The image above is a detail from Lorenzo Monaco's 1404 Pietà. It is typical of its period—indebted to Giotto and to Sienese Gothic, it hints at perspective, although this remains rudimentary. The faces are still stock Giotto, and the hair rigid and stylized, although the bodies show reasonable modelling. This work is not typical of Lorenzo's oeuvre, but represents an experimentation with older idioms.
What interests us here is Lorenzo's approach to narrative. Although his chief subject is a Pietà—and not the representation we are used to—he has included in his work the suggestions of earlier events in the Gospels: the slicing of Malchus' ear, the payment of Judas, and so on, as well as presenting the objects of Christ's torture, such as the three nails and the pair of flails or cat-o'-sixtails. The various stories are reduced to symbols and laid out on a plane, like in a Wunderkammer. Fleeting occurrences are thus transformed into timeless types existing in space, easily recalled and devotional—an ars memoria in paint. And there is a real dryness about these objects; compare, for instance, Magritte's Sleeper. These hands are not beautiful; nor are they individuated, as Christ's hands are and must be. They are utilitarian, like punctuation, or like this pointer from a London street-sign.
This is a metaphysical approach to painting. It wants to speak, but it is not interested in the dictates of physical form, nor in problems of representation. How different is this idiom in mid-century hands, sweetened by the first spring of the Florentine Renaissance—
This is a detail from the Mocking of Christ, one of the many splendid frescoes at the convent of San Marco, painted by Lorenzo's pupil Fra Angelico in 1445, although some have attributed this and other paintings to Angelico's lively student Benozzo Gozzoli, better known for his 1460 Medici Adoration. Here we have bodiless hands assailing the Saviour, and a bodiless head to expectorate, unexpectedly. Notice the ironic rhyme between the cudgel taken to Christ's head and the articulated staff with which He rules heaven and earth; Angelico shows us a wit entirely missing in Lorenzo. There is a freshness in his colours—pea-green, white and crimson—and a softness in the rendering, nothing like the unnatural angularity of Lorenzo's Pietà. Where Lorenzo's hands were systematic and semiotic, Angelico's are impressionistic, with a freedom of movement in their space. As Berenson observes of the painter, 'The sources of his feeling are in the Middle Ages, but he enjoys his feelings in a way which is almost modern, and almost modern also are his means of expression'. What a difference 40 years and a Masaccio make!
Since Vasari, the art of the Quattrocento has been almost uniformly presented as a continual progress from the vestiges of the Gothic to the supreme perfection of Leonardo and Michelangelo. This narrative has been so inculcated that it is difficult to see these works unencumbered by historical prejudice. Berenson provided the classic statement of this image: in his early Florentine Painters (1896) he argues that from Giotto to Leonardo, painting is sort of an epiphenomenon arising out of the cavalcade of individual geniuses, effortlessly solving problems as they went. In this work he is still under the spell of Burckhardt and Nietzsche; in his much later collection of essays, Aesthetics and History (1948), he calls for an history of art without artists, consisting merely of problems and how they were solved. An odd call, one might think, from a man whose professional reputation was built on his ability to sort genuine Old Masters from fakes. For Berenson, Michelangelo sounds the first note of tragedy in Florence; the prior generation still savoured the fruits of Paradise.
The universal presence of this progress-narrative is the only reason one should bother reading Clive Bell's 1913 essay Art, a manifesto for the post-Impressionists, Matisse, Cézanne and Gauguin. This work is the most singularly vapid and vacuous book about art I've ever read, consisting of little more than pronouncements of taste tricked up to look like a theory; but its virtue is that Bell's history of art is the mirror image of Berenson's. For Bell, Giotto marked the beginning of the end; incomparably poorer than the Byzantine madonnas of the 12th century, nevertheless his work starts the process of decline that leads to the scientific, merely-representational nadir of Leonardo: 'From Giotto to Leonardo is a long and, at times, almost imperceptible fall'. It is only with Cézanne et al that art has once more cast off the shackles of realist form. All this is very odd, and strangely liberating, like an art-historical version of the literary opinions offered by Aaron Haspel's favourite critic, Yvor Winters.
