Over the Frontier' by Jim Harris
Sassetta’s great altarpiece for San Francesco in Borgo San Sepolcro, to the east of Arezzo (1437-44), is one of the best documented works in Italian art of the fifteenth century, both the contract for the painting and the record of its installation having survived. Now broken into its constituent parts and scattered between the National Gallery, the Louvre and half a dozen other museums and galleries, it told on its reverse episodes from the story of St Francis and the wonders associated with him: the Wolf of Gubbio, who St Francis persuaded into a contract with the people of that town not to eat them any longer; Francis’s walk through fire before the sultan; his stigmatisation and its miraculous verification at his funeral.
Given the precise locations of many of these narratives, their relative nearness to San Sepolcro and their familiarity to its audience (the friars of San Francesco), the painting is surprisingly unspecific in its rendition of place and landscape. Rather than present his viewers with a topographically accurate and recognisable Umbria, Sassetta instead conjures a series of carefully composed but essentially imaginary interiors and exteriors in which to set his cycle. Benozzo Gozzoli, working just a few years after Sassetta in the late 1440s seems similarly coy about the locations in his own cycle of the Life of St Francis at Montefalco, south of Assisi. His Arezzo, from which Francis and his disciple Sylvester are seen casting out demons, has the same schematic quality as Sassetta’s landscapes. Yet both Sassetta and Gozzoli were more than capable of making work in which the (relatively) new science of perspective was fully at home. The frecoes of the Capella Niccolina in the Vatican, which Gozzoli undertook as assistant to Fra Angelico contain carefully rendered perspectival interiors, while the buildings in Sassetta’s altarpiece are constructed just as meticulously.
Part of Sassetta’s, and Gozzoli’s, apparent reluctance to paint portraits of places almost certainly lies in the need to remove stories from recognisable locations in order to emphasise their transcendence and universality. Yet even in paintings in which there would appear to be almost an imperative to specificity there is still hesitancy over painting places as they are. Gozzoli’s image of St Francis Preaching to the Birds at Bevagna, in the Montefalco fresco cycle, is no more than a suggestion of the territory. His fresco cycle for Cosimo and Piero de’ Medici in the chapel of the Palazzo Medici in Florence, as thoroughly Florentine a series of images as it is possible to imagine, has resisted all scholarly efforts to date to locate its buildings and landscapes. All of them are reminiscent of ‘real’ places, yet none of them can be convincingly mapped.
The traditions of landscape painting within which Gozzoli and Sassetta chose in these instances to operate were those of half a century and more previously, when, in the latter part of the trecento, Jacopo di Cione and his brothers Nardo, Andrea (Orcagna) were among the leading painters of Florence and were making landscapes constructed from the same riven planes of rock studded with trees, stark against gilded firmaments. While Gozzoli and Sassetta (and their contemporary Giovanni di Paolo) no longer employed gold leaf for their skies, and other mid- and late-quattrocento artists moved futher still from the schemata of their predecessors, the haunting anonymity of their landscapes remained. Piero della Francesca’s Nativity and the Pollaiuolo brothers’ Martyrdom of St Sebastian deploy landscape strategies influenced by the painting of Northern European artists such as Van Eyck and Memling but with no greater degree of topographical accuracy than is evident in the work of their Italian peers. In the north, where reams have been written about the so-called emergence of realism, the dialectic of reality and imagination was no more in need of full resolution than it was in the the Italian peninsula: the townscape in the background of van Eyck’s Rolin Madonna has been variously supposed to be Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, Dijon, Beaune and any number of other cities. It is all of them and none of them and it is in the deliberately suggestive ambiguity thus presented to the viewer that part of the fascination of the painting lies.
Henrietta Simson’s extractions from landscapes by artists from Jacopo di Cione to Giovanni di Paolo remove their rocky outcrops and isolated trees still further from any recognisable context. Here, even the stories are lost and the viewer is left with the unsettling sense of seeing something which is familiar but at the same time entirely alien and mysterious. Instead of the location of the narrative enabling an imaginative engagement with its setting, the description of space itself is all that is available to orient the gaze. In the uncertainty of these landscapes’ recessions, clefts and perspectival anomalies is another layer of potential displacement, while in the repetition of the two versions of Landscape without Blessed Agostinos Miracle is one more. Their surfaces, whose pigments and gilding create untold micro-landscapes within the meta-image, emphasise the painterliness of these objects and once again give the viewer pause to consider exactly what it is that has been made, what has been copied, what it is that is being looked at. Not only is the nature of the space at issue here, but also the question of what is ‘the same’ and what is ‘different’. The intimate connection of narrative and landscape, of space as the locus for action, and the disruption caused by their disassociation is emphasised still further in Simson’s paintings and altered photographic projections of landscapes from current news images such as the North-West Frontier and the current campaign in Afghanistan. Here, her landscapes are almost exactly those of Piero and Pollaiuolo; yet the generic quality of the places they describe derives not from their descent from quattrocento Italy but from photographic images whose specific reality jolts the sense that the spaces of Jacopo and Giovanni are imaginary at all.
Paolo Uccello (who Vasari regarded as one of the master perspectivists of renaissance Florence) made, in his series of paintings of The Battle of San Romano, the decision to create landscapes and spaces in which contrasting and conflicting modes of representation are deployed simultaneously to produce some of the most arresting and involving scenes of conflict ever made. Combining the visual conventions of scientific perspective with those of tapestry and manuscript illumination among others, Uccello’s battlepieces possess both immense clarity and a sense of the fantastic and fabulous. In them, the viewer, finding that all is not as it seems, is forced to reorientate themself in order to explore the world not of the battle itself, recorded as history, but of Uccello’s (and his patron, Lionardo Bartolini’s) reimagining of it, recorded as painting. Henrietta Simson’s explorations of the spaces of trecento and quattrocento perform similar tasks and ask similar questions.
Jim Harris, 2008