Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin Germany – 15th Century Florentine Paintings Part 1

The paintings in this Cabinet are of small size, but precious products of the prominent Florentine school.

Domenico Veneziano (1405-1461) was an innovator in technique in that he mixed varnish with the distemper he used, greatly adding to the brilliancy of his colours. His ” Martyrdom of St. Lucia” (64) is a part of the predella of a large altarpiece now in the Uffizi. It is an unique presentation, where the young saint is kneeling in the centre of a courtyard and the assassin comes be-hind her to bury his knife in her back. The Praetor of Sicily witnesses, and points directions from a balcony. The movement of the unrushing culprit is exceedingly well expressed and is an artistic achievement. One should not forget to examine the fine blue-gold frame which dates from the fifteenth century.

On the next wall hangs a fine pale portrait of a young woman (1614, Plate 1), also by Domenico, which is very popular. It used to be ascribed to Piero della Francesca, but in its colour, and the striking individuality of the face the true author has lately been recognized. One will not easily for-get this charming profile with the blond hair and its dainty white cap against the light blue of a southern sky. The contrast between the piquant line of the face and the graceful curve of the neck is as harmonious as a bel canto. The hair is stiffly brushed back according to the custom of the time whereby the forehead becomes very prominent, and the whole face consists of clear, light planes with the only colour in the eyes and lips. The ear is here exposed, indicating that she is a young matron, since it was the duty of maidens to keep the ear covered with the veil or hair. The dress is brilliant in its gold brocade of Luccha which was world famous. The fair unknown is seated on a balcony of her home; her identity was likely revealed by her husband’s portrait as a pendant, which, however, is lost.

The profile portrait was first painted in Northern Italy, but became soon popular in Florence, where-of we see another attractive example in a portrait of a young woman of rare beauty (81). Her luxuriant blond hair lies in heavy coils over the back of her head, leaving the front hair to hang down freely over the side of the face and the ear. The dark blue under-bodice and the quiet deep red over-dress form with the light flesh-colours a happy contrast against the dark background. This unknown young maiden was painted by someone under Botticelli’s or Ghirlandajo’s influence.

Two other female portraits here are full-face. They are by Lorenzo di Credi (1457-1536) and by Bronzino (1502-1572), much later men. Lorenzo’s is an early work, a portrait of a young woman in a simple laced bodice, and a small white cap on her dark hair. A heavy circlet of coral with a small cross of pearls is around her well-moulded neck. While the features are by no means beautiful they have a curious look of mingled self-consciousness and childish ingenuousness. The subscription on a scroll at the bottom of the picture, ” noli me tangere,” becomes somewhat mysterious when taken in connection with a citation from Petrarch which is found on the back which, translated, says, ” What God willed has happened; what God wills shall come to pass. The fear of shame is only pride — therefore I regretted what I desired when I already possessed it.” Someone has interpreted this as if the portrait were that of an Italian Margaretha whom her Faust addresses with, ” Whatever has happened, thou art pure.” The face of the young girl will bear this out, for it has as puzzling and enigmatic an expression as the Mona Lisa. Lorenzo was but twenty-three when he painted this portrait and possibly he may himself have been concerned in the affair.

A more easily understood, and thoroughly expressive counterfeit is that of the aristocratic looking Eleanora of Toledo (338B), who in 1539 became the wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, grandduke of Tuscany, who for forty-three years reigned in the Pitti Palace. There she changed the democratic, informal atmosphere of the court of the commercial city on the Arno to all the rigidity of the Spanish-Neapolitan court-etiquette in which she had been brought up. Her magnificent costume, decked with pearls and jewels is in fit keeping with the reserved, dignified, even somewhat overbearing look in the regular features of the princess. The portrait is the work of her court-painter Angelo Bronzino, who had received much of the power of his master, Pontormo, as a portrait painter. Bronzino’s portrait of her husband, Cosimo, hangs next. The prince is shown in steel harness, his hand resting on his helmet, which he had laid on the stump of a tree. An olive green curtain serves as background. The artist made numerous replicas of this portrait.

We must still wait for the next room to see the works of the first great Florentine painter of the Early Renaissance, Masaccio, who revealed to his age its new ideals. He left the greatest impress upon the young men of his time, and led them from the pietistic way of Fra Angelico to a naturalistic realism. His famous fresco cycle in the Carmelite Church of Florence always remained the training school of Florentine painters.

