Giotto: The Peruzzi Chapel
Vitale da Bologna and Bolognese Painting in the Fourteenth Century
Italian Primitives: Panel Painting of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries
Until a short while ago we knew where we were with the luxury art book; with rare exceptions it was a glossy, highly-colored picture-book that was not serious—in the sense that it was very unlikely to have a serious text. The four books to be reviewed here illustrate rather well an interesting new development. To put the point simply, we can no longer tell from the glossiness of its cover or the number and brilliance of its color plates whether a book is or is not worth reading. It may be a little early to assess this new phenomenon, but there are some likely explanations. The production of art books becomes ever more expensive, as author and buyer expect more and more illustrations, and one solution to the problem is to aim the product at the greatest number of buyers. One logical approach is international cooperation, whereby the same plates can b circulated with a reprinted, translated text, and this has proved so successful, from the business point of view, that it has led the luxury volume to a larger share of the total product of art publishing (which is itself, by the same process, assuming a larger proportion of book production as a whole). This is all obvious. But as the breed multiplies, it has also to perform not only its original function, which, at a certain level, was educational, life-enhancing, and high-minded, but also the functions of other kinds of art books aimed at higher levels of commitment on the part of the reader. I suspect that this is partly the result of foresight and a sense of responsibility on the part of the publishers involved; and partly it is a result of compromise by those authors who have something that they need to get off their chests and can find no other outlet that is not economically crippling to themselves or a limitation upon the scale and scope of the book. No reasonable man can deplore these developments, especially while there is no evidence that the “pure” scholarly art book is in danger. Potentially, at least, every kind of author and reader stands to gain. The books reviewed here illustrate this potential very well. At the same time they suggest, independently from their own qualities and limitations, some gaps between potential and performance. These can best be seen after we have dealt with the books individually.
THE most courageous publishing venture here is unquestionably Giotto: The Peruzzi Chapel by Eve Borsook and Leonetto Tintori. In 1958 Professor Ugo Procacci, soprintendente of Monuments in Florence, achieved a long-standing ambition; he was able to initiate a campaign of restoration—to last, in the event, three years—of the second and greater of the sole surviving fresco-cycles by Giotto in Florence, in the Peruzzi Chapel in Santa Croce. The executant was Tintori, the most gifted, sensitive, and self-disciplined restorer of frescoes the world has yet seen. Although it was not then forseeable that this campaign would produce dramatic and unique results, it was decided that a careful record should be kept day by day by an art historian, Miss Borsook, the author of a much-admired work, The Mural Painters of Tuscany. The restorer’s problem was not in the first instance—as so many are—one of conservation, but literally of recovery. Giotto’s frescoes had suffered from a long history of neglect, repairs, physical damage, and partial destruction, followed by total whitewashing, rediscovery and finally complete repainting according to the notions of Giotto’s style and primitivism generally that were current in the middle of the last century. We had been forced to assess Giotto’s late style—that is to say, the phase of his work that was historically the most significant for subsequent Florentine painting—from an unhistorical, distorted travesty. It was like reading a corrupt text. It is to Professor Tintori’s credit that we now have a text that is almost pure, even if it is a fragment; to Miss Borsook goes the credit for the presentation and interpretation of this text and of its recovery, and to Professor Procacci we owe the idea of having it at all. Behind this team there stood a fourth member, the late Professor Offner, to whom the book is so appropriately dedicated. It was his unshakably logical philosophy of the treatment of damaged works of art—the presentation of the fragment in its greatest possible purity without any attempt at integration, necessarily subjective—that inspired the principles on which the work was done. It was, then, a matter of international cooperation (chiefly Italo-American) from the start, and this was how it continued; the technical resources of American laboratories were frequently tapped.
What happened surprised everybody, and upset many comfortable assumptions about wall-painting. It appeared that very little of this fresco-cycle was painted in buon fresco, that is, painting directly onto fresh sections of wet plaster. Only the uppermost parts were done in this way, and it was discovered that while the painters were at work on the still-fresh plaster of the vault, the walls beneath were already being coated. When the painters worked down to these levels the walls were dry, and their paint was applied a secco, with a technique resembling tempera painting more than fresco. Wall painting a secco is far from durable, and the body of the pigment cannot long survive; it is worn away, or simply drops off, leaving little more than a stain on the plaster surface. It was this ghost, therefore, that had been continually reinforced, obliterated, rediscovered and reinforced again—and it is this ghost that we now see once more, with the exception of those parts that were totally lost and those other parts at the top that had been executed in the normal and still substantial buon fresco. The visitor to the chapel now may with reason be shocked, for he sees what is frankly a ruin, but if he reflects he cannot doubt that he and Giotto are richer for the restoration: because a sluggish, clumsy, and arbitrarily-distorted totality has been exchanged for a fragment of breath-taking beauty; and also because what we now see is, even though a fragment, closer to Giotto’s intentions, and an unambiguous basis for understanding his style, even though it needs interpretation. Successive restorers up to the nineteenth century had, rather revealingly, a much less sure grip of reality than Giotto and his assistants; to give examples, a logical foreshortening of the table in the Feast of Herod has now been regained, and for the first time we can understand what actually is represented in the architecture of the Ascension of Saint John—a longitudinal section of a basilica, with an apse at one end. Similar results, by the way, emerged from the slightly earlier restoration of Giotto’s Bardi Chapel, next to this one in Santa Croce.
