We walk toward the west to cross the Tiber at the Bridge of Angels and enter the Via della Conciliazione. Next we turn right before we reach Bernini’s arcade and walk along the Vatican’s ramparts to arrive at the museum’s entrance.
Walking through the rooms of the Pinacoteca means walking through the history of painting. In rooms 1 and 2 you can see quite well that the art of painting is still in the first stages of a long development. Room 2 allows us to make a proper comparison between the painters in the first room and a painter like Giotto. The latter is characterised by Giorgio Vasari as the ‘father of painting’, and with reason. He broke free of the Byzantine style, which did not realistically reflect the natural world, in fact it did quite the opposite. Vasari describes how he saw a young shepherd carving the image of a sheep into a rock. Cimabue was astonished and asked the young shepherd to become his apprentice. Vasari then continues to say:
“Once there, assisted by nature and instructed by Cimabue, the boy quickly not just came up to his master’s style, but became such a good student of nature that he put an end to the awkward Greek style [teg: Byzantine style] and brought good modern painting back to life, by being the first to create accurate representations of existing people, painting his subjects true to life, a style that had fallen into disuse for more than 200 years, and even if someone had tried to revive it, they would not, as I have related above, have been very successful or as quick as Giotto.” Cited and translated from Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects’ Amsterdam, Contact, part 1 [original edition 1568] 1992, page 69.
We will look at a Giotto triptych, the Stefaneschi altar from 1313, to see to what extent Vasari’s judgment was correct.
What is it about this work by Giotto that is so modern compared to what we saw in room 1? Standing in front of the big panel – 220 x 245 cm, – we take a look at the robe of Christ, who is seated on his throne. Here you can see how innovative and modern this shepherd’s boy was as a painter. Particularly when you compare the robe of Christ with another robe that his master Cimabue painted on the Virgin Mary. Also in the two side panels, the painter depicts his story in a human way; indeed, quite different from the awkward Greeks or Byzantines that Vasari writes about.
“Peter sits, surrounded by angels and saints, on a simply constructed throne inlaid with Cosmati work. His right hand is raised in blessing, and in the other he holds the keys of his office. Before him, kneeling on the luxurious marble floor, laid out out in perspective, are the hermit-saint Peter of Morrone to his right, and the donor Cardinal Stefaneschi, offering him the altar, to his left. [..]
The model of the altar, which the cardinal hands to St. Peter, is rich in detail and has been painted with precision and extreme delicacy. It allows us to distinguish the original rich Gothic framework. The same representation appears for a second time as a picture within the picture.” Cited from Anne Mueller von der Haegen ‘Giotto di Bondone about 1267 – 1337, Könemann, 1998 pp. 82 -83
In rooms 3 and 4 you can see how great Giotto’s influence on painting really was. We will look at the paintings of two monks: Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi. The latter painted a triptych in 1460 showing the coronation of the Virgin Mary in the middle panel.
Lucrezia Buti reportedly modelled for the lady in the middle panel who kneels down to be crowned. Lippi was painting an altarpiece at the Santa Margherita convent in Prato, when he saw a beautiful young woman who had been sent there by her father Francesco. Filippo persuaded the nuns to allow Lucrezia to sit for the figure of the Virgin Mary (Pietro Aldi The painter and his model). However, this led to quite a bit more than just sitting and painting. Lippi engaged in sexual relations with Lucrezia and abducted her to his house under the pretext that they wanted to see the relic of ‘St Mary’s belt.’ Francesco and the nuns were furious. Fortunately, the rich and influential Medici family interceded. They managed to persuade the parties involved not to bring charges against Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti. She gave her husband a son, Filippino who also became a successful painter. The story goes that his wife invariably sat for her husband whenever he painted a Virgin Mary.
Room VIII (unfortunately, we cannot see every room) features three paintings by Raphael; ‘The Crowning of the Virgin’, ‘The Madonna of Foligno’ and the superlative ‘The Transfiguration.’
