Sunday, June 06, 2010

Landscape with the Penitent St Jerome

Leonardo da Vinci, Landscape, 1473

The British Museum's 'Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings' exhibition includes three landscapes.  The first is Leonardo's famous drawing of the Arno valley dated August 5th 1473, which I mentioned in an earlier post on the link between panoramic landscape drawing to topographical maps.  We do not know if this sketch was drawn in situ, but as A. Richard Turner writes in The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy, 'these quick lines have all the quality of a spontaneous reaction to a living model.'  The next artist discussed in Turner's book is Piero di Cosimo, whose highly artificial and literary paintings he contrasts with Leonardo's.  Piero's main contribution to landscape art came in panels like Forest Fire, Hunt and Return from the Hunt but the British Museum exhibition has one of his drawings: Landscape with the Penitent St Jerome (c1490-1500).  The curators say of this that 'the intricacy of the landscape compels the viewer to unravel it slowly, a visual equivalent to the pilgrim's slow and difficult ascent to the church in the background.'

The third landscape drawing on show at the BM is a simple pen and brown ink study of travellers journeying to a village, made c1495-1508: one of the fifty or so landscape drawings that survive by Fra Bartolommeo.  He doesn't feature in Turner's book, possibly because Fra Bartolommeo's importance for landscape history wasn't fully realised until after the rediscovery of forty-one landscape sketches in 1957.  Some of the views drawn by the artist have now been identified with specific Dominican buildings, but the Christies site, describing a sketch the artist made of a tree (which sold for $996,000), suggests that 'trees rather than buildings are central to the structure of Fra Bartolommeo's landscapes.  By focusing on trees, a new analysis of these compositions is possible. There are no mountains, only gentle hills and small rocky outcrops. In most compositions elongated trees reach to the sky and shrink the buildings into insignificance as they appear to be engulfed by the undergrowth. Either sketched lightly in swirling calligraphy, or carefully outlined, the trees punctuate the scene. As in the Tuscan woods at La Verna where Saint Francis experienced his vision, Fra Bartolommeo's trees are often seen growing in between rocks. Trees, for Fra Bartolommeo, are thus the essence of landscape.'

No comments: