Wandering Among the Early Italians

All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves. Eli Siegel

My first stop on my first day in London is for buttered naan, dal, tandoori cauliflower, and a pale ale at an Indian restaurant near the National Gallery. My second stop is inside the National Gallery, where the traffic flow deposits you first into the Early Italian wing.

Three hours later, I’m still there among the Giottos and Masaccios. What is it that I love so much about these paintings, when the work of the high Renaissance can leave me cold?

Susan Abbott, sketchbook

Susan Abbott, sketchbook

I’m sitting writing this in a cafe because there’s no wifi in my flat, and the sun just came out, and I’m eager to get back to a museum this afternoon. So I’ll keep my wordiness at a minimum today, and just say a few things about these paintings of the 14th and early 15th centuries that draw me like a magnet.

Ugolino de Nerio

Ugolino de Nerio

First, their “thingness,” the way these paintings are both are both sculpture and image. They grew from icons, and they still carry some of that power of sacred object.

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Second, I love these paintings’ tension between space and flatness. It’s exciting!

Piero Ucello

Piero Ucello

Ugolino de Nerio

Ugolino de Nerio

Third, the color is wonderful. When painters developed a scientific interest in light and form in the later 1400’s, color took a back seat to values. There’s no right or wrong here, but I can’t help preferring the deliciousness of the pinks and blues and greens used by these earlier painters.

Zanobi Stozzi

Zanobi Stozzi

Ugolino di Nerio

Ugolino di Nerio

The use of decorative pattern is another wonderful thing here.

Gentile de Fabriano

Gentile de Fabriano

Nardo di Cione

Nardo di Cione

But all of this color and decoration is never at the expense of emotional power. The story comes first.

Ugolino de Nerio

Ugolino de Nerio

Masaccio

Masaccio

And then there’s the weirdness, who does’t love that.

Nardo di Cione

Nardo di Cione

Uccelo

Uccelo

I’ll close with a few pictorial quotes from a painter who should have made my “Five Greatest” list, Piero della Francesca. The color, design, weirdness, and beauty of his work speaks for itself.

And now I am going to eat my plate of eggs and baked beans before they get any colder!

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