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In 1427 Renaissance manuscript illuminator and panel painter Giovanni di Paolo completed one of his most important commissions: an altarpiece for the Branchini family chapel in the church of San Domenico in Siena, Italy. The polyptych was disbanded, likely in the fifteenth century. The Getty exhibition The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena unites several panels of the remarkable altarpiece for the first time since its dispersal.

In this episode, we visit the galleries with Yvonne Szafran, senior painting conservator, Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings, and Bryan Keene, assistant curator of manuscripts, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, who discuss what is depicted in the panels as well as di Paolo’s painting techniques. We also learn about the exciting technical analysis being undertaken that may eventually help to identify other missing panels.

Mary and the Christ Child, Mary dressed in dark blue, on a gilded wooden panel

Branchini Madonna, 1427, Giovanni di Paolo. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 72 × 39 in. The Norton Simon Foundation, Pasadena

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The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena exhibition information


JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

YVONNE SZAFRAN:  When we unpacked the pictures from Siena and they rejoined their siblings, if you will, in the studio, it was really a moving moment.

CUNO:  In this episode, I speak with Yvonne Szafran, Bryan Keene, and Davide Gasparotto about the Renaissance artist Giovanni di Paolo.

The great Renaissance artist Giovanni di Paolo is the focus of an exhibition on view at the Getty Center through January 8, 2017. Titled The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena, the exhibition presents several panels from one of Giovanni’s most important commissions, an altarpiece for the Branchini family chapel in the church of San Domenico in Siena. The central panel of this altarpiece is a stunning Madonna and Child, in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum, which is being reunited with four of the five smaller panels that form the predella below it. This is exciting because these paintings haven’t been presented together since they were dispersed several centuries ago. The exhibition also includes a handful of illuminated manuscripts and other paintings by Giovanni and his close collaborators and contemporaries. The altarpiece has been the subject of an important conservation study by curators and conservators at the Getty Museum as part of a partnership with the Norton Simon Museum and the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands.

Joining me today in the galleries are three Getty Museum colleagues who were deeply involved in this project:  Yvonne Szafran, senior painting conservator; Davide Gasparotto, senior curator of paintings; and Bryan Keene, assistant curator of manuscripts. We will discuss why Giovanni is considered to be one of the most distinctive and imaginative artists working in Siena during the Renaissance, and what the conservation study has revealed about the materials and optical effects that Giovanni deployed to create these marvelous works.

I started by asking Davide to tell us a little about the artist.

DAVIDE GASPAROTTO:  Giovanni di Paolo is today recognized really as one of the most important painters active in Siena for—

CUNO:  In the fifteenth century.

GASPAROTTO:  In the fifteenth century. Actually, he had a very long career. He was probably born at the very end of the fourteenth century. So he was starting—his training was in the beginning, really, of the fifteenth century.

CUNO:  [over Gasparotto] Was he born in Siena or did he come to Siena?

GASPAROTTO:  No, he was born in Siena. And he—

CUNO:  [over Gasparotto] And his training was in Siena.

GASPAROTTO:  He was—his training was in Siena. He was for sure trained as a—an illuminator, and as a painter. Actually, his first documented work[s] are illuminations and not paintings.

CUNO:  [over Gasparotto] What did it mean to be trained in Siena? How did it take place, that training?

GASPAROTTO: We really don’t know how he was trained and by who. But Siena at the beginning of the fifteenth century was again as it was at the beginning of the previous century, a very important and vibrant, I would say, artistic center. And because of a co—of the commission from the church, but also from the communes, or from the city—so it’s—he was raised in a moment in which the art of Siena is looking back at his—its great tradition, the tradition of the fourteenth century—especially of painters like Duccio, Simone Martini, the greatest painters from Siena in the beginning of the fifteenth century—but was also looking to contemporary developments, especially in Florence. And several important artists from Florence, like the famous sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti worked for Siena.

