From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca:
Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through May 1, 2005
This jewel of an exhibition (comprising about fifty works) reveals brilliant facets of the art and culture of fifteenth-century Italy. It centers upon two remarkable works by a little-known master, Fra Carnevale, who was briefly mentioned in Vasari's Lives of the Artists yet has largely remained an enigma to art historians until now.
One of the two featured "Barberini" panels by Fra Carnevale, thought to represent The Birth of the Virgin, is in the museum's own collection, where it has more than once caught our attention on passing through the galleries. The putative biblical subject of this sizable work (nearly six feet high)--as well as that of its pendant from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, tentatively identifed as The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple--is almost lost in the rich contemporary setting. In the Metropolitan's painting, elegantly garbed young women are gracefully arrayed before a magnificent neo-classical building that was clearly inspired by Leon Battista Alberti's treatise on architecture. Relegated to the mid- and background of the picture are, respectively, scenes of an infant (presumably Mary) being bathed and of the infant's recumbent mother, surrounded by attendants. Based on newly discovered documents, the two panels have been identified as belonging to Fra Carnevale's most important work, an altarpiece he painted for an oratory attached to a hospital in the hill town of Urbino.
Though less well known to tourists today than the larger cities of Florence, Rome, and Venice, Urbino in the fifteenth century was the seat of the noblest court of the Italian Renaissance--that of Duke Federigo da Montefeltro. Justly celebrated as a humanist prince par excellence, Federigo combined high intellect with great integrity and generosity of character, and he drew around him and employed the best minds and greatest talents of the age, including the architects Alberti and Luciano Laurana and the painter Piero della Francesca. The library he assembled rivaled those of both the Vatican and Oxford University (something of his breadth of interests can be gleaned from the marvelous wood-inlay Studiolo that the Metropolitan is lucky enough to own, which was created for the ducal palace at Gubbio, similar to one at Urbino). Perhaps most remarkable, in an age often marred by extremes of duplicity, impetuosity, and cruelty in high places, Federigo was by all accounts exceptional for his honesty, prudence, and benevolence--a fact made all the more extraordinary by his profession as a condottiere, whose business it was to lead mercenary soldiers into battle for a price. His strength of character can be read in the memorable portrait by Piero that forms--with a portrait of his second wife, Battista Sforza--the Urbino diptych.
Fra Carnevale's interest derives at least as much from his connections with these great figures of the period as it does from his paintings themselves. He is known to have been for a time at the workshop of Filippo Lippi, for example--whose influence is discernible in an early Annunciation, which reveals the same keen interest in architecture that is evident in the Barberini panels. And a large part of the art historian's fascination with Fra Carnevale stems from Vasari's claim that the great architect Bramante (who was born in the duchy of Urbino) "gave much study" to his work.
While Fra Carnevale is the focal point of this fine exhibition, the works that steal the show are several paintings by Filippo Lippi (among them, an ethereal Madonna and Child) and a superb altarpiece by Piero della Francesca, Madonna and Child with Four Angels--a masterpiece on loan from the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass. (where it is referred to as Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels). Like Fra Carnevale's work, it exhibits an intense interest in architecture and a familiarity with Albertian principles--Piero himself wrote an important treatise on perspective. But it is the timeless gravitas and dignity of his figures, each of them subtly individualized, that renders his work unforgettable (the avant-garde painters who rediscovered his work a century ago but saw only formalist values in it must have been blind). Note the two angels at the right--in particular, the one in red.
Several works of sculpture that might otherwise escape notice in the exhibition also merit attention here. Among the enduring treasures of quattrocento art are the glazed terracotta high-relief sculptures of Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) and his nephew Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525), three of which are included in the exhibition to indicate the artistic context in which Fra Carnevale was active. Two of them, Luca's Madonna and Child (The Bliss Madonna) and Andrea's Virgin and Child, are from the Metropolitan's collection. But the most remarkable of the three (from a private collection, and therefore unlikely to be seen again soon) is a Madonna and Child by Luca, which probably influenced the tender painting of the same subject by Lippi noted above. (When viewing these works online, preferably before reading on, be sure to take advantage of the Met website's wonderful interactive capabilities, allowing you to selectively zoom in on details.) Sweetly touching though the first work (a glazed terracotta set in an apse-shaped niche) is, the earlier and smaller Madonna and Child by Luca (in painted and gilded terracotta set in a circular ribbed frame of wood--so unlike the more typical della Robbias) is a revelation. One would need to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this poignantly intimate little work. Also wonderful, albeit austere by comparison, is another unfamiliar work of sculpture--a portrait in exquisite low relief of Federigo's wife, Battista Sforza, tentatively attributed to the sculptor Domenico Rosselli. Only twenty-five when she died, just months after giving birth to the ducal heir, Guidobaldo, Battista had already proved herself a fitting consort for one of the Renaissance's noblest princes. Like Piero's Urbino diptych portrait of her, noted above, the Rosselli relief is probably a posthumous tribute.[*]
In sum, thanks to this wonderful little exhibition, one can immerse oneself in the glorious era of human achievement that was fifteenth-century Italy--which, however briefly, can do much to enlarge the mind and ennoble the spirit.
*As it happens, Michelle Kamhi wrote her M.A. thesis on Piero's diptych ("The Uffizi [Urbino] Diptych by Piero della Francesca: Its Form, Iconography, and Purpose," Hunter College, C.U.N.Y., 1970). In it she argued that the work had been commissioned as a tribute to both Federigo and, posthumously, Battista--perhaps by none other than Lorenzo de' Medici--as a lordly gift intended both to congratulate him on an important victory he had recently won for Florence and to console him in his sorrow over her untimely death.