Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 336 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)
The Fra Angelico show now on view in New York is among the most provocative exhibitions of a Renaissance artist in recent years. It attempts no less than to revise the history of Florentine painting in the 1420s, a period universally regarded as a turning point in European art. According to the traditional account, during that decade Masaccio almost single-handedly created the new style of Renaissance painting, a style characterized by naturalistic images of lifelike figures portrayed in convincing perspective. By contrast Fra Angelico has usually been seen as a painter who, for all his technical accomplishment, stood apart from the artistic revolution started by Masaccio. The show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art discards that interpretation and presents a new view of Fra Angelico and Florentine painting.
While not challenging Masaccio’s preeminence, it suggests that Fra Angelico was of nearly equal importance in the transformation of Renaissance art. Just as Cubism was invented by Picasso and Braque working together, so the birth of Renaissance painting is seen in the exhibition as having arisen from the creative exchange between two masters—both Masaccio and Angelico. The case for this conclusion is based on the scholarship of the last thirty years, which has increasingly acknowledged Angelico as an innovative painter; nonetheless, it is a startling idea, presented at the Metropolitan with unprecedented force. It overturns much of what has been thought about Angelico for centuries.
The traditional interpretation of Angelico was strongly colored by Giorgio Vasari’s life of the painter, first published in 1550. Even by Vasari’s standards that text says very little about the artist’s work; instead it primarily celebrates the painter as an example of saintly virtue who
spent every minute of his life in the service of God…. A man of great simplicity, and most holy in his ways…he shunned the affairs of the world…living a pure and holy life…. He was most kindly and temperate, and he lived chastely and withdrew himself from the snares of the world.
Vasari writes that he believes Angelico’s soul is in heaven, and he wishes that “the churchmen of our own times would learn from this holy man.” According to Vasari, Angelico’s purity of spirit deeply affected his art: Angelico would “never have taken his brushes in his hand without first offering a prayer” and “never painted a Crucifix without the tears streaming down his cheeks.”
No doubt, Angelico was a pious man. At an early age he joined the order of the Dominican Observance and he held a series of high-level posts in its administration; he was even asked by the Pope to be the archbishop of Florence, although he declined the offer. Moreover, his entire oeuvre consists of sacred subjects painted for the instruction and inspiration of the devout; many of his paintings were made for Dominican convents, such as San Marco in Florence, and San Domenico in Fiesole, and they were intended to express the spiritual ideals of the order.
Yet, the emphasis on Angelico’s piety has encouraged the belief that he was as cloistered and otherworldly in his art as in his life. He has been seen as a painter of almost medieval temperament, far removed from the more secular and humanistic concerns of Renaissance artists. This view persisted well into the twentieth century. In the first edition of his study of the painter, published in 1952, John Pope-Hennessy wrote:
Uninterested in the revolution in visual technique effected by his great contemporaries, save where this could contribute to expressiveness, he stands in opposition to the painting of his time…. The language he employed resulted not from an involuntary failure to keep abreast of the developments of his own day, but from intentions which differed fundamentally from those of other artists.
The interpretation of Fra Angelico began to change just a few years after Pope-Hennessy’s book was published. In 1955, to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Angelico’s death, Italian scholars undertook new archival research, making it possible for the first time to reconstruct the artist’s life partly on the basis of documents rather than just from the remarks of Vasari and a few other sources. The change was dramatic. Previously it was believed that Angelico was born in 1387, that he entered the Dominican order in 1407, and that he painted his first known work around 1429 when he was over forty. He was thus seen as an artist who was older than Masaccio and other members of the first generation of Renaissance painters, and who had blossomed suddenly and relatively late in life. Thanks to the newly discovered documents, however, it became clear that he was born around 1395, and was only a few years older than Masaccio. He joined the Dominicans sometime between 1419 and 1423 and he was an independent artist working on his own account and accepting commissions for altarpieces during 1417 and 1418. The real Angelico is thus a more dynamic figure than had been assumed.
In light of such discoveries, historians began to give Angelico a more central place in early Renaissance painting. For example, in the second edition of Pope-Hennessy’s monograph, published in 1974, he wrote that Angelico was “a more cerebral, more progressive artist” than he had previously believed; and he cut from his conclusion the remarks about Angelico’s opposition to the painting of his day. He now viewed the painter as someone of major importance for the development of Florentine art, above all for the series of highly innovative altarpieces Angelico made. Nonetheless, Pope-Hennessy still thought that the painter had at first matured slowly, and he believed Angelico’s period of creativity and influence began only in the 1430s, not before.
