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Pigeon Holes: Italian art 1450 - 1550

by Robert Cumming

Art historians like pigeon holes. They like assembling lists of what an artist created and in what order; they enjoy pigeon holing artists by Style and School; many hours of scholarly endeavour are spent on arguing that artist A belongs in this rather than that pigeon hole; an equal number of hours of endeavour are spent on arguing the definition of the pigeon hole.

Do artists care about pigeon holes? The greatest of them do not. They create for whatever reasons move them and it is only subsequently that the game of pigeon holing takes place. In any case, how do you pigeon hole a Picasso, a Raphael or a Turner? Perhaps for lesser artists there is some comfort and merit in belonging, even in one’s lifetime, to a pigeon hole. A minor artist who might disappear in isolation gains creditability, and clients, by being seen as a member of an established group or movement.

Should one play the pigeon hole game? Yes, but with caution, because it can lead to blindness.

In this competition I have taken six works by Italian artists created between 1450 and 1550. Five of them were created in and around three of the major artistic centres of the period, Florence, Venice and Rome. One of them was not. The competition is to put them in the correct pigeon hole – Florence, Venice or Rome – and to identify the one which fits none of these three pigeon holes.

One way of dealing with the competition would be for me to set out what I perceive the be the principal visual characteristics of the art produced in these three centres and, having read my words, you could try to identify the correct pigeon hole. But, in my view, this approach is fraught with danger. Someone else’s words are easily misunderstood, and when we are asked to look for something specific we often tend to see even when it is not there.

I think that a better, and safer, approach is to forget about pigeon holes and verbal definitions and simply look at what is there. This is what I try to do myself when faced with an unknown work of art. I try to have a conversation with the work of art, ask it questions, and let it speak for itself. I will ask questions about what the subject matter is and how it has been treated; about the characteristics and quality of the colour; about the proportion and appearance of the figures; about the precision or looseness of the drawn lines; about the balance between landscape and figure; about the observations (or otherwise) of sky, clouds and trees; about body language and gestures; about facial expressions and eye contact; about the treatment of light and space; and so on. At the end of my conversation I shall have quite a long list of observations and responses and, from experience, these will tend to lead me to a conclusion about where the art was created.

For example, if my conversation had caused me to note down that I seem to be presented with a work in which story and narrative is important and that it might even illustrate a text; that words rather than music seems to be an appropriate accompaniment; that a precise drawn line and precisely observed detail is important; that colours seem to be bright and clear and differentiated and to fill in the spaces between the lines; that the human figure is all important and landscape is not much more than a backdrop to the presence and actions of the figures; that the application of theory, such as perspective, takes precedence over first hand observation; then my inclination is to put the work in the pigeon hole marked “Florence”.

If my jottings indicate that I find the work which seems inspired by music rather than words; where faces seem dreamily lost in their own thoughts rather than making active eye contact; that body language is relaxed rather than active; that landscape plays an equal or even greater role than the human figure; that subtle tonal gradations seem to take precedence over the drawn line; that there seems to have been first hand observation of sky, trees and clouds; and that there seems to be a unifying envelope of warm sunlight bathing the figures and the landscape; then my inclination is to put the work in the pigeon hole marked “Venice”.

If my conversation leads me to a list that includes words like dramatic; theatrical; grand; idealised; rich in colour, costume; exaggerated; then my inclination is to put it in the pigeon hole marked “Rome”.

The leading artistic centres of any age have many such observable characteristics and are fairly easily pigeon holed. They are also extremely influential. Lesser artistic centres pick up these influences and may well absorb them some from one place and some from another and produce a sort of amalgam. These works are less easy to pigeon hole, or may require the creation of a new pigeon hole, but in the process they can provide absorbing interest, and useful employment for scholars.

Why the characteristics of Florentine, Venetian and Roman art should be so different is another matter, and the answer to that question is the very stuff of art history. But you cannot start to answer the question unless you start with fresh unbiased and accurate observation, untouched by the desire to fit in to a pre-ordained pigeon hole or theory. So, which of the following works is most likely to be from

Florence

Venice

Rome

And which is from Padua, (somewhere between Florence and Venice)?