Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Vine and blue Appenine, convents and cypresses

Fra Angelico, The Deposition from the Cross, 1432

Following on from my last post on Fra Angelico I'd like to focus here on his depiction of the Tuscan landscape in work of the 1430s.  In a 1979 essay Christopher Lloyd described the city representing Jerusalem in The Deposition from the Cross as 'exquisitely rendered with the precision of a miniaturist' and likened the countryside to Ruskin's description in a letter of 1845: 'one vista of vine and blue Appenine, convents and cypresses.'  In his book The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy, A. Richard Turner writes that these landscapes look as if they had been 'carved by a knife from porous rock, and then smoothly rounded until the pores disappear.  The buildings are cut from soft wood, joined with the simplest of planes, and then painted in a naive and happy juxtaposition of pastels and darks.  The lucid simplicity of this world appeals to the sensibility of our own century.  The landscape is unreal, but also supra-real.  A flood of brilliant light moves across the land, reflected with Mediterranean intensity from stuccoed walls, and intermittently absorbed into deep, cool shadows.  Piero della Francesca's luminous landscapes done thirty years later are but the subtle culmination of Fra Angelico's essays in light.'

Another painting from this time also shows the 'Corotesque purity of tone' that Kenneth Clark noticed in Fra Angelico's backgrounds, and has a special place in the history of landscape.  According to Christopher Lloyd, 'the aged Elisabeth surmounting the steep hill from which one can view the full panoply of the southern Tuscan landscape in The Visitation, a predella panel from The Annunciation at Cortona, is an unforgettable image, especially if one has climbed the hill to Cortona, a town which Henry James described as being "nearer to the sky than to the railway station, in order to see the altarpiece."'  David White (who added notes on the paintings to Lloyd's essay for the 1992 Phaidon's Colour Library book on Fra Angelico) explains that the view behind the woman climbing the hill is 'the first identifiable landscape in Italian art.  In the middle distance a lake, which no longer exists, spreads out in the Chiana Valley; beyond rises the town of Castigliona Fiorentino, and further distant the tower of Monterchi.'  This lake has now been drained but it can be seen in the map of the area made by Leonardo da Vinci.

Fra Angelico, The Visitation, c.1432
Panel from the predella for The Annunciation

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