There is no doubting the skill of Italian Renaissance artists. No matter the medium; stone, wood, paint, glass, porcelain, cloth, silver or gold, the fruits of their labors continue to transfix those of us fortunate enough to view them in situ.
Christianity inspired, or at least subsidized, many of the great Renaissance artists. Their work’s often depicted intense pain and suffering, for saints and sinners alike; martyrdom and everlasting peace for the former, Hell and eternal damnation for the latter. Their Crucifixions, many fascinatingly gruesome, held the promise of forgiveness and resurrection for those who confessed their sins.
My wife and I recently vacationed in Italy. We had come, as do most tourists, to eat, drink, take in the scenery, and to see Renaissance art. We began our journey by visiting hill towns in Tuscany. The great art and architecture of these towns reside primarily on their highest points. To view them, one must often climb incredibly steep and circuitous paths of stone. For a condo dwelling sedentary like me, this was a Calvary of its own.
As the days of sightseeing passed, a kind of visual weariness began to set in. At times, I had to force myself to look critically at another beheading of John the Baptist, the arrow ridden body of St. Sebastian, unbelievers in the agonized throes of consummation by ghoulish beasts of Hell, a weeping Madonna, or a bloody Christ.
Relief came in Florence, the home of countless visionaries during the Italian Renaissance. The divine Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455), whose Annunciation, and the paintings he made for the cells of his fellow monks of San Marco, including, ironically, one for Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98), an opponent of the Renaissance, are unparalleled in their exquisite timelessness.
But, when we discovered the recently renovated Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo, a spiritual shift from the sanguinary to the sublime occurred in the space of one room.
The Opera, as it is referred to locally, is a balm for foot sore, eye weary tourist. The interior is spacious and calm, the art hung at eye level, the stairs, by some magic of architecture, take one effortlessly, ever higher. And then, The Room.
I had seen the work of Luca della Robbia(1400-82) in many fine art books, but here, his sculptures transfixed me. Has any artist, before or since, captured the pure joy, the impish glee and innocent perfection of music and dance as did Luca della Robbia when he created his Cantoria? (1431-38)
His stone children tease sounds from cymbals and drums, send their voices into the world untroubled by pedagogy and dance for the pure thrill of movement. They have been doing this for more than 600 years. A reminder for us all. A Joyful Noise indeed.