The early Renaissance period was characterized by the emergence of a new generation of painters who dared to get rid of the strictness and asceticism of Gothic art. One of the most prominent masters from that period was Fra Angelico. Although his name sounds very medieval and has to do with the fact he belonged to a religious fraternity and was very spiritual, his approaches to painting at the time were quite innovative and open to new visual paradigms based on the classical antiquity.
According to historical documents, Fra Angelico was registered as a painter and Florentine citizen in the confraternity of Saint Nicholas of Bari in 1417, while in 1423 he started taking commissions as a Dominican in the Observant monastery of San Domenico in Fiesole and worked under the religious name of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. Despite being a monk, Fra Angelico collaborated with other artists and used to run a workshop specialized in decorating churches of important patrons in the city and throughout the country. In a period between 1420 and 1432, Fra Angelico combined his activities as an illuminator with altar paintings, the style best expressed in his best-known altarpiece The Annunciation.
This outstanding masterpiece was widely analyzed and adorned by the scholars as were the domains of this master, so it is not unusual that the recently restored The Annunciation takes a central place at the current exhibition Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance at Museo Prado, one that examines the artist’s pioneering role for the stylistic development of one era and the mark he left on the upcoming generations.
Namely, the exhibition in Madrid is curated by Carl Brandon Strehlke (Curator Emeritus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and it consists of eighty-two loans from many European and American institutions. Alongside the mentioned highlight The Annunciation, on display will be The Virgin of the Pomegranate, and an outstanding group of works by Fra Angelico's contemporaries such as Masaccio, Masolino and Filippo Lippi, and sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti.
In 1611 The Annunciation arrived in Spain and was probably Fra Angelico’s first work to leave Italy, while in 1817 Duke of Alba acquired The Virgin of the Pomegranate when early Florentine Renaissance was rediscovered.
The Annunciation is regarded as the first Florentine altarpiece in the Renaissance style due to Fra Angelico’s use of the perspective (the organization of space reflects contemporary tendencies of the time embodied in aesthetic imposed by the architect Brunelleschi especially the churches of San Lorenzo and the Santo Spirito). This altarpiece reflects the artist’s active interest in entirely new approaches to painting which ultimately reshaped Western art and had a dominate role until the modern age.
The restoration of the work was led by Almudena Sánchez Martín at the Prado Museum Restoration Workshop and was conducted to recover the vivid colors of the painting which started fading with the flow of time.
The layers of dirt and pollution had to be removed together with the thick oil converges made during historic interventions to the work. A couple of reparations happened so that the damage would be repaired, and only the one performed between 1943 and 1944 at the Prado Museum by Jerónimo Seisdedos was tracked. The oldest interventions failed and they even caused further complications by painting over extensive areas of the original work affecting the figure of the angel and lapis lazuli mantle of the Virgin.
The recent restoration process was carefully managed following the latest technological and professional advancements, especially new cleaning methods. A special kind of a silicone gel which acts as a vehicle for an aqueous medium was used to cleanse and remove the layers of pollution and protect the painting while permitting to act only on the layer of pollution until its complete removal. At the same time, the mentioned layers of over-paintings required more focus and time so that the original painting can be fully recuperated.
Finally, The Annunciation was recuperated, and its former splendor was back; especially the luminosity was returned such as a light Fra Angelico used to achieve the volume of each element of the composition, as well as almost supernatural light that shines over the portico without creating shadows. Extremely fragile elements of the composition were conserved in a meticulous manner with special brushes with very few bristles and barely any paint (the details such as the eyelashes of the Virgin and the angel Adam’s beard or the minuscule letters in the book posed on the lapis lazuli mantle of the Virgin).
The current show provides a detailed insight into the practice of Fra Angelico who was apparently not only a firm believer in God but in art as well. The works show a consistent desire of the artist to create powerful masterpieces which can communicate with the beholder and offer a satisfying experience.
Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance will be on display at Museo del Prado in Madrid until 15 September 2019.
Editors’ Tip: Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance
The fully illustrated book, with essays on Florence seen through Angelico’s eyes and Angelico’s paintings through Spanish eyes, is authored by Carl Brandon Strehlke, who has written extensively about the Renaissance masters of the fifteenth century. Ana González Mozo, an expert in Italian painting practice, focuses on the discoveries made during the technical analysis and conservation of the Museo del Prado’s Annunciation Altarpiece and their importance for understanding the creation of a Renaissance work of art.
Featured images: Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance – Installation views. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado; From left to right: Miguel Falomir, Director of the Museo Nacional del Prado; Christina Simmons, Executive Director of American Friends; Almudena Sánchez, Restorer of the Museo del Prado and Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, President of Friends of Florence, next to The Annunciation by Fra Angelico. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado.