Paula Nuttall’s book addresses the popularity of Netherlandish painting in Italy and its influence on Florentine artists. It does so in four parts: Context, Contacts, Ownership, and Influence. The volume is lavishly illustrated with numerous color photographs, which is one of its greatest merits.
Part One – ‘Context’ – offers a good overview of the esteem enjoyed by Netherlandish paintings and painters in Quattrocento Florence. It does so by looking at characteristics shared by the two artistic traditions – the preoccupation with conveying three-dimensional human form, deep space, tangible textures, and realistic light effects; and suggests that the Italians learned much about pictorial solutions to these challenges from Northerners. Nuttall also presents textual evidence for the Italian response to Netherlandish painting: admiration for Flemish masters’ skill at colore and ingenio, their fidelity to nature, and the emotional expressiveness and devout character of their pictures. The material and arguments presented in this section are not new and have been addressed by many scholars, but it is convenient to have them assembled in one place.
Part Two – ‘Contacts’ – looks at the community and activities of Florentine merchants in Bruges through the lens of Tommaso Portinari and discusses his and his compatriots’ acquisition of Netherlandish paintings. Nuttall revisits the familiar examples of Hans Memling’s Last Judgement triptych (Gdansk, Narodowe Museum) commissioned by Angelo Tani, Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece (Florence, Uffizi), the paintings by Memling commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, and several portraits ordered by Portinari’s relatives and associates. She then discusses methods of acquisition of Netherlandish paintings and tapestries in Flanders, both on the open market and through commissions. Nuttall treats tapestry as a form of painting, even though the economically and technically complex process of manufacturing weavings, contemporary perceptions of this art form, its value and connotations were all vastly different during the period. The final chapter in this section comments on the presence of Northern craftsmen in Florence. Nuttall lumps together Netherlanders, Germans, Portuguese, and even Italians who had worked abroad and learned Northern painting techniques. To be sure, Netherlandish art was popular and prestigious across Europe, but in a book that argues for a specific relationship between Flemish and Florentine art one wishes for greater clarity and more precise analysis. Nuttall talks briefly about Northern tapestry weavers and embroiderers living in Florence and executing prestigious commissions, but again treats their art as if it were a form of painting, ignoring the significance of the quote she herself cites about the artistry of Livino di Gilio of Bruges, whom the Florentine Signoria declared to be ‘a most excellent artist in weaving, and a remarkable artificer of figures composed with the threads of tapestry.’ Considering that Florence was a preeminent textile center, some reflection on how its citizens might have perceived and valued Flemish textile creations would have been welcome.
Part Three – ‘Ownership’ – examines in detail the Netherlandish paintings and tapestries possessed by the Medici at their various residences, as well as the ownership of such artifacts by other citizens of Florence. A great deal of information presented here is drawn from archival sources, including the Pupilli Inventories, which record property of Florentines who died intestate. This discussion sheds light on the attraction of Netherlandish artifacts to citizens across Florence. Nuttall briefly addresses the different value placed on paintings on panel vs. those on cloth, but does not contextualize the relative place of such objects in the contemporary hierarchy of values as a whole. She writes that ‘like other artifacts that the status-conscious Florentine sought for his home – Spanish majolica, Turkish carpets, English pewter – they were desirable commodities, possessing the additional advantage of Northern courtly connotations.’ Elsewhere, too, she argues that the desire for Netherlandish paintings on the part of the Italians constituted an emulation of the Burgundian court. Burgundian dukes, however, commissioned relatively few paintings, because they were not as valuable in their eyes, aside from the exceptional works of Jan van Eyck and the politically useful portraits by Rogier van der Weyden.
Part Four – ‘Influence’ – begins with a discussion of the mechanics of influence of Netherlandish painting on that of Florence. It is the most convincing and successful chapter in the book. Nuttall thoughtfully analyzes the issue of how Italians came into contact with Northern pictorial models – through drawings, model books, prints, and certain Netherlandish paintings that were displayed in Florence in accessible locations. She sensitively addresses the modes of response – from copying models in whole or in part so as to draw lessons from them as well as to critique and rival them, to absorbing Northern lessons to such an extent as to affect the way of painting from within. In Nuttall’s words, ‘for an influence to be influential, it has to change the way a painter paints.’ She also notes, as other scholars have done previously, that Netherlandish paintings fulfilled criteria of ancient painting for realism and technical virtuosity and thus resonated with humanist values current in Italy. Nuttall analyzes the use of oil and tempera by Florentine artists to achieve effects similar to those in Netherlandish panel paintings. She demonstrates well Castagno’s, Ghirlandaio’s, Perugino’s, Pollaiuolo’s and Filippino Lippi’s emulation of Netherlandish visual qualities, though her suggestion that Fra Angelico’s colore was Netherlandish is not as convincing to this reader. Nuttall’s discussion of the emulation of Netherlandish landscapes by the Italians seems to reverse course. First she suggests that the Eyckian plateau composition appealed to the Florentines on account of its naturalism; then she argues that Netherlandish landscapes were attractive to the Italians because they were idealized. Such confusing testimony is revealed in the author’s statement that ‘it is possible to see the increased ‘Netherlandishness’ of Florentine landscape on the one hand, and the demise of the plateau composition on the other, as partially at least the result of the same development: the escalating taste for Netherlandish painting per se.’ Nuttall’s consideration of the influence of Netherlandish portraiture on that of Florence is clearer, until she comes to postulate a direct link between Leonardo da Vinci’sPortrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (Washington, National Gallery of Art) and Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a Lady (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie). Nuttall asserts that the Berlin portrait is the same as the portrait of a lady by Christus recorded in the Medici inventories; and that Leonardo used it as a model for his likeness of Ginevra de Benci. To make this point, the author pairs severely cropped black and white details of the two faces, misrepresenting their entirely different facial structures and characteristics. Just because we have one surviving female portrait by Christus and one textual mention of such a portrait does not mean that the two must be identical. It also seems worth pointing out that Ginevra de’ Benci would doubtless have preferred to have her own features depicted in her portrait, rather than those of another woman.
The volume ends with three useful Appendices: ‘Netherlandish Paintings Owned by the Medici,’ ‘Netherlandish Paintings in Florentine Patrician Inventories,’ and ‘Paintings and Tapestries Recorded in the Pupilli Inventories.’
Though somewhat repetitive at points, this book offers the most extensive discussion of the subject to date, complemented by a selection of useful documentary evidence and a rich program of good quality illustrations.
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