“Two scenes are incorporated into this altarpiece, which was the last work painted entirely by Raphael himself.
The upper zone shows Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. The prophets Moses and Elijah are hovering next to him, while the Apostles who witnessed the event are lying on the ground dazzled by the radiant figure. Below there is a scene from Jesus’ life, the healing of the possessed lunatic boy.” Quoted from: Stephanie Buck, Peter Hohenstatt ‘Rafaello Santi, known as Raphael’ Könemann, 1998 p. 114
This altarpiece is the last work painted entirely by Raphael himself.
“Distressed by the sight of the child twisting in convulsions, the Apostle turns away with a gesture of heartfelt compassion. His hand and foot seem to protrude from the front edge of the picture, drawing the onlooker into the scene as a witness to the event.” Cited from: Stephanie Buck, Peter Hohenstatt ‘Rafaello Santi, known as Raphael’ Könemann, 1998 p. 115
This boy is the embodiment of the aesthetic paradox that the ugly can be portrayed in a beautiful way. The humanist Giovio admired the figure for the way in which the physical movement and the fixed stare show the exact physical and mental state of the sick child.”
Quoted from: Stephanie Buck, Peter Hohenstatt ‘Rafaello Santi, known as Raphael’ Könemann, 1998 p. 115
Raphael’s Preliminary studies for his Transfiguration
The works of Raphael belong to the High Renaissance. The main difference with the works that we saw in the other rooms lies in, among others:
1. The naturalism that began with Giotto is now much improved.
2 The utilization of precious materials such as gold and lapis was no longer important.
Where the 14th century painters made extensive use of gold leaf and ultramarine (made from lapis), Raphael’s work does not place any emphasis on costly materials, but instead focuses on a realistic representation of figures and a convincing composition. This is also reflected in the contracts that were concluded with the painters. In the contracts dating from the 13th century up to and including the first half of the 15th century, the patron often compelled the painter to use gold leaf and lapis blue.
In the second half of the 15th century and especially in the 16th century the most important condition is that the painting must be painted by the master himself. In this case that means that the painting had to be done by Raphael, not one of his assistants. The most recent major restoration of Raphael’s painting ‘The Transfiguration’ showed that he actually did all the work, contrary to what the experts thought, and quite the opposite of what Von Sandrart alleged in 1675.
Blue made from lapis is zo precious that it is no longer being made. Ultramarine was primarily used in painting important figures such as the Virgin Mary. We know from surviving contracts that patrons often demanded the artist use ultramarine, specifically demanding the blue had to come from ‘first extractions’. Michelangelo used ultramarine for his Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel – which we will look at before we leave the Vatican – and quite a lot of it too. It is only fortunate that he did, because you will be surprised how well the back wall of the Sistine Chapel has withstood the ravages of time.
According to Von Sandrart (Self-portrait), Raphael’s assistant Giulio Romano had just finished the face of the possessed young man, who at that precise moment is cured of his affliction (in the bottom right corner of the image). When Raphael, who just then walked into his studio saw this, he takes the brush and the palette from Giulio’s hand and with a few precise brush strokes changes the young man’s mouth and eyes. Romano had painted him too tamely, he forgot to give him a soul, according to the master’s own comments.
When we compare these three paintings by Raphael on the long wall across from the entrance, we can see the enormous progress this artist made in a short period of time. Pay close attention to the separation in all three works between what is depicted in the top half and the bottom half of the image plane. In the ‘Crowning of the Virgin’ (1502-1503) the scene in the lower half is completely isolated from what is happening in the top half. In the ‘Madonna of Foligno’ (1511-1512) you can see that there is at least some interaction between the two worlds. Look at the lower angel in the middle holding up a plate. He is looking at the baby Jesus held by the Virgin Mary, who in turn is looking at the angel below. In the ‘Transfiguration’ (1517) Raphael convincingly joins the upper and lower scenes into a strong union.
