The Art Gallery of Ontario Illuminates the Early Renaissance
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The Art Gallery of Ontario Illuminates the Early Renaissance

Manuscripts, panel paintings, and sculptures from 14th-century Florence offer a rare glimpse of early renaissance art.

Revealing the Early Renaissance
Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West)
March 16 to June 16
$25 adult admission (includes admission to the rest of the gallery)

As black smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday, indicating that the conclave of cardinals had yet to choose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, a little bit of the Vatican was unveiled at the Art Gallery of Ontario. A new exhibit, called “Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art,” features work from the very beginning of the Renaissance, in 14th-century Florence. It opens to the public on Saturday.

The art featured in the exhibit—which includes altar pieces, panel paintings, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts—was produced in a city that had recently become a trade hub. Suddenly populated by a wealthy merchant class, Florence was also wrestling with newfound anxiety. Its people created a great deal of extraordinary devotional art as a result.

The exhibit, over ten years in the making, was the product of a vast network of negotiations and generous lending agreements with other institutions. The Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, partnered with the AGO in order to bring it all to Toronto. (Many of the pieces that are now at the AGO recently appeared in the Getty’s exhibition, “Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance,” which ran until February 10.)

One of the highlights of the exhibit is the work of an anonymous artist known only as The Master of the Codex of Saint George, who created both panel paintings and illuminated manuscripts that are considered to have been over a century ahead of their time. The crown jewel of the exhibit may very well be the Codex of Saint George itself, an exquisite manuscript from the Vatican library that is appearing in North America for the very first time. In fact, the book only arrived at the AGO Tuesday morning, much to the joy and great relief of the curators.

Another highlight is a room that houses 24 pages from a song book known as the Laudario of Sant’Agnese. Commissioned by a group of wealthy merchants and traders, the book was a hymnal—a collection of songs of praise. The beautifully illustrated book includes scenes from the life of Christ as well as the stories of some of the saints (including a few gruesome martyrdoms). There are even illustrations of the merchants themselves. The book was eventually split apart, because each page was invaluable in and of itself. For the AGO’s exhibit, 24 of the pages have been brought together. Recordings of songs of praise from the book, as interpreted by the choral chamber group Lionheart, are played softly in the background while visitors wander through the space. On April 6 at 2 p.m., Lionheart will perform songs from the Laudario live.

A rich and varied show, “Revealing the Early Renaissance” will appeal to a broad range of art fans, especially those of a literary bent. While each piece is stunning on its own (don’t miss the beautiful, illuminated copy of Dante’s Inferno), the rich, jewel-like pieces truly shine as a group.

CORRECTION: March 14, 2013, 2:05 AM This post originally contained a number of inaccuracies. It said, incorrectly, that works in “Revealing the Early Renaissance” date from the the 13th and 14th centuries. In fact, only 14th-century works are included. The post also mentioned “marble reliefs,” none of which appear as part of the exhibit. Also, the post originally claimed that the Codex of Saint George has never before been seen outside the Vatican library. In fact, it has, on rare occasions, traveled to other institutions. This is the first time it has come to North America.

Several photo captions contained incorrect information. Image five depicts not a “scene from the last judgement,” but St. Michael slaying a dragon. Image 15 is a picture of a vinyl reproduction of Pacino di Bonaguida’s Tree of Life, not a picture of the original work. Image 16 is not from the Laudario of Sant’Agnese; it’s from another work. The caption on image 17 misspelled Maestro Daddesco’s name.