Not too long ago, the so-called “primitives” were the highest aspiration. Billionaires did everything (even buying fakes) to have an artwork of the Italian Middle Ages, to feel and appear cultured and refined.
Then the decline.
But is it true that they have nothing more to say nowadays?
To try to subvert this perception, the Frick Collection took the opportunity of the temporary transfer of their headquarters to Madison Avenue, in New York, to redesign the setting and encourage visitors to see with new eyes. Not only the paintings, furniture, enamels, bronzes, porcelain and carpets that previously coexisted with each other in sumptuous environments, are now exhibited in a linear and almost Spartan place, but have also been reduced to little more half, and grouped for the first time by origin, type and chronology.
After all, there are many artworks, many images, that we have available online 24/7. What can museums add, what food for thought and interest can they offer, apart from being the physical container of a collection?
Frick Museum’s idea is the opposite to that of returning the works to the places for which they were created. Rather, they choose to isolate them to allow visitors to focus their attention on each one.
To illustrate this approach and its advantages, for example, the case of the panel depicting the Temptation of Christ on the mountain, from the Gospel of Matthew, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, has been perfectly described here.
If instead of moving on, overwhelmed by too many stimuli offered by overcrowded settings or by the thousands of images on Instagram, we are invited to stop and look, and a world of knowledge opens up, beyond the appreciation of the narrative pleasantness of the composition.
In fact, one can learn that the painting was part of the predella on the back of the Majesty of the Cathedral of Siena, dismembered and sold almost 5 centuries after its creation, in 1771. We can discover that it illustrated the always-current dialogue between good and evil, personified by Christ and a devil. Devil who has bat wings, because these, nocturnal animals, half mammals and half birds, represented the loss of clarity, which is an attribute of the good side.
Once a key is offered to the viewer, all the painter’s choices in rendering a subject so full of symbolism become clearer. Choices that reflect the novelty of Italian art, which frees itself from the Byzantine one, for example in the realism of the face of Christ and also in representing these turreted cities, in pastel tones, on steep mountains and almost devoid of vegetation.
To such clues, more layers are added, like those that are the result of having gone through so many centuries and so many fashions. The two angels on the right, for example, were painted later by another hand, profoundly changing the balance of the composition.
Now that you’ve seen it up close, aren’t you in love with it?
Duccio di Buoninsegna is one of the masters that Art-Test had the pleasure and honor to study and therefore who has become part of “Sotto l’oro”, a database that includes 100 paintings from the Pinacoteca of Siena. The first collection of diagnostic and scholar data on such artworks.
During this work, we also investigated the panel on the cover, by Sassetta, the displays other devils, so impressive that they have been disfigured by some faithful soul in the past, to try to annihilate their powers (if you look carefully you can decipher the inscription). And where gold leaves the background and the pretence of imitating the goldsmith to become a true pigment.
The struggle between good and evil is always fascinating. But Duccio’s tavoletta could also tell the story of the pandemic of the fourteenth century, of the plague that annihilated Siena, of the changing landscape, of art in Dante’s time, of collecting and art trafficking at the beginning of the twentieth century, of the change of taste, of the idea of protecting the Cultural Heritage, of a technique that has allowed the works to reach us almost intact.
Not bad for an old, out-of-date primitive.