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Monday, August 15, 2016

Alesso Baldovinetti

Madonna with Child paintings were a Renaissance artist's stock
in trade. Like Baldovinetti, virtually all of them painted at least
a few. Raphael, for instance, practically made a career of them.
Annunciation, 1447,
Alesso Baldovinetti
Artists, by their very nature, tend to be curious. They like to try new things; they like to find easier and better ways of doing things, especially if they can lay claim to their innovation and maybe even reap some kind of financial reward for their efforts. Having said that, just as they don't like turning out bad paintings (whatever the cause), neither do artists like to fail when they try something new. We're all familiar with Leonardo's epic failure at trying to paint oils into wet plaster (fresco), as in his nonetheless masterful Last Supper. Perhaps we're not so familiar with his colossal debacle in trying to do the same with pigments mixed into melted wax in painting his (now lost) Battle of Anghiari. The painting literally started melting off the wall while he was still working on it. All this makes me wonder if Leonardo was familiar with the work of his fellow Florentine painter, Alesso Baldo-vinetti.

Self-portrait, 1471-72,
Alesso Baldovinetti
Baldovinetti was born in 1425 which would have made him some twenty-seven years older than Leonardo. He died in 1499 so it's not outside the realm of possibility that the two knew one another as Leonardo's reputation was on the rise and Baldovinetti's was in decline. Florence was a major city during the latter part of the Early Renaissance, but the confraternity of artist was relatively small, numbering no more than a few dozen. Although I've never tried painting on wet plaster, judging from the attempts Leonardo and others, including Baldo-vinetti, made to try new techniques, it must have been a rather technically challenging undertaking. Depending upon the humidity, plaster dries rather quickly, and in any case it tends to harden chem-ically as well. As it does so, its ready acceptance of water based pigments declines. The introduction of oil painting by the van Eyck brothers and others into the booming art world of Italy during the 15th-century allowed painters to work slowly, to ponder and even correct their work as it progressed. Traditional fresco did not; so it was little wonder that Baldovinetti, Leonardo, and presumably others tried to combine the best features of both mediums.

Adoration of the Shepherds, Alesso Baldovinetti
In Baldovinetti's case, it wasn't oil paints he tried working into the cantankerous permanence of wet plaster but egg tempera. Until the advent of oil painting, egg tempera had been virtually the only choice of artists when it came to painting modest-size portraits and religious icons. If fresco painting was difficult, at best, egg tempera demanded the patience of a saint and the disposition of God Himself. The medium binding the pigments was egg yolk, the vehicle for thinning was plain water. The two together, as might be expected, dried almost instantly. Thus painting with this mixture tended to make fresco, in contrast, seem like little more than interior decorating. Egg tempera demanded fine strokes, tiny brushes, and layer upon layer of thin, transparent, glazing. As in any art medium, when the technical demands become a worrisome chore, aesthetics become secondary.

A reasonable idea gone wrong, Baldovinetti's Nativity,
sacristy of the Church of Santissima Annunziata, Florence.
Inasmuch as both plaster and egg tempera are water-based, Baldovinetti's experimental in mixing of the two should have worked. Well, in fact, it did...for a time. To the standard mixture, the artists added a liquid varnish to help seal out dampness (mildew wsd be a problem for any organic substance such as egg). Around 1460-63, Baldovinetti furnished a cartoon of the Nativity (above) executed using this method by Giuliano de Maiano in the sacristy of the Church of Santissima Annunziata, in Florence. The famed art historian, Giorgio Vasari, reports that, " the course of time, the parts executed with this vehicle scaled away," so that the great secret Baldovinetti hoped to have discovered was, in fact, a failure.

Annunciazione della Cappella del Portogallo,
1466-67, Alesso Baldovinetti
Portrait of a Lady, 1465,
Alesso Baldovinetti
It's difficult to trace the life and works of an artist, especially during the Early Renaissance in Florence. Record keeping was sparse even then and after five or six centuries, still rarer today. Vasari was good, his Lives of the Artists a treasure vault of information constituting, in large part, what little we know of this period today. Yet Vasari was sometimes mistaken. If the artist and his work were highly visible, the story of his life important and interesting, then his contribution to the art history of the era is all but etched in stone. If not, as with Baldovinetti, since his firmly attributed work is on the thin side, and what there is of that is often in bad to terrible condition, we are left with many blanks and the guesswork of art experts down through the centuries. Several of Baldovinetti's paintings have been falsely attributed to artists such as Piero della Francesca, Domenico Venez-iano, and Andrea del Castagno. Baldovinetti's 1470 Madonna and Child (top) was long thought to be the work of della Francesca's early years.

Portrait of Margaret van Eyck,
1439, Jan van Dyck
The task becomes double difficult in that artists and their styles change over the course of their careers while at the same time feeding off one another's successes. The introduction of oil painting in Italy had a profound effect on everything from poses to color, to lighting as can be seen in com-paring Baldovinetti's Portrait of a Lady (above, right), from around 1465, to Jan van Eyck's Portrait of Margaret van Eyck (his wife, left) from the northern European Early Renaissance of 1439. The difference are especially notable in that Portrait of a Lady is one of Baldovinetti's few and probably his best, while van Eyck's portrait of his wife falls well short of matching the quality of his later works (the head being too large for the body. Yet its influence in Italy at the time was quite far-reaching, based on a media experiment that actually worked.


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