Unsung Hero of the Renaissance Has His Day in the Spotlight

Exhibition Honors Antoniazzo Romano

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This fall, Rome has the pleasure of seeing one of the unsung heroes of the Renaissance finally hit his high note. Antonio di Benedetto Aquilo degli Aquili, better known as Antoniazzo Romano, celebrated in Renaissance Rome as “pictor urbis” (the painter of the city), has been honored with his own exhibition. Fifty works have been gathered in the Palazzo Barberini from all over the region of Lazio, and Rome has published an itinerary, much like in the case of the blockbuster Caravaggio exhibition of 2010, allowing interested visitors to enjoy this painter’s works in situ.

With major exhibitions on Cleopatra and Augustus opening at the same time, it may seem that Antoniazzo is as dwarfed today as he was in the 15th century, sharing the Roman stage with Melozzo da Forli, Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo. But having visited these exhibitions, I can say that the Roman painter’s show has been lovingly put together by true fans of this little known artist. The great biographer of the artists, Giorgio Vasari, could spare merely one line for this man he described as “one of the best painters in Rome,” but the curators have left no stone unturned in finding and contextualizing the works of this artist.

Antoniazzo was born around 1435 in Rome, probably the son of a painter. His early formation is not well known, and much like Caravaggio who would prowl his same neighborhoods over a century later, the first public notice about the artist is a fine for “excesses.”

Whatever childhood antics he may have indulged in were forgotten by 1464 when he was commissioned not only for an altarpiece in Rieti, but also for a chapel for Cardinal Bessarion in the church of the Holy Apostles in Rome. The Franciscan generalate house, which briefly held the body of Michelangelo after his death, was gifted with a large chapel dedicated to St Michael the archangel by the erudite Greek Cardinal. The selection of Antoniazzo Romano by this exceptional churchman, who also spotted the young preacher that would one day become Pope Sixtus IV, was a sure sign of future success.

Sadly, the frescoes were lost in the 18th century when the apse was enlarged, but a small fragment remains in a little alcove in the church. It is open to the public only a few hours a week (Friday and Saturday from 9-11am) but entering through the little door is like stepping into the past. First, one is surrounded by life-size images of Renaissance courtiers and then climbing on a scaffolding the visitor stands among the choirs of angels. Antoniazzo’s colors are bright and vibrant, probably influenced by Benozzo Gozzoli who had recently been in Rome working on the chapel of Pope Nicholas V.

The success of this homegrown painter grew as he produced an altarpiece in St Mary Major for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza (now lost), and worked in St John Lateran and St Paul outside the Walls, probably around the Jubilee year of 1475. In 1478, Antoniazzo, along with three others, wrote the statutes to found the Academy of St Luke, the famed association of Roman painters and professors. The illuminated manuscript of his statutes is one of the early works of the exhibition.

Antoniazzo served as a kind of antidote for all the fast-paced, avant-garde art of Rome in the late 15th century. Many of his works still contain the old-fashioned gold backgrounds that draw the viewer out of an earthly dimension to a heavenly one, but lack the complex perspectival settings of the Florentine Renaissance. At times it can seem that Antoniazzo had dozed throughout the entire artistic revolution of the 15th century.

His occasional recourse to the medieval device of making the major saints larger in his panels and the donor smaller, earned him at time the nickname of the “reactionary painter,” but it seems, from his tremendous success, that Rome had more than its share of reactionaries.

Antoniazzo lived his life a few blocks from the Pantheon (where he also produced an altarpiece). The grandeur of ancient Rome was far more his inheritance than any Florentine’s. He understood that Rome’s greatest treasure was not her pagan past but her Christian present.

Ghirlandaio arrived to Rome with his precise prosaic ability to transpose holy scenes into the everyday world and sprinkle liberal doses of antique themes into his frescoes, and he earned kudos in the Sistine chapel and a commission in the church of St Mary sopra Minerva. Antoniazzo was not invited to join the Sistine team, and his commission for the Minerva church would come only 20 years later (although he would be called in to evaluate the work of another Florentine, Filippino Lippi in the same church). Nonetheless, he was in demand among popes, prelates and princes.

