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The angelic friar at the Met.

In 1896, a Scottish insurance magnate named Evan MacKenzie set himself to erecting a massive "medieval" castle on a glorious site overlooking the Mediterranean, hard by the outskirts of Genoa. For this extravagant client, a gifted young Florentine architect named Gino Coppede concocted a huge turreted, crenellated, and rusticated fantasy that, to this day, remains a masterpiece of fin de siecle historicism run amok. As the final jewel in MacKenzie's baronial crown, Coppede designed a chapel and commissioned for its walls some suitably religious frescoes. Executed by the brilliant Russian copyist, and later restorer, Lockoff, these decorations paraphrase and mimic the one primitive (Roman Catholic) artist with whom the presumably low-church MacKenzie would have felt comfortable: Fra Angelico. The choice is not surprising: by the end of the nineteenth century, the "beatification" of the celebrated Dominican friar-painter had reached its apogee. And this was not due to having been "rediscovered"--not, certainly, in the way other great European artists of the past, such as Vermeer, Botticelli, and El Greco, were beginning to re-emerge from obscurity just at this time.

Fra Angelico's given name was Guido; the addition of the prefix "Fra" occurred when the painter became a Dominican friar, known as Fra Giovanni, in the early 1420s. The "angelic" appellation was acquired posthumously, by 1469, only a scant two decades after the artist's death. "Fra Angelico" as he was invariably called thereafter, was never to be absent in later historical accounts of Italian art. Vasari goes to great lengths to describe in highly laudatory terms Angelico's moral rectitude, modesty, and religious devotion, adding that, throughout his life, the angelic friar always disdained wealth and worldly recognition. This compliment has a curious ring, offered as it was by a man whose appetite for worldly rewards was notorious. But by Vasari's time, during the later sixteenth century, the rising tide of Counter-Reformation orthodoxy assured that Fra Angelico's piety, and to a lesser extent, his art, would not be forgotten. Indeed, writing in the 1660s, Andre Felibien was unable to cite a single example of the art but was suitably fulsome in his praise of the piety.

By a curious paradox, the event that may have contributed most effectively towards the recognition and fame of Fra Angelico's art was the suppression of convents and religious confraternities in Tuscany, a measure enacted by a reformist grand-ducal government in 1777. It was at this time that Angelico's magnificent "Linaiuoli Tabernacle" entered the Uffizi, becoming one of the artist's first works accessible to the public. In 1810, at the behest of Napoleon's minister of culture Vivant-Denon and the painter Jean-Baptiste Wicar, the great Coronation of the Virgin from the Convent of San Domenico in Fiesole was requisitioned and transported to Paris for the Musee National, predecessor of the Louvre. At the same time or shortly thereafter, many other significant works were, little by little, finding their way to private and public collections all over Europe: the so-called "Thyssen Madonna" to William IV of England, another altarpiece from San Domenico to Russia, a magnificent early Annunciation, again from San Domenico, to the Spanish royal collections via the Farnese inheritance, and finally numerous predelle and other fragments from dismembered altarpieces, scattered in every direction.

Of course, central to an understanding of Fra Angelico's art are his frescoes in the Convent of San Marco in Florence and at the Vatican in Rome. These, fortunately, have mostly survived intact and were regarded by artists and writers as important destinations throughout the nineteenth century. The fame of the Vatican frescoes was much enhanced by the 1810 engravings of Francesco Giangiacomo and those of the San Marco convent by Vincenzo Marchese's similarly lavish publication of 1851. It is therefore entirely understandable how, in the 1850s, both Manet and Degas derived inspiration from these frescoes as well as from the Louvre Coronation. But the keen sensibilities and connoisseurship of these two artists seem, in retrospect, somehow at odds with the prevailing nineteenth-century perception of Fra Angelico as a charmingly primitive, retardataire, late-gothic artist--exemplifying in his life and art those Christian virtues so dear to the Victorian ethos. Most writers, beginning with August Wilhelm von Schlegel, who published the first modern biography of Fra Angelico in 1817, viewed the artist through this lens. It was, after all, an era of medievalist revival and, more specifically as we have seen, an age of relentless collecting of "early" art: Beckford and Ottley (in England), Aynard (in France), Ramboux (in Germany), and Campana (in Rome).

