It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Saturday, August 13, 2011

John White : Maso Di Banco

(this is chapter 5 of John White's "Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space. Quoted text is in YELLOW. Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

The starting point for all the later evolution of Giottesque perspective lies in the single composition of ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ in the Arena Chapel. In that scene the visual experience underlying the oblique disposition of all isolated solid objects seems to be applied for the first time to a centrally viewed interior. In discussing the composition it was seen that the two seemingly frontal surfaces of the wings of the ceiling canopy were actually in soft recession. On formal evidence alone this could be taken either as a deliberate experiment based on observation or as merely the unconscious carrying over of an established pattern into an unusual context.

How many "isolated solid objects" in an "oblique dispostion" can be found here?

The only one I find is that architectural feature that wraps around the upper edge of the three walls.

The rule-of-thumb application to a single complex building of the general rule that any cubic object of which more than one face is visible must be seen obliquely, is well demonstrated by the Master who painted the chapel of St. Nicholas in the Lower Church at Assisi (Palmerino Di Guido)

In the scene in which the Saint prevents an execution, a large, and complicated building fills the background. The central barrel vault above the main doorway shows that the structure represents a building which is rectangular in plan. Nevertheless, each of its numerous projections is obliquely seen. The forward surfaces run sharply downwards to either side in all the upper parts, and recede upwards in the base. As a result, the whole structure is completely bowed, as if it were indeed an expression of the successive visual images recorded by an artist standing in front of a large architectural mass, and turning his head and eyes to left and right so as to scan the detail. It is, however, most unlikely that this is the true meaning of the construction as far as this particular painter is concerned. The jumble of forms borrowed from this place and that, and thrown together with little regard for their relationship or significance, which occurs in the remaining scenes that decorate the chapel, shows him to be a minor and derivative artist. It is, therefore, improbable that this one composition is the outcome of a scrupulous, personal analysis of the realities of vision. The abruptness of the recession in the details, and the unrealistic extremes to which the bowing of the whole fa├žade is consequently taken, seem to indicate a painter who is either applying a rule based on observation without himself referring back to nature, or else copying and exaggerating a pattern established with more truth and subtlety by some more perceptive artist.

White digresses for a moment to explain why this painting is the work of "a minor and derivative artist"

His judgment is based upon "The jumble of forms borrowed from this place and that, and thrown together with little regard for their relationship or significance, which occurs in the remaining scenes that decorate the chapel"

And, one might add, in almost all of the paintings that White has shown us so far, the architecture has enhanced the drama of the figures.

What kind of narrative could that goofy conglomeration of buildings accompany?

A slapstick comedy ? It seems to be stage setting for Plautus.

So I strongly agree with White - though I don't see how this failure would preclude the artist from making "a scrupulous, personal analysis of the realities of vision", which is more the work of a scientist than an artist.

As he so thoroughly undermines a conventional plot, Palmerino Di Guido might even be considered a mannerist, or more recently, an ironic post-modernist.

The small fresco of ‘St. Stanislaus Raising a Youth’, also in the Lower Church, presents a more interesting problem. The artist responsible for this scene and its companion pieces is notably more forceful and more individual, both as a colourist and as a figure painter. The immediate point of interest is the church which forms the background to the scene. The main body of the building, consisting of the nave, is seen frontally, and lies more or less parallel to the upper border of the fresco. The transept end upon the right, however, is softly, but definitely foreshortened. All the architectural horizontals of the transept end itself, and of the cloister which backs onto it, run gently downwards to the right. This time the subtlety of the differentiation of nave and transept brings the artistic expression very close indeed to the soft changes that take place as the eye swings, and the head turns, shifting the point of focus to take in the totality that lies beyond the narrow beam of stationary vision. The probability that the distortions in the structural pattern reflect deliberate purpose is increased by the fact that the building is a church of standard Latin Cross design, and not an architectural fantasy.

Unfortunately the little set of damaged frescoes in the Lower Church are not the acknowledged work of a known master. Various names have been put forward. Various small groups of works have been associated on stylistic grounds. But no certainties have been established. It is therefore impossible to assess the perceptivity, and the artistic powers, of the painter, with any degree of assurance. It is, in any case, unlikely that they are actually by Maso, to whom they have often been attributed. Even so, there is some stylistic connnection with the frescoes of the Bardi di Vernio Chapel in Sta. Croce, which are Maso di Banco’s chief surviving monument.

Why can't we assess "the perceptivity and artistic powers" of an artist of unknown name? The reluctance to judge on the basis of visual impact alone might well exemplify the detachment of modern art historians from the practice of aesthetic judgment, as this assertion reflects not only White, but also the academic discipline in which he is writing.

More recently, this painting has been attributed to Puccio Capanna , so now, perhaps an aesthetic evaluation is possible?

I'd say this artist comes up far shorter than White has suggested.

