The first thing you should know about the glorious new show “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance” at the J. Paul Getty Museum is that seven works by Giotto di Bondone — considered one of art history’s most important painters and the founding father of Renaissance art — have been brought together for the first time to create the largest grouping of his paintings ever exhibited in North America.
Fourteenth century Florence was the buzzing hub of the Renaissance. Most of the iconic landmarks we now associate with the city were just being built, the city was becoming Europe’s banking center and its wealthy patrons competed to commission one church grander than the next, with altars to be decorated, and bibles and choir books to be illustrated.
Alongside them, a growing merchant class began exercising cultural influence by commissioning private chapels with panel paintings and religious and secular manuscripts, including a bestseller, “The Divine Comedy” by the towering literary figure of his day, Dante Alighieri, whose use of Italian instead of Latin was a revolutionary step forward in literature.
There were no printing presses, so each one of these manuscripts had to be written out by hand, letter for letter, by scribes who would leave space on the pages for artists they collaborated with to illustrate. Every page boasted a one-of-its-kind artwork along with the text.
Can you even imagine a time when there was too much work for artists? To get these jobs done, they came together in workshops to share their commissions, each influencing the other through their collaboration.
The beauty of this show is that you see, side by side, the interaction of all these activities unfolding simultaneously during this half-century period of explosive cultural creativity, which ended abruptly with the Black Plague.
You must see the amazing black-background paintings of Pacino di Bonaguida dramatically depicting the crucifixion and Taddeo Gaddi’s remarkable “Tree of Life” painting that incorporates text between the tree’s branches; this was very innovative stuff back in the 14th century!
Do not miss the Dante Poggiali (named for the scholar who located it), the only surviving manuscript of its kind before 1350 of “The Divine Comedy,” with the text of the poem enhanced by commentary and illustrations by Pacino and anonymous miniaturists.
A lesser-known painting star of the 14th century, Pacino took inspiration from Giotto and ran with it in wholly new creative ways, heretofore unseen in its time. Another painter ahead of his time is Taddeo Gaddi, whose depiction of St. Francis is absolutely breathtaking, looking completely unique in the context of these other works.
For those who could not read, sequential painted panels of multi-episode religious narratives told the extended stories of Christ and the lives of the saints; many of these were commissioned by the Franciscan and Dominican orders to enhance the viewer’s contemplation and devotion. They appeared on extensive panels adorning church arches, columns, ceilings and altars and in individual chapels. Look for Pacino’s Chiarito Tabernacle for a truly unusual example of these narrative panel paintings.
The religious orders took to singing hymns, or “laude” while praying, and to encourage participation by the masses would often sing in Italian rather than Latin. This gave rise to a form of manuscript called “laudario,” featuring the lyrics and notes of these hymns, plus illustrations.
Pay special attention to the stunning last room of this exhibition, where you’ll hear hymns chanted in the background while looking at pages of one of the most elaborate and beautiful examples of these manuscripts, the “Laudario of Sant’Agnese” (St. Agnes). It’s been taken apart and dispersed across the world over the years, so only 28 leaves and fragments survive, many of them displayed here.
A really nice touch for understanding the difference between painting on panel and illustrating a manuscript is a large round glass case featuring the step-by-step process of each of these techniques, fascinating for those who want to know “how did they do it.”
And a special aspect of this exhibition is the acknowledgment of the work done by scientists and restoration specialists, who after studying the panels and digitizing the information are able to crunch the numbers about each of the layers and colors of these panels to show us what the original paint (unable to be restored on the panels) would have looked like in its time.
One of the briefest eras with the most flourishing art scene, “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350” is on view at The Getty Museum at Getty Center through Feb. 10, 2013. There are numerous associated lectures and events (culinary, too!) scheduled throughout the run. Find out more here: www.getty.edu.
Just beat it
The film version of Jack Kerouac’s best-known novel “On the Road,” will open at Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles in January (the theater reopens in December); I’m seeing a screening and will report more as we get closer to the debut.
But if you just can’t wait to tap into the beat vibe, there are two opportunities for you: “Waiting for Jack: A Poetry in Motion,” at Beyond Baroque on Friday, Nov. 16 and again on Friday, Dec. 7.
This “anti-Mad Men” version of American literary history features prominent Los Angeles poets reading the works of Beat Generation poets in an homage, an invocation of spirits and a rousing night of live poetry, partly scripted and partly improvised depending on which of the spirits are invoked.
During this loose re-creation of the historic 1955 Six Gallery Beat poetry reading, a group of local poets will read favorites by Beat Generation icons while waiting for Jack. Will he ever show up?
Writers Rex Weiner and Michael C. Ford introduce and comment on the action while sitting on the sidelines at a café table throughout the proceedings, as Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Bukowski, LeRoi Jones and others are embodied by local poets.
Tickets for “Waiting for Jack” are available here: http://waitingforjackshow.blogspot.com/ Beyond Baroque is located at 681 Venice Blvd. in Venice. For more info call (310) 822-3006.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.