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Fra Angelico

( Originally Published 1955 )



Fra Angelico, as he is called, was the major Florentine exnonent of the Gothic tradition which lasted beyond 1400 and formed a distinct current in Florentine art of the fifteenth century. He eventually came under the influence of the innovations of his more scientific contemporaries, Masaccio and the architect Michelozzo, so that his art partook of Renaissance formal elements while remaining essentially medieval in content. He was born Guido or Guidolino di Pietro, and took the name of Giovanni when he and his brother Benedetto entered the Dominican monastery at Fiesole in 1407. It is presumed that the years between 1407 and 1418 were spent in Cortona and Foligno, to which cities the Dominican chapter of Fiesolewas forced to flee because of its political sympathies in the Great Schism. After the Council of Constance in 1418, the chapter returned to Fiesole, where it remained until 1436. It is presumed that Fra Angelico was a practicing painter when he entered the monastery but the identity of his teacher is not recorded. In style his early work is close enough to Lorenzo Monaco's to warrant the assumption of scholars that that artist was his teacher. Only five of the enormous number of his works are dated by documents, but we possess sufficient evidence to construct an outline of his career.

His life divides into three periods according to his place of work: Fiesole (1418-36), Florence (1436-45), and Rome (1445-55). Several altarpieces of the Fiesole period are extant, including the Madonna dei Linaiuoli, commissioned by the linen merchants in 1433, now in the San Marco museum, Florence. In the same museum are the Madonna della Stella, the Coronation of the Virgin, and the Last Judgment, all from this period. Another Coronation is in Paris. These panels establish several elements of his style that are characteristic of all his work: stylization and spirituality of expression especially in faces, liberal use of gold, light and brilliant color, and skillful draughtsmanship and composition in space. In 1436 Cosimo de' Medici gave to the Fiesole Dominicans the ruined monastery of San Marco in Florence, and the chapter moved there. The building was restored by Michelozzo between 1436 and 1443, and remains a monument of Renaissance architecture and a museum of Fra Angelico. From 1436 to 1445 Angelico, with the help of several assistants, painted for the chapter many frescoes in the cloister, chapter house, corridors, and individual cells of the monks. This was the major work of his Florentine period, during which he became increasingly aware of the innovations of Florentine artists in perspective, architecture and landscape. It is assumed that he was in close contact with Michelozzo during these years, and Renaissance architectural forms replace the Gothic ones of his earlier work. Consistent linear perspective and an awareness of light and cast shadow lend a Renaissance aspect to the medieval content. The frescoes are of a particularly devotional and intimate nature, and many include figures of Dominican friars as witnesses to the events of Christ's life. He painted a Madonna and Saints for the high altar about 1440, and of this period also are the Deposition with lunette scenes by Lorenzo Monaco, and a Lamentation (all in San Marco). In the last two, recognizably Tuscan landscape appears for the first time in the backgrounds. In 1445 he was called to Rome by Eugene IV, and except for a few months in Orvieto in 1447 and about three years back in Fiesole (1449-52), he spent the rest of his life in Rome. In Orvieto he painted half of the vault of a chapel in the cathedral; one of his assistants here, Benozzo Gozzoli, took over the project when apparently Angelicu abandoned it. In Rome he decorated one chapel (now destroyed) with the help of Gozzoli and others; and did another, the extant chapel of Nicholas V, with scenes from the lives of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence. Compared with the San Marco frescoes, these show considerable development along Renaissance lines, though they are still pervaded by the unworldly Gothic piety that Angelico retained. Details are more realistic, compositions more complicated, and architecture is integrated more fully into the compositions. Increased modeling with light and shadow in these works tends to obscure the clear, bright color typical of earlier works. Fra Angelico died in 1455 in the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. His art bespeaks a life of pure faith and single-minded piety, which accounts for the name Angelico by which he is best known. Since his beatification he has also been called Il Beato Angelico. Benozzo Gozzoli and Francesco Pesellino both owe something to Angelico's art, though neither was actually his pupil.



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