Art, narrative and democracy in Florence

Tomaso Masaccio and Filippino Lippi painted “what the – !” art. Two of the early influences on Florentine renaissance painting they helped to bring naturalism to iconic art. The ‘what the – !’ was the experience of both the admirer of the painting and the characters being painted. For the onlooker, the novel use of perspective would have had the effect we feel at a 3-D movie when a monster lurches out of the screen at us. Their irreverence would also have been shocking – showing a sword poking out of a much-used scabbard, and a well-worn shoe – rather than just their idealised representations (this detail is Lippi, but in completion of Masaccio’s work and drawings):


[From St Peter being Released from Prison, Brancacci Chapel]

But look at these to capture the double-effect of ‘what the – !’  – the surprised character in the painting and the surprised onlooker at seeing the surprise (these are Masaccio’s, again completed by Filippino Lippi):

[Both details from Disputation with Simon Magus and crucifixion of St Peter, Brancacci Chapel]

In the first, Nero is pointing accusingly across a figure who looks down aghast at the intrusion on his personal space – “er– excuse me – !”; in the second, in the same painting a figure (St, Peter) adopts just the ‘what the – !’ pose anyone would in a pub – “you ‘eard wot ‘e just sed!?”. 

Well, stretching interpretation a little, perhaps. But not at all stretching the reality of Florentine renaissance art. The common trope is that Giotto opened the way for the advent of naturalism in art: the softening of iconic representation; the use of perspective; the contextualisation of action with background narratives. Where pre-renaissance art stood you apart to appreciate at a distance – exploiting but not questioning the operatic themes of awe, fear, devotion – renaissance art somewhat democratised the painting, inviting you to look at more complex renderings of awe and fear, to mediate these painterly messages through your own experience. You more easily relate to the characters as well as the events. When Leonardo painted a religious crowd scene, the fact of his characters talking among themselves or looking at an object beyond the frame rather than at the object of religious admiration was innovative, irreverent – probably courageous. One of the more startling images in the Uffizi gallery is of the Madonna and Elisabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist – as mothers-to-be, as women, in a secular moment reducing the suffocating overwhelm of the Annunciation. This must be one of the first great feminist paintings in Western art…? A modern reading of the scene might even have Elisabeth consoling Mary on being selected by a male hegemony as a ‘birth-bag’.

feminist statement

[Albertinelli, 1503, The Visitation, Uffizi Gallery]

As portraits, the faces and the figures are no less real, their expression no less complex than those we recognise on the street, between neighbours. Again, religiosity is mediated through experience. This was painted in the same historical period as the Protestant Reformation freed up the individual from collectivist Catholicism. In fact, look at one of the friezes on the wall of the great Duomo in Florence, just metres from the Uffizi.


[In Museo D’ella Opera del Duomo]

This is labelled Dialectic and shows Plato mentoring Aristotle. Look at the dynamic! This is like an iPhone moving photo – Aristotle has questioned something which Plato thinks he should have seen before. He urges Aristotle into realisation – gently, indulgently but determinedly – look at his face. Aristotle is on the edge of understanding, half-way between perplexity and insight – but fiercely defending his intellectual independence. Something is happening. There is a dynamic – this is, indeed, a dialectical moment. A moment, not of being, but of becoming.

The trope of an emergent naturalism becomes extended. We also see these renaissance images as introducing a more free-flowing narrative, and what we might think of as a vernacular conceptualism. The stories being told invite us to reflect on our own lives and experience, to conceptualise our lives. This frieze is a dynamic, cartoon-like guide to understanding dialectical exchange. It is almost a manual on how to do it. Art like this must have been such a driving force for those disposed to think and reflect. Imagine if we had artists like this to guide us today as we confront narratives that seek to define us, narratives that have so much greater force than we can muster for ourselves: economics, climate change, educational achievement, beauty, celebrity, authority. These images subtlely tell us to fashion our own narratives around events that are important to us. Of course, they retain a respect for authority and hierarchy – these works of art are creatures of their times and of the economics of art sponsorship. But we see through the veil easily enough.


All innovations become orthodoxies. Original creativity has a short half-life, it seems. Perhaps it was the innocence and energy of the renaissance times that helped with this level of democratisation in art – the accessibility of narrative, the downplaying of end states in favour of states of becoming. One way of reading the renaissance is to see it as a site, not as a collection of works – a site in which innovation was encouraged, in which the boundary between the creative and the disreputable could be explored. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, so natural politics abhors free space. Creative, unpredictable, open-ended spaces eventually reveal their threat to the powerful. Conventions are imposed, standards are proposed and some way down the line compliance is called for.


Make a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square and take on this challenge. Try to find a portrait – a painting, that is – that depicts the sitter with an engaging smile. I wish you luck.

In fact, try to find a portrayal with the provocative sexuality of Girl with a Pearl Earring, the mystery of a Mona Lisa, the ennui of a late Rembrandt. Look for the paradox of a smiling Robespierre, the confusion of wealth and sexuality in a Singer Sargent, the androgenisation of the queen by Lucien Freud. I may have missed one or two along such lines – but not for want of trying. For the most part, the conventions of portraiture are such as that the sitter must be someone of significance – significance most often defined as authority, wealth or power; the source of that authority can be revealed but not be questioned; the extent of the significance should not be overstated; significance must receive due respect in the form of solemnity and esteem; there should be no concession to triviality. Hence, the laundering of portrait art, by convention – and the surprise and admiration for those who flout the conventions.

The canon is well observed in the Gallery and in it we have a composite picture of the self-regard, self-importance and aloofness of power and authority combined with the obeisance of the artist. Well – you might visit the gallery and find my words overstated. But at the least what you most probably will see is a picture of states of being – we leave with a sense of the solidity and inertia of power and authority. Portrait commissions are rarely interpreted as capturing a dynamic, allowing the onlooker to engage with a story, to meld and mix their story with that of the sitter’s – to reduce, through critical observation, the narrative of supremacy. Even in the most photographic, contextualised of portraits there is little naturalism, too little to engage with. Too little of Masaccio.


There is a theory of science that says innovations, paradigm-shifts, are few and far between. In fact, science is almost designed against it, through the necessity to conserve valued ideas and to sternly test new ones. For the most part, scientists are beavering away on foundations established by others, carefully keeping to the rules and conventions which define the territory in which they earn a living. It is little different from art which enjoys bursts of creativity followed by seemingly long and sometimes tedious preoccupation with rules and canon – until a mould-breaker comes along and the foundations shift.

That’s a rather mechanical version of what goes on. Creativity can be, most often is, suppressed, but it remains. It will out. The austerity of the 1940s and 1950s in the UK couldn’t suppress the ‘angry young men’, Bob Dylan and the like, and so the powerful lost their grip for one of those short bursts through the 1960s and 1970s – but found it again and visited upon us an even harsher austerity. How lucky to have lived in expansive Florence in the C16th (though deliberative and representative democracy was not one of the Greek traditions that the Medicis embraced with the gusto of their art and science sponsorship). To have artists who take the ‘king’s shilling’ and give faithfully what they are asked for – like this (also in the Uffizi gallery, but not to be seen in the National Portrait Gallery):


Well, the guy presumably commissioned it….

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