And also foreign painters like Gentile da Fabriano, who was a painter coming from the Marche region, but then he was—he travelled widely in Italy. He was probably the most eminent and famous painter in Italy at the time. Went to Siena to paint in close chronological proximity to when Giovanni di Paolo painted this beautiful Madonna, in 1427.

CUNO:  So we’re looking at a painting that features a Madonna and Child that would’ve been the centerpiece of an altarpiece. And we’ll get to the other bits of it and talk to your colleagues about the other bits of the painting. But the centerpiece, of course, is this great, beautiful Madonna, Madonna that’s very elaborately dressed, yet set within a garden-like setting. And I guess that would be representative of the idea of the Madonna of Humility, that she would be sitting on the ground. Is that true?

GASPAROTTO:  [over Cuno] Yeah. I think yes, in some way, it’s a conflation of two different iconographies, because she looks as she is sitting in the ground; but really, she is being elevated to heaven by the seraphims. So the ground is filled with beautiful flowers; but she’s really, in some way, floating in the air. But she’s also seated. So it’s a conflation of the classic iconography of the Madonna of Humility—so a Virgin seated on the ground—but also a Queen of Heaven. She’s represented as a Queen of Heaven, and [Cuno: Would this—] that’s why she’s so elegant and so beautifully dressed.

CUNO:  [over Gasparotto] Would this particular depiction have been requested by the donor? Or demanded by the donor?

GASPAROTTO:  I think, you know, that there was—there can be a certain freedom in—I’m sure that in the contract that we don’t have for this altarpiece, it was specified that the central panel would have been a Madonna with Child. But perhaps there was a certain freedom in how he in some way depicted the Virgin.

CUNO:  Tell us about the donor and—

GASPAROTTO:  So the donor, we know—we have some informations. We have informations that a woman from the Branchini family—

CUNO:  That was an important family, a banking family?

GASPAROTTO:  [over Cuno] That was a rich family, but not a banking family. In 1423, she left some money to build a chapel, and to also ornate the chapel with canonical furnishings. Like, for example, a painting, an altarpiece. And—

CUNO:  Would the chapel have been accessible only to that family or to anyone?

GASPAROTTO:  No, the chapel was on the nave of the Church of Saint Dominic, in Siena. And the nave was a huge, open nave, so the chapel was privately owned by the family, Branchini family, but was visible to everyone. And he executed the polyptych in 1427—

CUNO:  By polyptych,  you mean a painting of multiple panels…

GASPAROTTO:  [over Cuno, inaudible] Yes. Yes.

CUNO:  …that have been brought together in an architectural structure of some kind.

GASPAROTTO:  Yes, that you can see actually on the back of our display. We tried to suggest the original appearance of this polyptych. So an altarpiece composed of several panels. And we know that the chapel was dedicated both to Saint John the Baptist and Saint Christopher. So they were probably depicted in some of the side panels. The paintings are no longer in existence, or we don’t know their whereabouts right now. So we have the wonderful Madonna, which is signed. And this is an important sign of the fact of the, you know—

CUNO:  [over Gasparotto] Signed by the painter.

GASPAROTTO:  Signed by the painter Iohannes Senensis Pauli filius pinxit, so John from Siena, the son of Paul, pinxit [read: painted] this in 1427. And so this is already an important element to understand that Giovanni was in some way already a self-conscious artist, even if he was very young.

CUNO:  Yeah. [Gasparotto: Yeah] Let me ask Bryan if you could talk to us about the illuminated manuscript pages that we see in the wall next to the painting. Is this an indication of the context within which he made paintings? Is this the earlier Giovanni di Paolo? Or is this contemporary with the painting?

