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Art review: A flowering in Florence is captured at the Getty

Giotto di Bondone and Pacino di Bonaguida works enliven 'Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance,' among the most important shows at a U.S. museum this year.

November 13, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • "The Virgin and Child Enthroned With Saints and Allegorical Figures," by Giotto di Bondone.
"The Virgin and Child Enthroned With Saints and Allegorical Figures,"… (J. Paul Getty Trust )

Who is Pacino di Bonaguida?

Giotto we know. Giotto di Bondone (about 1267-1337), the star with Pacino of a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, was Italy's first painter of world significance.


FOR THE RECORD:
"Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance": In the Nov. 13 Calendar section, a photo caption that accompanied an art review of the Getty Museum's "Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance" identified Taddeo Gaddi as the creator of a work showing the Virgin Mary and Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Paul. The artist was Bernardo Daddi. —

He was at ground level in the Renaissance, building its foundations by edging out the orderly, schematic stylization that characterized so much Southern European painting in the Middle Ages. Giotto replaced it with a new, deeply touching naturalism that came from close observation of people, places and things.

PHOTOS: 'Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance' at the Getty Museum

On their own, the seven works by Giotto in the Getty's "Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350," opening Tuesday, are reason enough to see the show. Paintings on wood panels 700 years old are fragile, susceptible to shifts in temperature and humidity, and thus infrequently loaned for temporary exhibitions. The 42 panels by 10 painters gathered in the Getty's amazing presentation make for a rare assembly, and never have there been so many by Giotto in a single North American show.

Giotto's celebrity was huge in his own day, with abundant panel and fresco commissions from wealthy bankers, merchants and Franciscan and Dominican religious orders in Florence, where he lived, but also in Padua, Rimini, Assisi and other cities across and beyond the Tuscan countryside. Dante Alighieri, in a famous passage of "The Divine Comedy," even took note.

"Cimabue," he wrote of Giotto's storied teacher, "believed that he held the field in painting, and now Giotto has the cry, so that the fame of the former is obscure."

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The beautiful Giotto panel dead ahead at the show's entry is indicative of his gifts. The fleshy Christ child seated in the crook of the Virgin Mary's arm retains many of the adult facial features common to depictions in an earlier Byzantine era. Age symbolizes the mature wisdom miraculously present from Jesus' birth — but Giotto's infant is also novel.

His left hand grasps his mother's index finger as if to steady himself, the way any precariously perched baby might do. His right hand toys with the pure white rose that Mary holds, as much an ordinary gesture of childlike curiosity as it is a sharp symbol of an encounter with the thorns that will one day crown his head. With great tenderness, Giotto seamlessly unites the two natures claimed for Jesus — deity and human.

But who is Pacino di Bonaguida?

Active in Florence from around 1303 (the dates of his birth and death are uncertain), he's an artist today known mostly to specialists. Yet the Getty features nine panels by Pacino, more than by Giotto or any other artist in the show. The first major work, a riveting crucifixion painted around the same time as Giotto's "Madonna and Child" and installed nearby, sets the scene.

Pacino's histrionic crucifixion, with crimson blood streaming from Christ's hands and feet and gushing from the wound in his side, depicts the moments immediately after his death. Equally stylized are the melodramatic figures at the base of the cross — among them the swooning Virgin; a distraught Mary Magdalene, fallen to her knees; and John the Evangelist, arms flung across his chest in despair.

Pacino is known to have learned a lot from Giotto's innovations, but little of the latter's physical naturalism is in evidence here. What's here instead is an astute observation: Rather than the usual background of shiny gold leaf that would sanctify the scene, adding a shimmering layer of mystical light when illuminated by candles, Pacino paints the dominant sky flat black.

PHOTOS: 'Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance' at the Getty Museum

The blackness visually heightens the drama, setting off the figures. But its source is what's important.

The Gospel of Matthew says, "Now, from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour" — the moment of Christ's death. For his baleful image, Pacino dropped a prime painterly convention and chose a literary cue. Reading a text, he imagined the scene.

Direct observation of nature and literary imagination: The Getty's show explores the intricate ways in which Tuscany's earliest stirrings of Renaissance innovation arose from two sources. Florence birthed the unparalleled writer Dante and painter Giotto. But it also birthed Pacino, who split the difference: In addition to painting panels, Pacino was a renowned illuminator of written manuscripts.

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