November 27, 2012
By Mary Jo Gibson
The Uffizi Gallery, that cradle of Florentine art in Italy, is home to the art collection of the Medici. As titans of Renaissance patronage they have given commissions to such storied names as Titian, Botticelli, Tintoretto and Il Parmigianino. The Medici dynasty originally built the Uffizi to house government offices and designed the top loggia as a picture gallery – a novel innovation at the time. It is from that space, the galleria, that art galleries around the world take their name. A chance to see this priceless art without visiting Italy is almost unimaginable; but on a cold autumn day with blustery winds blowing across the prairie, I made my way to Madison, Wisconsin, and the Chazen Museum to see “Offering of the Angels”, an exhibition from the Uffizi Gallery.
The Chazen offers the first visit to the United States for these works, rarely seen in public and selected for a special exhibition as a gift from the citizens of Florence. The forty-three paintings and two tapestries span three centuries, from the late 14th to the early 18th. The paintings were made for a wide range of purposes, from small works meant for private devotion in a home or palace, to large altar pieces made for a chapel. “Offering of the Angels” includes two 16th century tapestries designed from cartoons by Francesco De’Rossi, known as Il Salviati (Florence 1510 – Rome, 1563). Close to seven feet wide, the tapestries depict Christ’s descent from the cross and the Resurrection.
The tapestries on view are something of a rarity. They don’t travel well because of their weight and fragility, making them a challenge to transport. The ‘Deposition from the Cross’, produced in Florence around 1546, is surprisingly detailed. Christ’s mother, Mary, Mary Magadalene and Joseph of Arimathea are shown with Christ’s body. Tears are rendered in the tapestry with silver and gold thread.
In the early 16th century, Flanders was the center of tapestry production. The Medici wanted Florence to be equally well known for this art and commissioned cartoons from celebrated Florentine artists. Two Flemish tapestry experts were hired and the results are nothing less than spectacular.
The first painting in the exhibition, “The Miracle of the Manna”, by Fabrizio Boschi, commands immediate attention due to its epic size. Depicting manna falling from the sky, with biblical and secular figures; the participants show the continual overlap of time, centuries apart, showcasing this enduring story.
“Pieta with Saints John the Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria”, by Il Cappuccino Veronese, imagines St. Catherine at the crucifixion. The painting was commissioned by Caterina de Medici, her namesake being Catherine of Alexandria, the Saint. The community surrounding these paintings becomes an integral part of the art, in depiction as well as creation.
These works may long be established as treasures, but the truth of the matter is that they are continually evolving. Titian’s Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine contrasts with photographic stages of the restoration process. The removal of varnish allows the colors to appear with the richness and depth the artist intended.
The most recognized painting in the Offering of the Angels is Botticelli’s Madonna and Child, or Madonna of the Loggia. Having undergone multiple restorations, the only parts of the painting that are considered original are the red gown of the Virgin and the distant landscape. One restoration was so disastrous that the faces were repainted entirely. A prize of the Uffizi gallery, the painting has never been permanently finished, and looks entirely different now than in the 16th century.
The Chazen Museum is one of the best kept secrets of the Midwest’s art institutions. Their permanent collection of Renaissance art boasts a huge altar painting by Vasari, “Adoration of the Shepherds”, among other religious art and sculpture. Well worth the trip on a cold autumn day, I expect many more visits in the future as the Chazen continues to showcase new exhibitions, the “Golden Age of English Watercolors” being the latest arrival. Visual arts enrich the human experience and the knowledge of art is essential to understanding diverse cultures past and present. This glimpse into the riches of the Medici certainly underscores that enrichment.
A great post by Hyperallergic on the Secret Life of Paintings reviews this exhibition while at the James A. Michener Art Museum, comparing some great writings of Machiavelli with the art, and the times.
Thank you joining me for “Offering of the Angels”, I look forward to chatting with you about this and future museum events.