The Peruzzi Altarpiece by Giotto di Bondoni will be one of 90 key pieces of Florentine religious art from the early 14th century on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario next spring.


The Peruzzi Altarpiece by Giotto di Bondoni will be one of 90 key pieces of Florentine religious art from the early 14th century on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario next spring.

September 24, 2012

Christian artists over the past couple of millennia have understood you can paint a picture about God but you can't paint God. In Florence in the first half of the 14th century artists discovered a whole new way of talking about God – new techniques, new subject matter, new insights which taken together became the Italian Renaissance.

This spring the Art Gallery of Ontario invites visitors to Florence in the decades before 1348 – the year the black plague wiped out 60 per cent of the population.

Revealing the Renaissance: Art in Early Florence will bring together altar pieces and manuscripts directly from Florentine churches, the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the AGO. Co-produced by the AGO and the Getty, this major new exhibition runs March 16 to June 16, 2013.

"The show is irreducibly about faith," said AGO curator Sasha Suda. "The stories of the Christian faith are certainly being told in the works of art and that's certainly important to many people. That will speak to them. That will be crucial to them in the experience of the show."


The Italian Renaissance, more than any other art movement, stocked the shelves of Christian imagination in the West with images of what angels, the Blessed Virgin, Jesus and the saints are supposed to look like. Our mental pictures of heaven, hell and purgatory were first painted in Florence.

This art was a clear break from the static, two-dimensional, flat images of previous centuries.

From the late 1200's to the mid-13th century a revolution took place in Florentine workshops fueled by new money, culture wars, globalizing trade and easy credit. It was, said Suda, an age of anxiety and an age of possibility.

"It's a show about faith in art to communicate anxieties, fears, hopes and most of all desire," she said.

The mendicant orders, first Dominicans and then Franciscans, had been established more than a century earlier. By the beginning of the 14th century the orders were a force throughout Europe.

In Florence they were each building a major basilica. The Dominicans were erecting Santa Maria Novella at one end of the city and the Franciscans had Santa Croce at the other.

"They are kind of in this competition with each other, with each putting their particular mendicant ways of life forward," said Getty Museum curator Christine Sciacca.

The friars had something to say about the ultimate purposes of wealth and power which stood in opposition to the corrupt, self-aggrandizing wealthy families of the city – the families that Dante Alighieri was skewering in the Divine Comedy, written in Florence in the years prior to Dante's death in 1321.

The mendicants were employing every artist they could find to carry their message. Giotto di Bondone, Bernardo Daddi, Pacino di Bonaguida and an army of others produced manuscripts, panel paintings, architectural designs and more for the new churches and for confraternities of lay people who attached themselves to the orders.

The new art expressed the civic pride of Florentines who, thanks to trade across the Mediterranean with the emerging Ottoman Empire, were enjoying new wealth from expanding banking and textile industries.

While the Florentines were certainly proud of their city and not averse to flaunting their wealth, they had doubts. What was all this money doing to their souls? How was this new wealth leading them toward or away from ultimate salvation?


"With the mendicant orders, a really rich spiritual culture lives alongside and thrives alongside this more secularized practice and usage of religious art," said Suda.

The Franciscans and Dominicans became closely associated with humanism, the literary and philosophical movement at the base of the Renaissance.

"(Humanism) is reflected in the art of the time, where instead of the gothic cathedrals where man was lost in the infinity of God we have an architecture based on human proportions," said Dominican art historian Fr. Marius Zerafa in an email interview.

"Instead of the symbolism of Byzantine art we have the representation of biblical events, lives of the saints and eventually portraits of men and women."

Franciscan and Dominican preachers urged people to enter the life of Christ by every means possible – from crèche scenes assembled on hillsides to evocative preaching. They commissioned art with the same purpose.

"You have people like Giotto . . . making the scenes much more believable, using three dimensions so you get sort of sucked into that scene, so you can imagine all the details happening right in that one scene," said Sciacca. "It was a very visceral thing."


The literary precursor of Giotto's paintings was the Meditationes de Vita Christi by Pseudo-Bonaventura, an anonymous Franciscan.

"In the early 14th century people are way more interested in this idea that there could be a correlation between their own lives and Scripture," said Suda.

"That's why you get the narrative painting taking off as well, because you could stand in front of these paintings and it becomes an experience of what was happening," said Sciacca.

Sciacca and Suda's study of 14th-century Florence has mapped out a crucial link between manuscript illumination and larger panels painted for display in churches. Pacino di Bonaguida pioneered new techniques and materials that made their way into both miniature book illustrations and large paintings.


From one age of anxiety to another, these 700-year-old works have power over 21st-century viewers, said Saccia.

"They're just going to react to beauty, first of all," she said. "But on top of that they're going to know these stories by looking at these different scenes – just by looking."

These aren't pictures just to be analysed by aesthetic purists. They are part of the spiritual life of the Church.

"A lot of these things are coming from churches where they still are in use. That's going to be really interesting. They still live and breathe as religious objects."