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Thoughts from the Fitz, Cambridge

Visiting the galleries at The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge can be a rather confusing experience. After walking up the grand staircase and entering the English paintings room, the visitor walks past 400 years of English portraits (from luscious, Jacobean frills to the sombre, muted dress of Millais's twins) and enters a sort of gilded tunnel. We are now in the Italian Middle Ages, and the narrow gallery leading to the other wing of the museum transports the visitor through 200 years of Italian Renaissance visual culture (if he or she can resist the garish pull of Titian's 'Rape of Lucrece' dominating the wall at the end).

That is rather unfair, because I think there is a door between the opposite wing (big Titian) and our Renaissance tunnel. But Titian's phallic, violent, protruding masterpiece assaults the eye so powerfully that the visitor misses just how mystical this Italian tunnel really is - and how much visually changes between its beginning (strangely following 400 years of English fashion) and its end (just towards the turn of the cinquecento).

To start, the first room presents a golden, medieval world. Pieces here range from the early fourteenth to the early fifteenth centuries and offer an ecclesiastical, shining feast to the eye. Gold leaf on oak is the medium, and virgins and annunciations are the subjects. The gilding and tempera colours are necessarily faded after some 600 years, so it is important to look at the pictures with a more imaginative gaze. Reconstruct just how gloriously shining these altarpieces must have been at the time. The majority have gold leaf backgrounds surrounding angels stacked one on top of another. These figures pile across the panels in groups of three as their wings unfurl in a sequential mosaic of feathers - blues over yellows over reds. There is no perspectival depth in these pictures: the figures stack besides each other in figured, balanced patterns rather than realistic arrangements. All over that stunning gold leaf that removes any semblance of perspective or reality.

Imagining just how radiant Simone Martini's (c.1284-1344) polyptych must have been, illuminated in the Sienese half-light alongside incense and candles amidst the dusky, thick, Romanesque walls of Sant'Agostino in San Girmignano adds another dimension to appreciating these wooden masterpieces. They come to life with an aethereal presence, where the vibrant blue of the Virgin's dress vies with the shining gold leaf behind and around her for a perspectival supremacy. The Virgin is just as important a subject as the heavenly gold that surrounds her: both exist in an elevated, two-dimensional space. Theirs is a world other than that of three dimensional perspective, and the entire Medieval experience of these Italian rooms should remind the viewer how transporting these pictures (with bright colours across flat surfaces) really were. The flat physicality of these wooden panels becomes all the more apparent when getting up close and realising that the traced patterns on the golden hems of the angels' dresses are actually carved into the wood.

But walking into the next room of our little Italian tunnel, there is this curious, unassuming, small panel hanging on the side of the wall.

Domenico Veneziano (c.1410-1461), 'The Annunciation' (1442-1448), Tempera on panel, 27.3cm x 54cm, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

This is the centrepiece of the predella of Veneziano's altarpiece for the church of Santa Lucia de'Magnoli in Florence. Especially after the gilded heavens of the previous room, Veneziano's panel feels curiously muted in colour and hauntingly empty. Even more curious is just how far apart the Virgin and Gabriel are. In the previous room's Annunciations, Gabriel is closely accosting Mary as the two nearly bump heads in a single, golden panel. But Veneziano composes his scene with the Virgin and Gabriel at opposite ends of the panel. And separating the two is not the gilded, heavenly world of gold leaf, as is the case for the Annunciations of the previous room. Instead, space between Mary and Gabriel is filled by the receding lines of the tiles on the floor. These lines create the illusion of depth; they fill the space between the figures with a strange emptiness.

Veneziano here has relocated his angelic subjects, usually encountered in the heavenly, extra-realistic world of flat gold leaf to the world of three-dimensional reality. Contemplation must now anchor itself in something other than that established, elevated, heavenly world. So how does one contemplate the glory of God down on (and in) earth?

Veneziano's panel encourages just this type of thinking and anxiety. The figures frame a panel that is not entirely symmetrical. Further perspectival depth is encouraged by that receding passageway towards an arbour and a closed door. The closed door, empty passage, and inviting arbour insulate the scene in a privileged, quiet space (a hortus conclusus). But the symmetry of those dark windows and the balanced columns is offset by the fact that this arbour-passage (ostensibly in the middle) is not in the middle of the panel! This missing (or misplaced) centre is troubling as the eye finds itself flitting between Gabriel and Mary, trying to find somewhere between the two to rest, but unable to settle on a centre that is not a centre. That flat, wooden panel with the perspectival illusion of depth becomes a strange, troubling, empty space. As the eye anxiously moves between the two figures, it must find something to rest on, fill the space with something. With what? Perhaps faith, devotion, an acceptance of a God just as present (or absent) as space is empty. And when the eye finds itself drawn down the passageway, the insulating door of the hortus conclusus is also ominously excluding: we are now bared that easy access to faith through a gilded vision of heaven; this is a call for contemplation founded in reality, with all the anxieties and uncertainties that it might bring. It is no coincidence that Mary (a human) is barred off from Gabriel (an archangel) by a row of columns.

Veneziano's panel encourages a quiet contemplation because of its playful use of perspectival space. An empty depth fills most of the panel; I take this as an invitation for the viewer to decide just how he or she will fill this elusive illusion (can one find faith here?). The quattrocento is a period I am increasingly fascinated by because of its insistent negotiations between a medieval reality and a realistic perspective. How does the way we see the world change in this period, and how does this change our conception of place and placement? The Fitz offers an engaging primer to this sort of thinking (especially in how its Italian tunnel channels the eye - despite the Titian eye-show (or sore)). After my exams, I spent a few days going around the Fitz in preparation for this trip. Hopefully, going around Italy will give me more quattrocento goodies and thoughts. Stay posted for more!

Lots of love,


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