When I started my Louvre book project in August 2012, one thing that especially interested me was attempting to compare looking at the book’s reproductions with looking at the original works in the museum. In my blog posts I have often included references to my efforts at comparisons, but I’ve been limited by the fact that I haven’t been back to the Louvre since last August, the visit I made just before I was given the Louvre book.
It has occurred to me that a proxy for actually being in the Louvre might be to visit other galleries and museums. The current exhibit at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art, has been of special interest over the last few months because its focus on the Renaissance in Florence means that it covers much of the same ground in place and time that I’ve been working through with the Louvre’s Italian collection, which begins with Cimabue’s Virgin and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Six Angels (ca.1280) and contains works by many artists of the Florentine Renaissance, including Giotto. I wrote about Cimabue in blog post 3 and about Giotto in blog post 4. Cimabue is not represented in the AGO exhibit, but I was able to see several works by Giotto, although none of them were works I have in my Louvre book. The exhibit also contains four paintings by the Master of the Codex of St. George (14th century), whose Virgin and Child on a Throne (ca. 1320) is in the Louvre’s room 4, on the first floor of the Denon wing; in addition, the magnificent Codex of St. George itself, for which the artist is named, is in the AGO exhibit.
I had hoped I might find a painting in the exhibit that I had seen in the Louvre last August, but there wasn’t one. I was disappointed, too, that there wasn’t a single painting that I could compare with its reproduction in my Louvre book. The only Louvre holding that is in the AGO exhibit is an illuminated manuscript page from the Laudario of Sant’Agnese (ca. 1340). A further disappointment was that the Renaissance artists prominently featured in the exhibit, with the exceptions of Giotto and the Master of the Codex of St. George, have no paintings in the Louvre.
Of course, seeing a painting on loan from the Louvre to the AGO is not equivalent to seeing a painting in the Louvre. There are similarities: in both instances, the painting would be on display in a building dedicated to artworks and their conservation, it would be available for public view such that a visit would almost certainly include negotiating through a crowd of gallery goers (see blog post 12, on visiting the Mona Lisa), and it would be accompanied by information about its origins and history. But there are many differences as well, the difference in the size of the two buildings, the difference between a traveling exhibit and a museum’s own collection, and, of course, the difference between traveling across a city and traveling across an ocean to reach the object I wish to see.
The closest the exhibit brought me to experiencing what makes seeing a painting different from seeing a reproduction of it came in the third room of the exhibit area, a large room filled with artwork on display on all four walls, on room dividers, and also in a number of display cases and room dividers. As I entered and looked around for the first time, I noticed on the wall to my left a painting of St. Francis of Assisi, a large-scale painting, several feet high and across. It was a scene I recognized: Francis was kneeling before a small figure in the sky above him, and he was receiving wounds on his hands, feet and side that mirrored the wounds on the body of the crucified Christ. The arrangement of the figures and landscape around him, with a small hill behind the kneeling saint and a small building next to him, was also familiar. I was reminded of Giotto’s St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata and excited by the possibility that I was in its presence.
I wasn’t, although I learned that Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1290-1366), the artist who created the painting in the AGO exhibit, had been inspired by Giotto. I have reproduced the Gaddi painting here, from the Harvard Museum. If I had taken a moment to think, I might have recognized from what I had learned from my Louvre book about the Giotto painting (see blog post 4) that the AGO work couldn’t have been Giotto’s, because his includes three much smaller images along the bottom edge depicting other scenes from the life of the saint. Moreover, despite the imposing size of Gaddi’s work (measuring 212 cm by 149.5 cm), Giotto’s, had I seen it when I was in the Louvre last summer, might have left an impression with me of its even larger dimensions, 313 cm by 163 cm.
But perhaps I’ve got it all backwards. After all, I didn’t see the Giotto in the Louvre, but only in the Louvre book. The original is still waiting for me in the Louvre; in the meantime, I have seen its echo, or its shadow, or perhaps its spirit, alive, in Toronto, at the AGO, and it gave me something very like a shock of recognition.