Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 6, 2000
Patricia Lee Rubin and Alison Wright Renaissance Florence: The Art of the 1470s Yale University Press, 2000. 352 pp.; 230 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0300081715)

When Giovanni Rucellai wrote that spending surpassed earning as one of the great pleasures in life, he surely expressed the sentiments of many wealthy Florentines in the second half of the 1400s. Certain forms of conspicuous consumption had become acceptable now that the successful merchants, and the humanists they supported had adapted the Aristotelian notion of magnificenza to their own circumstances. The display of wealth became praiseworthy when it embellished the city and especially the houses of worship; the pursuit of beauty contributed to the honor of public and private patrons. The desire to earn similar praise presumably led the executives at Esso to help sponsor the splendid exhibition of Florentine art in the 1470s, at the National Gallery in London, as well as the accompanying catalogue. This volume, notable for the high quality of both the text and the plates, is perhaps the best survey in any language of the specific period, and the only such study in English.

The three opening essays by Rubin and Wright offer an engaging and useful overview of the visual and political cultures in Florence, with special emphasis on the range and interaction of the various activities carried out in the Pollaiuolo and Verrocchio workshops. Wandering about the exhibition, or flipping through the numerous color plates, we can compare the delicate, painterly qualities in Verrocchio’s three-dimensional works with the astonishing sculptural qualities in the paintings and drapery studies by the artist and his students, including Leonardo. An invisible wind blows through the cloths and hair of the angles created by these masters in clay, metalpoint, and paint. Verrocchio’s arresting terracotta Nude Youth (cat. 18), seemingly a model who pretends to be asleep, may have served as the basis for drawn studies in the workshop; some sketches after different sculptures were included in the exhibition. It was enlightening and satisfying to examine, in detail and side by side, the bronze candlesticks and terracotta busts with similar decorative motifs, and the representations of ancient warriors in drawings, engravings, and marble and ceramic sculptures.

The authors often combine a close visual analysis of the objects and admirable sensitivity to the medium with an interest in the broader social context. They show little interest in “old style” connoisseurship, and even less in “new art history.” The essays, especially Rubin’s superb, multifaceted discussion of “patrons and projects,” and even several catalogue entries, investigate the various functions that art served, and the ways in which works were seen and described at the time. Given this historical perspective, it is disappointing to find no satisfying explanation for the chronological limits of the volume or for the selection of works. Though Lorenzo de’ Medici did consolidate his power in the 1470s, many of the works under discussion are not related to his family. (Rubin, 62, does establish some important documented links between Del Lama, the patron of Botticelli’s Adoration and the Medici circle.) Understandably, the paintings in the National Gallery provided the basis for the exhibition, but the museum’s choice for a poster illustrated the potential for confusion: Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, a work from the early 1480s, advertised a show ostensibly dedicated to the previous decade.

Rather than focusing on a single stylistic current, or a single type of patronage, the curators presented viewers with a rich variety from the period. This is one reason why some specialists regretted the absence of works by several artists active in Florence who had received prestigious commissions. In 1482, for example, the pope had the walls of the Sistine Chapel adorned with frescoes by Perugino, Cosimo Rosselli, Ghirlandaio, and Botticelli. From this group, only Botticelli was represented in London, which perhaps reflects the difficulty in obtaining suitable loans. Paintings by all four painters would have allowed viewers to reconsider the debates surrounding several works on view. Many scholars have plausibly ascribed the Madonna and Child (cat. 23) to Perugino, and the Ruskin Madonna (cat. 25) to Ghirlandaio, both executed when the artists were active in the workshop of Verrocchio. In cat. 25, the figures must be by the same hand as the Madonna in the National Gallery, attributed to Ghirlandaio and closely related to his altarpiece in Pisa from 1478–79. Penny presents these paintings as “Workshop of Verrocchio,” a formulation also used for the Tobias and the Angel (cat. 21); here he cites the “attractive and plausible” argument in the recent book by David Allan Brown that several details were executed by the young Leonardo. The attribution to Verrocchio’s workshop indicates the master’s overall responsibility, and leads us to ask just what it means to identify the “author” of a painting in this period.

