Issue Number: 93
Renaissance artists used intriguing devices to raise classic narratives to new heights, says Alex Butterworth
Boccaccio, author of The Decameron, wrote in 1374 of the tricks used by poets to conceal their choicest truths, so that the pleasure of the hunt and delight of the reward would lodge them better in the reader’s mind. Professor Jules Lubbock here explores how such storytelling techniques were translated into visual form in some of the greatest Renaissance accounts of biblical stories.
Beginning with Duccio’s altarpiece for Siena Cathedral, Lubbock traces the growing sophistication of the effects that could be achieved. Individually, for example, the eleven scenes of Duccio’s Trial of Christ might appear formulaic, yet they are shown to break new ground in their sequential unfolding of Christ’s forbearance in the face of mob justice, as the clamouring crowd surges through Pilate’s palace.
In a series of close readings that encompasses the work of Giotto, Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio, Lubbock proves himself a subtle guide, fizzing with new insights. Perhaps most strikingly, he analyses Pisano’s often overlooked relief sculptures on the pulpits at Pistoia and Pisa from unfamiliar perspectives to reveal masterpieces of near cinematic mise-en-scène.
Ghiberti’s famous depiction of Joseph and his brothers on a gate of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence is a story of complex deception, whose chaotic composition has long vexed art historians. What is the intriguing central event? Who is the mysterious woman? Lubbock’s wry conclusion: it is a red herring, inconsequential except as a distraction from the placing of the cup that will incriminate the jealous brothers. The joke is worthy of Boccaccio.
Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello by Jules Lubbock (Yale University Press, £30)
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