Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Firenze, randomly

I'm not a good wanderer. I always have a program. I may lapse from the program and meander, waylaid by beauty as Edna Millay put it, but I usually end up where I intended.

So it was accidental that I strolled past the prim Ognisanti Church with the lurid Hercules, all glutes and lats, wrestling a lion in the small square. Inside there were vast treasures, to the extent that I didn't understand why I hadn't set out here purposefully in the first place.

Ghirlandaio's San Gerolamo is in such pristine condition that it looks new; in fact, it looks real. Facing it directly across the nave is Botticelli's Sant'Agostino. Here the Renaissance is in full swing, the composition whirling in orbit around Augustine.

Firenze is the Renaissance city par excellence. At first a Florentine phenomenon, it is here, especially in Santa Croce, that you can see the Renaissance emerge.

It did not burst on the scene fully formed, like Minerva from the head of Zeus. It slowly takes form in the dramatic narrative scenes in Giotto's frescoes. In contrast to the flat and static Byzantine posing that always forms the first room or two of every museum in Italy, the expressions symbolic formulas, the stances frozen and iconographic, the Renaissance flowers first in the faces. Giotto transcended the hieratic Byzantine conventions by breathing life into them; real life. It is one of the great "gear-shifting" moments in history.

Giotto also worked all over Italy -- in Florence, in Padova, in Assisi, in Rome. He spread the seeds the way Johnny Appleseed spread apples. His assistants, his students, his school, his adherents, became the greatest artists of the Renaissance.

The frescoes at Santa Croce are wonderful, no more wonderful than Padova or Assisi, and no less wonderful. They are all supremely beautiful because they express the gamut of human emotion, they are a vast reservoir of shared humanity, capturing the richness of life itself.

What you get to see in abundance in Florence are the intermediate steps between Giotto and Botticelli and Rafaello and Tiziano, Veronese, and Tintoretto.

The basic iconography doesn't change. Giotto's "Presentation of the Virgin" prefigures Tintoretto's and Tiziano's. But increasingly the the faces and hands come to life. Rather than posed, motionless, they are caught in movement, in the middle of something happening. Their expressions are real expressions, realizing something, or thinking something, or about to say something, or terrified of something, or at a moment of transfiguration as in the Annunciations. In Botticelli the movement becomes ballet.

But in Botticelli the beauty of the faces also becomes less real, more idealized. That is the Renaissance in full flower. It departs from the dramatic and personal realism of Giotto and inclines toward the idealization of forms. This was what Ruskin loathed about the Renaissance: the artists replace vivid humanity with idealized proportions, symmetry, facial expressions composed of arcs and angles rather than real human expressions. Yes, they are beautiful. Botticelli out-Veroneses Veronese for sheer sumptuousness. But they do not express the profound simplicity of shared human experience that propel the earlier frescoes.

The "Birth of Venus" room at the Uffizi is always crowded. You can barely see the paintings for the people. Botticelli is, to pre-Modern art, what the Impressionists are to Modern art: easy to love, beautiful, iconic, instantly recognizable. That does not, however, make them the best, regardless of how ravishing they may be. The Lippis in the room before, and Beato Angelico, and, above all, the Santa Croce frescoes and the Massacio and Lippi frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel at the Carmine church, burn with an inner fire that reaches into the soul, that breathes.

The Brancacci chapel is one of the few places I have been that holds its own in the company of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova and the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. The frescoes surround you, transport you to a parallel universe where real people are swept up in the human dramas. They resonate with shared experience of humanity, of mortality and transcendence. Some are bored; some are startled; some sleep. Adam and Eve are tempted on one side and banished from the garden on the other; in between, a world unfolds.


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