Last weekend in a Doylestown, Pennsylvania — which boasts not one but two locally owned, well-stocked bookstores — I picked up an old Phaidon edition of Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy for ten bucks.
Flipping it open to Part VI—“Morality and Religion” — my eye fell on this passage:
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the civilization of the Renaissance had reached its highest pitch, and at the same time the political ruin of the nation seemed inevitable, there were … serious thinkers who saw a connexion between this ruin and the prevalent immorality. It was … [Niccolò] Machiavelli [1469–1527], who, in one of his most well-considered works [The Discourses], said openly, ‘We Italians are irreligious and corrupt above others … because the Church and her representatives set us the worst example.”
Fast-forward five hundred years. In the 2009 book, On Curating: Interviews with Ten International Curators (which I co-edited with the author, Carolee Thea), Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the curator of the current, much-discussed Documenta, stated the following:
For me … the show is only a decoy. It offers a spectacle that distracts everyone, so artists and intellectuals can get on with what they do, in the gaps of the spectacle. I don’t try to beat the spectacle, I just work in the sidelines of it…
In this age where everything is revealed, the only interesting sphere is what is invisible. The exhibition itself is the decoy and nothing has to be revealed: for me, that’s the secret…
It is about shifting information for certain objectives. In art history, when the church’s power was very strong, patrons commissioned an artist to do a fresco of the Virgin Mary, for example. Giotto, Masaccio or Fra Angelico did this but more — something else, something secret.
Back to Doylestown. Earlier the same day, I visited Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi Gallery at the James A. Michener Art Museum, a not-uninteresting exhibition of benchwarmers from the Uffizi storerooms. As the title implies, the show is comprised entirely of sacred painting, but its arrangement doesn’t follow the chronological, stylistic or geographical groupings we typically expect from a museum display.
Instead, it unfolds like a picture book, starting with Adam and Eve and ending with the Passion of Christ: a content-driven hanging that feels both off-balance and anti-modern, with paintings from the Trecento to the Baroque duking it out in the same room just because they depict the Crucifixion.
The unusual arrangement also seemed to lend credence to the rumor, darkly intimated by my Philadelphia-based friend as we entered the galleries, that the show had been underwritten by a cabal of religious zealots.
(An examination of the Michener Museum website, however, reveals that the exhibition was curated by the Uffizi’s director, Antonio Natali, and organized by the nonprofit group Amici degli Uffizi, with local sponsorship from a loose coalition of regional art boosters, TV stations and car dealerships).
My serendipitous discovery of Machiavelli’s scathing pronouncement, however, cast the show’s content in a different light, which in turn brought to mind Christov-Bakargiev and her concept of decoys.
If 16th-century Italians were “irreligious and corrupt above others,” an assertion that Burckhardt leaves unquestioned, we may reasonably ask how seriously artists and their patrons took the conventions of sacred painting. Was it an early form of institutional critique — a way of reminding “the Church and her representatives” of the humility and self-sacrifice they should be practicing — or just another instance of vice paying tribute to virtue?
The complexity of the times nullifies either/or answers. We know that in his later years, in the grip of the spiritual revivalism fomented by the puritanical fire-breather Savonarola, Botticelli genuinely feared for his soul and reputedly burned his own pagan-themed paintings. But without embarking on extensive research, we can’t assume that the other, mostly lesser-known artists in the show shared his devotion.
Nor should we endow them with a contemporary mindset, in which formal experiments, technical hurtles and personal expression take precedence over religious efficacy. It would stand to reason that their sensibility lay among the messy ambiguities yawning between the two.
But what of decoys? My guess is that Christov-Bakargiev’s rather vague contention that Renaissance artists of a certain magnitude were up to “something else, something secret” was not a reference to formal or abstract properties, which are a given.
The experience of Offering of the Angels, which sets the pictorial image at the top of painting’s agenda, was like drinking flat champagne. But its kick wasn’t diluted solely by the mix of styles, which, if done well, can be exhilarating.
Instead, the show seemed to prove the notion of decoys in the negative, affirming their existence through their absence, at least in the majority of the work. If Christov-Bakargiev cites Giotto, Masaccio and Fra Angelico as purveyors of decoys, it is telling that, even without a clear definition of the term, we recoil from asserting the same about painters like Cristofano Allori (1577-1621), Pietro Liberi (1614-1687), or Alessandro Tiarini (1577-1668).
And it is not simply that the latter aren’t marquee names: it’s that their acceptance of conventional tropes, even when dressed up in brilliant flourishes of paint, betrays no spark of inner life—no sense of criticality, or conceptual gamesmanship, or determination to redefine visual perception.
These qualities may appear to be an inappropriate projection of contemporary values, but I am using them to describe the interrogatory intelligence, the tangle of ideas and contradictory impulses that grab us across historical and cultural distances.
In a show like Offering of the Angels, which is composed almost entirely of minor works—not without their rewards, but minor just the same—it is necessary to look beyond the better-known artists and their familiar styles—a dreamily atmospheric “Sacrifice of Isaac” (1550-1555) by Tintoretto; a vividly colored predella (ca. 1510) from Luca Signorelli’s workshop; a diaphanous “Madonna with Child” (ca. 1466 – 1467) credited to both Botticelli and an anonymous 19th-century restorer, which is at least truth in advertising—for fresh signs of secret life.
Such eruptions out of the ordinary can be found in the oddball “Miracle of the Manna (ca. 1594-1597) by Fabrizio Boschi (1572-1642), with its preponderance of a pale, almost sickly blue, its harshly divided lighting scheme and its bizarrely grid-like depiction, resembling an early Larry Poons, of the white manna descending from the sky.
Or in the exquisitely primitivist “Christ Crucified Among the Suffering Virgin, Saint John and Mary Magdalene” (ca. 1395-1400) by Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425), which is actually a page from an illuminated manuscript, with its labyrinth of intersections among the rocky landscape and the folds of the mourners’ cloaks.
Or in “Christ in Limbo” (ca. 1620) by Alessandro Turchi (known as L’Orbetto,1578-1649), in which we can sense the artist’s delight in creating stark chiaroscuro effects that gather like storm clouds on the painting’s impervious black jasper surface.
These are a few standouts, but there are others of interest, some with more of a pulse than others (in the latter camp is Alessandro Allori’s anomalous “The Grieving Madonna with the Symbols of Christ’s Passion” from 1581, depicting Mary staring at a chalice holding three black nails and thick red blood: an intriguing instance of uncommon subject matter undermined by an adherence to leaden stylistic conventions).
It was especially piquant to view this show, with its simplistic view of religious sentiment in the Age of Humanism, in the same week that the Higgs Boson “God Particle” was found (or so we’re told) by the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland.
As the secrets of matter succumb to Big Science, the secrets of art, continually reinvented, remain their own cosmological constant. Stripped of spiritual comforts, they no longer reflect the divine, but they keep returning us to the temple.
Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi Gallery continues at the James A. Michener Art Museum (138 S. Pine Street, Doylestown, Pennsylvania) through August 12.