A Tuscan pilgrimage left an indelible impression on gallery artist Oliver Bancroft...
I was not prepared for my first confrontation with the vastness of art in Italy. Out of books and in the world, I was completely overwhelmed by the unexpected scale of it. I promised myself to one day return and spend more time to enjoy it.
In 2010 that second trip to Italy was booked and this time I had a plan. The mannered early Renaissance was my love and would be the focus of the trip. So starting in Florence, I would seek out every Fra Angelico painting, drawing, sketch and doodle I could locate. This Fra Angelico quest would set a path through the oceanic weight of art to be found in Tuscany. Encounters along the way, between Fra Angelico targets, would highlight a selection of unexpected artworks. Rather than thumbing through edited collections of reproductions in books, this trip would be ‘unabridged’ and in the ‘hyperreal 3D world’ of my own eyes.
Fra Angelico has stuck out in my studies ever since I encountered him on a trip to the Prado, Madrid. Contrary to my love of Rembrandt, Titian, Goya, I fell for the remoteness of Angelico’s humans and plants and that warm, golden light they emitted. The pretty boy of the early renaissance. No one does the glow like Fra Angelico.
Although other painters – Paolo Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Giotto, Masaccio and Duccio – loom heavy in my early Renaissance desires, Fra Angelico has remained my guide. His cosmic strangeness of catwalk angels with rainbow wings, dark radiant gardens, laser beams and annunciation scenes, floating ribbons of Latin text like comic book speech bubbles. What are these Stories in a shadowless world?
Most mornings in Florence involved a short walk from the hotel to the coffee shop and then a pause, in the public square, waiting for the Museo Di San Marco to open. A daily commitment to the museum, or my efforts at Italian greetings with the friendly staff, somehow waived my entrance fee after a few days.
The cloisters of San Marco hold onto the night air, its quiet contrasting the noise and heat of the city outside. In the morning shade, my eyes took time to see Fra Angelico’s frescos. Above doorways the paintings are close to vanishing. The crumbling stucco has peeled back the painting, allowing them to appear unfinished again.
At eye level, the feet of giants line the bottom edge of a large crucifixion. Am I in a swimming pool and they standing/ performing at the edge?
Detail from The Crucifixion, Fra Angelico, Museo di San Marco
Upstairs in the private world of the monks, each chamber contains its own painting for intimate contemplation. Stations of the cross, a skull, little rivers of blood. The details within each fresco seemed to offer a different message whose meaning was lost to me. instructional rather than narrative pieces, illustrations for prayer and reflection techniques. Do you need to live with these paintings to understand them, painted by a monk for a monk?
Noli Me Tangere, Fra Angelico, Museo di San Marco
Within the monk cells of San Marco, Sean Connery, Michael Lonsdale and Ron Perlman in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose hunched, jabbered and lunged their way through my imaginings.
The main road was quiet, the front door unlocked. Inside the Convent of San Domenico was silent and dark. Just inside the main chamber stood the Fra Angelico altarpiece, spotlit in an otherwise dim church interior, as if the windows had been curtained or blocked up. Through a heavy grill I could see a functioning garden orchard and sensed the presence of people outside.
The Fiesole altarpiece had at some time been afforded an upgrade to fit a new aesthetic, the backgrounds expanded with a giant throne theme and a wall of blue sky, converted into a single, large imposing panel. Under the spotlight, the contours of the original panels could be seen beneath the adaptations. The gold leaf that once filled in around the halos of Mary and the saints had been painted over. The original polypytch-spaceship-altarpiece form, engineered from gold and wood, was rising out, pushing to return.
Now Rise Up, This Empty Heart (after Ghirlandiao), 2001, oil on board
The predella now looked squashed and lost beneath the enlarged main panel of the altered piece. I knew these surrounding panels from the originals, which now hang in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery. Had the original panels been sold to pay for the alterations (with copies made later)?
Do these alterations reflect a historic change in preaching practices? Once upon a time this church and its golden altarpiece had been attended by a softly spoken priest who whispered tales of outer space and contact from beyond. Then his stewardship was handed over to a man of the cloth with a booming voice and a heart set on hellfire and damnation.
The original work was like a film, drawing the viewer in with its golden surfaces and colourful details. The ‘upgrade’ made the painting operatic or theatrical, projecting out a message to the flock from the stage of the altar.
On the reception desk of the Diocesano Museum a small TV monitor displays a live feed from a security camera. The museum visitors ahead of me in the queue are now walking into frame. They are fully focused towards something out of shot; across the space, something seems to glow. A flood of golden light is flaring into the camera lens. In the glow, the visitors’ astonished bodies are still, their mouths maybe slightly open, their manner contrasted with the casual, holiday persona they held at the ticket desk. A long pause, then they venture forth, out of shot, towards the golden flood, as if caught in a Renaissance tractor beam on the bodies of viewers today.
Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, 1968
The annunciation at Cortona is golden and fresh. In the tiny church museum it fills the room. I remember thinking I could reach into the architectural space of the painting.
I stayed in a room in the convent on the edge of town (I don’t recall seeing a nun or any guests while there).
I returned the next morning to see the painting again. Perhaps the frame acted as a bridge between space and the painted space. A multi-coloured world with gold and ivory white was pouring out, lines of Latin text journey across the verticals of columns.
Detail from The Annunciation at Cortona, Fra Angelico, 1433-34
Cortona is a tiny place upon a high hilltop. The painting has a spell over the town and its character; UFO skies, laser beam hands and floating gold words were in the daydreams of everyone’s eyes.
Did I find a bed in the highest room in the town? It was a stone walled roof space dormitory, with 20+ beds but only two guests. From the one small window, a view over rooftops of birds, TV aerials and across a valley. On the distant slopes opposite, the streetlight shape of a town. I knew it was Assisi but I didn’t know how I knew. A Nikos Kazanzakis book in a friend’s house? Why I didn’t go there I can’t recall. I was running out of time and money but perhaps I was too focused on seeing Angelico paintings. A chance missed to see Cimabue’s frescos still has a bitter pang.
Perugia would be the last stop before returning to Florence and then home. The Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria houses another golden altarpeice by Fra Angelico, nestled among an extensive collection of paintings from the early Renaissance. The gallery is a labyrinth of hot rooms and cool staircases, filled with paintings all beating the drum of religious themes. Highlights included: great paintings of Piero Della Francesca and Duccio di Buoninsegna with wonky fingers and hands. The weird moon faces of Perugino. Little paintings by Taddeo di Bartolo. I remember displayed in the breezy corners of the galleries (by open windows?), tiny gem-like paintings of strange stories and unknown messages (‘outsider’ artists of the early renaissance?).
I left the gallery with the intention of returning the next day for a second viewing, as was my habit. However in the morning I found myself physically sickened by the prospect of confronting more paintings of crucifixes and martyrdoms. The painted images accumulated from this journey had unexpectedly built up ad nauseam. When I closed my eyes, they were all there: bloodless bodies, pointing fingers, scaffolds and ladders, wiser than their hours babies, skulls, kneeling saints, more blood, guilt and wounds encased in gold leaf. I couldn't stomach seeing another hole in the palm of a hand.
Instead, an extra coffee in the morning and a breezy summer walk through the back streets of the hilltop town. I remember a photography exhibition of Steve McCurry, that had a surprisingly ‘Fresh air’ feel to it.
Back in Florence I was well aware I hadn’t seen every Fra Angelico painting. Another trip would be needed to tick off other sites. During this trip my interests centered on the strangeness of these early renaissance / late gothic images. I had become more attuned to the imaginings of the artist. Spotting the ‘personal touch’ within their styles and the prescribed canon of religious images.
Time to revisit the Museo di San Marco and enjoy Fra Angelico’s comic book predellas of tragic superheroes.
I found a gallery of Illuminated manuscripts by Fra Angelico. Large notes of musical score with intricate page headings in blue and gold.
A ‘just in case!’ visit of the brilliant Galleria degli Uffizi. A highlight was the Thebaid painting attributed (but not universally acknowledged) to Fra Angelico. Its 'god view' over a landscape of rivers and mountains is crowded with hermits. Each hermit on their own patch of solitude, battling through the rigours of religious enlightenment alone.
Oliver Bancroft, Study of a Boy, 2001, oil on board
In Santa Maria Novella my joy returned. An afternoon stood before Uccello’s flood-damaged walls of faded frescoes; characters battling dramatic perspective angles in green and crumbling stucco. Science fiction in appearance – Star Trek characters locked in combat with an incomprehensible alien force.
A day lost among the vast treasures of Santa Croce, with its photographs of men carrying a crucified giant. Seeing a Cimabue was a small consolation for missing his frescos at Assisi. At Santa Croce all the greats are there together!
Soldiers rescue a Crucifixion by Cimabue during the November 1966 flood of the Arno River, Florence; they were nicknamed the 'mud angels' for their work carrying the cross and collecting specks of gold leaf and paint from the flooded streets.
The art of the early renaissance. It still holds my fascination today. In my art practice I regularly search the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery for answers. On subsequent trips to Europe and North America, I have always sought out the collections of early renaissance painters, hungry for more.