BRYAN KEENE:  So certainly, as we’ve heard from Davide, Giovanni di Paolo, a decade earlier than the Branchini Madonna, was commissioned to create a book of hours, a small prayer book, for a family in Northern Italy. And so he does seem to illuminate throughout his entire career of over eighty years. The works that we’ve grouped just adjacent to the altarpiece are both associated with Giovanni di Paolo, but also by his predecessors, to show that tradition in which he was working, as Davide’s already mentioned, being very aware of Sienese painting. So works by Andrea di Bartolo or an artist that we call the Master of the Osservanza, who some scholars have associated with another painter called Sassetta. So there is—there are a number of important artists that were working in Siena as panel painters and illuminators. And that’s a point to continue to stress, that Giovanni di Paolo and these other artists were working in both media.

CUNO:  Is there something in one of these illuminated initials or manuscript images that would link to the painting itself or the altarpiece? I mean, is there a stylistic relationship that you can identify?

KEENE:  Sure, certainly. In the exhibition, we did display the Getty’s small cutting that was owned by John Pope-Hennessy, one of the great scholars about Giovanni di Paolo—in fact, the great scholar of Giovanni di Paolo’s work. And the figure of God the Father above King David kneeling below does relate directly to a small triptych that we’ve borrowed from LACMA. You can see this use and reuse of figures in Giovanni di Paolo’s career. But one of the exciting things, also, about working on an exhibition like this is two small cuttings that were, for a long time, associated with Giovanni di Paolo; but then scholars began to think of other attributions. We can, in fact, look at the figure of Saint Michael with the dragon below. And that figure relates on a one-to-one scale with an earlier altarpiece that Giovanni di Paolo created for San Domenico. So in fact, this figure shows up again in reverse in an altarpiece showing Christ as the Man of Sorrows and also Christ Triumphant. So his relationship with San Domenico certainly existed long before this. And we’re still rethinking where these pieces fit with Giovanni di Paolo’s career. But whereas we have hun—you know, over a hundred pictures by Giovanni di Paolo in American collections, we only have four manuscript pages, and they’re all on view in this exhibition.

CUNO:  Yeah. Do you have any sense of how large his studio was and what it meant to have a studio at the time? Do you know how many people were working for him?

KEENE:  [over Cuno] That’s a big question, [Gasparotto: Yes] and we certainly talk about workshops and studios [Cuno: Yeah] in the course of the fifteenth century. And Davide’s said, it is—it can be difficult to parse out. But what we have demonstrated on the wall is the piece by Giovanni di Paolo showing David kneeling before God, set within this letter A that has been made up of a dragon breathing fire and spiraling around. That form was copied by a follower of Giovanni di Paolo called Pellegrino di Mariano, who was working with Giovanni when he was quite old, Giovanni was quite old at this point.

And he’s borrowed that same fantastic dragon, but used it for a new setting, a new chant for the mass. So here, showing the three Marys of the tomb, the angel telling them that Christ has risen. So you do have this nice bookend of a follower or a pupil reusing the master’s—

CUNO:  Yeah. How would the younger, much younger artist have known of the much older artist’s preceding image? I mean, it would’ve been left—the workshop, at that point, had been in the possession of the person who commissioned it or something. So how did they actually see some earlier work like that?

KEENE:  Certainly, when we talk about workshop, we think about model books, drawings, models that can be passed down. The choir book—the choir book set that Giovanni di Paolo had worked on was for the nearby Augustinian hermitage in Lecceto, which was accessible. And the books may have been housed on the altar during the year, when they weren’t being used, so it’s quite possible that Pellegrino di Mariano and others saw Giovanni di Paolo’s pictures when they were on the altar, in the same way that one would’ve seen a panel painting in the same context.

CUNO:  But the four illuminated initials or manuscript images and so forth, and the paintings that we have in the room by him that we know to be by him and so forth, do you have a sense of the development of career in this gallery?

KEENE:  We do see a little bit of a development, not very much. The pictures by Giovanni di Paolo are from the 1420s, the Branchini Altarpiece and the triptych from LACMA. But the illuminations do show us a broader arc, from the early 1420s to the 1440s. But we know that he lives into the 1480s and continues to work in both media across that long career. And his style doesn’t evolve very much. We do see some evidence, as we [Cuno: Yeah] can see in a moment.

