- Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the Renaissance in Florence
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the Renaissance in Florence is the catalogue for an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Canada in 2005. Planned as part of the celebrations for the 125th birthday of the gallery, the exhibition gathered 123 paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings by more than forty artists from Renaissance Florence circa 1500–1550. The goal: to challenge assumptions and rewrite the traditional historiography that divides early-sixteenth-century Italian art into two stylistic phases: the High Renaissance and Mannerism. The contributors include an impressive list of renowned international Renaissance scholars and distinguished lenders, including the magnificent treasure houses of Florence itself, such as the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, and the Bargello. It is a point of national pride that the National Gallery holdings of Renaissance art, including Bronzino's superb Portrait of a Man, are some of the strongest works in the exhibition.
The catalogue, which is lavishly illustrated with colour plates, includes three essays on drawing, painting, and sculpture respectively, and detailed catalogue entries on individual works. In his essay on drawing, David Franklin, deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery, offers a succinct overview of the role of drawing in the creative process and surveys the kinds of drawings in use during the period. Louis Waldman, in his essay on painting, establishes stylistic diversity as the hallmark of the period, and calls for a new historiography based on a fresh examination of the works themselves. Andrew Butterfield discusses the impact of Michelangelo on the sculpture of the time, and calls for a new appreciation of the role of the della Robbia and the Buglioni in sixteenth-century visual culture.
The desire to revise the way we think about the art of Florence is richly supported by the catalogue entries. As these analyses cogently show, each object in the exhibition opens onto a world, creating a set of fascinating micro-histories. The title emphasizes the crowd-pleasing names of Michelangelo and Leonardo; yet, this is only one thread to follow. Indeed, there are only two works by Michelangelo and two by Leonardo, although their influence on other artists is followed throughout the text. But this is not the most compelling story, and likely of more interest to specialists than to general readers. Other, more intriguing themes include [End Page 233] the cultural preoccupation with commemoration, documented by the many exceptional portraits such as the Portrait of a Man by Andrea del Sarto, which graces the cover of the catalogue. Another fascinating story is the luxury of private life, since many of the works were created for the home, including the delightful terracotta sculptures by the aptly named Master of the Unruly Children. Related to the theme of art and private life is the developing passion for collecting, represented here not only by the attention paid to Giorgio Vasari, who established the practice of collecting drawings, but also in such works as Baccio Bandinelli's small-scale bronzes, which were made for princely collections. The role of art in the important social practice of gift-exchange and diplomacy is another theme, exemplified by Rosso Fiorentino's painting Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro, which might have been offered to the French monarch Francis I to encourage him to continue his propaganda campaign against the Medici. Andrea del Sarto's drawings of the punishment meted out to enemies of the state reveals yet another aspect of the relationship between art and politics. The changing status of the artist during the period is also given substance, not only by Vasari, that consummate social climber who rose from a family of potters to become the model artist-courtier, but also in accounts of other artists like the polymath Bachiacca, who was painter, costume designer, and proto-scientific illustrator at the court of Cosimo I de' Medici.
The cliché that 'history is in the details' characterizes this volume. The catalogue effectively establishes the diversity of the period; in fact, many...