Art In History Art Blog
by PeterBarnett , April 21, 2017—12:00 AM
This is the first in a series of posts on seminal moments in the history of western art. The flowering of the Renaissance in Italy was certainly one of these moments. One way to see its emergence is through changes in the handling of the annunciation theme.
Two of the primary impulses that define the Renaissance in Italy are the triumph of Humanism and the mastery of the depiction of real space. The first emerged in the late medieval period, with the rise of the cult of the virgin. The change in emphasis from the depiction of a forbidding Christ to the depiction of Mary is by definition humanist; Mary is human, approachable, sharing her nature and feelings with all of us. Thus, the rise of the annunciation theme is in itself a humanist trend.
I am leading off with the famous Annunciation of 1333 by the great Siennese master Simone Martini. Simone Martini's great achievement in this work is to focus us on the human drama of the moment, without any sacrifice of the otherworldly splendor of the traditional altarpiece. Still definitely a pre-renaissance work, it nevertheless show a remarkable sensitivity to the human feelings suggested by the theme. We can see this by comparing a detail of the central panel with a contemporary work.
The two main actors in the drama occupy the two sides of the panel, communicating across a central space watched over by the Holy Spirit. Working within the restriction of the spaceless picture surface, he inflects the figures to get maximum expression. As the angel Gabriel juts forward with his message, the figure of mary retreats in a complementary concave shape, awestruck and fearful at the words, which we can actually see passing between them. It is a quantum leap in human feeling beyond the work shown beside it.
Simone Martini, in the conservative Siennese tradition, shows none of the spatial experimentation which was beginning to appear in Florence at this period. Even before Alberti's discovery of a system of one-point perspective, artists like Giotto had been trying to develop figures as solid forms in a believable space. With the advent of a mechanical system of perspective, the experimentation rocketed to a new level.
As we can see in four examples, the combination of the annunciation message with the powerful new tool was not easily resolved. The first two examples show one half-solution: to show deep perspective space, but make no attempt to have the figures inhabit it. In both examples, if we eliminated the background, we would have a traditional distribution of the main figures on the picture surface. The addition of the perspective background actually interferes with our contemplation of the message. The one on the left might almost be titled "Gabriel tries to speak to Mary but a railroad train is passing between them at that moment". The much more elaborate perspective background in the Carnevale work on the right is equally distracting.
Two other works show artists attempting to put their figures into the newly available three-dimensional space, with varying success. Fra Angelico, on the left, succeeds well by virtue of modest goals, arranging his figures a bit beyond the surface, at a slight diagonal, within a manageable chunk of space. The message is clear because the new space does not really compete. Crivelli, on the other hand, tries something much more ambitious, and the result is more a curiousity than a successful communication of his theme. The angel Gabriel is walking toward the house where Mary sits waiting; meanwhile he feels the need to create an actual opening in the architecture to allow the Holy Spirit to enter!
Two examples by Botticelli, four years apart, show him wrestling with this problem and resolving it wonderfully. The earlier Annunciation of 1485 is clearly an unsatisfactory solution, where the architecture, though theoretically open between Gabriel and Mary, is visually a total barrier, breaking the communication between them. In the later work, done in 1489, we find a much more comfortable setting of the figures into the space. The deep space outside the window does not come between them, but instead focusses on the head of Gabriel as he speaks his message from God. We also see Botticelli employing the same psychological devices in his figures that Simone Martini used 150 years earlier. The painting is a marvelous blend of figures in a real space imbued with deep human meaning.
I will end with the Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, as an examplar of the High Renaissance. As usual, Leonardo has produced just one work in which he makes his statement about this artistic problem, then leaves refinements to others. He has abandoned the distraction of any obvious mechanical perspective, except in the plinth which both joins and separates the two figures. The figures themselves have become fully and comfortably solid and exist in space, while still echoing the arrangement on the surface of traditional annunciations. The momentary emotions of Martini and Botticelli have been replaced with a timelessness which comes through the study of classical models. This is Humanist now in both meanings of the word: classical and human-centered.