CUNO:  But if the style doesn’t evolve, that we know that it sort of bounces back and forth between inspirations or something, or examples that he drew from, so we have different artists—Gentile da Fabriano, we mentioned him already—the sense that if it’s not evolving from one to the other, it’s bouncing back and forth between them.

KEENE:  He’s certainly responding to a number of influences. So thinking about Duccio, Simone Martini to Lorenzetti; but also his contemporaries—Ghiberti, Gentile da Fabriano, Sassetta and other painters. And when he’s asked by the pope to commission an altarpiece for the city of Pienza, for Pius II, he’s very much aware of the other Sienese painters that are working alongside him. And so I think there is something about having this idiosyncratic or individualized style that would’ve been a hallmark of Giovanni di Paolo’s pictures. When you go to museums today, you know his paintings, because they do stand out and have a certain expressive quality, a linearity.

GASPAROTTO:  Yes. He wa—he’s a very idiosyncratic artist, very recognizable. But I would say that the most interesting, and in some way, experimental phase of his career is really the beginning. Then he becomes a little bit—especially after the forties—becomes a little bit repetitive of some form—

CUNO:  [over Gasparotto] The patrons probably want some particular thing. They want [inaudible].

GASPAROTTO:  [over Cuno] Because—yeah, because they—yes. Because in some way, he set up a language that was loved by the patrons. And so he became a little bit repetitive. But at the beginning of the career, he’s really extremely experimental, and he’s looking a lot to what is surround him in some ways.

KEENE:  [over Gasparotto] We can say he’s finding his voice.

GASPAROTTO:  [over Keene] He’s responding to strong—to strong artistic stimulations.

CUNO:  Well, let me get Yvonne into the conversation. And to tell us, Yvonne, about how the exhibition got started. Because we’ve got a number of paintings by him here, all of them on loan to us—is that right?— except [Szafran: Yes] for the, ’course, illuminated manuscript, but—

SZAFRAN:  Yes. So we in the Paintings Conservation department have a long history of bringing great works of art here from other institutions to work on them, either ourselves or with visiting conservators. And the reward at the end of our work is that we then display the works in our galleries. Sometimes in special exhibitions like this, and sometimes just in the galleries. The altarpiece construction that Davide that was describing earlier—the Madonna would have sat in the middle of that altarpiece construction, as the main attraction. And then on either side of her, we think there were standing saints. And then below the saints and the Madonna would have been a long series of scenes, either illustrating the life of Christ or the life of a particular saint.

And these scenes were often divided, chopped up. When the altarpiece fell out of fashion, it would’ve been taken apart. And the scenes were very easy to cut apart. They would’ve originally, in this case, been on all—all on one long piece of wood. They were cut apart, and then went to different owners.

CUNO:  Huh. So one of those then came from the Kröller-Müller Museum to you to be worked on.

SZAFRAN:  Yes, exactly.

CUNO:  And as a result of a conversation you had with some scholars, you discovered a relationship that you hadn’t known before, [Szafran: Yes] between this painting and other paintings.

SZAFRAN:  So the Kröller-Müller Museum is a museum we have a long history of working with and—

CUNO:  And it’s in the Netherlands.

SZAFRAN:  And it’s in the eastern part of the Netherlands, a collection known mainly for its nineteenth and twentieth century works. But in fact, they do have a small collection of old master paintings, as well. And we chose this picture by Giovanni di Paolo not knowing that scholars in 2010 proposed that it was part of this predella, part of this grand Branchini Altarpiece.

CUNO:  Did you think that it was just a single painting itself, a single panel?

SZAFRAN:  At the mo—we knew that it was a predella panel…

CUNO:  [over Szafran] Did you care?

SZAFRAN:  …but we didn’t know what altarpiece it might come from. And fortuitously, when the painting arrived at the Getty, we had another show devoted to Italian painting on at the time, but it was devoted to much earlier Florentine painting.

