Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Giovanni da Rimini:Apostles of the Adriatic.

Room 1 of the National Gallery in London was showing one of their more recent acquisitions, if one of the oldest paintings in the gallery. Giovanna da Rimini's Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and other Saints dates from over seven hundred years ago. It's so old it's not even certain if it should be considered a proto-Renaissance work or not and da Rimini is so obscure he's not even got a Wikipedia page devoted to him. I mean, that really is obscure.

So it's probably a bit daft to attempt to write a blog about my trip there but then I can be as daft as I am curious and I'm usually very curious. I'm curious about Italian art, history, and geography and as I knew pretty much next to nothing about the city of Rimini, the region of Emilia-Romagna, or the culture of that area I thought it'd be a learning curve for me. So this one's pretty much for me. Don't feel you have to read it. I'm sure you won't.

Giovanni da Rimini - Virgin and Child with Five Saints (1300-1305)
From my visit I found out that in the early fourteenth century Rimini served as an important trade centre between western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. These two competing forces came together across the Adriatic to create a specifically Riminesi art but following a series of earthquakes most of the art has now been lost.
Not much is known of da Rimini but most accounts report that he produced several large painted crosses for northern Italian churches but was better known for the small paintings he produced for spiritual contemplation. The three works here, all rendered lovingly in egg tempera on wood, fit that description perfectly. In Virgin and Child with Five Saints we see Jesus and Mary touching in many places, all the better to instruct followers of the strong emotional connection between the two of them. It's a nice work but do Christians, either then or now, really need reminding that mothers and their children have strong emotional connections? Funny lot, religious people.
The key work, Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and other Saints, doesn't particularly stand out amongst the supplementary pieces. It's neither better nor worse. It's just newer to this particular gallery. It depicts St John the Evangelist being received into heaven, the Coronation of the Virgin, St Catherine of Alexandria preaching to the philosophers, and one of St Francis and St John the Baptist, two of the undoubted star names of the sanctified firmament. Good solid biblical stories that clearly bear repeating - time and time again.

Giovanni da Rimini - Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and other Saints (1300-1305)

Giovanna da Rimini - Scenes from the Life of Christ (1300-1305)
The reverses of both these works, and that of Scenes from the Life of Christ, have been painted to imitate, or give the illusion of, precious stones. It's not said if that's something da Rimini picked up off of Giotto but it does seem clear that Giotti spent time in Rimini in the late 13th century where he became a great influence on the local artists.
When I first started taking an interest in art history Giotto di Bondone's name kept cropping up. I didn't know who he was but I took counsel in wiser friends and found out that whilst undoubtedly an important artist his greatest stroke of luck came when Giorgio Vasari, in 1550, wrote his hugely influential book of art history and art criticism. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects plotted a course through Italian painting from Cimabue to Bronzino and described our man Giotto as being the artist who made the decisive break with the then dominant Byzantine style and as initiating "the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years".

Giotto - Pentecost (1310-1318)
Looking at Giotto, or indeed da Rimini's work, through modern eyes it's hard to take Vasari seriously but, of course, this was hundreds of years ago. Many of the advances we take for granted now were yet to happen. Many materials and techniques now firmly established were yet to develop. I try to look at these works with unsullied eyes, to appreciate the shock of the old, but I'm not sure I can deceive myself any more than I could kid myself that the stories told in the Bible sound even remotely believable

I don't doubt Giovanni da Rimini and Giotto meant it when they made their paintings but, as I looked at two ivory panels from Constantinople and a parchment by Neri da Rimini, it soon became apparent that this was, for me at least, a dry academic exercise of learning rather than something I could attach any great personal passion to. The passion of the Christ, it would seem, is not a passion I can share.

A couple of works by Francesco da Rimini and a surprisingly modern, and colourful, Giovanni Baronzio nativity scene completed the exhibition. I'd learnt something but I'd not felt a great deal. Perhaps I should one day read that Vasari book to gain a greater understanding of the art of this era and why it's held in such high esteem. I'll certainly learn more than any of you who've soldiered through to the end of this blog will have done by doing so.

Francesco da Rimini - The Crucifixion/Noli me Tangere (1330-1339)

Francesco da Rimini - The Vision of the Blessed Clare of Rimini (1331-1340)

Giovanni Baronzio - The Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi (1375-1400)

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