Actor and director Peter Weller is known for his many film and television roles, most famously Robocop in Paul Verhoeven’s campy classic. However, Weller’s interests go far beyond the camera—he is a scholar of Italian Renaissance art who is completing his PhD at UCLA.
This Thursday, Weller visits the Getty Center to discuss the dynamic artistic, political, economic, and religious climate that flourished in early Renaissance Florence. We’re collecting questions for Weller via Twitter using the hashtag #AskWeller. He’ll answer several of the questions in his conversation with Christine Sciacca, organizer of the exhibition Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300–1350.
We asked Weller a few introductory questions about his work as an art historian, and we look forward to receiving your questions as well!
What led you to study Renaissance art?
The film arts, my day gig. Mike Nichols, a mentor, owns a Picasso, and my friend Ali MacGraw took me to MoMA’s exhibition in 1979 celebrating the sending of Picasso’s Guernica to Spain. Subsequently I was put in touch with Cory Brennan, professor of classics at Rutgers, when he was at the American Academy in Rome and I was shooting there; as well as Maria Conelli, now head of Brooklyn College, and Walter Liedtke of European paintings at the Met. All of these folk put me on the track of antique and medieval/Renaissance/baroque art history.
What makes the study of Florence during the early Renaissance so fascinating to you?
The 14th century brings Giotto, Dante, the Black Death—and the question of whether this epic disaster stalled the evolution of painting technique—as well as the marked intersection of text and pictorial arts.
What are you currently studying?
I am finishing my dissertation, Alberti Before Florence: Sources Informing “De Pictura”, to be filed in May 2013, as well as refining a paper on possible Franciscan influence on a few works by Antonello da Messina.
Is there a little-known figure during this time who had a large influence on art, such as a wealthy patron?
If there is a 14th-century “lesser-known” entity to which more focus might be attended, I would say it is the confluence of Petrarch, antiquarianism, humanism, and the Veronese painter Altichiero that converges in Padua in the late 14th century; and the subsequent fallout of that coalescence on Florentine art. But you have to read my dissertation for the full review.
Any interesting anecdotes about the community of artists working in Florence in the 1300s?
The most interesting anomaly, I find, is that as much as 21st-century scholarship has debunked the Jacob Burkhardtian notion of the Renaissance being sort of an “explosion” or at least a “breakpoint” instead of a sophisticated evolution, no one has yet to explain the breakthrough genius of naturalism that jumped out of the early 14th century in Donatello. We can speak all we want about the evolution of the mathematical or fixed perspective of Brunelleschi, and the realism of Masaccio and Ghiberti, and still not arrive at the wonder of Donatello in all three media of wood, stone, and bronze.
How did the city planning and architecture of Florence influence the art that was created there?
Excellent question; I am still not sure whether Brunelleschi went to Rome or simply observed the baptisteries of Padua and Florence and Church of San Miniato for his canon to design the Innocenti and old sacristy of San Lorenzo. Certainly his resolution to invoke antique ratio and proportion in San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito pointed to the architectural perfection of painting proportion as well ([such as we see in the works of] Ucello and Piero della Francesca); but all of this still doesn’t EXPLAIN the genius of Donatello!
Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300–1350 is on view through February 10, 2013.