Art

FLORENCE ON FIRE

A National Gallery show focuses on a pinnacle of Renaissance creativity

JOHN GEDDES May 30 2005
Art

FLORENCE ON FIRE

A National Gallery show focuses on a pinnacle of Renaissance creativity

JOHN GEDDES May 30 2005

FLORENCE ON FIRE

Art

A National Gallery show focuses on a pinnacle of Renaissance creativity

JOHN GEDDES

THE WORLD MAY NEVER have seen such a concentration of artistic genius as Florence played host to in the early 1500s. Local heroes Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were back in town after stretches working elsewhere. The Roman prodigy Raphael settled in for a key formative period, from 1504 to 1508. Dozens of less famous painters and sculptors would try to rise to the masters’ challenges. But after a few short decades, this great blaze of genius would flicker out, though the centuries-long work of making sense of what it all meant still continues. This year, visitors to Ottawa will get to consider the remarkable

output of the Tuscan city’s glory days in a new light, as the National Gallery of Canada mounts its blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and the Renaissance in Florence.

The show (May 29 to Sept. 5) amounts to a sweeping statement by David Franklin, the gallery’s chief curator—a bid to put his own stamp on how perhaps the most storied era in art history should be understood. “One of the platforms for my selection as chief curator was that I could do this show,” says the soft-spoken Franklin, 44, who got the job in 2001. “Or try to do this show.” Pulling it off was, if nothing else, a mighty feat of networking. Franklin has spent much of his career based in England and doing field research in Italy, and he tapped his European

art-establishment contacts to persuade leading museums to lend great drawings like Michelangelo’s Three Labours of Hercules and Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan, along with big, eye-catching paintings like Mariotto Albertinelli’s The Creation and Fall of Man.

But if the bait for museum-goers is the names in the show’s title, Franklin hopes they’ll come away with a deeper understanding of what transpired in Florence in the first half of the 1500s. His aim is not just to show off great art, but to explain how an unprecedented explosion of creativity ended with the triumph of a more superficial style. “I see it as a kind of tragedy,” he says. “I’d describe it as the death of an avant-garde.”

Franklin is already well known among art

historians for his provocative take on this turning point in art. His 2001 book, Painting in Renaissance Florence, 1500-1550, challenged the traditional way of looking at the period, which groups together most of Leonardo’s work, along with Michelangelo’s up to about 1530, under the label High Renaissance. The more eccentric style that followed, Mannerism, is often viewed as a separate, lesser period. But Franklin is trying to erase this dividing line. He sees Leonardo and Michelangelo as united in spirit with the Mannerists they inspired, such as Pontormo and Rosso, in a Florentine tradition. In his view, they all shared a passion for drawing, especially human figures, and valued the process of making art as much as the finished products. Against these unruly Florentines, Franklin sets a competing, tamer idea of what art should be, a school inspired by Raphael’s more decorous Roman style.

Franklin is no impartial referee between these rival camps. He sees the eclipse of Florence’s passionate style by Raphael’s influence as a disaster. And his version of the story features a slick villain. He accuses painter, architect and writer Giorgio Vasari with almost single-handedly snuffing out the creative flames lit by Leonardo and Michelangelo. Vasari was one of Florence’s second-tier painters, but a surpassingly persuasive author. His 1550 book Lives of the Artists idolized Michelangelo, yet also suggested a new direction for painting—with Raphael as its beacon. “Vasari betrays the Florentine tradition and its belief in the creative process,” Franklin says. “He gives the power to the patrons and the public rather than to the artists themselves.” The result, Franklin contends, was a shift to the “yuppie art” of its time, decorative paintings delivered on time to satisfy patrons, rather than expressing the soul of an artist.

This summer’s show takes the argument from Franklin’s book and hangs it on the gallery’s walls. That he’s been able to assemble enough Renaissance art to tell the story

ON THE WEB For a listing of major gallery and museum exhibits taking place across the country this summer, visit www.macleans.ca/summerartguide

his way demonstrates his pull in the art world. His upbringing, though, makes him seem an unlikely insider in the rarified European scene of galleries, curators and collectors. Franklin grew up in suburban Toronto, where his father was a successful entrepreneur in the food-preservatives business. As a kid he was never taken to see art, but often to watch the Maple Leafs. He played goalie and dreamed of making the NHL. Even at Queen’s University, he was unsure which career to pursue—until he took a summer course in Venice. “It was the first time I’d seen art in context,” he recalls, “art all around you, in everything, in the food and the people, and just their ease of living with the past, the poetry of the place.”

An art history B.A. led him to the prestigious Courtauld Institute in London, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. He then spent 1994-98 at Oxford, researching and writing books that established him as a rising star

in art history. He spent a lot of time in his beloved Italy and even married an Italian translator he met when he needed help preparing a lecture in Italian. (They now live in Ottawa’s upscale Glebe neighbourhood, and have two young sons.) He found Oxford wonderful, but became disillusioned with the general tone of academic art history. “You can’t talk about genius, you can only talk about politicized issues of gender and class and race,” he says. So he joined the National Gallery as curator of prints and drawings in 1998.

All that study, all that writing, all that revelling in what Italy, past and present, has to offer—it culminates in this show. Yet when asked about the stakes, both for him and his gallery, Franklin says he’s unconcerned about whether his peers will be won over, or whether the crowds will show up. “I’m pretty bloodyminded about it,” he declares, sounding for a moment less like a polite Canadian than like one of those passionate Florentines, defiant of patrons and critics, whose spirit and story he’s trying to bring alive again. f?il