A large part of Miss Borsook’s text is composed of selections from the diary of the restoration, and very fascinating reading it is. Wonderfully frank—as frank as Tintori’s restoration itself—and unpretentiously written, it can be read not only as a documentation but also as the story of an exciting and contemporary event. It is typical of the honesty of the whole operation that changes of mind and errors are not at all suppressed, and neither are the pains of accomplishment (one beautiful painted vase took a week to clean) or the joys of discovery (of Saint John on Patmos: “Nov. 6, 1961…There is a hillock in the middle which by the afternoon looks like the ghost of an eagle”—and that is what it turned out to be). But the book is more than a diary; it is also a work of excellent scholarship, with a compilation of all known (and many previously unknown) archive and textual sources on the chapel, its decoration and history, so that it is a major contribution to Giotto studies. It would be a great pity, however, if it were read only by specialists, because it is a rare and readable account of something of our times that is going well; and surely the non-specialist reader must soon be satiated with broad perspectives and find equal delight in seeing one object in close-up. Its publication is, as we have said, courageous, for it is without precedent; it is very much to be hoped that future campaigns of restoration can be published in this way. The rumor is that some will.
MANY BELIEVE that there is little in fourteenth-century painting in Italy beyond Giotto and the Sienese that is either beautiful or important. This is convenient, but untrue. There were great artists in Venice, for example, and in Bologna there was one remarkable painter, Vitale, who was already painting in Giotto’s lifetime and died around 1360. He has been an obscure figure, little studied outside intermittent periodical literature. Now we have a full-length portrait in Cesare Gnudi’s Vitale da Bologna. This is certainly one of those books that owes its existence, in the first place, not so much to the public-spirited bank that fostered its original publication in Italy as to the compulsive necessity of an outlet for the author’s accumulated work, ideas, and enthusiasm. The subject is highly controversial, and Professor Gnudi takes a controversial point of view, with the result, naturally, that the text is argumentative. In consequence it is unlikely to appeal to the non-academic reader unless he is very much intrigued, as he might well be, by the paintings reproduced; if that is the case it must be said that he will not find it easy to disentangle the basic facts. The book is more surely aimed at the student of trecento painting, and in that case the fact that it is provocative, while always reasonable, is all to the good.
Professor Gnudi is not, of course, only concerned with the academic problems of authorship and chronology that are crucial for an understanding of this artist. He examines the strange blend of Vitale’s style and the way that blend changes; he describes its uniqueness, due in part to an independence of artistic character and in part also to the cross-currents of artistic geography, for Bologna was caught between the forces of Tuscan style and French Gothicism both courtly and popular. The exposition is convincing. As for the controversies—Professor Gnudi sets out the problems in an Introduction, arguing a unity of Vitale’s personality where other scholars have argued a division, and arguing a surprisingly early date for what he believes to be Vitale’s greatest monumental work, the Nativity fresco from Mezzaratta. This Introduction is heavy going, and might well be skipped by all but the most directly involved readers; for the unity of personality and rightness of chronology are either apparent from the subsequent survey of the artist’s career or they are not.
In my view Gnudi’s solutions seem very sensible, and brilliant as well, even if the element of doubt of which he is so conscious must remain. The reader of the English version may have some difficulty in following his analyses, as of the space in the Madonna dei Denti, or in understanding some of his observations, such as “transparent, silver light” (when is light opaque?); but his descriptive intention is subtle, the means are impressionistic and circumlocutory, and I think that the reader’s difficulties arise from the very different capacities of the English and Italian languages, and that this is not the undisciplined jargon it appears at first sight to be. I have only one serious criticism of the book. It is a monograph, in some respects very elaborate, but the elaboration is inconsistent. Illustrations are so lavish, for example, that it has been possible to duplicate in text-illustrations much of the material of the plates—which is a waste of the opportunity to give the reader comparative material to which Gnudi frequently refers (such as the illuminations of Pucelle) and which would have made understanding of his argument much easier. There are no reproductions of the kind that I regard as essential, showing frescoes in situ, so that their relationship to each other and to architecture within a church or chapel is comprehensible. And while the book has a bibliography, proper to a monograph, no dimensions are given for any work, which is unforgivable; if we want to think for ourselves, for instance, on the relationship between the Madonna dei Denti and its supposed wings (one that is not established in the text) we cannot begin to do so. The leveling effect in matters of scale is in any case one of the distortions characteristic of the illustrated book, and information for its correction should always be provided.