, the Biblioteca Malatestiana at Cesena.
I must admit that I had an ulterior motive for going there: to consult a manuscript partially in the hand of the Scottish humanist scribe who I have been studying recently, George of Kynninmond. I could not have hoped for a more welcoming and helpful visit, for which I have to thank the kind and learned D.ssa Paola Errani, in particular. What is more, George obligingly revealed yet more about himself and his career – but, on that, I will write another time.
For anyone with a love of books and their history, to go to Cesena is a pilgrimage, though one deprived of the hardships and travails usually associated with such voyages, for Cesena is an elegant and relaxed città. It is a pilgrimage, all the same, with the object of veneration being the Malatesta Library, opened in 1454 and often called a model of a Renaissance library. It is younger by about a decade than Michelozzo’s Florentine masterpiece but whereas in San Marco one stands and evokes in one’s mind the shadows of former book-stalls and imagines the clatter of the chains that kept the manuscripts in place, in Cesena all is still in situ– stalls, chains, books. The original wooden doors, locked with two keys, are opened for you so that the vista of the library, accentuated by the slender columns that divide each side from the central aisle, stretches ahead of you. If you are truly a book-lover, I defy you not to be dumbstruck by its beauty and its resonance.
The precise association between the two libraries – how far Matteo Nuti, the architect in Cesena, was inspired by or independent of Michelozzo’s example – is a matter of debate. There is a similarity of setting: both libraries are located in convents, that of San Marco being Dominican (and including in its inmates Fra Angelico, who came in useful when the friars wanted some appropriate decoration in their cells), that in Cesena being dedicated to San Francesco. There is also the obvious parallel in layout, with both being rectangular, divided by their columns, with the benches or stalls arranged to jut out from the two long sides of the room. The stalls themselves were also, we can surmise, of a similar design, with slanted lecterns beneath which the books sat with the bottom edge outermost, attached to the stall by a chain.
In Cesena, the library was part of a longer structure with the dormitory stretching directly in front of the library door. One enters the library from the north, facing the rose-window which is the sole adornment of the south wall. To the left were placed secular books, to the right religious and theological. Walking down the central aisle, one sees on both sides the ends of the stalls, adorned with appropriate heraldic symbols.
Each sentence of that previous paragraph identifies differences between the Malatestiana and San Marco. A prize to the person who lists all five of them.
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.
When was the Renaissance? It is an old question which came to mind as I was walking around the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood House last week. The temporary exhibition ‘The Art of Italy: the Renaissance‘, is one half of a larger show of works from the Royal Collection, previously presented in London, where it also covered the Baroque. In the smaller but elegant space available in Edinburgh, the display allows us to muse on some memorable paintings, as well as drawings and a very few books. What struck me was that nearly all the items are datable to the sixteenth century: they include well-known portraits by Parmigianino, Agnolo Bronzino and Lorenzo Lotto, as well as more enigmatic images by Titian and Lodovico Pozzoserrato (whose Italianised name hides his Netherlandish identity); the oldest work was a copy of the masterpiece published by Aldus Manutius from his Venetian press in 1499, the illustrated Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Where, I wondered, was the Renaissance of the quattrocento, the fifteenth century, that is home to me?
It is not as if the Royal Collection lacks art from fifteenth century Italy. I remember, about fifteen years ago now, having, in effect, a private view of Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar at Hampton Court – they had, at that point, been removed from the public rooms, but, being a pushy student, I asked to see them. It was a memorable half hour in front of images remarkable for their classicising style and sheer magnitude, with an equally interesting history to tell as one of the purchases of Charles I from the sale of the Gonzaga treasures. Perhaps the Mantegna are considered too frail to travel for exhibitions, but there are other quattrocento works available as well in the Royal Collection. The Queen can feast her eyes on a work by Benozzo Gozzoli, best known for his lively frescoes in the Medici Palace in Florence. Up the road and to the right from there, the convent of San Marco hides within its tranquil, contemplative walls the work of Fra Angelico, also represented among Her Majesty’s artworks. The exhibition could also have branched out into ceramics and included the bust by Guido Mazzoni of a laughing child, owned by Henry VII as one of the first Italian Renaissance items in the English royal collection. But all were absent, leaving out at least a century of what I would consider Renaissance art.
The Royal Collection’s decision implicitly to define the Renaissance as sixteenth century is in many ways a return to an old fashion. Many would now use the terms High Renaissance and (though highly problematic) Mannerist to describe the trends in art of the generations of Michelangelo and his followers. But, to the nineteenth century, this is where it truly was: the art of the quattrocento – Masolino and Massaccio, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna himself – constituted ‘the Primitives’, before the grace and supposed perfection of the early cinquecento so influentially by Vasari. Few, however, would consider that we should return to those designations or that periodisation.
The real question, of course, is whether it matters. After all, the Royal Collection have provided a pleasurable exhibition which fits into the space available. In many ways, it does not matter or, rather, should not – but there are two current issues which do give it some import. In the first place, it relates to the academic division between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’, which, in history departments tends to fall around the year 1500. As someone who studies both sides of that divide and who sometimes describes himself an expert in that part of the Middle Ages called the Renaissance, this is one more example of a tendency which reinforces an unfortunate separation which we should be working instead to undermine.
This, though, is about more than the relatively unimportant matter of how academic departments choose to organise themselves. What is also at stake is how we perceive historical ‘progress.’ There are surely few, if any, historians who would admit to believing that there was some definable shift from ‘medieval’ to ‘early modern’, a moment or simple process moving from one era of society to another. The passage from past to present is more complex, and much less about a linear vector of development, than that would suggest. But I would want to take this further and to warn against making too close an association between different cultural ‘movements’ or phenomena. Historiography can provide many ‘Renaissances’, particularly clustered in the sixteenth century but – as the case of Italy shows – not confined to that time-period. In popular textbooks, the impression can be given that those Renaissances, usually defined by country, share an identity, as if it were a baton-race from nation to nation. It is wise to be aware of the evident links between these phenomena, but all the more essential to appreciate the disconnections and the distance between them. In the end, we can use the concept as we wish, either confining our own use to the sixteenth century or allowing to range from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries in chosen contexts – just as long as we recognise we are always constructing ‘Renaissances’ for ourselves rather than expressing some ineffable reality.
In short, it is tidier to have a Renaissance confined to the sixteenth century and certainly less complicated to imagine it was a single phenomenon which manifested itself across Europe. But, in this case, I am on the side of messiness.