And we happened to have three of the top American scholars in this field here at the Getty for a study day, and I invited them down to the studio to see this picture, ’cause I knew they would be interested. And they were pleasantly surprised to see it, because they knew about this recently-published idea. And that is when we realized, ah-ha, that this is actually much—not that it wasn’t an interesting project to begin with, but now we really had an interesting project, because the main Madonna that we heard Davide describe earlier belongs to the Norton Simon Museum which is across town and we have a special relationship with them. And we immediately started thinking, oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring that picture over and bring the three other pictures, surviving parts of the predella, over here from Siena where they’re normally housed in the Pinacoteca.

CUNO:  What was the basis, I think you said of an article, that argued for the arrangement of the predella panels in a certain order, and in relationship to the Madonna in the center of the ensemble? Because typically—and I think this painting in its ensemble was broken up in the eighteenth century is that right? Or seventeenth century?

SZAFRAN:  Possibly earlier, yeah.

CUNO:  [over Szafran] Yeah? Yeah?

SZAFRAN:  Yes, I think we think fifteenth century. Yeah.

CUNO:  [over Szafran] So typically, this would happen in the twentieth century, let’s say, and you’d have very early photographs, and then you’d have the basis on which to [Szafran: Yes] piece it together. But this is pieced together on the basis of what?

SZAFRAN:  So the scholars pieced this together, the predella pieces together, based on the evidence that we see on the sides of the panels. So we have the scenes. And the dividing the scenes are decorative elements, including flowers. And it is these flowers that are—that are on all of the predella panels. But also, then we see the flowers below the Madonna that prompted this connection. In addition to stylistic elements, I think.

CUNO:  Yeah. Even though, of course, his style changes from panel to panel, it seems. Or least there are differences among [Szafran: Yes, yes] the panels. But you could piece it together because you knew he was an artist who painted in multiple styles.

SZAFRAN:  Right.

CUNO:  But you—I think you told me once before that actually, you’d been able to determine by some technical analysis, that these four panels and a fifth that’s missing would’ve been cut from the same piece of wood.

SZAFRAN:  Absolutely. So—

CUNO:  [over Szafran] Right? How do you know that?

SZAFRAN:  So when we x-ray, we—we are very fortunate, in that the Pino—our colleagues at the Pinacoteca in Siena gave us permission to do some small amount of analysis on those three pictures before they went on view here. So we had them here about a week early, and we were able to x-ray them. And in the x-ray, we can see very clearly, the woodgrain continuing through these panels. Which was really—it doesn’t get much better than that, in terms of confirming their relationship.

I mean, in addition to that, there are very specific technical similarities between the works that, especially when you see them in person, you can make these connections. And I’ll just use these two as an example. We see the red garment of the servant over here on the left, which is actually a red, organic red translucent color, painted over silver. And silver, much like the gold that we see on the painting, was applied to the painting as—in a leaf form. And the silver has since tarnished. And we see exactly that same technique here, in really the same figure, in the Flight into Egypt, [Cuno: Yeah] done in exactly the same technique.

CUNO:  [over Szafran] So the first panel you were describing is the subject of the Adoration of the Magi. [Szafran: Yes] And then we see the second one being the Flight into Egypt. [Szafran: Right] But in the middle of which, these five—although it’s only four because one is missing—is the Crucifixion. [Szafran: Yes] What would this one have been, the one that’s missing, do you think?

SZAFRAN:  So the missing panel would have been a[n] Annunciation or a Nativity. At least that’s what we think. But we don’t know for sure. But one has to think of the storyline being shown here. So we’ve got the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple here. So it seems to be proper or smart to think that the next scene would’ve been a life out of the Virgin’s life.

CUNO:  Yeah. So he’s painting in different styles at this time. He’s responding to different influences or different sort of aspects of other painters that he’s liked and so forth. Is there a reason why in one painting, one subject, he would paint a certain way, and another subject another way? Or is it just the particular details he was interested in?

