After touring Cities of Splendor: A Journey Through Renaissance Italy at the Denver Art Museum, I found myself standing with associate curator Angelica Daneo in front of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, painted by a follower of Gentile da Fabriano in the early 1400s. Neither of us could keep our eyes off the 600-year-old panel.
It is a night scene – something rare for art of that era. The shepherds, their sheep, and the stony hills they inhabit are painted in soft, earthy browns and grays set against an inky sky dotted with white stars, the silhouetted crowns of the trees creating patches of even darker shadow. The shepherds look up in bewilderment at the announcing angel whose golden halo, rose-pink robes, and orangey-bronze wings seem to glow. Surely, this is what a supernatural visitation should look like. And yet the effect of nocturnal shadow shows the painter to be as interested in earthly experiences as heavenly ones – here already is the keenly observational eye of the Renaissance.
“I want people to see that these were the cool kids of their day”, says Daneo, comparing the painters of these works to the artists in electronic media whose works were displayed in Blink!. In the city-states of fifteenth century Italy, painters were on the cutting edge of technology, of new developments in optics — of all the new ways of seeing the world and of recording those observations: “The ‘art’ of making something and the ‘science’ of making something were regarded as the same thing,” says Mary McCarthy in her book The Stones of Florence (which I recommend to anyone interested in the world of the Renaissance).
The pictures on display here, nearly all of them part of the museum’s Kress Collection, have been beautifully cleaned and restored, and their luminous colors and crisp, inventive details communicate a real excitement about the possibilities of visual experience. Holy persons robed in bright primary shades of red, blue, yellow, and green stand crowded together in an imperial Roman hall painted in a strange, sugary purple in Niccolo di Pietro Gerini’s The Four Crowned Martyrs, from about 1385-1390. In the many panels of a beautiful Venetian polyptych, Jacobello della Fiore’s Stories of Saints Peter and Paul of around 1435, the viewer can once again see every detail of the ships sailing a green sea with a curved horizon below a sky shading from pink to deep blue (a real challenge in egg tempera, the medium used here), as well as a minute deer seemingly hovering in midair, tiny pink castles, and the black cloak — looking like a reproach amidst all the color — of a widow throwing herself at the feet of a saint.
No wonder the train carrying similar pictures from the Kress Collection into Denver in 1931, the depths of the Great Depression, was greeted by a brass band, as Daneo happily relates. In the early part of this century, Samuel H. Kress, the founder of a chain of variety stores, set about amassing a collection of Old Master paintings in which he hoped to include at least one representative work by every artist of every school of the Italian Renaissance.
In 1929 he established the Kress Foundation as a means of sharing his vision; in 1931, a collection of fifty paintings toured the country, making a stop in Denver, and in that year Kress made his first gift to the Denver Art Museum, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary Magdalene by Defendente Ferrari. Thirty years later, in 1961, the Kress foundation made substantial gifts to eighteen museums across the country, and the DAM received 32 paintings and four sculptures. This exhibition, open through July 31, commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of that gift.
The paintings on display are organized by the city-state from which they originated, with galleries of works from Florence, Siena, Mantua and Venice, as well as a gallery of Northern Renaissance works from the world beyond the Alps. For all the continuities we see today, each city-state was its own world, with its own saints, its own rulers, its own culture and aesthetic. And these paintings were part of the fabric of daily life, an integral part of the rituals by which the rulers and citizens marked rites of passage. The round format called a tondo had its roots in the painted trays used in the celebration of a successful childbirth. The innumerable altarpieces and polyptychs gave visible form to the network of patron saints who might, in turn, have the ear of the Virgin Mary or of God, and who served as a mirror, or even an extension, of the networks of kin, patrons, and fellow citizens that aided worshippers in their earthly lives.
In the Mantuan gallery, The Triumphs of Love, Chastity, and Death and The Triumphs of Fame, Time and Divinity, likely painted in the 1460s by a follower of Andrea Mantegna, once formed the side panels of a cassone, a long, narrow chest that was part of the wedding furniture prepared for a new bride. The DAM’s cassone was probably made for a bride from the ruling house of Gonzaga, as the family crest appears on the banner carried in procession by the painted figures.
Visitors to the DAM may be surprised to see Death – a skeleton clutching a scythe, riding atop a wheeled sarcophagus mounted with skulls, pulled by black oxen over a field of corpses – following so closely on the heels of the beautiful blonde maiden holding a palm who embodies Chastity, but such darkly ambiguous images were in fact common on cassoni, as scholar Christelle Baskins has noted, an echo of the era’s lively debates over the personal and political meaning of marriage. In Florence, where upper-class wedding ceremonies were private, the sight of the cassone and other wedding goods being carried through the streets to the bride’s new home served as the public proof a marriage had taken place.
The use of such objects to commemorate births, marriages and deaths, holy days and civic holidays, and the eagerness of patrons and donors to outdo each other in the splendor and novelty of the works they commissioned helped drive the aesthetic and technical innovations of Renaissance art. In this exhibit the viewer witnesses the transition from tempera paints to oils, the development of perspective, and the spread of Italian influence beyond the Alps. Five and six centuries on, these works have lost none of their vitality.
Cities of Splendor: A Journey Through Renaissance Italy appears at The Denver Art Museum through July 31, 2011.