By the time MacKenzie commissioned Maestro Lockoff to produce his "Angelico" confection, this great early Renaissance master seemed trapped in a deadly stereotype and destined forever to adorn, in abominable rotogravure, the wastebaskets and lampshades of the world's petit-bourgeois households.

It is to three early scholars and critics to whom credit is due for initiating a serious reappraisal of the Dominican friar: Bernard Berenson, R. Langton Douglas, and Frida Schottmuller. Each, drawing from earlier sources and their own keen observations, began to dispel the mythology and to delineate a more historically convincing outline. Thanks to their pioneering efforts, by about 1915, the chronology of Fra Angelico's works was emerging more clearly. Despite these advances, however, the artist was still viewed as an essentially "transitional" figure. Perhaps the single greatest obstacle to the evolution of critical thinking on the subject was what might be called, for lack of a better term, the "Masaccio/Angelico" antithesis.

Based on a mistaken assumption (initiated by Vasari) that Fra Angelico was born in the 1380s, this presumed twenty-year seniority over Masaccio automatically placed the older artist comfortably within an earlier, late-Gothic tradition. The younger genius who revolutionized Italian figurative art in the Brancacci Chapel frescoes of the mid-1420s became, by this reading, the paradigm of all that was new in terms of spatial representation (perspective), psychological verisimilitude, and classical (antique) compositional equilibrium. It was Renaissance "gravitas" vs. Gothic "charm": obviously one was the prelude, rude and daring, of things to come and the other the echo, elegant and ephemeral, of things past. It was several decades into the twentieth century before this simplistic misconception was dispelled. Even into the 1950s as eminent and perceptive a scholar as John Pope-Hennessy still qualified Angelico as "reactionary."

Then, in 1955, on the five-hundredth anniversary of the artist's death, came two important and comprehensive exhibitions of Fra Angelico's work. They were held in Florence and Rome and prompted significant documentary and scholarly research. Of great importance was the finding that the artist may well have been born as late as 1400. This, of course, made him an almost exact contemporary of Masaccio. A further, equally important revelation was the identification of a triptych in the remote church of San Giovenale of Cascia di Reggello as an early work of Masaccio. This, and another panel datable to Masaccio's beginnings, Sant'Anna Metterza, also reappearing in the 1950s, established unmistakable connections to very similar and almost contemporary paintings by Fra Angelico.

With these critical advances it became all too clear that the relationship between Masaccio and Fra Angelico was anything but antithetical as conventional wisdom had dictated. In a sense, these findings only proved what one of Italy's foremost art-historians, Roberto Longhi, had already proposed in 1940; in a word, that the two artists may not only have known each other but may have been well aware of, and interested in, each other's projects. Longhi astutely intuited that Masaccio's evolving masterpieces on the walls of the Brancacci Chapel were closely observed by the Dominican friar and that he, probably more than any other Florentine artist of the time, knew how to draw from them important and far-reaching lessons. Longhi perceptively analyzed how these lessons were subsumed and transformed not only in Fra Angelico's paintings but also in the paintings of an entire generation of Florentine artists.

The more recent contributions to Fra Angelico scholarship, particularly by Carl Brandon Strehlke, Andrea de Marchi, and Miklos Boskovits, have greatly clarified this crucial Masaccio/Fra Angelico relationship and have helped to refine the latter artist's often confusing chronology.

It can safely be said that the sum of what these efforts have accomplished constitutes the subject of the recently inaugurated exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, entitled simply "Fra Angelico." (11) It comes exactly fifty years after the Florence and Vatican events and, within the obvious limits of such an undertaking (the frescoes and altarpieces having remained in Europe), it fulfills its goal admirably.