One reason for this conclusion was evidence for dating several key works. It was thought that Angelico’s earliest extant documented painting was the altarpiece showing the Virgin and Child with saints that he executed for the Dominican nuns at the Florentine church of San Pier Martire. The record of a payment for the painting survives from 1429. It is a somewhat primitive work, unmistakably made well before Angelico matured as a great artist. Other documents, however, suggest that his powerful painting of the deposition of Christ from the cross—the Strozzi Deposition—from Santa Trinita in Florence was begun as early as 1429 and was finished by 1432 (see illustration on this page). That picture is a remarkable masterpiece made by the artist at the peak of his powers. It shows the figures not arranged before a gold background, as had been the common practice, but instead standing in a panoramic landscape, with a deep vista behind and a vast sky above. Nothing like it had ever been painted before. Similarly, sources indicate that another startlingly original painting, The Coronation of the Virgin now in the Louvre, must date from the early 1430s at the latest. It is impossible to believe that Angelico went from making the San Pier Martire altarpiece to the Strozzi Deposition and The Coronation of the Virgin in as little as a year. No painter we know of has ever developed that fast.
Faced with this problem, Pope-Hennessy chose to trust the evidence for the date of the San Pier Martire altarpiece; he dismissed the documents for the Strozzi Deposition and The Coronation of the Virgin, and assigned the pictures on stylistic grounds to the 1440s or later. Other scholars, however, were not convinced and yet were puzzled. There were simply too many other pictures whose sophistication seemed to suggest they were made in the unbelievably short time between the San Pier Martire painting dated to 1429 and the masterpieces of the 1430s.
In the 1990s the puzzle over the paintings was resolved when it became clear that the document relied on to date the San Pier Martire altarpiece had been misinterpreted: in fact it recorded a residual payment made sometime, perhaps even many years, after the painting was completed. During the Renaissance, it often took a long while to finish paying for a work of art, and we know that Angelico was making altarpieces as early as 1418. The painting could therefore have been finished much earlier in the 1420s.
Once the altarpiece was no longer seen as a work of 1429, the entire chronology of the artist’s early career became open for discussion. It was possible to accept without question that the Strozzi altarpiece was painted sometime between 1429 and 1432 and to imagine a progression among the works of Angelico that must have led up to that painting. In recent years, a number of different hypotheses about the artist’s early phase have been suggested, but they all propose that Angelico was making works of considerable importance by the mid-1420s at the latest.
The current exhibition is the most emphatic expression so far of this new tendency in Angelico scholarship. Laurence Kanter, the chief curator of the show, consistently gives dates for paintings that are much earlier than others have dared to put forward before. For example, only a few years ago it was bold to suggest that the San Pier Martire altarpiece and the San Domenico altarpiece of the Virgin and Child enthroned—the earliest surviving altarpieces by Angelico—were completed around 1424–1425; Kanter confidently dates them earlier to around 1420. He has even begun to reconstruct the juvenilia of Angelico’s career, tentatively identifying works by the artist from as early as about 1411, when the painter was only about sixteen years old.
What has emerged from such reconstructions is a radically new idea of Fra Angelico. According to Kanter, the artist was the first great naturalist in the history of Renaissance painting. He is distinguished from his contemporaries such as Lorenzo Monaco and Giovanni dal Ponte not by his prestige and otherworldliness but by the impulse to observe and depict form and light with unprecedented fidelity. This impulse, for Kanter, is the source of his genius and it manifests itself from the very beginning of his career.
What makes this claim startling is that most art historians believe that Masaccio was the foremost naturalist in early Renaissance painting, and that any comparable features in Angelico’s art must be largely owing to his influence. Kanter does not dispute that there was a period roughly between 1424 and 1428 when Angelico closely studied the younger artist’s paintings, particularly the great masterpieces such as the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel—including the famous painting of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise—and the fresco of the Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. But Kanter argues that before this period, when Masaccio was still a relatively unformed and rudimentary artist, Angelico’s pictures regularly show a command of naturalistic observation and detail without equal in Italian art.
There is much to be said in favor of this new interpretation. The exhibition assembles a number of pictures that for circumstantial and stylistic reasons can be dated to around 1420– 1424. Already in these works, Angelico displays unprecedented force in his modeling of human figures as three-dimensional forms in space. He consistently depicts figures bathed in strong, focused light coming from a single direction. As a result one side of the body is relatively brightly illuminated and the other side is in deeper shade, the contrast making the three-dimensional shape of the figure more evident. Typically, he also added strong highlights and deep shadows, representing folds in the drapery, which he arranged as two corresponding sets of emphatic vertical lines. Like flutes on a column, the bright and dark vertical lines make the curvature of the forms easy to read.