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Pesellino: The Annunciation Diptych


I have chosen this small painting of the Annunciation because it is the sort of painting that can easily be overlooked as one goes round the gallery and one’s eye is drawn to bigger pictures and bigger names. Pesellino is not one of the giants of art history. He is a rather shadowy Florentine about whom little is known. The only documented work by him is an altarpiece in the National Gallery, London. He is also remembered as a painter of Cassoni (elaborately decorated Italian Renaissance marriage chests, sometimes with lids and sides painted by leading artists), and you can see examples of these in the National Gallery. But although not a great name, this little painting shows him to be a painter of considerable technical skill and feeling.

If one wanted to be hyper critical, one would say that his style and interpretations are rather derivative that is they show more the influence of Fra Filippo Lippi, in whose workshop he trained, and of Fra Angelico, than any outstanding originality. But I don’t want to be like a po-faced diner in a good neighbourhood restaurant who picks at his food and grumpily complains that the dishes are only imitations of some fashionable big name chef who runs a wickedly luxurious and over priced establishment in the centre of town. Such criticisms may sound impressive, but they help no-one. Far better to eat the meal with gusto and enjoy the flavours, textures, wholesome quality, skill and enthusiasm of a dedicated if unpretentious chef.

But where to start with this tiny object which is far removed from its origins in time and place? I used to wonder, until I discovered a book which literally changed the way I looked such things. It is Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy (Oxford Paperbacks), and it is essential reading for anyone interested in this period. With meticulous scholarship he shows, for example, what it is that a 15th century Florentine would have noticed and responded to (in contrast to what we notice and respond to 500 years later).

So let’s see if you can look at the picture with the eyes of a 15th century Florentine.

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