Laurence Kanter, Curator of the Lehman Collection, and Pia Palladino, his partner in life as well as in art history, have, over the past several years, relentlessly pursued and garnered a total of upwards to seventy-five works, some of remarkable importance. These are the key pieces around which the extraordinary story of Angelico's art unfolds. Despite the oft-cited shortcomings of the Lehman Wing, its lower level affords a surprisingly efficient and attractive venue for a show of this kind, arranged as it is in a calm and reasonable chronological progression. Since many of the works are of modest dimensions, the visitor is afforded a certain visual "repose" between one item and the next. This is an unexpected and very welcome dividend for an exhibit of this kind: every one of the paintings is so demanding of intense and undivided scrutiny that there is no easy flow from one to the other.

Kanter and Palladino have been joined in their curatorial task by four colleagues, three of whom have contributed articles for the catalogue. Although one would hardly recommend viewing the exhibition with this book in hand, a brief look at its chapter headings might, in fact, be useful. The nine titles sketch a brief temporal resume of Fra Angelico's career and include a substantial coda devoted to some of his assistants and followers. It is interesting to consider that, even after five-hundred-plus years, the work of one man can still be subjected to such careful dissection and analysis; justification, if one were necessary, of the validity of art-historical research, a discipline that practiced at this level of expertise and integrity offers rewards that can be, even for the uninitiated, truly surprising. In fact, the viewer is prompted at every turn to exercise his intelligence by connecting strands of visible evidence into a coherent continuum that, when read correctly, invariably produces moments of thrilling revelation, the art historian merely providing the necessary sign-posts--markers of the kind that a grateful hiker might find on an alpine trail. Admittedly, however, on such excursions one should expect the oxygen to get pretty thin at times. It does, for instance, when deciphering the visual clues hidden in the five fragments of the exquisite Pilgrimage Roll to which Fra Angelico contributed in his youth.

One is met, early on, by the so-called "Griggs Crucifixion." Here, again, a deep breath is warranted, for this is a majestic and yet exquisitely wrought work of art that is visually satisfying in every millimeter of its shimmering surface. But is it by Fra Angelico? When Maitland Griggs purchased it back in 1925, Masaccio's elder and somewhat hapless assistant Masolino seemed a fair bet as an attribution, even though it was a bit like squeezing a square peg into a round hole. In such instances, art historians recur to the time-honored expedient of inventing a conventional name--in this instance, "The Master of [what else?] the Griggs Crucifixion" (later identified as Giovanni Toscani). And so it remained until recently, even garnering other works around it presumed to be by the same hand. We now happily dispel all doubts about its status as an early work by Fra Angelico, and even direct our gaze to what might well be this artist's only known "signature" (on the caparison of the horse at the far right). To weigh this, together with the other visual evidence, is a delightful exercise--particularly because here the clues are so plentiful and in plain sight. The satisfaction is truly complete when, just one step away, one finds the poignantly touching image of Saint Jerome in a Landscape. It is obviously by the same hand, but did its nobility and "gravitas" prompt the curators to add "an unknown Florentine master" to Fra Angelico's side in the catalogue entry? One suspects it's just a way of saying: "look at what the young friar was capable of ... even Masaccio could do no better!"

Beyond such intriguing problems, there are plentiful examples (and these are the ones that will probably sell the most tickets) where the artist is there in plain sight, doing what he does best: portraying splendidly attired saints, gorgeous Madonnas against richly brocaded cloths-of-honor, sublime winged creatures in heavenly choirs--all in settings of severe dignity and crystalline purity. Short of one of the great altarpieces still anchored firmly in San Marco, the so-called "Thyssen" Madonna and Child is here to flaunt its irresistible colors. Impeccably preserved (and despite its abominable neo-something frame), it virtually defines the paradox of Florentine Renaissance art: an apparition of otherworldly idealization, all the while solidly grounded in everyday, "tactile" reality. This uncanny ability of being able to create images that, so to speak, function on two levels, is also much in evidence in Fra Angelico's narrative paintings. Consider the five-part predella with episodes from the lives of Saints James, John the Baptist, Lucy, and Dominic. Here we have the artist as playwright, director, set designer, and wardrobe manager combined: each of the scenes unfolds within an admirably conceived environment defined, but not necessarily enclosed by, architectural elements. The perspective is faultless; the lavishly costumed figures occupy their discrete spaces with authority. Even the minutest detail of fabric, stone, flesh, and flora is lovingly described. Thus the prosaic reality of the story is elevated to the status of myth and inevitably commands our attention more forcefully. The pleasure of gazing at these five tableaux is increased with the realization that they have been reunited here for the first time since the altarpiece to which they originally belonged was dismembered, probably two centuries ago. Indeed, one of the panels was identified correctly no more than a decade ago. Catalogue Number 36 is another example of how major exhibits succeed in luring together dispersed fragments; in this case two paintings--once joined front to back-that have not been seen together since the mid-nineteenth century.

