Cortona and San Giovanni Valdarno are linked by a Dominican painter and friar, remembered as one of the greatest artists of the early Renaissance: Guido di Piero, then Fra’ Giovanni da Fiesole, but known by all as Beato Angelico.
Born in Vicchio nel Mugello, the painter was a figure of capital importance in the development of art in the 15th century because the medieval values inspired by religion, still carried forward by late Gothic painting, united humanism and the Renaissance principles that treated perspective construction and light in a new way. The latter is one of the elements that most characterizes the language of Beato Angelico. A light that enhances that world that the Tuscan artist describes with naturalistic flair, but that he considers created by God.
As it has been pointed out, the art of the painter friar is made to think and not only to contemplate, for this reason Beato Angelico is remembered in his own right as one of the fathers of the Renaissance. He died in 1455 and was beatified by John Paul II in 1982.
His main pictorial enterprises are admired in Florence, Orvieto and Rome, but in the Arezzo area there are two masterpieces that represent the “Annunciation”, which together with a third panel preserved in the Prado Museum in Madrid, coming from the Convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, are indicated by critics as different but similar solutions to develop a theme very dear to the painter.
The “Annunciation” of Cortona is in the Diocesan Museum of the city of Val di Chiana. The tempera on canvas was made between 1430 and 1436 for the Basilica of San Domenico, commissioned by the fabrics merchant Giovanni di Cola di Cecco, holder of the patronage of the Chapel of Annunziata.
The “Annunciation” of San Giovanni Valdarno is kept in the Museum of the Basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie. It comes from the Convent of Francis in Montecarlo and was executed between 1432 and 1435, perhaps for another place. In 1944 it risked being stolen by the Nazis on the commission of the hierarch Hermann Göring, who wanted it for his own personal collection, but it was appropriately hidden the day before the arrival of the Germans thanks to the tip of the art historian and secret agent Rodolfo Siviero.
In both the announcement of the virginal conception takes place in a portico with large arches that recall the Brunelleschian architectures. Our Lady is reading a book and she is aware of what awaits her, but she accepts the divine decision by submitting with a hint of bowing and with her arms crossed on her chest.
Beyond the loggia opens a lush garden, the hortus conclusus that symbolizes the virginity of Our Lady. The plants are designed with chromatic variety, calligraphic precision, and a strong taste for decoration, typical of international Gothic. The consistently forward-looking setting is, however, now fully Renaissance.
At the top, on the left, Beato Angelico represents the expulsion from the Earthly Paradise of Adam and Eve, an event that sanctioned the rupture of the covenant between the human being and God after the original sin, which thanks to the son conceived by Our Lady will be strengthened.
For years there has been a debate about which was the first performed by the Tuscan master, the plant is in fact similar. The figures of Our Lady and Gabriel the Archangel have similar positions and robes. In both there is a round in the arches with the prophet Isaiah, the one who had already prophesied the arrival of the Messiah.
In the Cortona panel, however, the scene is tripartite, while in the San Giovanni’s panel it is bipartite. The elongated figures of the archangel and the Virgin have more solid volumes in the work of Valdarnese and slenderer in that of Chianina. In general, Cortona’s work is recognized as a better balance and a higher mystical force. To that of San Giovanni Valdarno a greater chromatic sensitivity – just look at the marble floor with implausible modernity – and a more in-depth study of light.
Annunciation (1430 – 1436), Diocesan Museum, Cortona
Annunciation (1432 – 1435), Museum of the Basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie, San Giovanni Valdarno
Annunciation (1435), originating from the Convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, Prado Museum, Madrid