One of the most frustrating things about studying Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century frescos is rarely being able to get really close-up. I am usually straining my neck to look at something ten metres above me. ‘Art History Neck’ is a real affliction. Today I had the wonderful experience of seeing a fresco as the artist would have seen it as he worked on it. The accidental accumulations of subsequent building projects have meant that floor level now in this early sixteenth century confraternity room in Perugia is probably just about at the height the artist would have had his scaffold to paint this serene and harmonious crucifixion. What a treat to be able to come face to face with this Magdalene. To appreciate, and to wonder, just how the artist was able to reproduce the folds of her white linen undershirt as they gather along the neckline so carefully that now, after five hundred years and a lot of damp and decay notwithstanding, they are as clear to me as if she was standing here. Which of course she almost certainly never was, because the speed required of the fresco painter meant that this wall must have been completed in a matter of days, rather than months. Studies for the figures must have been completed beforehand and were ready for transfer to the surface before the artist* got on the scaffold to start work.
And just to continue my rant about Why Art History was never intended to be just for posh people; this was painted for a confraternity whose members ranged from shoemakers to wool merchants, and shopkeepers to stonemasons. Art for everyone.
*The identity of the artist is still the subject of debate.
The period I work on in Umbria,(the end of the fifteenth and the start of the sixteenth centuries), saw a huge amount of money being spent on chapels and altarpieces in town churches. Commissioning documents repeatedly tell us that patrons were looking at what others had commissioned, and requesting that their work be similar, equal to, or ‘better’ in some way, than another. There cannot have been much chance of quiet contemplation in any of these churches at this time. They must have been alive with the sound of frames being hammered into place, of artists shouting at their assistants to bring paints and implements, and the rustle of parchment as notaries itemised the agreement between patron and artist. All these things took place IN the church. The proximity of trade and the Almighty, at a time when God was very much part of every-day life, was unremarkable.
We, the creatures of a secular age, have perversely assumed over-reverent hushed tones that we imagine to be the appropriate demeanour of the believer, as we creep about Italian churches in our quest to glimpse the masterpieces of this frenetic business of art production.
Last week I had the luxury of being almost the only tourist visiting the Duomo in Spoleto, in Umbria. The main doors of the church were being revarnished, and so were flung open throughout the chilly, bright, December day.
Inside, three men in brown overalls took noisy measurements for a new lining for the font, while the decorators sang as they varnished. Sunlight flooded into the church and illuminated the Lippi frescos in a way that the ubiquitous horror of the Italian church, the coin-in-the-box-spotlight, never does. For a moment I had a glimpse of what it might have been like to have stood there at the end of the fifteenth century, when this was a place of business; as deals were being struck, careers being made, and as the daily grind of making things went on. Baxandall’s “church-going businessman” felt close by my side.
I am researching part-time for my PhD. This means I feel I have two lives: my 21st Century ‘real’ life, and my fifteenth century life in Umbria. This blog is going to be largely about the latter, but this morning the former has already entailed my trudging around a very muddy field feeding and mucking out for my three alpacas; Galliano, Razzamataz and Firefly. Knee deep in Kentish clay and mud, with the rain dribbling down my neck, and accompanied by two dogs whose secondary purpose in life is to collect as much mud on their bodies as possible in a short time (the first being entirely food-related), I was not feeling particularly intellectually inspired.
In a good week for my research, the fifteenth century starts to feel more real than the twenty-first. There is, however, plenty about our every-day lives which can contribute to a fuller understanding of the past. The current trend in historical and art historical research towards the recovery of a ‘lived experience’ (Lucy Worsley’s excellent programme on the christening celebrations for Edward VI at Hampton Court is a first-class example of this) is all about trying to recover the physical detail of being there. And the physical reality of the weather loomed much larger in the fifteenth century than it does now. Just one example………Raphael probably painted some of his works commissioned for Citta di Castello in the first years of the sixteenth century while he was actually in Perugia, some 55 kilometres south. Just a short drive now – but more than a day on horseback, and several days for a large cart carrying the resulting three metre tall wooden altarpiece to be placed in the church. And that does not take into account the day that must have been spent wrapping it in something approaching waterproof, (animal skins?) and packing it with padding to prevent damage as the cart bumped along (sheeps wool?) A wet winter, such as the current one, in which the dirt roads would have been churned to
mud by traffic, might have made the carriage of the altarpiece impossible for several months. All these things had, as they would now, an implication of time, and therefore cost. This tells us something about how much the patron wanted a particular artist to do the work, and also about how keen the artist was to undertake it.