Another work on view, the Adoration of the Magi (cat. 68), had the label “Filippino Lippi with Sandro Botticelli,” though it presumably left Botticelli’s workshop under the master’s name. The entry follows the persuasive analysis of Patrizia Zambrano, who attributed the central figures to Filippino, and Penny adds that Botticelli probably took over the painting from his student. The three kings and holy figures compare favorably with another Adoration of the Magi (cat. 69) entirely by Filippino, and with his little-known Lamentation in Cherbourg (cat. 72). The recent cleaning of the latter supports Zambrano’s recent attribution to Filippino; in 1935, Alfred Scharf had assigned it to the workshop. Other attributions presented in the exhibition are less convincing: a nineteenth-century craftsman, not Verrocchio, probably executed the unattractive marble bust (cat. 82), and Botticelli’s workshop, not the master, must be responsible for the reduced replica of the Madonna del Magnificat (cat. 84). The entries on the famous pair of wedding chests, documented as by Sellaio and Biagio d’Antonio (cat. 78–79), do not address the specific contributions by the artists, a knotty question unraveled in Roberta Bartoli’s new monograph on Biagio (Milan, 1999).

A greater attention to dating—in portraits, for example, and in paintings of the Adoration of the Magi—would have clarified a major theme, the transmission of artistic ideas. The traditional composition for the Adoration, seen in the Botticelli-Filippino panel (cat. 68), is a procession toward the Madonna and Child located off on one side. The versions by Botticelli (cat. 7) and Filippino (cat. 69), however, show the holy family in the center. Botticelli’s tondo must have been painted in the early 1470s, and his innovative composition is reflected in Filippino’s work from a few years later. Both paintings reveal some difficulties in arranging the retinue. In Botticelli’s, the crowd pushes the holy figures far away from the viewer; in Filippino’s, some distracted figures sit and stand casually on the far sides. Botticelli refined his own composition in the Del Lama altarpiece, from the mid-1470s, where the central Madonna and Child are much larger and closer to the lower edge. In the realm of portraits, most scholars credit Leonardo as the first to show a woman full face, in his Ginevra de’ Benci, convincingly dated by Brown to the mid 1470s, but here (fig. 75) captioned as “c. 1480.” A similar pose, and a more direct gaze, appears in Botticelli’s Smeralda Bandinelli (cat. 83). Some readers may not share Rubin’s confidence that this particular undated work constitutes “one of the boldest inventions in Florentine fifteenth-century portraiture,” but her intelligent and witty catalogue entry stresses the significance of this influential way to represent a woman.

The lack of ancient works in the exhibition was surprising, especially since it included a magnificent thirteenth-century cameo (cat. 6). The Medici inventory of 1465 gives this a higher value than any of the cameos listed as “Greek,” which has led to the suggestion that it, too, was considered ancient. The inventory, however, accurately identified the subject as “Noah’s ark.” It thus appears that the considerable size of the relief, and the skill shown in carving the many figures, made this depiction of an Old Testament subject even more valuable than the ancient works. Other Roman reliefs, especially those from sarcophagi and monuments, inspired Pollaiuolo to create his violent scenes of nudes. The exhibition brought together a fascinating collection of these and related works, in a variety of materials (cat. 53–57), including two autograph drawings; as Wright proposed, these may be studies for architectural friezes. In his fundamental articles of over a century ago, now (finally!) translated into English (see Aby Warburg demonstrated that for artists in the late Quattrocento, ancient works did not represent the neo-classical ideal of “quiet grandness,” but provided models for depicting the emotional gestures, highly “movemented” figures, and fluttering draperies which abound in this volume. It thus seems fitting that Warburg discovered an ancient prototype for Pollaiuolo’s Rape of Deianira (cat. 46). The literature on this famous panel does not mention its striking similarities to a Roman mosaic of the same subject in Madrid, but Warburg juxtaposed images of the two works in his recently published photo-atlas, Mnemosyne (Hamburg, 1998, pl. 4).

Though specialists will find few surprises in the exhibition catalogue, this clearly written, well-illustrated, and up-to-date volume—accessible for undergraduates and informative for more advanced students—presents an excellent introduction to an important period in the cultural history of Florence and thus deserves a place in the art library of every university.

Jonathan Katz Nelson
New York University, Florence and Syracuse University, Florence