Pacino di Bonaguida’s Tripytch with the Crucifixion, the Lamentation, and the Ascension of Christ from The ALANA Collection. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

Renaissance greats grace AGO

By 
  • March 23, 2013

Matthew Teitelbaum, the director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario, calls Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art “the greatest exhibition of Italian art ever to come to Canada.”

This major exhibition of 90-some paintings, triptychs, altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, sculptures and stained glass has opened a three-month stay in Toronto. During a special preview, Teitelbaum smiled benignly at the surprisingly large crowd of 100 or so media types. Obviously buoyed by the attendance numbers and critical kudos that the co-curated show racked up during a just-concluded run in Los Angeles, Teitelbaum joked, “It’s great to see that 800-year-old paintings can draw as big a crowd as Patti Smith.”

Largely for the sake of our daughter, a Patti Smith fan, my wife quickly checked out the 1970s punk rocker’s adjoining AGO exhibition of photographs and celebrity ephemera and deemed it “pretty slight in comparison to what we’ve just seen.” Indeed it would be difficult to posit a starker counterpoint to this Early Renaissance exhibition than Smith’s display of mostly unremarkable photographs.

The focus of this show (in which perhaps a third of the masterpieces are attributed to anonymous artists or workshops and all of them are religiously themed) is a period in time 150 years before Florencebased titans like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo imprinted themselves on the world’s consciousness as supreme representatives of Renaissance art. Sasha Suda, the AGO’s assistant curator of European art, boasts that this show “brings together artists that even art historians had forgot.” They include Giotto di Bondone, Pacino de Bonaguida, Puccio Capanna, Bernardo Daddi and Taddeo Gaddi — except for the first one, hardly household names.

Suda said it was the introduction of a standardized currency, the florin, in 1252 that really set the Renaissance in motion with Florence as its artistic epicentre. The city quickly became a banking and mercantile capital for all of Europe and underwent an incredible burst of economic and physical growth. This sudden infusion of wealth created a moral challenge for the profoundly Catholic citizenry and there quickly developed a demand for religious art of all kinds to decorate churches, homes and public institutions.

In the first years of the Renaissance, artistic practices and conventions were more akin to those of the Medieval period, an era of guilds that worked within well-defined traditions rather than independent artists working alone. As the art boom in Florence got under way in the early 14th century, artists from outlying regions were drawn to the city and an unprecedented amount of collaboration began between artists from different traditions.

The highlight of the exhibition for me is The Laudario of Sant’Agnese, an exquisitely illuminated hymn book, or laudario, that was commissioned and assembled by the confraternity (sort of a cross between a service club and a choir) called the Compagnia di Sant’Agnese. This was a group of traders, shopkeepers and artisans who regularly gathered to perform charitable works and sing and recite hymns and prayers. This group commissioned Pacino di Bonaguida and an artist known as the Master of the Dominican Effigies to create a 28-page “luxury manuscript” containing their favourite hymns. The illustrations portray scenes from the life of Christ and images of saints and martyrs.

Twenty-six surviving pages from the Laudario are now held in collections, public and private, all around the world since the book was dissembled and sold off one page at a time about 200 years ago. Only one of those pages still resides in Italy. While two pages have gone missing, 24 of the 26 known pages have been brought back together for this exhibition.

The American vocal chamber music ensemble, Lionheart, transcribed the music from the Laudario and their recording of the music can be heard as a backdrop to the exhibition. As well, Lionheart will give a live performance of the music at the AGO on April 6.

(Goodden is a writer in London, Ont. His latest book is No Continuing City.)

Comments (0)

There are no comments posted here yet

Leave your comments

  1. Posting comment as a guest. Sign up or login to your account.
Attachments (0 / 3)
Share Your Location

Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.