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Current time:0:00Total duration:11:37

Painting in central Italy

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the large complex that is the convent of San Marco in Florence and we're standing in one of the cloisters it's a beautiful space with frescoes in all of the loonette's and a large fresco by fra angelico of the crucifixion the monastery itself is Dominican and that is one of the banking orders this is a space where people would have given up their worldly possessions and traded them in for a life of prayer and solitude and it's a famous place largely because this is where fra angelico spent most of his life and where he painted a whole series of frescoes that were gonna go take a look at as we walked past a second cloister on the left and the factory which includes a large fresco by AirLand IO of the Last Supper we walk up the stairs we pass numerous family crests of the Medici reminds us that they were the dominant patrons of this convent and in fact Cosimo de Medici had a cell of his own that he used on occasion when we get to the top of the stairs we can see down to long hallways about every 10 or so feet there's an opening with a small wooden door into a small cell that would have been a space for a monk to sleep but also a place for prayer and meditation and on the walls our frescoes by Fra Angelico and his followers this must be freezing in the winter there's no insulation whatsoever now let's turn our attention to the large fresco at the top of the stairs though it's really a masterpiece this one is quite large and has figures that are life-size it starts about 4 feet off the ground so we could look up at the scene of the Annunciation it also allows us to see this fresco much more close up and we'd normally be able to in a large estate Basilica environment that's true we're not far away the way we might see an altar it's just a beautiful image but it's also a very spare and the spareness seems to really be fitting for this monastic space right and the actual loads our open porch way space that the madonna and angel Gabriel occupy seems to match the cloister that we were just in and the windows that we see around us we see in the room behind Mary so it really feels as though Mary and the angel Gabriel are in a space very much like the one that the monks themselves inhabited which must have helped them to think about this moment of the Annunciation this is the Annunciation our Archangel Gabriel has appeared to Mary to announce to her that she'll be bearing God now what's interesting is that in many paintings of the Annunciation you would expect to see a lot of other kinds of accouterments you'd expect to see white lilies as a symbol of her virginity you would expect to see her having been interrupted reading the Bible expressing her pious Ness and some art historians have suggested that some of these symbols are missing because the monks already know the story well this painting doesn't have to be as didactic as it might have to be if its audience was a lay audience in a church it gives room to the monks themselves to fill in the rest of the story for themselves and I think that's one way in which it was an aid in prayer it was so simple and so spare not only this fresco but the ones in the cells too that it would not interfere with the monks own imaginings there's two things that I think are worth pointing out which is understanding this fresco within the context of these hallways on the second floor of the monastery for one thing as we look down the hallway we see doors that are too small for this space and there's a kind of interesting relationship between the receding doors and the receiving orthogonals that we see down the hallway on the left and the loggia the columns on the left is leading to a doorway that is visually too small also and so there's a nice complement that exists there the other thing is the vanishing point seems too high and the floor seems to be too steep but when you look at this fresco as you ascend the staircase it makes more sense you're seeing it and an extremal out that's right in an oblique angle and so I think it's really important to understand this painting not in the isolation of a reproduction but spatially in the context of San Marco I think that's true there's really no atmospheric perspective but that raises another interesting issue here which is there's really ambiguity in the space of this painting got that flatness on the left side this insistence on the two dimensionality of the forest of the lawn and then was ambiguity on the right side as well there is some reference to linear perspective but at the same time the figures are much too large for this space right if Mary stands up she's gonna hit her head for masaccio the space and the scale of the figures would really have to be perfectly aligned I think that there are a number of ways that fra angelico is balancing competing needs for example if we think about light which is one of the things that was so important for Masaccio just 20 years or less before it's just painted we do see light coming in from the left yes from the upper left and so when you look at the columns are clearly modelled we can see shadowing on the right and especially in the groin vaults but I don't see cast shadows from the columns there maybe there is a little bit of one in that one on the laboratory soft but there is more of a shadow that Mary casts on the right in the earthly sphere and the angel Gabriel doesn't seem to cast