The adventure of knowledge in Masaccio, Beato Angelico and Piero della Francesca
Within a quarter of a century, in the middle of the Fifteenth Century, between Florence and Arezzo three figurative events happened that characterize the passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, in a stern confrontation between tradition and contemporary events. Historically, these are complex, difficult, but also fascinating years.
Byzantium, the last European bulwark against the Turkish Empire, suffers the siege by Sultan Solimano and surrenders to him; the Church, after having re-established Rome as its stable power centre, is guided again by one single Pontiff and tries to reunite the Greek and Armenian Communities around Peter’s Chair; the monastic orders are reformed in order to recover their founders’ charisma; in the Italian cities, where powerful families compete to gain political leadership, the Humanistic culture flowers in its various aspects: the literary, the philosophical, and
the scientific one. In this transitional, daring, and contradictory context, Masaccio climbed the scaffolds in the Brancacci Chapel in order o identify himself, while painting, in St. Peter’s gestures and steps when he was following Christ; less than twenty years later, Beato Angelico reawakened in his brothers the attraction of their affection towards Christ, by painting the cells and the common places of Saint Mark’s convent in Florence; finally, after the middle of the century, in the church of Saint Francis in Arezzo, Piero della Francesca retold with spectacular clarity the most important facts regarding the Legend of the Cross, as a warning for Christianity not to neglect the East and Jerusalem.
In these cycles these artists’ personal creative dimension emerges in an irrepressible urgency for beauty and meaning; the artists face up to the contradictions of a difficult historical and cultural time by trying to render contemporary facts that happened in the past but that are still filled with a claim that is for the man of any time. By painting those facts and those characters, they achieved to grasp the event of knowledge and the possibility for a lively and engaged relationship.
What was the experience of a Florentine citizen who passed in front of Santa Maria del Carmine and observed St. Peter’s tense and obedient look? Or of a Dominican novice, who entered Saint Marks’ convent ready to spend his entire life there, and found in his cell the image of one of his brothers hugging the Crucifix? Or of a citizen from Arezzo, who, upon entering the Church of St. Francis, was immediately attracted by the chromatic richness of the paintings that depicted the story starting all the way back with Adam? These were the questions that we asked ourselves and that we want to repropose through an exhibition that doesn’t aim at being the impossible historical and critical account about three absolute protagonists of the art in the fifteenth century; this exhibition is an invitation to find oneself again in that extraordinary experience of knowledge and creativity that was first of all lived by these artists and that keeps reproposing itself to everybody since centuries.
For this reason, we wanted to create an itinerary that allows us to identify ourselves with those spaces and those life-sized images, as if we actually were in the Brancacci Chapel or in the passageways of St. Mark’s convent or in front of St. Francis’ choir, through different representative means which favour the visual experience, peculiar to the artistic invention.
It is possible to enjoy the three places separately, but sometimes they will recall each other in order to understand in which ways and how much these artists “looked at each other”. We will follow a chronological pattern, and we will try to highlight how it is possible to pass “from the all-dramatic
unity of Masaccio”*, who was actively interested in reality, to the “calm universality of interests” of Piero, captured by a fascination for science. Perhaps here we can acknowledge the critical passage from the Middle Ages to the humanism. We will be accompanied in this journey by documents and provocations taken from an ample historical and cultural context.
The exhibition will close with an intense play of cross-references and visual remembrances that will converge in one single point, which will show how these artists’ urgency for knowledge and beauty, lived with tradition and reality in mind, brought them to rediscover their own faith and to renew the artistic culture.
*Quotations from R. Longhi, Piero della Francesca, Milan, 1927
With the collaboration of some students of History of Art from the Catholic University of Milan.