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

Painting in central Italy

Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: 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 and all of the lunettes and a large fresco by Fra Angelico of the crucifixion. The monastery itself is Dominican and that is one of the begging 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. Dr. Harris: 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 we're going to go take a look at. Dr. Zucker: As we walk past the second cloister on the left and the rectory, which includes a large fresco, a Ghirlandaio 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. Dr. Harris: In fact, Cosimo di' Medici had a cell of his own that he used on occasion. Dr. Zucker: When we get to the top of the stairs, we can see down two long hallways. Dr. Harris: About every ten or so feet, there's an opening with a small wooden door into a small cell that would've been a space for a monk to sleep, but also a place for prayer and meditation. On the walls are frescoes by Fra Angelico and his followers. Dr. Zucker: This must be freezing in the Winter. There's no insulation whatsoever. Dr. Harris: No. Dr. Zucker: Let's turn our attention to the large fresco at the top of the stairs, though. It's really a masterpiece. Dr. Harris: This one is quite large and has figures that are life size. It starts about four feet off the ground, so we look up at the scene of the Annunciation. Dr. Zucker: It also allows us to see this fresco much more close up than we'd normally be able to in a large basilica environment. Dr. Harris: That's true. We're not far away the way we might see an alter. Dr. Zucker: It's just a beautiful image, but it's also very spare and the spareness seems to really be fitting for this monastic space. Dr. Harris: Right, and the actual loge or open porch way space that the Madonna and the 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. 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. Dr. Zucker: This is the annunciation. Our archangel Gabriel has appeared to Mary to announce to her that she'll bearing God. What's interesting is in many paintings of the Annunciation, you would expect to see a lot of other kinds of accoutrements. You would expect to see white lilies as a symbol of her virginity, you would expect to see her having been interrupted reading her bible, expressing her piousness 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. Dr. Harris: 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. Dr. Zucker: 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 receding orthogonals that we see down the hallway on the left and the loge of the columns on the left is leading to a doorway that is visually too small also. There's a nice compliment that exists there. The other thing is that 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 at an extreme - Dr. Harris: From far below. Dr. Zucker: That's right, at an oblique angle. 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. Dr. Harris: I think that's true. There's really no atmospheric perspective. Dr. Zucker: That raises another interesting issue here, which is there's real ambiguity in the space in this painting. We've got that flatness on the left side, this insistence on the two-dimensionality of the forest, of the lawn. Then, there's 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 the space. Dr. Harris: Right, if Mary stands up she's going to hit her head on a ceiling. (laughing) For Masaccio, the space 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 this was painted, we do see light coming in from the left. Dr. Zucker: Yes, from the upper left. Dr. Harris: When you look at the columns, they're clearly modeled. We can see shadowing on the right. Dr. Zucker: Especially in the (unintelligible) vaults. Dr. Harris: But I don't see cast shadows from the columns. Maybe there is a little bit of one in that one on the left. Dr. Zucker: Very soft. Dr. Harris: But there is more of a shadow that Mary casts on the right. Dr. Zucker: In the earthly sphere. Dr. Harris: 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 more shortened halos, that we see Masaccio use. Dr. Zucker: That does 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. Dr. Harris: It's almost totally aware of Masaccio and what we might call the most advanced humanist styles, but also an unwillingness to go that far and holding to 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. Dr. Zucker: 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. Dr. Harris: There were lots of styles that were available in the 15th century in Florence, depending on a whole lot of things. Dr. Zucker: There's also subtlety, for example, we were talking about the spareness of this painting. 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, he 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. Dr. Harris: It does, it sparkles a little bit, especially in the darker paint. Look at how Mary and the angel look similar, both idealized, but a lack of specificity. Dr. Zucker: The faces, 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. Dr. Harris: You really feel, even though they're separated by this column, that they're gazes meet and are locked in place. The way that Mary bends forward a bit and accepts her responsibility that Gabriel's announcing to her feels very, very serious to me. Dr. Zucker: Very solemn. Should we go and take a look at some of the cells? Dr. Harris: Sure. Dr. Zucker: We're looking one of the very small monks cells. It's a small dorm room, really, and what do you say? Maybe eight by ... Dr. Harris: Ten feet. Dr. Zucker: Ten feet, not even. Dr. Harris: It's very small with a 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. Dr. Zucker: 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. Dr. Harris: 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. Dr. Zucker: Very much like we are as we gaze into this cell, so he's a witness, as we're a witness. Dr. Harris: Exactly, he's, in a way, a kind of stand in for us, a way for us into the painting. Dr. Zucker: 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. To think about this as a painting that a monk would have lived with for much of his life. This is something he would've gone to sleep with, he would've prayed with, he would've woken to, and that this was a single bit of ornament in this room. The convent of San Marco is well-known, not only for the extraordinary frescoes by Fra Angelico, but also by another resident. Dr. Harris: We're talking about Savonarola, who was a fervent religious leader in the late 1490s in Florence. Dr. Zucker: He was actually the pryor of this convent, that is he was in charge and he was zealous about renouncing 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. Dr. Harris: He denounced the humanist culture of Medici Florence and - Dr. Zucker: It's interesting, because Medici's were originally his sponsors, his patrons. Dr. Harris: He advocated a book burning and the burning of what he considered luxury items. Dr. Zucker: This was called the Bonfire of the Vanities and it took place just outside of the Signoria, where we think paintings, books, and articles of luxury, including clothing, were burned. Dr. Harris: There was a brief period when Savonarola actually took over the government of Florence. Dr. Zucker: He was ultimately excommunicated by the Pope, but refused to abide by the excommunication, which put Florence in real jeopardy. Dr. Harris: His advocacy of a really spare and ascetic lifestyle made things very difficult in Florence economically. The economy was based on trade and luxury goods. Dr. Zucker: And the manufacture and sale of luxury goods, that's right. You can see that this conflict would have ultimately created a backlash and it did. Dr. Harris: San Marco was stormed and - Dr. Zucker: And Savonarola was taken prisoner and would ultimately be hanged with two of his compatriots until he was almost dead, at which point a large fire was set below him and they were burned to death. Dr. Harris: 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 where tourists visit, but a place that a real role in Florence's history in the 15th century. Dr. Zucker: And a kind of religious intensity that I think is difficult to remember. Certainly that story speaks of it and it's excesses and it's dangers. (jazz music)