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Friday, January 2, 2015

Pietro Lorenzetti

Panoramic View of the Frescoes,
Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi, 1320-40, Lorenzetti, Pietro,
One of the greatest differences in the art of today, as compared to art from the past, is the fact that there is no obvious correlation between what artists are doing today and what the previous generation of artists created. In fact, this lack of stylistic continuity is one of the major hallmarks of the Postmodern era. That's not to say the artists today are immune to work done by artists of the past. They're not. Far from it, actually; most serious artists today are acutely aware of art history, especially as it has to do with their own work. The difference is that artists today can, and do, draw from the vast scope of past creative endeavors, from prehistoric to postulated posterity (art intended to predict the future). Sometimes it's inadvertent, a barely noticed influence from a photo in a textbook or a momentary, chance encounter on the internet. More often though, it's quite deliberate--a contemporary artist chooses an artist from the past and (as Picasso claimed to do, pays tribute to their work), or simply tries to build upon it, freshening it, something like taking a vintage auto, then modifying the body to translate it into a modern idiom (we called that customizing when I was growing up).
Arezzo Polyptych Altarpiece, 1320, Lorenzetti, Pietro,
For most of the history of art, up until about the 1970s, it was the custom for one generation to pass down to the next all they knew about art, then watch (sometimes in horror) what the next generation did with such training. One era was the logical outgrowth of the one before it--sometimes evolutionary, sometimes revolutionary. Evolution occurred as sons attempted to surpass their fathers. Revolution came when one generation would refused to do what their fathers did simply because their fathers did it. In large part, the latter was mostly a component of Modern Art. None of the most well-known art styles or eras developed suddenly, or even within a single decade, but over the course of several. We commonly wedge the High Renaissance, for instance, into the period 1480-1520 but that's more a chronological convenience than a historic event. The High Renaissance grew out of the Early Renaissance (roughly 1400 to 1480). It evolved from Medieval art, which arguably began with the fall of the Roman Empire, transitioning to Early Renaissance style gradually during the 14th-century. Sienese artists, Pietro Lorenzetti and his younger brother Ambrogio, were a major driving force in this historic transition. This transition began with Pietro Lorenzetti's earliest signed work, the Arezzo Polyptych Altarpiece (above) dating from 1320. 

Crucifix, ca. 1315-20,
Pietro Lorenzetti
Shaped crucifix, 1325,
Pietro Lorenzetti

Crucifix (above, left) detail. The
anatomy is crude, the cross
stylized, bearing images of Mary
and Joseph on each side.
The elder of the two brothers, Pietro, was born around 1280, his brother, Ambrogio, about 1290, in Siena, (north-central Italy south of Florence). They were contemporaries of the Medieval traditions of the Sienese painter, Duccio, and Florentine, Giotto, all of whom influenced the 14th-century Masaccio. Masaccio, of course, influenced just about all the Renaissance artist to one degree or another. Thus this evolutionary line, of stylistic development which seems to emanate from the Arezzo Altarpiece, while somewhat crooked, is critical to understanding Renaissance art. It's interesting to note the break from Medieval tradition Lorenzetti is noted for as seen in comparing the two crucifixes above, the left, being "old school" the one on the right a far more natural Christ on the cross minus his parents. It's probably fruitless to try to assign dominance to any of these artists' influence though that of the Lorenzettis should not be underestimated simply because they were Sienese rather then mainstream Florentines. They tended to spread their influence in that they traveled all over central Italy painting frescoes in many of the major churches being built around that time. One of the most important of these was that dedicated to Saint Francisco in Assisi. Pietro Lorenzetti, around 1310 to 1340, (the dates are highly uncertain and do not necessarily indicate continuous progress) was commissioned to paint frescoes decorating he lower level of the church (top).

Crucifixion, ca. 1320, Pietro Lorenzetti,
Last Supper, 1320, Pietro Lorenzetti
With its low, vaulted ceiling and cellar-like environment, the dark, dank church must have presented Lorenzetti with quite a challenge. It is poorly lighted, making it difficult to see what he was doing, and simply getting the painted plaster to dry may have meant working on it only during the dry, summer months. Yet, for its age, except for the crucifixion panel (above), it is remarkably well preserved. The panel depicting the Last Supper (below), is especially innovative, the artist employing a round table housed in a hexagonal pavilion. As might be expected, given the era, the perspective is somewhat tortured but the fact that the artist went so far as to include a side panel depiction of the kitchen replete with a dog and cat feasting on leftovers provides a natural, human touch and a (very early) hint of genre painting.

Deposition of Christ from the Cross, 1320, Pietro Lorenzetti
Pietro Lorenzetti seems to want to paint in a fairly natural manner, breaking free of centuries of Medieval symbolism and stiffness dating back to Byzantine mosaics. Yet, in an era long before the introduction of formal academic training, when workshops (including his own) and apprenticeships were the only means of passing down painting techniques, he simply lacked the basic skill to render what his mind could visualize. Working from live models was relatively rare; drawing media were crude (mostly charcoal), not to mention the fact that paper was quite costly. Full-scale fresco cartoons were not yet commonly used. Thus the painter, whether working on a wood panel or wet plaster, often found himself designing, drawing, and painting in a single step. Fresco errors meant ripping down finished sections and starting over. All of which make complex figural depictions such as Lorenzetti's Deposition of Christ from the Cross (above), from 1320, all the more remarkable. Still, the progress that can be seen in Lorenzetti's work over the course of his career, barely more than thirty years, as in the Arezzo Polyptych from 1320 to The Birth of Mary (below) from 1342, demonstrates quite vividly the subtle, but relatively rapid transition from the Medieval icons to Renaissance classicism.

The Birth of Mary, 1342, Pietro Lorenzetti, painted shortly before his death in 1348
(during an outbreak of Bubonic Plague).
Compare this with the Arezzo Polyptych dating from 1320.


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