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In pursuit of Fra Carnevale: Susannah Woolmer follows the detective trail laid out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's rewarding investigation into a mysterious renaissance artist.

For three decades, Keith Christiansen, curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has been on the trail of an enigmatic renaissance painter, Fra Carnevale. His research has culminated in an illuminating and multifaceted exhibition at the Met. It is an unusual show in many respects, not only because it indulges Christiansen's personal fascination with an artist who has existed on the peripheries of renaissance scholarship for centuries, but also because it unites two mysterious masterpieces with each other and with their creator.

An enlightened and intellectually inquisitive outsider, Fra Carnevale, born Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini, moved to Florence from Urbino in 1445 to study in the workshop of Filippo Lippi. Returning to Urbino in around 1449, he took Dominican orders, becoming Fra Carnevale, and advised in the enlightened court of Federigo da Montefeltro. Although his oeuvre is meagre (only a handful of secure autograph works exists; three attributions are tentatively made here), he is, according to Christiansen, central to our understanding of renaissance practices thanks to 'the compendium of ideas' present in his works. The exhibition's inclusion of uncertain attributions will, it is hoped, encourage further debate and pave the way for the expansion of Fra Carnevale's oeuvre.

The keystone of this show is a pair of remarkably detailed and eccentric panels that form two halves of an altarpiece. Acquired separately by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the Barberini collection in Rome in the 1930s, documentation uncovered in the 1970s revealed that an altarpiece by Fra Carnevale from the church of Santa Maria della Bella in Urbino had been confiscated in the seventeenth century by Cardinal Antonio Barberini. Crucially, documents came to light in June 2004 that positively identified the New York and Boston panels with this altarpiece, painted for a lay confraternity of flagellants in the hospital church of Santa Maria della Bella. Technically and intellectually complex, the Barberini panels contravene expectations of renaissance altarpieces: the central story--ostensibly scenes from the life of the Virgin--is all but obscured by details of quotidian life and the extraordinarily sophisticated architecture that takes centre stage.

Such an oblique approach to the subject matter in an altarpiece is unique and the panels have resisted coherent scholarly interpretation for more than a century. Virtually nothing is known about the circumstances of their commission (the church no longer exists), but the positive attribution to Fra Carnevale is a real coup for Christiansen and his colleagues, adding an extra dimension to the exhibition (the planning of which was already well under way when the conclusive documentation came to light), which is constructed to present a picture of this marginal figure within the context of his contempories. The curators disagree over various aspects of Fra Carnevale's story but this lends a refreshing sense of lively debate to the show; visitors are actively encouraged to participate in the debate by drawing personal conclusions.

The first half of the exhibition provides an enlightening snapshot of workshop practices in renaissance Florence. Filippo Lippi and his studio are introduced in a series of exquisite altarpieces that serve as a reminder of Lippi's position as a key renaissance painter during the 1450s. All the works are laced together by the common thread of Lippi and the Albertian notions of varietas and istoria.

The first two paintings here ascribed to Fra Carnevale are a sweetly-rendered Madonna and Child and an Annunciation. The latter is a bewildering and eccentric creation. The elaborate nature of its rigorously articulated architecture and its references to Maso di Bartolomeo and Michelozzo Michelozzi provide the most compelling evidence of Fra Carnevale's authorship for Christiansen. The complex architecture functions not merely as a framing device but also as a demonstration of the artist's sophisticated understanding of f architectural designs: according to Vasari, Fra Carnevale influenced the young Bramante.

Around a corner it is impossible not to be dazzled by two exquisitely emotive terracotta roundels by Luca della Robbia (nos. 23 and 24) and a gilt bronze Madonna and Child relief from the circle of Donatello, notable for the remarkable sophistication of the illusionistic architectural setting which frames the figures. The influence of Donatello's perspectival innovations is evident to great effect in two powerful panels by Domenico Veneziano (nos. 22 and 23) (from the predella of his St Lucy altarpiece) depicting St John in the Desert and A Miracle of St Zenobius. Although any direct relevance to Fra Carnevale is perhaps less clear here, the inclusion of these varied and highly inventive works highlights the extent to which Florence functioned as a creative melting-pot, attracting artists from all over Italy.

The beautiful Madonna and Child with Saints by Pesellino (unfortunately not catalogued) further reinforces this point. Like Fra Carnevale, Pesellino was also associated with Lippi and his workshop (from around 1450) and the stylistic and conceptual differences between their works--compare Fra Carnevale's complex but static compositions with the eloquence of Pesellino's--attests to the rich variety that it fostered.

The second half of the exhibition moves from Florence to Urbino and the Marches, to which Fra Carnevale returned in late 1449. Here the paintings possess a more provincial, empirical feel (nos. 31, 33, 37) and become markedly less sophisticated to modern eyes conditioned by Florentine fashions and preoccupations. It is interesting to note the merging of gothic and renaissance ideas in works by Benedetto Bonfigli (no. 29), Bocatti (nos. 31 and 32) and Giovanni Angelo d'Antonio da Camerino (no. 35); also the influence of Netherlandish painting (Antonio da Fabriano, no. 36). Three works are given firm attributions to Fra Carnevale here: nos. 40, 41A-D and 42. The legacy of Filippo Lippi is evident in the soft, delicately modelled features of the figures (no. 40) whilst the deep perspectival thrust of the architecture is evocative of Domenico Veneziano.

Piero della Francesca monopolised the artistic landscape in the Marches in the 1460s/70s and similarly dominates attention in the last section of the show; one is inevitably drawn to the ethereal and transcendental radiance of his Madonna and Child Attended by Angels. The austere spirituality of Piero's serene, heavy-lidded protagonists provides an elegant counterbalance to Lippi's softer and sweeter figure-types but the positioning of this superlative work of art so close to the Barberini panels inadvertantly detracts from the magnificence of these marvellous and mysterious paintings.

Much is still to be revealed about Fra Carnevale and his legacy. But Christiansen and his colleagues are to be congratulated on a sumptuous, stimulating exhibition that brings a curious and fascinating painter from the fringes of obscurity right to the foreground of scholarship.

'From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master' is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 1 May. It was at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, from 13 October 2004 until 9 January 2005. The catalogue, by Keith Christiansen (ed.), is published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ISBN 1 58839 143 4, $45 (paper) and Yale University Press, ISBN 0 300 10716 1, 40 [pounds sterling] (cloth).
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Author:Woolmer, Susannah
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2005
Words:1179
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