Looking Past Pretty
It's hard not to succumb to at least a mild case of the Stendhal Syndrome, a feeling of dizzy ecstasy when overwhelmed by art, while in Florence visiting art museums. But I've noticed that often people experience quite an opposite feeling.
Walking past one Renaissance masterpiece after another, barely stopping to glance, many otherwise intelligent people are lulled ( or dulled) into what I think of as the "pretty response."
It's a kind of stupor that causes a flat response, a check on a checklist: "Oh yes, that's famous. Very pretty."
The only cure is to stop, breathe, and really look.
For example, this painting by Lippi, reproduced endlessly on Christmas cards and posters, at first glance might just seem, well, pretty. But look closer.
Notice the grey stone frame. It serves as both a window and a frame for the figures. See how Mary's body crosses into the field of the frame? How one of her shoulders moves past the frame on the inside and the other breaks through the space to the outside? This gives her a stunning spatial reality, seldom seen in earlier paintings.
Notice the landscape. If you think about it, you might realize that it is imaginary, allegorical. Those rocky outcroppings are neither Italian (like the clothing and furnishings) nor does it show a village scene of Nazareth.
Even if you go no further, knowing that this background has meaning* can aid in overcoming the pretty response.
A few more things you can easily spot by focusing for a minute and looking:
- the faces are real human faces and each wears a revealing expression
- the halos are barely perceptible, just suggestions of more light
- the angel in front looks like he's about to giggle
- the 2nd angel just barely peers out from beneath the baby's arms and you can see his tiny teeth
- pearls, circles, and curves are repeated
- the curls and lines of the figures' hair recurs in the lines of the background
- the incredible real-ness--the weight and heft as well as the sheerness of Mary's veil
None of these simple observations require art historical knowledge, and you would surely make your own discoveries after looking at this painting for a few minutes. (Post a comment if you do).
Spending time with a few works that capture your attention will prevent the Stendhal Syndrome and override the "pretty response." It will also make your visit to the Uffizi or any other art museum much richer.
*Next time, I'll tell you about those meanings and a story about the artist and the models, too.