Sunday, September 16, 2012

Touch and Feel: Texture in the Italian Renaissance

During the Italian Renaissance, realism in painting style spread rapidly.  Oil paints became the medium of choice as artists traded the fast drying and finicky egg tempera for paints that would blend beautifully and dry slowly, allowing artists time and flexibility to create realistic masterpieces.
This unique aspect allowed for artists to create amazing texture, a word which derives from the Latin “weaving,” describing surface character of fabrics and other materials experienced through the sense of touch.  The visual texture in pieces such as Fra Filippo Lippi’s Adoration of the Magi (1496) and Piero del Pollaiolo’s panel Temperance (1470) provide marked examples of the artists’ ability to create trompe l’oeil with only paint and canvas.

Adoration of the Magi, Filippo Lippi, 1496.  Photo
courtesy of wikipedia creative commons.
Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), of the Carmelite friars in Florence, was an accomplished painter of his time.  His Adoration of the Magi, ripe with different textures, proves his mastery with the paintbrush.  Lippi creates the illusion of weight in heavy cloaks, utilizing chiaroscuro to create depth.  Every detail in this painting depicts some different texture, from the clouds in the sky to the wood and brush overhang above the Virgin and Child.  Those who pray around the duo wear light, silken scarves and are adorned with fur collars and cuffs, which look soft to the touch.  In this way Lippi creates the illusion of physical weight – the silks look light and airy while the furs and cloaks appear heavy, draped over bodies that seem to physically exist beneath them.

Temperance, Piero del Pollaiolo,
 1470. Photo courtesy of wikipedia
creative commons

Piero del Pollaiolo’s panel for Temperance, along with six others, originally formed the backrest decorations in the courtroom of the Guild of the Mercantanzia.  This panel in particular is exquisite in its fine detailing, from the throne in which the virtuous woman sits upon to her richly colored velveteen cloak.  Pollaiolo pays great attention to the work as a whole, but her cloak is the most striking when viewed in person.  Her deep red dress looks truly real, popping off the panel and seeming soft to the touch.  The stark contrast of the background’s solidity and her soft dress adds to this effect.  Pollaiolo paints the marble back ground so that it looks deep and cold, while her dress appears luscious with life. 
Lippi’s Adoration is full from top to bottom with different textures, so much so that it becomes overwhelming; whereas Temperance, much more tame, focuses mainly on a few different textures.  Temperance also portrays much richer textures, which leads me to believe that perhaps texture was key to this piece.  Adoration focuses less on this aspect; Lippi uses texture to add to the piece, not as an integral part of it.

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