The Early Renaissance

(Renaissance  Art Map)




Fra Angelico



Scientific Perspective

The new direction taken by the arts in its quest for linear perspective cannot be attributed to the revived interest in antiquity alone. It is significant that the architect
Brunelleschi was the first to raise the problem of perceiving depth in rational and mathematical terms. He did so, initially, with his panel for the competition of 1401 for the door of the Florentine baptistry and, later, in his experiments in perspective that are recounted by his biographers. The most striking evidence lies in Brunelleschi's architectural works, in which space is immediately perceived according to his unifying, linear perspectival definition. Similarly, in painting and sculpture - most notably, in the works of Masaccio and Donatello - perspective reinterpreted the realism of Giotto and Arnolfo di Cambio. Structural orderliness led to a definition of depth, which was characterized by a unifying principle that reconciled real and figurative space. Alberti likened a painting to a window open to the world, in which, thanks to "legitimate construction" or perspective, the true representation of the relation between the elements depicted can be seen. This definition of space, where everything converges towards a single vanishing point - the story line, the arrangement of the figures, and the measured play of light and colour - provided the ideal form for Florentine painting in the early 15th century. This new point of departure can be seen in the work of Masaccio, from the polyptych for the Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa (1426) to the cycle of the Brancacci chapel, Florence (1427). in which the aim to portray the state of mind and moral positions of the main figures is always apparent. The need to depict emotions and inner turmoil continued to grow" in importance during the 15th century, reaching its zenith in the work of Leonardo.



Donatello spent a long period in Florence, first as Ghiberti's pupil and later working on the reliefs for the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo. He was in Padua in 1443 to 1453. Here, he reassessed his relationship with classicism, and reacted against established classical principles, giving free rein to his imagination. In the reliefs for the Paduan high altar (1446-50), the relief technique known as stiacciato - a perspectival solution obtained by means of a dense superimposition of planes to achieve depth - places the restless, crowded scenes of the Miracles of St Anthony into wide architectural structures. The popular nature of the subjects reveals an attempt to rework established motifs with a dramatic realism, in which light was used to create depth. His use of foreshortening and the play of light effectively express anguish in the reliefs for the pulpit of San Lorenzo in Florence. Finished by Donatello's assistants after his death in 1446, the scenes from The Passion of Christ seem to contradict the certainties that were established in the early Tuscan Renaissance.




See also COLLECTION: Donatello



born c. 1386, Florence
died Dec. 13, 1466, Florence

master of sculpture in both marble andbronze, one of the greatest of all Italian Renaissance artists.

A good deal is known about Donatello's life and career, but little is known about his character and personality, and what is known is not wholly reliable. He never married and he seems to have been a man of simple tastes. Patrons often found himhard to deal with in a day when artists' working conditions were regulated by guild rules. Donatello seemingly demanded a measure of artistic freedom. Although he knew a number of Humanists well, the artist was not a cultured intellectual. His Humanist friends attest that he was a connoisseur of ancient art. The inscriptions and signatures on his works are among the earliest examples of the revival of classical Roman lettering.He had a more detailed and wide-ranging knowledge of ancient sculpture than any other artist of his day. His work was inspired by ancient visual examples, which he often daringly transformed. Though he was traditionally viewed asessentially a realist, later research indicates he was much more.

Early career

Donatello (diminutive of Donnato) was the son of Niccolò diBetto Bardi, a Florentine wool carder. It is not known how he began his career, but it seems likely that he learned stone carving from one of the sculptors working for the cathedral ofFlorence about 1400. Some time between 1404 and 1407 he became a member of the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a sculptor in bronze who in 1402 had won the competition for the doors of the Florentine baptistery. Donatello's earliest work of which there is certain knowledge, a marble statue of David, shows an artistic debt to Ghiberti, who was then the leading Florentine exponent of International Gothic, a style of graceful, softly curved lines strongly influenced by northern European art. The “David,” originally intended for the cathedral, was moved in 1416 to the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall, where it long stood as a civic–patriotic symbol, although from the 16th century on it was eclipsed by the gigantic “David” of Michelangelo, which served the same purpose. Other of Donatello's early works, still partly Gothicin style, are the impressive seated marble figure of St. John the Evangelist for the cathedral facade and a wooden crucifix in the church of Sta. Croce. The latter, according to an unproved anecdote, was made in friendly competition with Brunelleschi, a sculptor and an architect.