We turn around and walk to room IX, which has a work by Leonardo da Vinci and a Pietà by Giovanni Bellini. Leonardo never completed the work, a representation of St Jerome.
“Completely new, summing up the artist’s anatomical experiments [drawing] and the study of movement mentioned above, is the pose of the body, kneeling and bent forward, while the right arm is outstretched, grasping a stone, just before the penitent strikes his breast with it. The figure of the recumbent lion concludes the spiral that surrounds the pyramid represented by the figure of the kneeling Saint. The spiral begins in the mountain of the background, its form familiar by now, then winds around the rocky cave, Jerome’s hermitage, to end in the curve of the animal’s tail. The structural composition is thus typical of Leonardo.”
Quoted from: Bruno Santi ‘Leonardon da Vinci’ Scala, 1900 p. 22
Leonardo never completed the work, a representation of
St Jerome. This holds true for more paintings [Adoration of the shepherds] by this famous artist. In this case at least we can gain insight into how artists got started on a new painting. Leonardo, and this was standard in his day, first made a drawing that was later coloured in with paint. Looking at this painting, one can see that he had only barely started colouring it in.
Titian paintings in Room X
In summation, the Venetian school of painting, which clearly differs from the rest of Italy, has the following characteristics:
- A predilection for all kinds of beautiful objects, such as fabrics and glass, which are painted beautifully, but are not essential to the subject of the painting. This type of object is painted for the joy of depicting them.
- The use of beautiful, warm colours. The colour sometimes seems more important than the shapes that are being used.
- No underdrawing on the canvas, but spontaneous painting. Giorgione was the first to do this. His technique would gather a following in La Serenissima.
- The way that the paint is applied is not hidden, on the contrary, the painters take pride in their handwriting.
- Sometimes very crude painting techniques which occasionally involve a thick layer of paint. The wood of the brush or a knife is sometimes used for its application.
When we are standing in front of these paintings, we will see what a world of difference there is between the Venetian school and the rest of Italy. Venetians painted directly onto the canvas without concerning themselves with an underdrawing like the one we saw in Leonardo’s unfinished painting. A portrait that Titian did of the Doge Marcello, which also hangs in this room, is a fine example of the Venetian approach.
Click here to read more about Titian’s painting technique
Giorgio Vasari writes about this altarpiece:
“For the little Church of S. Niccolò, in the same convent, he painted in an altar-piece S. Nicholas, S. Francis, S. Catharine, and also a nude S. Sebastian, portrayed from life and without any artifice that can be seen to have been used to enhance the beauty of the limbs and trunk, there being nothing there but what he saw in the work of nature, insomuch that it all appears vas if stamped from the life, so fleshlike it is and natural; but for all that it is held to be beautiful, as is also very lovely the Madonna with the Child in her arms at whom all those figures are gazing.” Giorgio Vasari ‘A Description of the Works of Titian of Cadore, Painter’ pdf p. 8
We proceed to room XII to see, what choice do we have on this day, a painting by Caravaggio entitled: ‘The Entombment’. This work originally hung in the Chiesa Nuova, also known as the Santa Maria in Vallicella. Unfortunately, it has been replaced with a replica, while the original has been put up here in this room. Unfortunately, because The Entombment is difficult to understand without knowing the context that it was painted for. With this altarpiece, Caravaggio deliberately created an interaction with its surroundings and with the priest standing in front of the altarpiece. Caravaggio also created a continuation of the altarpieces in the adjoining chapels. You will hear this story in programme 4, when you are standing before the replica of The Entombment in the Chiesa Nuova. (Click here if you want to read this story or see Wikipedia).
We will now leave the Pinacoteca, but before we do, we pay a brief visit to room XVII to look at a number of Bernini’s bozzetti. You will see a plaster angel of which one section near its wing is broken, allowing us to see what these life-sized models were made of: paper, thread, all kinds of rags and other material used to fill up the iron frame, and then plaster as the final layer.