Overnite Renaissance

The people who hang paintings at the Louvre are probably just about the most knowledgeable people in the world when it comes to Renaissance art. I think they sometimes get bored and screw with people’s heads by placing two paintings or items next to each other knowing full well that the reaction of the viewer will be confusion. It might be something French, the sort of thing where it’s clear you are being taught something by a teacher who ridicules your ignorance and you just go along with it anyway. Or it might just be my lack of an art education. Anyway, something in the Grand Gallery made me think about the leap that seems to happen during the Renaissance from medieval stick figure simplicity to things like Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione from about 1515.

Source: Wikipedia

The mindfuckery of these people often leads to stories of great big arcs of artistic development and theorizing about the subject very quickly overshadows the fact that these were dudes painting commissioned pictures at a time when life sucked pretty hard. There were developments in craftsmanship and the science of painting as things slowly got better, but technical advancements seldom get the treatment they deserve from misty-eyed art teachers who like to use words like “vision” and “inspiration” when they take their students to the artist’s grave to pay their respects to the myth they are paid to perpetuate, ruining my morning stroll through the Père-Lachaise with their inane lecturing.

But these stories have to be told somehow, and no doubt the best way to do this is simply to put one picture next to another like the Louvre guys have done. A succession of previously missing links ensues, but despite the wonderful experience of going through this list of works we are no closer to finding that single, simple answer behind the Renaissance. That’s why it’s better to tell the big stories in the form of caricatures and to say something like: “The Renaissance was switched on somewhere between 1477 and 1487 in Venice.” My first date is based on this painting by Carlo Crivelli:

Source: Wikipedia

I’m told that Crivelli painted exclusively in tempera and was very much a traditional artist. That seems true enough. The picture is of a Saint Jacques and some tiny people praying to him or with him or something. It’s a decorative sort of thing, probably part of a polyptych or something like that. Or so I thought until I read in the Louvre’s description that it is definitely an isolated piece. So, medieval scale and eggy paint. For some reason the thick outlines also reminded me of a cartoon frame.

Ten years later, Giovanni Bellini painted this thing and by this time someone had turned the Renaissance switch on “go” in Venice and unleashed a new world of fleshy, lush colors.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s in oil and about a biblical subject: the baby Jesus, Mary, Saint Peter, and Saint Sebastian. I’ve scribbled “What happened?” in my notebook next to the dates of these two paintings implying that there was some sort of collective conceptual revolution in Venice at some point during those ten years. The difference between the two is not fully conveyed by the above pictures. It is very noticeable and I don’t think all of it can be explained by better paints and materials, the painters’ respective skills and training, or difference in genre. But they do explain a whole lot more than some vapid reflection about a bump in the curve that describes our collective experience of the world. It’s better to keep these sort of reflections brief, because almost everything that is interesting and valuable in the work of these artists resides in those aspects which from this bird’s eye view of history seem like mere details.

1 Response to “Overnite Renaissance”

  1. 1 Art in Paris « nonvisedvoce Trackback on January 30, 2012 at 22:38

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