The full power of Donatello first appeared in two marble statues, “St. Mark” and “St. George” (both completed c. 1415), for niches on the exterior of Or San Michele, the church of Florentine guilds (“St. George” has been replaced by a copy; the original is now in the Bargello). Here, for the first time since classical antiquity and in striking contrast to medieval art, the human body is rendered as a self-activating, functional organism, and the human personality is shown with a confidence in its own worth. The same qualities came increasingly to the fore in a series of five prophet statues that Donatello did beginning in 1416 for the niches of the campanile, the bell tower of the cathedral (all these figures, together with others by lesser masters, were later removed to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo). The statues were of a beardless and a bearded prophet, as well as a group of Abraham and Isaac (1416–21) for the eastern niches; the so-called “Zuccone” (“pumpkin,” because of its bald head); and the so-called “Jeremiah” (actually Habakkuk) for the western niches. The “Zuccone” isdeservedly famous as the finest of the campanile statues and one of the artist's masterpieces. In both the “Zuccone” and the “Jeremiah” (1427–35), their whole appearance, especially highly individual features inspired by ancient Roman portrait busts, suggests classical orators of singular expressive force. The statues are so different from the traditional images of Old Testament prophets that by the end of the 15th century they could be mistaken for portrait statues.

A pictorial tendency in sculpture had begun with Ghiberti's narrative relief panels for the north door of the baptistery, in which he extended the apparent depth of the scene by placing boldly rounded foreground figures against more delicately modeled settings of landscape and architecture. Donatello invented his own bold new mode of relief in his marble panel “St. George Killing the Dragon” (1416–17, base of the St. George niche at Or San Michele). Known as schiacciato (“flattened out”), the technique involved extremely shallow carving throughout, which created a far more striking effect of atmospheric space than before. The sculptor no longer modeled his shapes in the usual way but rather seemed to “paint” them with his chisel. A blind man could “read” a Ghiberti relief with his fingertips; a schiacciato panel depends on visual rather than tactile perceptions and thus must be seen.

Donatello continued to explore the possibilities of the new technique in his marble reliefs of the 1420s and early 1430s. The most highly developed of these are “The Ascension, with Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter,” which is so delicately carved that its full beauty can be seen only in a strongly raking light; and the “Feast of Herod” (1433–35), with its perspective background. The large stucco roundels with scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist (about 1434–37), below the dome of the old sacristy of San Lorenzo, Florence, show the same technique but with colour added forbetter legibility at a distance.

Meanwhile, Donatello had also become a major sculptor in bronze. His earliest such work was the more than life-size statue of St. Louis of Toulouse (c. 1423) for a niche at Or San Michele (replaced half a century later by Verrocchio's bronzegroup of Christ and the doubting Thomas). Toward 1460 the “St. Louis” was transferred to Santa Croce and is now in the museum attached to the church. Early scholars had an unfavourable opinion of “St. Louis,” but later opinion held it to be an achievement of the first rank, both technically and artistically. The garments completely hide the body of the figure, but Donatello successfully conveyed the impression of harmonious organic structure beneath the drapery. Donatello had been commissioned to do not only the statue but the niche and its framework. The niche is the earliest to display Filippo Brunelleschi's new Renaissance architectural style without residual Gothic forms. Donatellocould hardly have designed it alone; Michelozzo, a sculptor and architect with whom he entered into a limited partnership a year or two later, may have assisted him. In thepartnership, Donatello contributed only the sculptural centre for the fine bronze effigy on the tomb of the schismatic pope John XXIII in the baptistery; the relief of the “Assumption of the Virgin” on the Brancacci tomb in Sant'Angelo a Nilo, Naples; and the balustrade reliefs of dancing angels on the outdoor pulpit of Prato Cathedral (1433–38). Michelozzo was responsible for the architectural framework and the decorative sculpture. The architecture of these partnership projects resembles that of Brunelleschi and differs sharply from that of comparable works done by Donatello alone in the 1430s. All of his work done alone shows an unorthodox ornamental vocabulary drawn from both classical and medieval sources and an un-Brunelleschian tendency to blur the distinction between the architectural and the sculptural elements. Both the Annunciation tabernacle in Santa Croce and the “Cantoria” (the singer's pulpit) in the Duomo (now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo) show a vastly increased repertory of forms derived from ancient art, the harvest of Donatello's long stay in Rome (1430–33). His departure from the standards of Brunelleschi produced an estrangement between the two old friends that was never repaired. Brunelleschi even composed epigrams against Donatello.

