Before I begin kvelling about From Filippo Lippi to Piero Della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, duty compels me to get the bad news out of the way. Contrary to the exhibition’s title, Fra Carnevale is no master-he’s a dud.
Actually, the key word in the title isn’t “master,” but “making.” What powers the exhibition is the scholarship leading to the recent identification of Fra Carnevale as the artist responsible for The Birth of the Virgin (1466) and The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1466), which are in the collections of, respectively, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Placing Fra Carnevale within the milieu of Florence and, later, Urbino, the curators explore the sometimes bewildering trajectories of stylistic influence. In doing so, they pinpoint the achievement of Fra Carnevale, “the quasi-mythical painter from Urbino” born Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini sometime around 1420. (He died in 1484.) History has been clarified, but has it been vindicated?
The Fra Carnevale panels, coming at the end of the museum’s impressive feat of connoisseurship, are anticlimactic. The crazy-quilt admixtures of zooming spaces, overweening architecture, fussy passages of texture and disjointed arrays of figures are the handiwork of a skilled artisan incapable of articulating a coherent painting. Other examples of Fra Carnevale’s work–especially The Crucifixion and Saint Francis, wooden pictures both–evince an artist who couldn’t realize the human figure as an expressive component of pictorial form. The best Fra Carnevale painting on view, the silky and taciturn Madonna and Child (1440), may not be by him at all; it’s an attribution.
The folks at the Met don’t pretend that Fra Carnevale is the equal of the painters with whom he shares title billing. The sharp and sensitive eyes responsible for organizing the exhibition know what’s what: Filippo Lippi, Fra Carnevale’s teacher, and Piero are headliners for a reason: They’re masters in every sense of the word. In the catalog, we learn that Fra Carnevale was “not [an artist] … of the very first importance.” Elsewhere, we read that his pictures fall under the “shadow” of Piero, an artist who “epitomizes the artistic culture of Urbino.”
Piero, as you might guess, casts some shadow, and it’s there to see at the Met. Directly preceding the gallery dedicated to Fra Carnevale, you’ll find Piero’s Madonna and Child Attended by Angels. In it, the Virgin has been transformed into an immovable-though not inhuman-presence,adivine slab of architecture. She towers over the angels surrounding her and the Christ child and, as such, serves as the anchor for a deeply eccentric composition. Symmetry is suggested and then offset, but in a sneaky, unnerving manner. The space of the picture, notwithstanding the strong directionality of the enclosing architecture, is sharply stunted. Thepainting’s iconography is reinforced and somehow deepened by Piero’s bizarre manipulations of pictorial form. You can scarcely imagine a harder act to follow.
Make that two hard acts to follow: The initial portion of the exhibition is dedicated almost exclusively to the paintings of Filippo Lippi, and it’s a knockout. Particularly strong are The Pieta, with an ominous outcropping of rocks being the arbiter of its gravitas, and the unstoppably gentle The Meeting of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate; particularly strange are the jack-in-the-box elisions of space in Portrait of a Woman and a Man at a Casement.
If it’s name artists you’re after, look for Madonna and Child by Luca Della Robbia, a terra-cotta relief that’s more fully realized as sculpture than the attendant glazed terra-cotta of the same subject by the same artist. Other figures will be known primarily to specialists of Renaissance art, but are well worth getting to know for the rest of us. I was particularly grateful to make the acquaintance of Pesellino, whose Madonna and Child with Saints is a compacted yet remarkably coherent congregation of figures. A small crucifixion by Giovanni Boccati is similarly packed with imagery0–if anything, it’s more ambitious and complex than the Pesellino–and has to be counted as the purest expressionism.
By the time you’re finished zigzagging through Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master, you’ll be exhausted by its many and various glories. (Hey, no one said 15th-century Italian art was easy.) You might even grant that Fra Carnevale had his moments: Look closely, for example, at the supernal slice of life (the guy walking his dog) seen through a doorway just off-center in The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. You’ll be grateful, as well, to the Met for mounting yet another serious, scholarly and stellar exhibition.
© 2005 Mario Naves
Originally published in the February 20, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.