a shadow if you look at their halos he's using those flat round halos like we saw in the 1300s and not those foreshortened halos that we see masaccio use does not seem to be a willful kind of historicizing in that sense or a kind of not complete acceptance of the fully earthly rendering that is so prominent in Florence in the 15th century and especially at this moment it's almost totally aware of Masaccio and what we may call the most advanced humanist styles but also an unwillingness to go that far and holding to a more conservative or traditional aspects in some ways and it does seem to totally make sense given the monastic environment that we're in and also FRA Angelico's own spirituality that kind of tension really speaks to these developing techniques as having a spiritual or even political dimension and that these were things that could be chosen there were lots of styles that were available in the 15th century in Florence depending on a whole lot of things there's also subtlety for example we were talking about the spareness of this painting but there are areas where the artist allows himself to really create a very decorative set of forms for instance look at Gabriel's wings not only are they just beautifully detailed but if you look really carefully and this is something that doesn't come across in photographs you must have used a kind of mica or some sort of mineral that really catches the light because as you walk past this fresco it picks up light and twinkles it does it sparkles a little bit especially in the darker paint look at how Mary and the angel look similar both idealize but a kind of lack of specificity you know the faith says although they're generalized are very specific in certain ways as well especially around the eyes which are actually the most detailed part of the entire painting you really feel even though they're separated by this column that their gazes meet and are locked in place and the way that Mary bends forward a bit and accepts her responsibility that Gabriel is announcing to her because very very serious very solemn so should we go and take a look at some of the sounds sure we're looking in one of the very small monks cells it's a small dorm room really but and what were already say maybe 8 by 10 feet not even it's very small with the window and covered by a barrel vault on the wall opposite the doorway is a fresco by Fra Angelico of another Annunciation scene this time even more spare we don't have the garden that we saw in the Annunciation scene in the hallway we have the Archangel Gabriel this time standing Mary on a small stool kneeling although her body is so elongated it's actually hard to tell where her knees would be where the lower part of her body is and like all the other frescoes in the cells Saint Dominic is included although you can see he's very carefully put outside the space that Mary and the angel Gabriel occupy very much like we are as we gaze into this cell so he's a witness as we're a witness exactly is in a way it kind of stand in for us a kind of way for us into the painting I am struck by the way in which the architecture depicted within this smaller fresco is such a beautiful complement to the spare space that we're in and to think about this as a painting that a monk would have lived with for much of his life this is something you would have gone to sleep with it would have prayed with that you would have woken to and that this was a single bit of ornament in this room so the convent of San Marco is well known not only for the extraordinary frescoes by Fra Angelico but also by another resident we're talking about Savonarola who was a fervent religious leader in the late 1490s in Florence he was actually the prior of this convent that is he was in charge and he was zealous about we're now saying the luxuries of the mercantile culture that Florence had developed his religious beliefs became stronger and more radical and came into increasing conflict with the wealth and artistry of the city he denounced the humanist culture of Medici Florence and it's interesting because the manatees were originally his sponsors his patrons he advocated a book burning and the burning of what he considered luxury items this was called the bonfire of the vanities and it took place just outside of the sea area where we think paintings books and articles of luxury and including clothing were burned there's a brief period when Savonarola actually took over the government of Florence he was ultimately excommunicated by the Pope but refused to abide by the excommunication which put Florence in real jeopardy his advocacy of a really spare and ascetic lifestyle made things very difficult in Florence economically you know the economy was based on trade and luxury goods and the manufacture of and sale of luxury goods that's right and so you can see that this kind of conflict would have ultimately created a backlash and it did San Marco was stormed and seven Arella was taken prisoner and would ultimately be hanged with two of his compatriots until he was almost dead at which point he was a large fire was set below him and they were burned to death it's hard to remember those kinds of details sometimes when you walk through and you look at these lovely paintings to remember this as not just a place for tourists visit but a place that had a real role in Florence's history in the 15th century I had a kind of religious intensity that I think is difficult to remember certainly that story speaks of it and its excesses and its dangers [Music]