SZAFRAN:  Well, certainly with the Crucifixion, I think we see a harking back to earlier pictures. It makes us think of Duccio and earlier painters from the previous century. And so this is the scene that [Cuno: Because—so it was—] would’ve been in the middle in Siena, very traditional for the Crucifixion.

CUNO:  [over Szafran] The kind of sobriety or the [Szafran: Yes] kind of seriousness of it. [Szafran: So in some ways—] It’s not decorative. It would be an inappropriate subject for a decorative painting.

SZAFRAN:  Exactly. So very serious and a little bit more old fashioned in his approach here.

GASPAROTTO:  And I would say that the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple is for sure influenced by a very famous prototype in Siena that was celebrated, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. So again, by another painter of the beginning of the fourteenth century. [Cuno: Yeah] So—

CUNO:  Mm-hm.

GASPAROTTO:  Because the weight of the tradition was always very strong in Siena. But then Giovanni adds all these kind of very minute details. He creates histories and he adds two figures that are much more inspired by another composition by Gentile da Fabriano. So by a contemporary of himself. [Cuno: Mm-hm] So he combines certain suggestions. But at the same time, I think he creates a very personal way of narrating the stories.

KEENE:  And what you’re hearing us say is something that curators and conservators often do, is try to identify these archetypes or these prototypes. And I think in Siena, as we’ve already heard, people would’ve very much recognized those compositions and that would’ve been part of the experience, viewing the picture, thinking about the other relationships. And that’s what Giovanni is also doing for his patrons. He’s providing them these references, but adding new details, combining Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Gentile here, thinking about Duccio, and then moving on to the end of the series, where [Szafran:  And what’s—] he begins to think about his contemporaries.

SZAFRAN:  [over Keen] What’s really interesting is to look at these two paintings, the Presentation and the Crucifixion, and realize that we’ve got the ground level down quite low. And then by the time he gets to the Adoration of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt, he’s suddenly tilted the whole composition up a bit. And not only that, but he’s really trying to show us a sense of space. We’ve got the landscape in the background.

It’s quite a shift from the first two panels. And it’s possible that somehow at this moment, he’s seen Gentile da Fabriano’s work, is certainly very influenced by the great Strozzi Altarpiece that was painted a few years earlier than this by Gentile. And—

CUNO:  And you could even say that it’s—it was compelled by his interest in painting narratives, so that you see [Szafran: Yes] this kind of parade of figures [Szafran: Exactly] come into the landscape, to give you that sense of the—they’ve come from afar to show [Szafran: Exactly] their adoration for the child. Or they’re going afar through a landscape, [Szafran: Yes] to the Flight into Egypt. Or it may’ve been that he was drawn to those—the particular treatment by someone who was a prior example, presented [Szafran: Yes] a prior example to that.

GASPAROTTO:  I mean, I think it is just this exuberant, full of fantasy and this wonderful narration that really made the fortune of Giovanni di Paolo with American collectors [Szafran: Yeah] at the very end of the nineteenth century, and then for most of the twentieth century. Because, you know, we have almost as many paintings by Giovanni di Paolo in America than in Italy. And this is telling a lot about the taste for early Italian painting; but this particular type of paintings, where, you know, the narrative is so full of details and full of wonderful small and refined details.

SZAFRAN:  [over Gasparotto] Great imagination.

KEENE:  Yeah.

CUNO:  Tell us about the predominance of gold in the predella panels, as well as in the centerpiece of the altar itself, and how the gold is worked, and how the contract for the gold would’ve been written. That is, I understand that a patron would’ve stipulated a certain amount of gold, not only because they might’ve wanted that particular gold for the beauty that it—but also because it cost a lotta money. [Szafran: Yeah] So you wanted to be certain you got what you paid for.

SZAFRAN:  Well, this— [Cuno: And no more] Giovanni di Paolo’s painting, at a moment in the history of painting in Siena where the profusion of gold in the paintings and a wonderful approach to exploiting the gold in the paintings was at its peak. So we see him following this tradition that had started in the earlier century; but here, he’s really reached the sort of peak of exploitation.