Antoniazzo didn’t crowd his works with portraits of patrons as Ghirlandaio did, nor did he focus on the details of dress and accessories, but one essential theme of the Florentine master did fascinate him. Antoniazzo’s Nativity with Saints Andrew and Lawrence places the Christ Child on the ground, a composition that focused on the humility and vulnerability of the Christ child. Such a portrayal mirrors the art of the great Florentine.

The world of Antoniazzo still glitters with medieval gold grounds, and saints often stare serenely out at the viewer or up at the heavens, yet this meditative atmosphere often seems like a quiet oasis amid the monumentality and drama of Michelangelo, Filippino Lippi and Sandro Botticelli. Antoniazzo’s genius lies in his fearless adherence to tradition, sense of Roman identity and judicious allotment of the modern into his work. Antoniazzo, despite great pressure, never adopted novelty in art for its own sake.

The exhibit brings together scenes separated for centuries, for example the paintings of the room where St Catherine of Siena died. Usually, most of the frescoes are housed in St Mary sopra Minerva while the others (St Catherine and St Bridget of Sweden) are in St Catherine in Magnanaopoli near the forum. For this exhibition, the  fresco has been reconstructed, meeting in a literal sense, half way.

My favorite work in the show in Antoniazzo’s Annunciation from St Mary sopra Minerva, which I had never before been able to see up close. Oddly enough, though it was executed in 1500, the same year Michelangelo unveiled his Pietà for St Peter’s Basilica, this masterpiece has little in common with the awe-inspiring marble group of the Florentine sculptor.

The Annunciation panel was a high-profile commission. The Confraternity of the Annunciation, founded in the mid-15th century by Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, provided dowries for destitute Roman girls. Every March 25th, the feast of the Annunciation, the Pope would preside over Mass in the church, which culminated in a procession of young women dressed in white who came to receive their gifts. The annual spectacle was described by visitors up until the 19th century.  Antoniazzo’s Annunciation was unveiled on the feast day as part of the festivities.

The textured gilt background of the Annunciation panel takes the viewer out of time and space, neither proposing a setting of a recreated Nazareth, nor a familiar Italian landscape. The shimmering surface with its sunburst patterns expresses the radiant joy of this mystery.

The angel appears before Mary in sharp profile, his attention fully directed toward the Virgin. Although his head bows slightly in reverence and he proffers the lily gently towards her, the rest of his body stands stiffly upright, mirroring the line of his upturned finger and indicating that he has been sent from above.

The delicacy of Mary’s face suggests that Antoniazzo was not insensitive to the ethereal beauty of the Lippi school. She bends her tall form downwards, delivering little white purses while pressing her other hand against her heart. This gesture, paired with her downcast eyes, illustrate Mary’s words, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word”(Lk 1:38).

Cardinal Juan de Tor
quemada, depicted 30 years after his death, and the maidens are presented as diminutive figures. The discrepancy in size between Mary and Gabriel and the supplicants also harkens back to the Middle Ages where height defined the hierarchy of importance among the figures. The Florentine Renaissance, in its search for harmony and proportion, rendered all figures, saints or sinners, of equal measure.

While this naturalism had many merits, the papal world was hierarchical. The Pope, as Christ’s vicar on earth, wields a unique authority. Mary, as Mother of God, rises above other human beings, and angels, who stand in the presence of God, are extraordinary beings not belonging to the temporal world. Despite the enticement of the sophisticated new art from Florence, Antoniazzo never overlooked the supernatural priorities of his own native soil.

In fact, Antoniazzo had mastered the new techniques. Antoniazzo painted a series of marble tiles, the envy of every aristocratic domicile, that recede into the golden backdrop, the mark of perspectival virtuosity.

Mary kneels on a wooden stand turned obliquely and painted in correct perspective. The drapery falls convincingly around the bodies of the figures, casting shadows and adding volume and depth. Nor does Antoniazzo overlook the lure of the ancient. Mary’s lectern sits atop an Imperial candelabra, a rarified antique.

Antoniazzo lived between two Romes: one, the medieval town still under reconstruction after a century of neglect, and the other, a city poised to reclaim her title as caput mundi “head of the world” in matters artistic, intellectual and primarily spiritual. Raised in this climate, Antoniazzo cautiously embraced the new naturalism, but he never allows the viewer to forget that “Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.”

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her most recent book, co-authored with George Weigel, is titled Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches.  Her website is http://www.elizabeth-lev.com/

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Elizabeth Lev

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