PALAZZO REALE, MILAN
SEPTEMBER 2, 2015 – JANUARY 1, 2016
The fourteen works present here—mostly on panel, but also including five detached frescoes—are brought together for the first time, at the Palazzo Real. They provide a partial, but representative, record of Giotto Di Bondone’s (1267 – 1337) production over a more than forty-year period—from early to late in his hugely influential career. Giotto’s new approach to color and drawing in painting, seen within the narrative context of Christianity, alerts us to changing attitudes, both political and aesthetic, during the artist’s lifetime. Not only does the depiction of a saint’s face now appear as naturalistic and expressive as that of a peasant’s, but the pictorial space, constructed with geometry and color, is no longer merely a backdrop to the straightforward recounting of myth. Now, emotion is manifested intensely, not only in the range of facial expressions anyone can identify with, but also in the sequence of contrasting spatial effects—angular concavities, planar projections—and multipart color compositions. The center has shifted from a focus on revealed divinity to empathy for the extremes of lived human experience.
Each work is situated on a built structure made with sheets of unpainted iron (the same sheets are also used to cover the floor); rising to just above waist height, it keeps the viewer at a safe distance, both protecting the works and, in the words of the exhibition designer, “creating a sequence of profane altars.” The walls, painted a mid-gray, and the lighting, pools of low yet clear light, isolate the works from any architectural details in the nine rooms of the Palazzo devoted to the exhibition.
The earliest work, Madonna and Child (ca. 1285 – 90) recalls directly the Byzantine, flattened simplifications of a previous era. The Santa Reparata Polyptych (ca. 1310), from the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence), is another story entirely—replete with innovations amounting to nothing less than a startling paradigm shift. It is a double-sided panel; on the front is the Annunciation, with Saints Reparata, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, and Nicholas. On the back is the Madonna enthroned with Child, and Saints Eugene, Miniato, Zenobius, and Crescentia. The saints are depicted, all but one, turning toward the center. Painted with tempera and gold on wood, both sides comprise five compartments. On the front, architectural and landscape environments add complexity; the depictions on the back initially seem like simple portraits in comparison—that is, until the musical fluctuations of shape and color, a plasticity at once subtle, measured and vividly alive, take the eye, mind, and heart on a breathtaking and riveting ride. The unexpected is metered out as relentless beauty within and across symmetries and oblique penetrations of geometrically rendered space. Both the body language and the varied direction of the figures gaze add to the dramatic intensity. It’s too much—an ecstatic, fundamentally visual communication that is both calm and totally engulfing. It incites a letting-go of distanced appreciation and conscious assessment. Replacing this is sensuousness: pleasure and pain, all at once.
The effect of Giotto has not diminished, or gone unacknowledged, over the centuries; take Alberto Giacometti’s statement in 1920: “Standing in front of Giotto felt like a violent punch in the chest. I was disoriented and lost. I immediately felt an immense pain and great grief. The blow hit Tintoretto too. The strength of Giotto overcame me irresistibly. I was crushed by those immovable figures, solid as basalt, with their precise accurate gestures, their expression heavy and often infinitely tender.” This exhibition is not only an important contribution to the scholarship of Renaissance art, it is also salutary, in that we are reminded of what can be at stake in using painting to communicate the highs and lows of sentient being.