During his partnership with Michelozzo, Donatello carried out independent commissions of pure sculpture, including several works of bronze for the baptismal font of San Giovanni in Siena. The earliest and most important of these was the “Feast of Herod” (1423–27), an intensely dramatic relief with an architectural background that first displayed Donatello's command of scientific linear perspective, which Brunelleschi had invented only a few years earlier. To the Siena font Donatello also contributed two statuettes of Virtues, austerely beautiful figures whose style points toward the Virgin and angel of the Santa Croce Annunciation,and three nude putti, or child angels (one of which was stolenand is now in the Berlin museum). These putti, evidently influenced by Etruscan bronze figurines, prepared the way for the bronze David, the first large-scale, free-standing nude statue of the Renaissance. Well-proportioned and superbly poised, it was conceived independently of any architectural setting. Its harmonious calm makes it the most classical of Donatello's works. The statue was undoubtedly done for a private patron, but his identity is in doubt. Its recorded history begins with the wedding of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1469, when it occupied the centre of the courtyard of the Medici palace in Florence. After the expulsion of the Medici in 1496, the statue was placed in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Whether the “David” was commissioned by the Medici or not, Donatello worked for them (1433–43), producing sculptural decoration for the old sacristy in San Lorenzo, the Medici church. Works there included 10 large reliefs in coloured stucco and two sets of small bronze doors, which showed paired saints and apostles disputing with each other in vivid and even violent fashion.

Paduan period.

In 1443, when Donatello was about to start work on two much more ambitious pairs of bronze doors for the sacristies of the cathedral, he was lured toPadua by a commission for a bronze equestrian statue of a famous Venetian condottiere, Erasmo da Narmi, popularly called Gattamelata (“The Honeyed Cat”), who had died shortly before. Such a project was unprecedented—indeed, scandalous—for since the days of the Roman Empire bronze equestrian monuments had been the sole prerogativeof rulers. The execution of the monument was plagued by delays. Donatello did most of the work between 1447 and 1450, yet the statue was not placed on its pedestal until 1453. It portrays Gattamelata in pseudo-classical armour calmly astride his mount, the baton of command in his raised right hand. The head is an idealizedportrait with intellectual power and Roman nobility. This statue was the ancestor of all the equestrian monuments erected since. Its fame, enhanced by the controversy, spreadfar and wide. Even before it was on public view, the king of Naples wanted Donatello to do the same kind of equestrian statue for him.

In the early 1450s, Donatello undertook some important works for the Paduan Church of San Antonio: a splendidly expressive bronze crucifix and a new high altar, the most ambitious of its kind, unequaled in 15th-century Europe. Its richly decorated architectural framework of marble and limestone contains seven life-size bronze statues, 21 bronzereliefs of various sizes, and a large limestone relief, “Entombment of Christ.” The housing was destroyed a century later, and the present arrangement, dating from 1895, is wrong both aesthetically and historically. The majestic Madonna, with an austere frontal pose seemingly a conscious reference to an earlier venerated image, and the delicate, sensitive St. Francis are particularly noteworthy. The finest of the reliefs are the four miracles of St. Anthony, wonderfully rhythmic compositions of great narrative power. Donatello's mastery in handling large numbers of figures (one relief has more than 100) anticipates the compositional principles of the High Renaissance.

Donatello was apparently inactive during the last three years at Padua, the work for the San Antonio altar unpaid for and the Gattamelata monument not placed until 1453. He had dismissed the large force of sculptors and stone masons used on these projects. Offers of other commissions reachedhim from Mantua, Modena, Ferrara, and even perhaps from Naples, but nothing came of them. Clearly, Donatello was passing through a crisis that prevented him from working. Hewas later quoted as saying that he almost died “among those frogs in Padua.” In 1456 the Florentine physician Giovanni Chellini noted in his account book that he had successfully treated the master for a protracted illness. Donatello completed only two works between 1450 and 1455: the wooden statue “St. John the Baptist” in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, shortly before his return to Florence; and an even more extraordinary figure of Mary Magdalen in the Florentine baptistery. Both works show new insight into psychological reality; Donatello's formerly powerful bodies have become withered and spidery, overwhelmed, as it were, by emotional tensions within. Whenthe “Magdalen” was damaged in the 1966 flood at Florence, restoration work revealed the original painted surface, including realistic flesh tones and golden highlights throughout the saint's hair.

Late Florentine period.

During Donatello's absence, a new generation of sculptors who excelled in the sensuous treatment of marble surfaces had arisen in Florence. Thus Donatello's wooden figures must have been a shock. With the change in Florentine taste, all of Donatello's important commissions came from outside Florence. They included the dramatic bronze group “Judith and Holofernes” (later acquired by the Medici and now standing before the Palazzo Vecchio) and a bronze statue of St. John the Baptist for Siena Cathedral, for which he also undertook in the late 1450s a pair of bronze doors. This ambitious project, which might have rivaled Ghiberti's doors for the Florentine baptistery, was abandoned about 1460 for unknown reasons (most likely technical or financial). Only two reliefs for them were executed; one of them is probably the “Lamentation” panel now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The last years of Donatello's life were spent designing twin bronze pulpits for San Lorenzo, and, thus, again in the serviceof his old patrons the Medici, he died. Covered with reliefs showing the passion of Christ, the pulpits are works of tremendous spiritual depth and complexity, even though some parts were left unfinished and had to be completed by lesser artists.