Reading Bell reminds us that Lorenzo Monaco is not a primitive, in the negative sense of that word. Angelico did not progress from Lorenzo; we may prefer him, or not, but there is no absolute criterion for his superiority. For some reason this lesson, so easily accepted elsewhere in the arts, appears particularly difficult to learn when looking at Renaissance painting. And there is something in Lorenzo's roughness, in his eagerness, in his semiotic inelegance, that appeals to me more than the wit of Angelico, or even the perfect finish of the later century. Perhaps it is that my aesthetic is at heart a linguistic, not a visual one; and certainly not an emotional one, which is why I find it impossible to enjoy Masaccio, the historian's hero.
An interlude. Mantegna is the most cerebral of the painters before Leonardo, possibly excluding Uccello. His was a humanist milieu; just as Fra Angelico studied Greek with Ambrogio Traversari, and had Hebrew written into his paintings by Giannozzo Manetti, so Mantegna hobnobbed with Cristoforo Landino, Alberti and other mid-century scholars. His circle was suffused with abstruse philosophy and coterie references; we should not, then, be too surprised by this, a coded inscription at the bottom of a donor's portrait, from a 1453 illuminated manuscript now in Paris, commonly attributed to Mantegna or an assistant:
In these two lines are the whole humour of the humanist Renaissance! It is the humour of the hermetic, of the Platonic Silenus, of cracking open an egg for its golden joke. In this inscription are confounded Roman and Greek letters, including an archaic qoppa (Ϙ), Arabic numerals and other miscellaneous symbols, including a thorn-like character (þ). It turns out to be a simple substitution cipher—all the rage in mid-century Italy, Alberti inventing the polyalphabetic cipher in 1467—and has been decoded as following:
SE MIA SPERANZA NON DIXE BUGIAOne commentator takes Cossa as a name—specifically, the general of René of Anjou, the manuscript's addressee—and renders this, 'If my hope does not lie, you, Cossa, will not make my country ungrateful'. Another takes 'cossa' as things or activities, translating, 'You, my fatherland, will not do an unwelcome thing'. A little mystery goes a long way.
NON FARAI INGRATA PATRIA COSSA MIA
Thirty years later, the Florentine generation of Botticelli, Verrocchio and Leonardo was in full bloom. Painting was now as far from Lorenzo Monaco as could be: artists had mastered anatomy, spatial composition and perspective, individuation and facial expression, tonal colour, linear rhythm and the sort of narrative structure that Alberti had called istoria. (You see how far I have digested Berenson's narrative.) For a Piccolomini wedding in 1492, the following painting (among others) was commissioned from a Sienese artist known to us only as the Griselda Master:
Depicted is Artemisia II of Caria, wife of Mausolus, whose legendary tomb is shown being built in the distance to her left. Artemisia is shown with her husband's ashes, which she is said to have consumed in her drink, like an ancient and much prettier Keith Richards, as a mark of marital devotion. Her pose is similar to a Magdalene from the 1498 San Agostino Altarpiece of Luca Signorella, an inferior artist to whom the Griselda Master is often compared; here the urn becomes Mary's traditional attribute of an ointment-box.
One writer calls the Piccolomini commission 'one of the most distinguished and admirable examples of Tuscan figurative art from this period'. I show you this work because it makes me drool; its delicacy and beauty ranks with Botticelli and Leonardo. The figure seems to predict the distortions of Mannerism: her body is distended, and her head disproportionately small, like the entasis of a classical column. But it is very much of the late Quattrocento, nonetheless; not yet preoccupied, as the next generation would be, with the heroic and with literal form. The rendition of Artemisia's white gauze, her hands charged with gentle energy, the miniature perspective-study of the urn, the soft pink of her face against the silver sky, the Babelesque Mausoleum—all display that painterly tenderness which was at its most perfect in the two decades before 1500. It is the sort of achievement that, just for a moment, dispels my fascination with mysteries and symbols, which is to say with words, and pushes me only to look, and keep looking.
What is the relation, I wonder, of the history of taste to the history of knowledge?