An academic museum that strives to please the general public faces a core contradiction: It must cater to scholars and students while making its shows accessible to locals who lack degrees in art history.
Katherine Smith Abbott, guest curator of the Middlebury College Art Museum’s exhibit on early 15th-century Florentine religious painting, generally manages to meet both sets of demands. Students in a seminar keyed to this show will probably find Smith Abbott’s presentation suitably educational. Viewers whose attendance isn’t mandatory may need to strain to concentrate on the subject matter, even though only 16 pieces are on display. Others may be put off by the piety. But they should make the effort to look beyond the paintings’ repetitive religiosity.
Why should contemporary, secular Vermonters bother going to a show entitled “The Art of Devotion: Panel Painting in Early Renaissance Italy”?
“Maybe gold leaf and the Virgin Mary aren’t your thing,” Smith Abbott responds, “but the show really examines the question, ‘What’s embedded in these works?’ It gently explores historical themes. It approaches the pieces as conduits of information, as vessels of cultural meaning.”
Smith Abbott, a cheerful art history professor at the college, tries to make her two audiences feel welcome and leave edified. The text panels she has hung throughout the show provide plenty of specialized information on individual works as well as about the painting and framing techniques of the Italian Renaissance. At the same time, Smith Abbott recognizes that “all sorts of people will come through here,” as she says. She tries to pique their curiosity about artists who were working 600 years ago.
In its original conception, the show was to have focused almost exclusively on its star attraction: “Virgin and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari.” Middlebury purchased this panel by Lippo d’Andrea (1377-1427) at a 2005 Sotheby’s auction in London for a price the college declines to reveal. (Sotheby’s lists it as $190,000.) Smith Abbott, who specializes in the art of 15th-century Florence, lusted after the work because the college museum owned nothing from that city and era. The quality of the painting made it a choice acquisition despite Lippo’s relative obscurity.
Generous responses to Smith Abbott’s grant applications enabled the museum to broaden the show’s scope. The paintings surrounding Middlebury’s own were lent by institutions in states ranging from Connecticut to North Carolina to Oklahoma.
Most of the other artists included in the show will be as unfamiliar to many museum goers as Lippo d’Andrea. And no one should expect to be wowed by the radical technical innovations of the time. All the pieces were executed in a conservative style — which is precisely the point of the show. Smith Abbott has set out to acquaint contemporary viewers with examples of traditional painting that would have been quite common, though much prized, in early quatrocento Florence.
These are static compositions that share certain visual tropes. Middlebury’s Lippo is typical: The stiff figures are reverentially styled as icons; they give no hint of the rebellious spirit of more famous Florentines, such as Fra Angelico (1400-55), who helped revolutionize European painting. Lippo and company catered to the traditional tastes of patrons who related to the images as utilitarian aids to worship, not as works of art to be admired for their aesthetic brilliance.
Explanatory text accompanying a “Virgin and Child” by Sano di Pietro (1406-81), one of the show’s better-known artists, notes that he produced quantities of devotional pieces with an eye to making quick sales. The small scale of this particular painting suggests that it was intended for prayerful contemplation while its owner was traveling.
Another instructional text challenges the truism that paintings shouldn’t be judged by their frames. Renaissance collectors valued elaborately carved wooden frames nearly as much as what the frames contained, Smith Abbott points out. An artist would hence be sure to collaborate with a skilled woodworker. And he’d also take care, before painting, to coat the poplar panel with layers of linen and powdered gypsum to protect the work from infestation by tunneling beetles.
In addition to highlighting the business aspects of art making (which haven’t changed much over the past six centuries), the show deconstructs a few works with the aim of breaking their political and cultural codes. For example, cleaning and conservation of the Middlebury Lippo revealed that the neckline of the Virgin’s dress had been raised with a ruffle to emphasize Mary’s modesty. That alteration confirms the observation in another text panel that depictions of the Virgin were meant to be “powerful, if impossible, role models for 15th-century women who were expected to emulate her modesty, humility and restraint.”
“The Art of Devotion” offers other interesting insights into the culture and society that produced these paintings. At its heart, though, the show is an exercise in art-historical scholarship that’s likely to appeal more to insiders than to casual viewers — except those who happen to admire adorational art.