The frescoes of the Basilica of Santissima Annunziata

Witness to invention

Richard Peterson
June 25, 2015

Of all the many churches and cloisters in Florence that house frescoes, the atrium of Santissima Annunziata, home of the Servites, must be counted as one of the most accessible. But what is particularly striking about a site just up the street from the Duomo is the almost complete absence of visitors. This seeming indifference has much to do with the fact that its frescoes barely rate a mention in guidebooks and their treatment in textbooks remains remarkably thin. Yet no other site offers the opportunity to compare close at hand the work of three of the greatest Florentine painters at the beginning of their careers in the early sixteenth century.

 

The departure of Leonardo and Michelangelo from Florence by 1508 left Andrea del Sarto and his two young protégés, Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, to carve out, in their own indelible styles, some of the most inventive works of art in all of Florence.

 

Andrea del Sarto’s earliest frescoes, scenes from the life of the Servite Filippo Benizzi, provide a baseline for his style in 1509. The scenes share a common scheme: a group of characters set variously upon a stage as if they were giving a performance. The overriding effect is one of highly structured, rather stiff formality.

 

One year later, in Journey of the Magi, the first of five frescoes devoted to Mary, mother of Jesus, Sarto forged a startling breakthrough by infusing his scenes with a sense of informality, naturalness and spontaneity. Compared to the Benizzi frescoes, the scene is less structured, with the massive stairs of Herod’s palace receding to a misty space that obscures the horizon line. Figures appear robust and spontaneous in their movements. In the forefront, a ponderous character in voluminous drapery twists to his left as if he senses the viewer’s gaze. Yet his form’s monumentality effectively counterbalances the massive gathering at night.

 

sarto

 

In Birth of the Virgin (1514), Sarto’s interests shift to color, that stylistic element that had proved so difficult to attain the look of everyday life. In a handsomely appointed room a baby girl has just been born, and women of the household, family and friends in contemporary Florentine dress attend to the mother, while a midwife prepares the bath for the newborn child.

 

Artfully arranged in easy poses, a group of eight women weaves a sweeping s-shaped arabesque that turns on the magnificent woman in red until it trails off to the last woman standing at the fireplace. What pulls the eye across this pattern are not the individual figures but the seamless harmony of their colors. In various mixtures, cream-lavenders, mahogany, muted yellows, reds, greens and lilac are repeated throughout the room in the walls and the decorative furnishings, even touching upon the husband sitting in solitude on the settee. For the first time in Florentine painting, Sarto manipulated a highly contrived color chord to accord with natural appearances.

 

Pontormo was 20 when he painted Visitation (1514), where Elizabeth and Mary embrace over the news that each has miraculously conceived a son. Sitting on the steps of what appears to be a church portico is a curious woman, while opposite lounges a naked boy with outstretched leg. Her sensuous s-shaped pose pulls the viewer’s eye upward to her exquisite portrait, and then to deeper space along the semicircular plane of the apse until it swings forward to rest on the child.

 

The child and the seated woman are essential to the composition: they direct our eye to the two women in the center by completing two diagonals that form the sides of a pyramid. One diagonal runs through the gently bending Mary and the other through the kneeling Elizabeth, their poignant gestures captured by the clarity of geometry.                      

 

If the common stylistic thread of Sarto’s and Pontormo’s frescoes is a naturalistic informality that conceals the underlying structural framework, then Rosso’s Assumption (1515) announces his utter rejection of their achievements. The upper scene depicting Mary ascending into heaven with angels in turbulent commotion reflects a divine event shaped in the context of naturalism. In contrast, apostles below appear in their agitation to have only a tenuous connection to reality. These characters, with their disproportionately small heads atop massive draperies shoved up to the picture’s threshold, met with the Servites’ strong disapproval. And yet it was this painting that planted the seeds for a bold, new anti-naturalistic style that can be seen in Pontormo’s and Rosso’s beautiful and often troubling works throughout the city’s museums and churches.

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