H.W. Janson



The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence


"From Giotto on, Masaccio is the most modern of all the old masters whom we have ever seen," wrote Vasari, who advised Michelangelo to teach everybody but to learn from only Masaccio. His fresco cycle of the life of St Peter and other scenes in the Brancacci family chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Florence, reveal a completely new-approach, the success of which lies in its narrative synthesis. This relied on an assured creation of spatial depth to link the episodes through perspective and geometric structure, as can be seen, in The Expulsion from Paradise, in which the Archangel points to the world of chastisement. A more complex composition can be seen in the arrangement of
the Apostles around Christ and Peter in The Tribute Money. Their heads are placed on the same level as those of the main protaganists. but they gradually recede, while remaining in proportion. The faces, painted from Roman busts and full of concentration, are turned to Christ and Peter. Vasari wrote: "We see the boldness with which Peter questions Our Lord, and the attentiveness of the Apostles as they stand in various attitudes around Christ, waiting for His decision." In 1428, Masaccio went to Rome and left the Brancacci frescos unfinished.




Tribute Money

Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence


The Holy Trinity

Santa Maria Novella, Florence


This work is possibly the last piece created by
Masaccio, who died at the age of 27 in 1428. The fresco, a representation of the Trinity, broke new ground in painting. It depicts an altar within the interior of the chapel, which is notable for the vigorous treatment of its architecture and the variety of building materials - chiefly brick, plaster, marble, and stucco - included. Two columns with Ionic capitals support an arch, behind which a barrel-vaulted coffered ceiling, drawn in perspective, recedes towards a second arch, also supported by columns. Against this painted impression of space and depth hangs the crucified Christ. Behind him is God, bearded and strong, and between their two heads the Holy Spirit is shown as a white dove in flight. Standing on the chapel floor beside the Cross are, on the left, the Virgin and, on the right, St John. By the entrance step, seen in profile, are the kneeling figures of a man and a woman, the donors
of the work depicted as supplicants. This hierarchical arrangement, with God at the top and the donors at the bottom, conforms to medieval interpretation. Below the altar scene is a skeleton, with an inscription warning of the transience of life (not shown here)






Flemish Art

An equally strong realistic movement in Flanders and Spain led to a style of painting that analysed objects in the most minute detail. The goal of the artists of this movement was to achieve as high a level of realism as possible. Employing many and varied techniques of colour application for the maximum impact, this pursuit of ideal representations of reality relied on the sheer luminosity of the colours. The portrait painting of
Jan van Eyck(c.1390-1441), Hans Memling (c. 1440-94), and Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1400-64) achieved high levels of expressiveness and insight. Their artistic approach won strong support from the Devotio Moderna, a religious movement active from the middle of the 14th century onwards. The group's spirituality relied on personal immersion in the sacred story. The impact on iconography can be seen in the narrative composition of sacred works of art, and in the heightened realism of the details, a common characteristic of northern European art.





Giorgio Vasari (1511-74)

Life of Fra Angelico

Of the Order of Friars Preachers, painter, c.1400 - 1455


The Triumph of St Dominic, manuscript,
Museo San Marco
"In Fra Angelico's convent of San Marco at Florence there are several choir books with breathtaking illuminations from his hand, like some others in San Domenico at Fiesole on which he worked with incredible diligence. (It is true that he was helped by an elder brother who was himself an illuminator and an experienced painter.)" I-199

Crucifixion and Saints, San Marco, Florence
"Over some lunettes in the first cloister [of San Marco] he painted a number of very fine figures in fresco and a crucifix with St Dominic at the foot, which is very highly regarded."

The Annunciation, San Marco
"and as well as many other things in the friars' cells, and on the surface of the walls in the dormitory, he painted an indescribably beautiful scene from the New Testament." I-201

Madonna with the Child,
Saints and Crucifixion, San Marco

"Even more lovely, however, is the wonderful altarpiece he did for the high altar with a Madonna whose simplicity inspires devotion in the onlooker, as do the saints who surround her." I-201

The Martyrdom of SS Cosmas and Damien,
San Marco
"Moreover the predella, containing scenes from the martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damien and others, is so beautiful that one cannot imagine ever seeing anything executed with more diligence or containing little figures as delicate or as skilfully realised." I-201

San Domenico altarpiece
"He also painted the altarpiece for the high altar of San Domenico at Fiesole, which has suffered from being retouched by other artists, perhaps because it was deteriorating." I-201

Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven
"The predella and the ciborium of the Blessed Sacrament, however, are in a better state of preservation, and the host of little figures that can be seen there, in a Celestial Glory, are so exquisite that they really seem to be in Paradise and one could stand gazing at them for ever." I-201

The Annunciation, now in the Prado
"In one of the chapels of the same church there is a panel painting by Fra Angelico of the Annunciation, showing Our Lady and the angel Gabriel in profile, their features being so well executed, so delicate and devout, that they would seem to have been made in heaven rather than in this world." I-201
"In the landscape one can see Adam and Eve, because of whom the Redeemer was born from the Virgin." I-201


Coronation of the Virgin
"Of all the paintings he did, the one in which Fra Angelico surpassed himself was a panel picture found in San Domenico on the left hand as one enters the church. This shows a Coronation of Our Lady by Jesus Christ, with a choir of angels and a multitude of male and female saints with such variety in their attitudes and expressions that in looking at them one is overwhelmed with pleasure and delight." I-201
"There are, in addition, some inspired stories of Our Lady and St Dominic in the predella; and I for my part can truthfully say that whenever I see this painting it seems to be for the first time, and I can never have my fill of it." I-202

The Deposition, Santa Trinita altarpiece
"In the sacristy of Santa Trinita there is a panel picture, showing the Deposition, which he painted with such diligence that it ranks with the best work he ever did." I-202

Annuciation, Zanobi Strozzi
"Then in San Francesco, outside the San Miniato gate, there is an Annunciation by his hand;" I-202

Christ the Judge
Frescoes, Orvieto
"At Orvieto, on a section of the vaulting in the Lady Chapel in the cathedral, he started to paint some prophets which were later finished by Luca Signorelli." I-203

The Last Judgement
"For Santa Maria degli Angeli he painted a picture of the Inferno and Paradise containing a number of small figures which are brilliantly interpreted, for the blessed are shown as beautiful and exultant in the joy of heaven and the damned as ready for the pains of hell, bearing the mark of their sins and unworthiness on their faces and depicted in various doleful attitudes:" I-203
"...the blessed are seen entering the gates of Paradise in a celestial dance, while the damned are being dragged by demons into the everlasting torments of hell." I-203


Virgin with St Peter Martyr and saints
"For the nuns of St Peter Martyr he painted a panel picture showing Our Lady, St John the Baptist, St Dominic, St Thomas and St Peter Martyr, and a number of small figures." I-203

St Lawrence receives the treasures of the Church, Cappella Niccolina,
Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican
"These works spread Fra Angelico's fame through all Italy, and he was sent for by Pope Nicholas V, for whom he decorated the private chapel of the Vatican, where the pope hears Mass, with a Deposition and some very fine scenes from the life of St Lawrence, as well as illuminating some extremely beautiful books." I-203


Devotion and History

To a certain extent, the Italian phenomenon osserrvanza was linked to the Devotio Moderna. Observance led the principal monastic orders to revive their original rules during the course of the 15th century in order to establish a more positive relevance to everyday life. Sacred art underwent a renewal in its didactic and devotional purposes. The concepts of spatial and compositional construction had to be in keeping with the new expectations of art - of its imagery and what was communicated, which were increasingly shaped by a growing need for self-identification. This change in style and its subsequent development in Dominican circles can be seen in the frescos painted by Fra Angelico in the cells of the monastery of San Marco in Florence, and in Leonardo's The Last Supper (c.1495) in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The cult of the Immaculate Conception, popular among the Franciscans, led to the mysterious iconography of The Virgin of the Rocks (1508), painted by Leonardo for the Milanese Foundation of San Francesco Grande. Many convent churches in the Po Valley and the Alps acquired very simple and didactic Passion cycles, which were often based on Nordic engravings, particularly those of Albrecht Durer, which also dealt with the same themes. The Augustinian monks, too. were encouraging figurative and architectonic art of the first order, from Santo Spirito in Florence to the Incoronata in Milan, and Santa Maria delle Grazie at Gravcdona. Historical events had an impact on art, too. The ending of the pope's exile in Avignon and the return of the papal seat to Rome came about through a complex series of councils. The first ones were held in Constance (1414-18) and Basel (1431-37), followed by meetings in Ferrara and Florence (1437-39), where doctrinal and political problems were discussed, such as the nationalistic demands of Bohemia, the Jewish question in Spain, and the great effort to reunite the Eastern churches around St Peter's See. From these debates arose the many Eucharistic themes tackled by artists all over Europe. In Ghent in 1432, the Adoration of the Lamb for St Bavo was completed by Jan van Eyck (his brother Hubert died before finishing it); in Siena, Sassetta completed the polyptych (1423-24) for the Wool Guild; and, in Belgium, The Last Supper (1468) by Dieric Bouts was created as part of his major work, the Louvain altarpiece. which depicted the Sacraments of St Peter.