However realistically the architecture may have been rendered, formally it's awkward.
The magic of Giotto, Duccio, and Martini just isn't there. (and unlike Palmerino, he can't even be credited as a humorist)

It may be significant that it is in these scenes from ‘The Life of St. Sylvester’ that it appears to be possible, for the first time, to find enough evidence to form the basis for a reasonable judgment.

In the ‘St. Sylvester and the Dragon', on the bottom of the right wall of the chapel, all the architectural features lie softly at an angle to the surface. There is a strong, direct recession at the centre, and a soft slipping inwards and away as the eye moves from the centre to the left or right across the composition. This gentle recession to the sides is not confined to the main architectural masses of the two buildings in the background. The broken arch that closes the left foreground, and the capital of the isolated column also fall softly away from the surface. The gentle curve of the composition shows the same sensitivity as Giotto’s handling of the delicate recessions of the canopy in ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’. There is, in addition, a harmonious, controlled complexity which is Maso di Banco’s personal achievement.

I see "a strong, direct recession in the center", as well as the "gentle recession to the sides".

But mostly I see a great, wonderful painting that I still remember riveting my attention when I visited Florence almost 40 years ago.

The artist’s own distinctive qualities are visible not only in the structure of the composition, but also in its colour. The clear, cream whites, the calm, flat pinks and greys and yellows cannot be found at Padua or Assisi, and are equally distinct from all the peacock brilliance of Siena by which the painter may have been inspired. At the same time there is a realism, both in detail and in the relation of the figures to the architectural desolation which surrounds them, that intensifies, and is itself heightened by the effect of the artist’s powers as a colourist. The archaism of the representation of two separate actions taking place successively within a single scene, and involving the twofold depiction of all the most important figures, is matched by the compositional skill with which the problem has been solved.

The two episodes, although separated in time, are visually interwoven in an interesting way. The earlier action of the two is compositionally dissipated. While St. Sylvester quietens the dragon on the left, the stupefied magicians lie upon their backs before the emperor and his retinue, who close the composition on the right. In the succeeding moment the whole action concentrates. The saint comes to the centre. The magicians rise. The two wings of the scene are drawn together. The divided interest is focused at the nodal point of the entire design and at the apex of the formal triangle created by the principal actors in the drama. The architectural recession at the centre reinforces the concentration at this point in front of which the onlooker is placed; at which he is brought closest to the action, both in time and space; and, finally, from which the soft recession to the wings floats his attention out to left and right, so that the self-perpetuating cycle may begin once more.

A nice description -- I enjoy having my attention "floated".

Though I do wonder whether Maso's stature as a "colourist" is equal to the artist who painted this one at Assisi.

Within this major circulation to and from the centre there is also a supremely skilful handling of incidental detail. An arch casually frames the figure of the saint as he raises the magicians from the dead. The figure just behind stands as an intermediary between the two events, a temporal connection and a formal bridge. Still turning from the first dramatic happening, he is already fully a participant in the second. On the left, the column in the foreground draws the eye firmly, but not too insistently out from the centre, and the broken arch completes a framing for the action which is, nonetheless, not isolated by it. This fresco, which is Maso’s surviving masterpiece, shows that he is an artist of considerable stature. He is no mere follower of Giotto, a minor painter watering down and misunderstanding the legacy of genius. It is in the light of his own major talent that any further analysis of his approach to visual fundamentals must be seen.

Why must an "approach to visual fundamentals" be analyzed in the context of the artist's talent? Isn't a construction oblique or frontal regardless of who made it?

The fresco of ‘St. Sylvester and the Dragon’ is no isolated phenomenon. The compositional principles which underlie the gently bowed disposition of the architecture as a whole are also given expression in the ‘St. Sylvester and the Bull’ immediately above it on the wall. In this case it is a unified interior, not a group of separate buildings, which is represented. In it the orthogonals of the ceiling recede towards a central vanishing axis, as in so many similar fourteenth-century compositions. The unusual feature is that the parapets enclosing the floorspace do not lie with their main faces parallel to the surface of the fresco and its painted marble flame. Instead they recede softly outwards to left and right until, at the outer edges of the scene, there is sufficient room between parapet and frame for figures to appear, closing the composition. The entire base of the hall, but not the unbroken cornice of the roof, is therefore treated in the same way as the isolated architectural features of the scene below.

One might also notice that the vanishing points of the two scenes, above and below, are not on the same vertical axis. The viewer of the scene above is standing to the right of the viewer for the scene beneath it. Why wouldn't White mention this?

In this particular fresco it could be argued that the figures in the foreground do not fill a space already made, but actually create their own space, like the figures in Giotto’s early landscapes in the upper registers at Padua. In that case the oblique setting of the architectural detail has no significance in relation to the observation of nature. It is merely a rather crude device to make room for some extra figures.

Since use of the oblique setting appears to be optional, why assume that it ever had "significance in relation to the observation of nature"?