His follower, Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), the son of Fra Filippo and the beautiful nun Lucrezia, was unconvincing in his work and without significance, although his ” Allegory of Music ” (78A) indicates a measure of invention. A nymph whose draperies are ruthlessly made sport of by the wind, is aided by two winged putti to harness a swan. The lyre of Orpheus, the pipe of Pan, and the flute of Silenus lie on a shady embankment, and it is supposed that the allegory represents the triumph of vocal music — the swansong over instrumental music. The attractiveness of the painting, with its consumptive delicacy, lies entirely outside the sphere of pure art and in the realm of genre illustration.

Filippino’s own pupil, Raffaelino del Garbo (1466-1524) is a typical representative of the decorative tendency of the school, and its passion to show dexterity. He surrounds his ” Madonna with the Child and two music-making Angels ” (90) with an ornate setting of masonry, and a mountainous landscape in the background. It is one of his best pieces. In the face of the Madonna, who rests her cheek against the curly head of the sleeping infant, speaks tenderest motherhood; one of the cherubim has stopped playing for fear of disturbing the child’s slumbers, while the other softly touches the lute as in a sweet lullaby. The grouping has almost a Raphaelesque trait. Coming at the end of the century Garbo showed the seriousness and modesty of the Early Renaissance in transition to the freer style of the High Renaissance, still only with a glint of promise unfulfilled.

A far stronger man, and somewhat earlier, was Verrocchio (1435-1488), even greater as a sculptor than as a painter, whose Colleoni Memorial ranks him with Donatello in the plastic art. His search for form is noticeable in his painting, where the excessive modelling of details has somewhat of a disturbing effect. This may be seen in his ” Mary with the Child ” (104A), one of his rare easel-pictures. The sculpturesque roundness of all the parts, the scrupulous separateness of the fingers point to his real profession. In his landscape-backgrounds, however, he was a decided innovator, and he was the first to feel that a faithful reproduction of the contours is not landscape. He felt that light and atmosphere play an important part. To him his two most famous pupils, Perugino and Leonardo da Vinci, owe their naturalistic treatment of landscape.

Contemporary with him was Antonio Pollaiuolo (1429-1498), the greatest scientific artist of the Florentine school, who applied the science of anatomy to the presentation of movement. He was above all original, borrowing little from the antique, and exercised great influence on the next generation. Although he generally paints hideous faces and scarcely less hideous bodies, in his ” David ” (73A) we find a marked exception. Here the young warrior has sped his stone, cut off the Giant’s head, and now he strides over it, his graceful, slender figure still vibrating with the rapidity of his triumph. There is lightness and buoyance in this graceful youth, as he stands with a second stone in his sling ready for the next enemy.

This David-motif, which was worked so often in those days, from Donatello to Michelangelo, has for its pendant the presentation of the female heroine ” Judith (21), by Domenico Ghirlandajo (1449-1494). The Jewish widow is here placed with her maid, who carries the head of Holofernes, in a rich Renaissance corridor, although the story calls for an anxious fleeing from a tent in the early morning. This was, however, a conventional presentation, and Ghirlandajo, who had not a spark of original genius, only adopted the best of what he found in the greater masters. His only aim was to render bright colour, pretty faces, without significance — for psychologically one could not distinguish here in this ” Judith” the mistress from the maid. His work has an undeniable charm, is attractive and delightful, but lacks character. Only in his portraits he rises occasionally above mediocrity.

His brother-in-law and imitator, Sebastiano Mainardi (died 1513) shows this by reflection, for the three portraits which we have here by Mainardi are attractive. They are the portrait of a Cardinal (85) ; of a young man (86), with a far view of a sea-port in the background; and especially that of a young woman (83), where the light profile comes out beautifully against a dark column.

We must also halt before another work by Lorenzo di Credi, which hangs next. It is one of his usual Adorations of the Child (100). This one of the many pupils of Verrocchio, although living to within the sixteenth century, never forsook the traditions of the fifteenth. The picture is of an ivory finish, the excessive care bestowed making it finnicky in execution.

From this room we pass through Cabinet 31, which contains the glazed sculpture of the della Robbia family — the finest selection of work next to that in the National Museum in Florence.

( Originally Published 1912 )

The Art of The Berlin Galleries:The Kaiser Friedrich Museum – History Of The CollectionThe Italian PaintingsRoom 29 – Italian Paintings Of The 14th, And The First Half Of The 15th CenturyRoom 30 – Florentine Paintings Of The 15th CenturySculpture In Marble Of Donatello And Desiderio, And Old Florentine PaintingsRooms 34 — Ferrarese And Bolognese Paintings Of The 15th And 16th CenturiesRoom 35 – Lombard PaintingsRoom 64 – The Carpets After Raphael’s CartoonsRoom 38 – Florentine Paintings Of The 15th CenturyRoom 37 – Umbrian And Paduan Paintings Of The 15th CenturyRead More Articles About: The Art of The Berlin Galleries