Not long after entering this enchanted world, the viewer becomes aware of the superlative craftsmanship that came to bear in actually making objects that function also, coincidentally, as paintings. By 1400, the tools, materials, and techniques employed by Tuscan artists reflected a tradition more than two centuries old. The production of panel paintings, from huge altarpieces to tiny votive images, had been developed and refined over this long period to a point beyond which it was almost impossible to progress--a situation not unlike the art of casting, chasing and gilding bronze which reached its zenith in the early nineteenth century. These were all collaborative undertakings: different crafts, each striving towards and, eventually reaching, perfection.

When confronted by such perfection, as exemplified by the astonishing Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin, wherein the quality and conservation of surface are matchless, one cannot but be awed by the craft, let alone the art, that created it. But time, alas, is not always so gentle. Within a limited range of tolerance, a certain amount of damage is acceptable; beyond that threshold, a painting retains, at best, a documentary, "archeological" value. The sight of two predelle with episodes of the life of Saint Dominic is almost too cruel to bear, "skinned" as they are to a shadow of their former selves. To make matters worse, not even the slightest bit of charitable attention has been devoted to their ruined surfaces. In the case of the Fogg Museum Madonna and Child and the St. Anthony Abbott from a California private collection, perhaps too much has been done in an attempt to reconstruct what remains of their equally ruined states. It's fair to wonder, in this context, what these paintings add to our understanding of Fra Angelico.

Other subtle questions are posed by two impressive and, actually, quite well preserved images of the Virgin and Child. In both, the flesh tones lack the clarity and transparency one has come to expect after admiring some of the works that hang in the immediate vicinity: a brilliance and translucence that Fra Angelico obtained by applying the palest of glazes over a bright, almost opalescent preparatory layer. Also troubling is the presence of very evident "scoring": it outlines a number of salient compositional features such as the hands, arms, and legs. Invariably this constitutes strong evidence for the transfer of a pre-existing design or "cartoon" over the gesso ground. It is, in other words, the typical process used by workshop assistants to duplicate or adapt a master's invention.

If the stated purpose--or conceit--of much of the visual art created through the twentieth century and continuing to the present, is to "raise awareness" in the viewer, then no painting will be more in tune with contemporary tastes than the Christ Crowned with Thorns. Rarely seen and totally unexpected, this moving, almost shocking image has deep roots in Christian iconography. In this version, it is transformed, as one would expect it to be by a Florentine artist of the Renaissance, into an idealized abstraction. A king, richly attired and impeccably coiffed, stares straight out with an agonized expression, as if uncomprehending of the torture to which he is being subjected. Details are lovingly and "realistically" rendered: every strand of hair, every droplet of blood, the insanely hemorrhaged eyes; yet the verisimilitude is not of this world. It resides in the realm of the spirit--it is the true source of this image's power.

Perhaps a disappointing sign of how Fra Angelico is still misunderstood is that a rapid perusal of the inevitable merchandise stand attached to the exhibition appeared to display not a single poster of this unforgettable face.

(1) "Fra Angelico" opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on October 26, 2005, and remains on view through January 29, 2006.
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Title Annotation:Fra Angelico
Author:Grassi, Marco
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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