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Video transcript

we're in the basilica of san zeno in the town of verona in northern italy looking at an altarpiece in situ by the great Renaissance artist Andrea Montaigne this is an altarpiece that has one foot in the older traditions of the trasente and one foot that's beginning to move into a much more sophisticated understanding of pictorial space so on the one hand you have this frame which we think may be original to Montaigne himself which divides the main scene into three sections with these four Corinthian columns for calling the classical past so you might think about that older trecento 1300s tradition of an altarpiece with an image of Mary and Christ in the center with separate panels within a larger frame but Montana's image behind the columns is insistently continuous instead of very separate panels with figures with a gold background Montana's unified that space behind the frame so that the figures really seem to occupy a very real space created with the illusion of linear perspective now that's not completely unheard of before Montaigne but he's also pairing the actual physical wooden carved frame columns with more classicizing columns in the pictorial space immediately behind them and so those columns in the front that are real are coming into our space right they're real columns and the garland that unites them seem to be on that edge of our space and the pictorial space and then we move back where we see Mary holding the Christ child on her lap angels around her singing and playing music and on either side for Saints in this space showing us the court of heaven but it's a Christian heaven in an insistently classical antique pagan space this is a kind of painting called a sacra conversazione a a sacred conversation or holy community you have to gather in one pictorial space figures that come from different historical periods if we start all the way on the left you see a figure with a red undergarment and a yellow mantel on top and he's holding keys of that st. Peter behind st. Peter is st. Paul and behind him st. John st. John looks sensitive as his traditional almost feminine and then finally the fourth figure on the left in the back is st. Zeno the namesake for this church and somebody we think was the person who brought Christianity to the town of Verona and is the patron saint of Verona on the other side of the Virgin Mary in the front there is this extraordinary rendering of Saint John the Baptist look at the s-curve of that body this is a Christian figure but links Christian tradition back to the classical tradition that body is just a tour-de-force example of contrapposto that's right Montaigne we know was devoted to studying ancient Greek and Roman antiquities and it's so obvious that he's been looking at classical sculpture with that figure of John the Baptist and it's not just in the tilt of his hips and that contra pause on the s-curve it's also just in the amazing naturalism of his pose the way he looks down reads the book that he holds the book he's so believable he's so close to us we can imagine him as a real figure about to step out of that painting that's the thing that grabs me of the vividness the use of oil paint with a kind of linear quality that Montana brings to his paintings with a careful use of light which by the way reflects the way the light is actually entering into this church all of what creates this really intense illusionism these are real figures that we can engage with these are figures that we can pray to who will intercede on our behalf with Christ but we also know at the same time given all of that accessibility that we're looking at an image of the court of heaven and that one day perhaps through our own prayers through our own good works we could hope to join the Blessed in heaven and so like in for example Montaigne st. Sebastian we have a contrast between the classical path which is represented by those sculptures in grisaille that we see in the stone carving and the frieze and in the roundels and then we have the Christian present in this painting full color in the figures in the court of heaven and the altarpiece in this gilt frame is within the apse of this church decorated with fresco from a century or two earlier and because that's true fresco paint applied directly on wet plaster it's lost the vividness of its color because it mixes with the white of the plaster and it makes the oil painting of Ponte Nia all the more brilliant all the more saturated we can see how oil paint could create a realism in texture and form that was really impossible with the earlier medium of fresco or even tempera it must have felt like a kind of early Technicolor for the people of Verona in the 14 60s this painting has had an interesting history we're not the only people who admired it Napoleon admired it and in fact brought it back to Paris it was returned after Napoleon lost power but not entirely if you look down at the predella you can see that there are additional scenes and those have not been returned there in tour and they're in Paris you