So not only do we see gold in the background, but we see, for example, when we look at the Crucifixion, the way he’s depicted the angels in the background here is by incising into the gold with a pointed implement of some type, drawing into the gold, revealing the red bole, the red clay preparation underneath. And that is what becomes the drawing material, if you will. So it’s this subtractive technique. You see the same kind of thinking at work when he’s doing the brocaded fabrics which were done in a technique called sgraffito, which means laying the gold, painting on top of it in one color, and then scratching through to create these beautiful brocaded patterns.

CUNO:  And was the red ground that’s beneath the gold chosen for its warm color?

SZAFRAN:  Yes. If you look back in the history of Italian painting, if you go back to the 1200s, the red preparatory layer was not being used at that time. And the gold on those paintings looks a little bit cooler and not quite as exciting. And then at a certain point, this idea of putting a color underneath something. So putting a red bole preparatory layer here not only gives it this color, but it gives the gold this nice almost soft bed in which to lie on.

So that you can burnish the gold and really increase its reflection. But also along with that, you also get the introduction of the green layer under the flesh tones to increase the transparency and realistic qualities of the flesh tones. So it’s this think in—of layers, of putting one color on top of another. And you see Giovanni really exploiting it through here. Here, for example, we see this beautiful red translucent color on top of the gold, [Cuno: Yeah] and the gold is—the light’s going through that top layer of paint and being reflected back out to it. And so you get this jewel-like effect of many of the colors.

CUNO:  So the predella panels are small in comparison to the altarpiece. They’re about two feet by two feet, whereas the altarpiece is maybe three feet by six or something like that?


CUNO:  What is it like for him to go, and does his style change, in going from the smaller paintings to the much larger altarpiece?

SZAFRAN:  [over Cuno] Yes. Well, that’s one of the things that’s interesting right now is to relate the predella panel to the main panel, to try and find real clues that link these objects together. And part of the problem is that we’re dealing with different scale. But one of the wonderful areas to look at, at on this painting, on the big painting, the Madonna, if we’re bothered by that scale, is to look at the figure of God at the very top, which is more—closer in scale to the predella panels.

And there, we can make—start to make some real relationships, in terms of how it’s being painted. But we can also see other details that directly relate. So we looked at the angels on the Crucifixion that are made by scratching into the gold. And here when we look at the heads of the seraphim, they are painted in a similar way. In this case, he also added paint on top, so they’re slightly more complex. But they’re—they definitely echo and relate to the angels on the Crucifixion.

CUNO:  Tell us about her dress, the depiction of the undergarment or the piece of velvet beneath the blue robe that’s on top.

SZAFRAN: So this is a perfect example of the obsession at the time with these very elaborate brocaded garments. And as I said, Sienese painters at this time had reached sort of a high point of how to depict them in their paintings. And so to get this effect, an entire layer of gold leaf was put underneath that area, then painted, and then scratched through to reveal some of the detail, and then painted again with blue.

And what we’re not seeing in this light—and even under normal viewing conditions you don’t see this—we’re not seeing all of the colors the way they looked when they were first painted, because some of the pigments have darkened and some of the pigments have faded. So we’re losing a little bit of the original palette that we can imagine what it must’ve been like, when we look at the illuminated manuscripts.

So the areas on her brocaded area, there’s some beautiful detailing that looks like it’s black. And that is actually brilliant blue. When I look at it under the microscope, I can see that it’s brilliant blue. When we look at the analysis, we know that that is lapis lazuli, which was even more expensive than the gold. It’s the material used on the altarpiece that is the most expensive material that would’ve been included in the original documents. “I want you to use this much [Cuno: Right] lapis.”