Fra Angelico



The frescos painted in the cells of the monastery of San Marco by Giovanni da Fiesole (1387-1455), better known as Fra Angelico, are evidence of the close rapport between the new pictorial ideas of the 15th century and the contemporary osservante ("observance") reforms of the most important religious orders. In fact, the osservanza required the renewal of the original Dominican Rule and a grounding in contemporary affairs through preaching. This phenomenon was linked to the spirituality of the Flemish Devotio Moderna, which centred around a symbolic union with the life of Christ. Fra Angelico and his fellow monks chose to portray events from the Passion, often accompanied by the figure of a Dominican in meditation. These simple, but vivid, representations made use of the recent advances in perspective and the depiction of space; every detail is drawn with a harmonious sense of geometry and proportion. The effect of colour on light, central to the Dominican aesthetic, gave colour the symbolic and natural values of immediate perception.




Fra Angelico

(Enciclopaedia Britannica)

("Brother"),original name GUIDO DI PIETRO, also called GIOVANNI DA FIESOLE, Italian painter, one of the greatest 15th-century painters, whose works, within the framework of the early Renaissance Florentine style, embody a serene religious attitude and reflect a strong classical influence. Most of his early work consists of murals that he painted for the Monastery of San Marco in Florence while he was in residence there. About 1450, near the end of his life, he produced a cycle of 35 paintings for the doors of a silver chest in the sanctuary of the Church of Santissima Annunziata, also in Florence.


Domenico period.

Baptized Guido di Pietro, he gained a reputation as a painter under this name by 1417. In that year he became associated with a miniaturist of the late Gothic tradition, Battista Sanguigni, who was later his assistant.

Sometime between the years 1420 and 1422, he became a Dominican monk and resided in the Monastery of San Domenico at Fiesole, there taking the name of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. At Fiesole, he was probably influenced by the teachings of Giovanni Dominici, the militant leader of the reformed Dominicans; the writings of Dominici defended traditional spirituality against the onslaught of humanism.

Angelico was also influenced by his fellow monk St. Antoninus Pierozzi, who became the archbishop of Florence when Fra Angelico refused the post and who may have consolidated Angelico's faith. It is believed that Antoninus also may have inspired some of Angelico's compositions.

Angelico was probably trained by the greatest painter and miniaturist of the Gothic tradition, Lorenzo Monaco, whose influence may be seen in the clear, painstaking delicacy of execution and the vibrant luminosity that seem to spiritualize the figures in Angelico's paintings. These qualities are apparent in two small altarpieces, "Madonna of the Star" and "The Annunciation."

Angelico's "Deposition" for Santa Trinita in Florence was once attributed to Lorenzo Monaco, who had begun it before he died in 1425. Monaco had divided it into a triptych and executed the pinnacles. Angelico, however, made it a unified altarpiece with a vast landscape dominated by a varicoloured hill town. It is perhaps an imaginative evocation of Cortona, where Fra Angelico spent some time and where important works of his are to be found. Against that background are sharply outlined human figures in interconnected groups; their features are so delicately traced that attempts have been made to identify them as portraits. These arrangements of figures attest to Angelico's deep knowledge of the formalism that characterized the art of the early Renaissance.

Two strands were interwoven in Angelico's life at Fiesole: the pious life of a monk and continuous activity as a painter. Vasari described him as "saintly and excellent," and, not long after his death, he was called angelico ("angelic") because of his moral virtues. This subsequently became the name by which he is best known, often preceded by the word beato ("blessed").

