How many churches were there on the Italian peninsula, say, in the year 1500? No one has probably ever calculated, but 3000 would be a conservative estimate. How many altars were there in each of these churches? In modest country parishes, maybe no more than one or two, but in larger churches of religious orders, often up to 20. How many of those thousands of altars were decorated with paintings or carvings? Since there was no canonical requirement for an altar to have an altarpiece, many can do without it.
Yet during the 14th and 15th centuries, and especially in large urban centers like Rome, Naples, Milan, Florence and Venice, an altar without an altarpiece would have been considered a poor thing. Wealthy families and social institutions competed to order decorations for their altars and chapels that were beautiful and worthy, as well as the expression of their own special devotional interests. It is no wonder that throughout the Renaissance the production of altarpieces was one of the main tasks of any painter, whether it was the stature of Raphael or Titian, or the less gifted Bernardino Detti or Girolamo da Santacroce, or any anonymous craftsmen.
Throughout the Renaissance, the production of altarpieces was one of the main tasks of any painter.
But how can we build a historical assessment of these thousands of Italian Renaissance altarpieces? As with the artistic style, different centers have developed their own distinctive typologies, and it is legitimate to recognize a typical Sienese Trecento or Florentine Quattrocento altarpiece, especially since their designs reflect the dominant architectural style of their time and place. However, any attempt to apply a geographic structure to a large survey would result in excessive fragmentation and the exclusion of smaller, often very interesting centers.
Likewise, you can build a story with a series of case studies or historical landmarks. But if this could shed light on a selection of major masterpieces and take into account the role of some great patrons, it would inevitably be to the detriment of many lesser works of art – which nevertheless deserve to be considered as part of it. of a larger whole.
In his latest book, eminent Renaissance scholar David Ekserdjian adopts a different strategy. As he rightly claims, this is the first comprehensive study of the Italian Renaissance altarpiece. At over 400 double-column pages, the book chronologically expands on Duccio’s work Maestà from 1308-11 to Barocci and Veronese at the end of the 16th century, and geographically from Piedmont and Friuli to Sicily.
This vast and unwieldy material is organized in an order which, while vaguely chronological, is essentially thematic. The general theme is indicated by the subtitle: Between icon and narration. In very general terms, early altarpieces tended to feature static images of holy people, such as the Virgin Mary and saints, often in separate compartments of polyptychs; while in the 16th century, the unified pictorial fields offered much more possibilities for the description of stories of the New Testament or the lives of the saints.
But part of Ekserdjian’s argument is that, in the context of the altarpiece, the terms “icon” and “story” are not opposed, and that both are implicit in the very placement of the image above. of an altar, a place of celebration. of the sacrament of the Eucharist and for devotional contemplation of the mysteries of the Christian faith. Therefore, a static image of a saint usually also evoked the circumstances and meaning of his life, while the message implicit in even an intensely dramatic narrative was its timeless significance.
To us, Luca Longhi’s painting is slightly absurd, with George attacking his dragon in an architectural interior.
The interweaving of the icon and the story is eloquently illustrated by the first two examples cited in the introductory chapter: one, The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and George (1532) by the painter Ravennat Luca Longhi, and the other, Correggio Madonna of St Jerome, only four years earlier. In both cases, the subject is the very common of the so-called sacra conversation, in which a central Madonna and Child is surrounded by a group of anachronistic saints. The painting of Correggio is infinitely the most sophisticated: new ways are found to show the attributes of the saints, with their references to the circumstances of their lives, and the composition is animated by subtle asymmetries and ripples of movement. To us, Longhi’s makeup is not only much more stilted but also slightly absurd, with George attacking his dragon in an architectural interior and an impassive kneeling donor in the foreground to the right. But for contemporaries – and perhaps especially for provincial audiences – this example would probably have been no less effective than that of Correggio in fulfilling the various religious and social functions of the altarpiece.
Ekserdjian possesses an impressive encyclopedic knowledge of the paths of altarpiece development during this period, and the Longhi is just one of many examples that serve as pleasant and enlightening complements to the more familiar masterpieces of the genre. And in addition to exploring the creative tension between icon and narrative, the author finds room to discuss various other essential aspects of the Renaissance altarpiece: the ways in which it was framed in wood or marble, and has sometimes been combined with figurative sculpture; the ways in which it was discussed in the written documents of the time; the ways in which he responded to the changing religious climate of the 16th century reform era. At the same time, he writes engagingly and takes his learning lightly, and with its 250 illustrations, this beautiful book is crafted in the best Yale tradition.
David Ekserdjian, The Italian Renaissance altarpiece: between icon and story, Yale University Press, 496 pages, £ 60, $ 75 (hb)
• Peter Humfrey is Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of St Andrews