There are two elevator pitches for the Getty Center’s “Florence and the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350.” The one you’ve heard is “more Giottos than in any previous American show.” The Getty’s exhibition pavilion now has seven panel paintings by Giotto di Bondone, godfather of Renaissance painting. As the show makes clear, nobody did it better than Giotto in capturing natural emotion and faking fascinatingly abstract architecture. (Above, Giotto’s London Pentecost.)
An alternative pitch is “the first retrospective of Pacino di Bonaguida.” You won’t be hearing that one, sure to flunk a focus group. It’s not far off the mark, though, and it’s part of why the show matters. Half of its 98 objects are by that rather obscure artist.
Start with Giotto, the shortest major figure in European painting. Toulouse-Lautrec stood 4’11”. It’s claimed that Giotto was barely an inch or so above four feet. Boccaccio was helpful enough to add that no uglier man existed in Florence. Dante, a close pal, asked Giotto how a man who painted such angelic figures could produce such an unattractive brood of children. “I made them in the dark,” Giotto said.
So goes Vasari’s laugh-a-minute version of art history. Would that we knew a punchline about Pacino di Bonaguida. His name appears on two legalistic documents and on one altarpiece (below, and in the Getty show). Today’s Pacino is virtually the invention of 20th-century NYU art historian Richard Offner. He reconstructed Pacino’s oeuvre from that single signed painting.
But Offner was no Pacino cheerleader. He slighted Pacino as an artist “entirely eclipsed by his greater contemporaries,” one “whose historic importance, due largely, doubtless, to personal or practical gifts, far exceeds his artistic endowments.” Offner’s mission statement was to clear “the areas of Florentine painting of lesser growths to admit more light upon the greater flora.” Pacino was deadwood.
In Offner’s time, art history was a linear progression, upward and onward. Pacino was the awkward case, a two steps forward, one step backward talent. Pacino adopted Giotto’s Renaissance modeling and grafted it onto throwback medievalism. The most avant garde thing about Pacino was his taste for novelty. He crafted new takes on conventional subjects and completely novel ones (such as Dante’s bestseller, The Divine Comedy).
To the 21st century, Pacino is about as trendy as a 14th-century artist can be. Scholars mint Ph.D.’s and reputations on the still-vague connections between manuscript and panel painting. From that perspective, Pacino is the man. He was the foremost early Florentine to juggle big-time careers in manuscript illumination and panel painting. Pacino must have delighted in clever ways of mixing text and image, as in the Appeal of Prato to Robert of Anjou (left). Christ is literally the word made flesh. Those so disposed can read it as a precursor of Breton, Pignatari, and Kruger.
The Getty Museum got into the Pacino business in 1985, when it bought a mixed-media Pacino panel, The Chiarito Tabernacle. In the past decade it’s added two manuscript illuminations from the Laudario of Sant’Agnese. That dismembered masterpiece supplies the exhibition’s denouement. One room reunites 24 of the 28 known leaves or cuttings. Most are by Pacino, and that’s why he dominates the exhibition numerically.
One of the most impressive leaves is the Apparition of Saint Michael from the British Library (below). The late Pacino excelled in the hurly-burley of crowds. His fiendish multitudes are caricatures, though also proof that Pacino was capable of extreme emotion. His dragon is an early conception of a fractal, every Stegosaurus plate an Alien replica of the awful whole.