Angelico did not remain absorbed in prayer in his monastery, however; he knew and followed closely the new artistic trends of his time, above all the representation of space by means of perspective. In works such as the large "Last Judgment" and "The Coronation of the Virgin," for example, the human figures receding toward the rear themselves create a feeling of space similar to that in the paintings of Angelico's great Florentine contemporary Masaccio. The earliest work by Angelico that can be dated with certainty is a triptych of huge dimensions that he painted for the linen merchants' guild (or Arte dei Linaiuoli; hence its name, the "Linaiuoli Altarpiece"); it is dated July 11, 1433. Enclosed in a marble shrine designed by the Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, this altarpiece represents the Virgin and Son facing forward, monumentally, and, surrounding them in a minor key, charming angels, developing the motif of the "Madonna of the Star." The group has affinities with the Florentine Maestаs (i.e., Madonna and child enthroned in majesty) of the 14th century, but the influence of Masaccio may be seen in the formalism of the construction, extending in a somewhat strained manner to the four saints painted on the two folding shutters. Angelico finished the work with a predella, or narrow strip of paintings at the bottom: this group of paintings includes "The Adoration of the Magi" and "The Martyrdom of St. Mark," which are lucid and compact in their narrative and have a strictly defined perspective, a technique that is even more effective in the small painting depicting the naming of John the Baptist.

In 1436, Angelico was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Brotherhood of Santa Maria della Croce al Tempio, which he completed by December of that year. In the serene "Lamentation," he executed figures in silent contemplation surrounding the dead Christ. Angelico was inspired by a famous painting by the 14th-century master Giottino (now in the Uffizi), but he expanded the subject to include more figures in a more complex arrangement, and he set them within a melancholy landscape, extending across the long walls of Jerusalem, with a leaden overhanging sky. In this painting Angelico included figures from sacred tradition and persons who had existed historically, probably to point up the historical continuity of devotion to the Redeemer.

Also in the 1430s, Angelico painted one of the most inspired works of the Florentine Renaissance, "The Annunciation," now in the Diocesan Museum of Cortona, an altarpiece significantly superior to his two other paintings on the same subject. It shows the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve being driven out by the Angel, yet also under the sway of the radiant messenger and pure maiden who are portrayed in the space of a Renaissance-style portico . The predella is skillfully divided into stories of the Virgin Mary, naturalistically portrayed, especially the Visitation, which has a realistic panorama. Angelico always followed reality closely, even when he used a miniaturist technique. Occasionally, he resorted to medieval techniques, such as a gold background, in deference to the taste of those who commissioned the work, but his figures still emerge quite distinctly from the panels, in the Renaissance manner, revealing the painter's increasingly sure and harmonious pictorial idiom. Angelico's "Annalena Altarpiece," also of the 1430s, is, so far as is known, the first sacra conversazione (i.e., "sacred conversation," a representation of the Holy Family) of the Renaissance.


Years at the monastery of San Marco.

Angelico remained in the Fiesole monastery until 1439, when he entered the monastery of San Marco in Florence. There he did most of his work as a mural painter. San Marco had been transferred from the Sylvestrine monks to the Dominicans in 1436, and the rebuilding of the church and its spacious monastery began around 1438, from designs by the Florentine architect and sculptor Michelozzo. The construction was generously subsidized by the Medici family. Angelico was commissioned around 1438 by Cosimo de' Medici the Elder to execute the altarpiece, for which he again painted a sacra conversazione. When the church was consecrated at Epiphany in 1443, the altarpiece must have dominated the place of worship. Angelico portrayed the Virgin and child raised high on a throne, with saints on either side receding into space; among them are the two patron saints of the Medici, Cosmas and Damian. This work, one of the most compelling Fra Angelico ever created, ends in a dense grove of cypresses, palms, and pines against a deep but toneless sky. His figures seem cleansed of any human passion and to have supreme serenity of spirit. A predella, showing eight little legends of the two Medicean saints separated by a Pietа (Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ), completed the work. Unfortunately, these paintings are now scattered among various museums. The narrative in all the scenes is more organized and simplified than in his previous work, with creative touches that he was later to carry forward in his mural painting.

On the walls of the monastery of San Marco in Florence are the paintings that mark the high point of Angelico's career. In the chapter hall, he executed a large "Crucifixion" that seems akin to the "Moralities" of the 14th century, which urged detachment from worldly vanities and salvation through Christ alone. In addition to the three crucified figures against the sky, Angelico painted groups of ritual figures, rhythmically arranged, with a chorus of martyrs, founders of religious orders, hermits, and defenders of the Dominican order (whose genealogical tree is depicted beneath this striking scene), as well as the two Medicean saints. Thus, in the comprehensiveness of this work, Fra Angelico developed a concept that was barely suggested in his earlier altarpieces.