This argument is, however, nullified by the fresco immediately above. The latter fills the space beneath the arching of the vault, and represents ‘St. Sylvester Showing The Pictures of the Apostles, and the Baptism of the Emperor’
This fresco, which must have been executed first, since it is the highest on the wall, is filled by a single, large, frontally set building. This is subdivided into two rooms, one of them enclosed and one left open. On the extreme right, the lower line of the front wall is only separated from the framing by the very narrowest strip of ground, and recedes very slightly upwards to the right. On the other side of the scene, the main wall of the building runs quite definitely upwards to the left. The building as a whole is therefore constructed in the same way as that in the fresco underneath. But here there are no figures to provide an explanation.
The three scenes on the right wall of the Bardi Chapel show an increasing mastery and complexity of composition. That is certain. They also seem to reveal a consistent, and ever more clearly expressed tendency to make the painted scene conform to the appearance of the real world as both head and eye are turned to focus on its multifarious contents. The application of this system to the interiors implies that the buildings in the scene of ’St. Sylvester and the Dragon’ are only set in an apparent curve, and in reality would lie upon the straight line marked by the castellated wall that links them.

In his previous chapter about Giotto's Bardi Chapel, White never asserted that "The three scenes ... show an increasing mastery and complexity of composition.", so no explanation was ever offered.

The total effect in this small chapel is quite startling, since its narrowness accentuates the great height of the walls. The painted foreshortenings into and across the picture plane are accompanied by sharply apparent vertical fore- shortenings as the visitor cranes his neck to see the upper scenes. The end effect is of completely curvilinear compositions, painted as if on the surface of a hemisphere. The eye supplies the curves the artist has implied, and which in later generations would themselves be painted.

Presumably, one has to be actually standing in the chapel
to feel this curvilinear effect.

I'll have to remember this if I ever get to Firenze again.

The recessions in the frescoes of the Bardi di Vernio Chapel are noticeable for their lack of crudity and for their consistency. In this they reveal a close community of spirit with the work of Giotto himself which increases the probability that they are based on observation and are not just pattern weaving.

What about narrative effect?

Isn't that a third option in addition to "observation and pattern weaving"

This thesis is confirmed by ‘The Dream of Constantine’ upon the opposite wall. Here an apparently foreshortened frontal building has its forward surface actually in the softest possible recession. The lines of the roof run delicately downwards to the right. The forward bases of the side walls show a correspondingly fine upwards movement. This fresco, with its minimal oblique construction, seems to show precisely that concern for realism, and for the flat pictorial surface, which Giotto demonstrates in several compositions.

The above painting is now attributed to Agnolo/Agostino di Gaddi.

White's argument is that the "softest possible recession" is evidence of a concern for realism.

Unfortunately, the image shown above is the largest one that I could find on the internet, and that recession is too soft for me to even notice it.

Could it possibly confirm White's thesis about the painting on the opposite wall, done by a different artist?

The essential qualities of the new perspective scheme developed by Maso are of some significance. The method marks a definite attempt to break down the cleavage in the treatment of interior and exterior space which was observed when dealing with the work of Giotto. The same rules are applied to both, though somewhat tentatively in the case of the interiors. The bases of these rules are in each case the central position and the moving eyes of artist and spectator. This unification of constructional method also betrays a further stage in a fundamental change of attitude that is historically most important. The concentration on the solid object, which previously dominated the growing awareness of the natural world, is giving way to the idea of space itself, of the void within which objects are contained. The new conception does not triumph until the fifteenth century.

Empty space seems, to me, to have an especially dramatic effect in "St. Sylvester and the Dragon" as well as many paintings by Giotto in the Arena chapel.

Whether the painting exhibits a single POV seems to be irrelevant to that effect.

It is, however, symptomatic of the beginning of a shift in emphasis that, for the first time, a construction has been evolved which, without abandoning the oblique view of the individual object, contains the possibility of a vista down a street that runs directly into depth.

This new potential, not yet realized by Maso, is diagrammatically illustrated in Fig. 2, c

The diagram also indicates a third essential point about the new construction. Whilst the compromise with the plane surface, developed by Giotto, is still retained, a large group of objects can now be represented without forcing on the artist the attendant problem of an equal number of emphatically separate viewpoints. True to the empirical nature of fourteenth-century perspective Maso does not achieve a methodically developed single viewpoint in the scene of ‘St. Sylvester and the Dragon’ . Even so, there is a definite move in that direction. The impression, if not the technical reality, of a single viewpoint is almost achieved.
During the first quarter of the fourteenth century the single object, in its realistically oblique setting, gradually regained, as far as possible, the compositional and formal qualities of the foreshortened frontal setting, which was, for the moment, largely superseded. With Maso the reconquest is extended to the group. The oblique setting is incorporated in a system which assimilates some of the most desirable formal qualities of its rival without sacrificing its own identity. The artistic frontiers opened by this evolution are, significantly, exploited only by one great contemporary of Maso. This artist is Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in whom the Sienese and Florentine traditions are united.

This "artistic frontier" has been opened by nothing more than presenting an oblique construction with a very gentle recession.

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