Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The AGO's Revealing the Early Renaissance Exhibit

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to see the Art Gallery of Ontario's Revealing the Early Renaissance Exhibit, about art in Florence from 1300-1350.

The exhibit was incredible, taking me several hours to go through a handful of rooms.  My university degree is in Medieval Studies, and I took a few art courses (mainly on manuscripts and cathedrals) and the exhibit's range was at the tail end of what I studied and introduced a few new elements.

I learned several things from this exhibit, which I thought I'd share.  Sometimes when world building we try to make things logical and forget that the real world often ignores logic (or has a logic that made sense at the time and no longer does).  For example, most craftsmen belonged to guilds.  These gave protections - both for the craftsmen and the patrons - set prices, assured quality, etc.  Because Florentine painters (the real focus of the exhibit) bought their pigments from apothecaries, they belonged to the guild of Doctors and Apothecaries.

Florence's gold Florin was the dominant currency in Europe during this period.  In earlier ages royal patrons built churches, etc. to decrease their sins in the eyes of God.  In Florence, bankers (that is, Christian bankers) funded churches and religious art in order to remove the stigma attached to them due to their charging interest (usury - something the Christian church would not allow other Christians to do, making it one of the few career options open to Jews - who, according to their own religious laws, could charge interest to Christians but not other Jews).

Famous artisans created workshops where they would train apprentices and get them to do the grunt work associated with the art.  Modern scholars try to figure out what portions of artworks were done by the masters and what by the apprentices.  Sometimes it's easier to see than others.  Like with the Peruzzi Alterpiece.  Christ and the two figures to his right are significantly better shaded (look at the cheeks, necks, creases on foreheads and in clothing) and therefore look more alive than the two figures to the left.  The right hand figures were done by Master Giotto di Bondone.

One of my favourite pieces (and yes, I'm strange), was the Laudio of Sant'Agnese.  Commissioned for a lay confraternity, it has the music and notation that would have been sung, as well as some truly gorgeous manuscript illustrations.  These illustrations were so beautiful that the manuscript was dismantled and the individual pages scattered.  A number of them have been identified and gathered for this exhibit.  The colours are still vibrant and the scenes from worshipful to downright macabre (like the roasting- I mean the Martyrdom - of St. Lawrence, which you can see at the above link).  There's also a creepy two panel page with a man being flayed alive and then kneeling with his skin as a cloak as he waits for his head to come off.  Yeah.

The exhibit ends with a 10 minute video on doing a panel painting (like the alterpiece).  The amount of prep work required, and the time sensitive nature of each step, shows how much dedication these people had to their art.  Amazingly I've found the video on the J. Paul Getty Museum (which owns many of the works on display in the exhibit)'s youtube page.  The narrator is different, but the information is the same.

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