He portrayed the exaltation of the Redeemer in many other paintings in the monastery's first cloister and in its cells. In one corridor he executed an Annunciation that broadened the pattern of his earlier one in Cortona and, beyond it, a sacra conversazione, bathed in lucid light. In the cells, he proclaimed devotion to Christ crucified in at least 20 examples, all related to monastic life. The pictorial work in these narrow spaces is intricate, probably the work of numerous hands directed by the master, including Benozzo Gozzoli, the greatest of Fra Angelico's disciples, and Zanobi Strozzi, another pupil better known as a miniaturist, as well as his earliest collaborator, Battista Sanguigni. The hand of Fra Angelico himself is identifiable in the first 10 cells on the eastern side. Three subjects merit particular attention: a Resurrection, a coronation of the Virgin, and, especially, a gentle Annunciation, presented on a bare white gallery, with St. Peter Martyr in prayer, timidly facing the group, his coloured habit contrasting with the delicate two tones of pink in the garments of the Virgin and the Angel. The cells, originally hidden from public view because of monastic vows of reclusion, reveal the secret joy of the painter-monk in creating figures of purity to move his fellow monks to meditation and prayer. The images in these paintings are the lyrical expressions of a painter who was also their prior.


Roman period.

At the end of 1445 Fra Angelico was called to Rome by Pope Eugene IV, and he remained there until about 1450. In the summer of 1447, however, he had undertaken to decorate the chapel of San Brizio in the cathedral of Orvieto. Angelico's assistants, above all, Gozzoli, worked closely with him on two canvases, crowded with figures, in this chapel. These canvases of Christ the Judge, amid the hierarchy of angels, and the chorus of the prophets, respectively, were only partially executed by Angelico; they were continued more than 50 years later by Luca Signorelli.

In Rome, the frescoes that Angelico executed in a chapel of St. Peter's (c. 1446-47), in the chapel of the Sacrament in the Vatican (not before 1447), and in the studio of Pope Nicholas V (1449) have all been destroyed. But the Vatican still possesses his decorative painting for the Chapel of Niccolт V. There, he painted scenes from the lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence, along with figures of the Evangelists and saints, repeating some of the patterns of the predella on his altarpiece of San Marco. The consecration scene of St. Stephen and that of St. Lawrence are both set in solemn cathedral interiors, and the almsgiving of St. Lawrence is set against the background of a temple. In this scene particularly, Angelico imbued the poor and afflicted who surround the deacon-saint with a serenity that purifies them and illuminates them with an inner light, rendering them equals of the blessed figures on the altarpieces. At the same time, the organization of these works and the rendering of architecture in them mark the culmination of his development as a Renaissance artist.

Around 1450 Fra Angelico returned to Florence, where, still a monk, he became prior of the monastery of San Domenico in Fiesole (1450-c. June 1452). His most notable work of this time was the cycle of 35 paintings of scenes from the life of Christ and other subjects, for the doors of a silver chest in the sanctuary of the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence. These works, which have been extensively repainted, are probably distant echoes of the destroyed paintings in the Chapel of Niccolт V. Although the authenticity of these works is disputed, the "Massacre of the Innocents," "Flight into Egypt," and "Presentation in the Temple" seem to be Angelico's because of the bright spontaneity of the slender figures, as well as the spatiality of the surroundings and the landscape. Such traits derived from the artist's vast experience in mural painting. In most of these little pictures, however, there is a kind of disconnectedness and weariness, indicating the hand of pupils whose art was a far cry from Fra Angelico's ineffable poetry. There is still a certain monumental tone in the late altarpiece he executed in the monastery of Bosco ai Frati in the Mugello (now in the Museum of San Marco, Florence). With the completion of this altarpiece and several other minor works, Fra Angelico's fertile artistic labours drew to a close.

In 1453 or 1454, Fra Angelico again went to Rome, where he died in the Dominican monastery in which he had stayed during his first visit to Rome. It was close by the church of Santa Maria della Minerva, where his tomb remains an object of veneration.



In addition to the influence he had on his followers, Fra Angelico exerted a significant influence in Florence, especially between 1440 and 1450, even on such an accomplished master as Fra Filippo Lippi. As a monk, Fra Angelico was lauded in writings of the 15th century and later, some of which bestowed a legendary halo on him. As a painter, he was acclaimed as early as 1438 by the contemporary painter Domenico Veneziano. Giorgio Vasari, in his section on Angelico in Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Painters, Sculptors and Architects, was inaccurate in his biographical data but correctly situated Fra Angelico in the framework of the Renaissance. Vasari characterized him in terms that remained standard until the end of the 18th century, when writers of the Neoclassical period, using judgments of a philosophical and didactic nature, placed him out of his time and even in the 14th century, thus making him an artist of transition. Almost all modern art critics, however, place him again within the framework of the Renaissance. With classical measure, Fra Angelico embodied a deeply religious attitude.





Fra Angelico



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