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Talking between Paintings: Siena, Rembrandt, and a Poem

Exhibiting paintings in a physical space is an opportunity for conversation: conversation between the art and the viewer and conversation between the works of art themselves. From the Latin conversare, conversation has at its heart the notion of movement: 'to turn oneself about', con ('with') + vertere ('to turn'). In the space of the art gallery, the conscious placement of works of art encourages this physical movement between viewer and painting, generating fresh visual and thematic interactions. Art becomes vital as the viewer strikes conversation with and between paintings.

Yesterday in Siena, I had the pleasure of visiting the crypts of the Duomo, where there was an exhibition celebrating the artistic patronage and legacy of Cardinal Antonio Casini (Siena, c. 1378 - Florence, 1439). Casini, from an influential Italian family (his mother was of the Colonna family, that of Pope Martin V), exercised significant political power in the Catholic Church (so much so that a Sienese diplomat referred to him as 'l'altro papa'). As Bishop of Siena from 1408-1426, he spent much of his wealth in beautifying his native city through the arts. But despite the prelate's imposing material legacy, his temporal influence did not preclude a deep, personal spirituality.

The setting is almost perfect for reminding the viewer of the transience of temporal life. Walking amongst the faded, bland colours of the crumbling trecento (fourteenth century) frescoes in the crypts, the light suddenly concentrates on an isolated, golden panel: Masaccio's 'Madonna del Solettico'.

Masaccio (San Giovanni Valderno, 1401 - Roma, 1428), Madonna and Child, called 'del Solletico [of the tickle]', 1426-1427, tempera and gold on panel, 24.5cm x 18.2cm, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Firenze.

The radiant gold and glowing blues and reds of Masaccio's panel are a sharp contrast to the damp, cold walls and dilapidated frescoes of the surrounding crypts. But even more shocking is how small the painting is: Masaccio's panel is no more than the size of a small book, not even covering the entirety of a sheet of A4. Casini commissioned this painting from Masaccio in 1426 likely for his own use in personal devotion. And the intimacy goes far beyond the painting's small size. To start, the Madonna gazes down tenderly towards Christ, who (contrary to usual representations of the Christ child as an enlightened überbaby) is here an actual new-born babe, in all of his fragility and awkwardness. His tiny hands playfully grasp his mother's arm as her fingers tenderly caress the child just under the chin. Christ's reaction is wonderfully pathetic: he lets out an ungainly grin from his baby-fattened cheeks, and when his baby-fattened neck bulges as his chin squeezes down, you can almost hear the baby's gurgle of playful, senseless happiness. No wonder Masaccio's painting is dubbed 'the tickling Madonna'.

And the unorthodox shock of Masaccio's intimate portrait of a mother and child becomes so much more potent when situated, of all places, in the city of Siena: home to a rich trecento tradition of religious, gold-leaf iconography. Just across the street from the crypts, in the Duomo's Museo dell'Opera, one can admire the masterpieces of this Sienese school: from the otherworldly, elongated, elegant figures of Pietro Lorenzetti's (Siena, c. 1280/90 - Siena, c. 1348) Nativity of the Virgin, to the mystically composite, placidly symmetrical shapes filling the alterpiece of Duccio's (Siena, c. 1255/60 - Siena, c. 1318/19) Maestà. Crucially, the decorative, ornate tradition of the Gothic gold-leaf paneling is always accompanied by figures of an otherworldly majesty, with elongated cheeks and limbs and thinned eyes gazing placidly, even mysteriously towards a something else: perhaps to what is behind that inaccessibly flat, blinding veil of the gold leaf.

Yet Masaccio's gold leaf surrounds two figures who are surprisingly human in our own vulnerable sense of the word. The Virgin's downward gaze towards her child is so tender because of the symbolic sorrow that traditionally accompanies it: her ripe crimson tunic (a symbol of the blood of her child that will run in the Passion) finds a subtle but potent balance in the collier around Christ's neck. But Masaccio adds a human compassion to the familiar motifs, propeling the gold-leafed majesty of the Virgin's world into our own: a world of shaded depth and realistic proportion, and most crucially of human suffering.

But one need not go all the way to the Museo dell'Opera (across the street!) to appreciate the power of Masaccio's innovation. The exhibition space in the crypts is organised to exhibit just this dichotomy between the traditional Sienese school of religious painting and the innovations occurring elsewhere in Tuscany, particularly in Florence. Walking further along the crypts brings us to another of Casini's commissions: Sassetta's 'Madonna delle Cielighie'.

Stefano di Giovanni, known as il Sassetta (Siena or Cortona, 1392 - Siena, 1450), Madonna and Child ('Madonna of the Cherries'), tempera and gold on panel, 96.5cm x 71cm, Duomo, Grosseto.

