- Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300–1350 ed. by Christine Sciacca
Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance is the catalogue produced in conjunction with an exhibition at the Getty Center by the same name. Christine Sciacca edited the volume and curated the exhibition, while scholars from a range of fields contributed. Focusing on panel paintings and illuminated manuscripts, the goal of the book is to investigate and celebrate the diversity of Florentine art during an extraordinarily fertile period in the city’s history. Prior scholarly endeavors have marginalized manuscript illumination, but Sciacca took the effort to illustrate how the format was connected to, and on par with, large-scale painting. She did so by addressing artists who worked in both media, and by making cross-genre connections related to technique, function, and subject matter.
Sciacca’s synchronic approach to Florentine painting is complemented by the thematic organization of material in the catalogue. It is broken down into five parts, and each of the first four parts consists of one or two essays followed by several catalogue entries. The fifth part has three essays, two mini-essays, and two groupings of catalogue entries. Many of the works of art are so rich in detail that they can be visually overwhelming and difficult for modern viewers to decipher. The catalogue entries are extremely useful in that they offer a form of verbal organization for the objects in the exhibition. Topics covered in the essays range from historical to technical. The first one firmly grounds the paintings in the cultural and economic context of late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth century Florence, explaining how the city became a bourgeoning mercantile power at the end of the Middle Ages. The next two essays address functional and conceptual differences between the genres of religious panel paintings and liturgical manuscripts. The following essay discusses the prominence of narrative in Trecento Florentine art, comparing the divergent approaches of Giotto and Pacino di Bonaguida, while another essay focuses on Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Part Four the essay is dedicated to reconstructing the Laudario of Sant’Agnese, a now-dismembered illuminated manuscript that is considered the most important example of its genre from the period. The final section features essays that address Pacino di Bonaguida’s workshop and his techniques as a panel painter and illuminator, as well as a scientific analysis of the artist’s materials and practices.
The multifaceted approach to the topic is reflected in the vast array of contributors, which includes curators, professors, scientists, and conservators. Although the issues addressed range widely, they always remain comprehensible. The ambitious nature of the book makes the topic rich rather than cumbersome, [End Page 270] largely because the focus remains on a small number of artists from the same time and place. Perhaps the only sources of distraction are the continuous references to Dante and his poetry. Unlike the work of Dante, the vast majority of the artworks addressed are ecclesiastical genres such as altarpieces and illuminated manuscripts. The Florentine poet overlapped chronologically with many of the works of art, however, and considering his monumental impact on fourteenth-century Italian culture, his presence is unavoidable. Dante’s writing is aligned with the rest of the exhibition through an analysis of a manuscript of the Divine Comedy that was illustrated by Pacino di Bonaguida.
Giotto is the most famous artist featured in Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance, but Pacino di Bonaguida receives more attention than any other figure in the catalogue. Pacino worked in panel painting and manuscript illumination, and multiple articles address various facets of his career. Sciacca should be lauded for not using Giotto’s star power as a crutch. It would have been easy, not to mention misleading, to use the name of the high-profile artist in the title of the exhibition, but the curator has allowed lesser-known artists as well as the historical and artistic context to remain at the forefront of the project. In doing so...