CUNO:  Yeah. So Bryan and Davide and Yvonne, you’ve put this exhibition together from the technical work that you’ve done in the conservation laboratories, from the art historical work you’ve done by bringing other objects together to try to give us a context to better understand the achievement of the altarpieces. Now, what is still to be learned, and what do you expect or hope to learn from having brought them together, pictures and illuminated manuscripts that are otherwise distributed around the world? What kinds of questions do you still have to ask and you’re hoping to find answers for?

SZAFRAN:  Well, we’re still, of course, hopeful that we might find other parts of the altarpiece, because we’re missing the saints on the side and we’re missing one important predella panel. And so those are things that we’re working on. There have been some scholars who’ve suggested some possible parts to it, so we’ll continue to look at those. But honestly, it’s—aside from that, for me personally, I find it very moving to bring these objects together that have not been together, probably since the middle of the seventeenth century. They’ve been long apart. And when we unpacked the pictures from Siena, for example, and they rejoined their siblings, if you will, in the studio, it was really a moving moment. And it’s incredible to have such a beautiful assembly of objects here, reunited.

CUNO:  [over Szafran] Yeah. Bryan?

KEENE:  [over Szafran] Something that Yvonne said, you know, that we can look at manuscripts as a way to give us some insights into what the paintings may have looked like originally. And certainly, there have been exhibitions that bring together manuscripts and panel paintings by Giovanni di Paolo. But the Getty is in a really unique position to do analysis of these works, non-invasive analysis, to help us learn a little bit more about his painting techniques.

But we still, even in some of the manuscripts in Siena and the pages on view, you will see these organic glazes or the transparent glazes that Yvonne has been referring to, because the books are often closed for the majority of their history. But it’s also, just like with panel paintings, trying to reconnect these leaves and cuttings with the parent manuscripts or other books from the same moment.  But also find fortuitous relationships with pictures here even in Los Angeles. The L.A. County Museum of Art triptych, of course, relates to this same 1420s moment, and actually gives us a glimpse into the earlier altarpiece that Giovanni made for the Church of San Domenico.

So we really can demonstrate that thinking of a young artist on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, really thinking about his own place as a painter. So we’re thinking a lot about technique and what more we can say about technique, and also the development of his career.

GASPAROTTO:  And to me, one of the interests of this exhibition is that in some way, we are able to show to our visitors, I would say, a different aspect of the beginning of the Renaissance. Because we usually associate the Renaissance with Florence. We usually associate the Renaissance with figures like Masaccio or Beato Angelico or Ghiberti and Donatello.

And we tend to have a sort of a monolithic image of the Renaissance, which means perspective and can inspiration to the antique. And you know Masaccio in the fifteenth century was called by a Florentine writer the painter “puro e senza ornato,” so “pure and without ornamentation.” And this is true for Masaccio but this is not true for many other artists working in other areas of Italy, and especially in Siena, where we have a completely different image of the Renaissance.

An image which is opulent, which is extremely ornate, which is in some way, the opposite of Masaccio’s style. So we can show, I think, there is no one monolithic Renaissance, but there are many other interpretation[s] of the images at the sa—at exactly the same time. Because when Giovanni was painting this altarpiece, Masaccio was almost dying in Florence. But he has just completed his major work, the famous Cappella Brancacci in the Carmine.

And you cannot see two such different works. So to me, this is the fascinating thing of this, the fact that there are contemporary expressions that are—artistic expressions that are completely different and they push different objectives and different scopes.

CUNO:  Well, it’s a beautiful exhibition. So thank you for the exhibition itself, and thank you for the time this afternoon to talk about it.

This is the last episode of the year. We’ll be taking a break over the holidays and will be back with new conversations beginning January 4, 2017, and every other Wednesday thereafter. I’ve enjoyed sharing these conversations with you over the past six months, and look forward to many more. I invite your feedback on the podcast—you can leave a review on iTunes or send an email to Happy New Year.

Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit for more resources. Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

YVONNE SZAFRAN:  When we unpacked the pictures from Siena and they rejoined their siblings, if yo...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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