Sassetta was a contemporary of Masaccio's, and yet is still much more stylistically rooted in the visual culture of the Sienese Trecento. The decorative artistry of the gold leaf (even with streaks of gold-on-red in the Virgin's tunic further burnishing the ornate beauty of the background) is unmistakably Gothic, whilst Sassetta's Madonna has all the traits of Duccio's or Lorenzetti's: elegant, long, curving lines (from her hood to her shoulders to her eyebrows and slender fingers). Yet this adherence to the Gothic style is infused with a breath of Masaccio's. Although the Christ-child's raised hand is not quite that of a baby sucking his thumb, his other hand is still playfully tugging against the hem of his mother's cloak. And following the sweeping curve of Mary's embroidered hem down to the slender lines of her resting hand, one finds between her fingers a shocking, half-hidden detail: a bunch of cherries.

Our Madonna's 'cielighie [cherries]' are strategically blended against the background of her red (and gold) tunic. They are not too noticeable, but when they are found, they are unforgettable. This intimate detail infuses Sassetta's Gothic, Sienese eyes (usually placid and otherworldly) with a human tenderness reminiscent of Masaccio's Virgin. Placing the two paintings side by side in the cramped, dark space of the crypts brings forth these artistic contrasts in a revitalised dialogue. The two paintings begin talking to one another and tell of two different realities during the early Quattrocento (fifteenth century) in Tuscany: one of humanistic innovation desiring to infuse a personal pathos amidst the splendour and otherworldliness of gold leaf (Masaccio), and one still evincing a comfortable adherence to the recognisable shapes and motifs of high-Gothic decoration. Art historians have traced the influence of Masaccio in Sassetta, and I cannot help but wonder if, commissioned by the same patron, Sassetta ever had a chance to see Masaccio's tender, human Madonna. Regardless, it seems that Sassetta subtly infused his Sienese, trecento model with a human tenderness that he must have found in the growing style of contemporary Florence. At the same time, it also shows how narrow-minded it is to trace a teleological model of progress from the Gothic Medieval to Renaissance humanism in art: Casini's simultaneous patronage is a clear testament to the strong taste for both styles still potent in the early-fifteenth century.

Two 'Virgin and Child's from the same age commissioned by the same man, yet still looking incredibly different. Moving between these two paintings in a narrow space physically recreates this sense of conversation between schools of art in the Quattrocento. Their physical proximity in the room is here a modern testament to the artistic proximity and vibrant exchanges between the cities of Florence and Siena in the early Renaissance. But as the paintings talk to one another, they also inevitably talk to the viewer. Caught between these competing Madonnas, I cannot help but feel how remote both of them still are to us today. What existed as a dramatic struggle between tradition and innovation in an iconographic language once as familiar (if not more familiar) than our alphabetical language is now distant, only half-recognisable. That electric buzz between these two paintings in conversation is both amplified and insulated by its setting in the crypts of the Duomo. Masaccio's and Sassetta's religious motifs, like the frescoes crumbling along the stony walls, are now distanced relics of the past. Standing between the two, one must wonder what else of ours that now seems so important will one day only be capable of half-resurrection?

This now prompts me, at risk of a slight digression, towards another pair of paintings exhibited in a space that elicits incredibly dynamic conversation. These are two of Rembrandt's self-portraits: one of himself at the age of 36, and the other at the age of 63.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Leiden, 1606 - Amsterdam, 1669), Self Portrait at the Age of 34, 1640, Oil on canvas, 91cm x 75cm [RHS]; Self Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, Oil on canvas, 86cm x 70.5cm [LHS], The National Gallery, London.

These two portraits are placed on opposite walls in the National Gallery's 'Rembrandt Room' in London so that they are effectively staring right at each other. In the middle is a bench. Sitting between the two allows the viewer to find himself or herself caught between two sets of eyes from the same man at different points in his life and artistic development. Rembrandt the man, Rembrandt the artist, meets himself across the room and looks. I have spent far too much time sat between these two portraits thinking about how my own life will go, how I will look back at myself, what I am thinking now as I look forward. Rembrandt himself had a very turbulent life, with wonderful peaks of artistic fashionability in his middle age counterbalanced by crippling bankruptcy and bereavement towards the end of his life. Yet his artistic style continued to mature, and the consummate master at 63 has so much more weight in his individual brushstrokes; he carries so much more of life; or is it all just paint?

But enough of prose. I have droned on long enough now (it was a long train ride from Arezzo to Bologna). I wrote a poem a while ago about my thoughts on the two Rembrandts called 'Gallery Talk', which I will put on the blog in a following post (I think this post is long enough already). Apologies for the radio silence of late. I have been a busy busy bee buying paintings and dealing with Italians. Updates on the exhibition (and my new paintings!) to come very very soon

Ciao e a dopo!

Lots of love,


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