There’s something quaint about the main painting at the “Galleria Degli Uffizi: Arte a Firenze da Botticelli a Bronzino — verso una ‘Maniera Moderna’ ” exhibition now showing at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work, “Pallas and the Centaur” (c. 1480-85), a large canvas by the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, shows the goddess Pallas Athena, symbolizing reason, taming a centaur — a half-man,half-horse creature, symbolizing savagery.
It is an astounding painting, showing great artistry, but the balance is not quite right. The figure of the centaur seems to be slightly squashed in the left side of the painting — “off centaur,” if you like. Then there are the unusual bodily proportions: not enough to jump out at you, but there all the same. Pallas’ arms seem rather long, her legs rather short. And the size of that pike!
Such is the artistic power of Botticelli that you may not notice any of this, and just take in the picture as a delightful work. But this painting was probably part of a pair or group of paintings meant to be displayed together to form a larger harmonious whole. Some academics have suggested that it is a companion piece to the famous “Primavera” (c. 1482).
The reason that a top-class painting by one of the great artists of the Renaissance looks somewhat odd when viewed closely, however, is that the artists of this period were still struggling with their comparatively recent embrace of realism — perspective, proportion, shading and the study of nature and anatomy — the great artistic innovations of the Renaissance.
Unconstrained by realism, earlier artists in the medieval period had the freedom to arrange the elements of their paintings in whatever pattern seemed most pleasing or harmonious. But when the Renaissance adopted the idea of making art a “mirror of reality,” the problem arose of how to maintain harmony and beauty, as reality in itself is not necessarily harmonious or beautiful.
It is this struggle to reconcile a sense of realism with a sense of harmony and beauty that runs throughout the works at this exhibition. Sourced from Florence’s famous Uffizi Gallery, the exhibition covers the golden period of that city’s artistic influence, when, under the patronage of the powerful Medici family, it was one of the key artistic centers of Europe.
The struggle to achieve realism and then to beautify it is also evident in “St. Stephen Between St. Jacob and St. Peter” (1492-94) by Domenico Ghirlandaio, whose workshop employed Michelangelo as an apprentice at the time. In this painting of the three saints, each identifiable by the symbol he holds, the draughtsmanship and modeling of light and shade bring the figures to life. But this is not regarded as a sufficiently aesthetic feat, so, in addition, the background is heavily decorated, creating a palatial backdrop.
Of course, such ostentation often detracts from the realism, and may seem quaint to modern audiences. More convincing are simpler images such as “Mater Dolorosa” (c. 1500) by Pietro Perugino. The painting, which shows the Madonna shedding tears for her crucified son, is so remarkable for its lack of decoration that it seems much more like a German or Dutch painting than one from Italy at the height of the Renaissance.
Perugino comes across as a relatively restrained artist in this exhibition. Another excellent work is his “Madonna and Child with Two Saints” (1490-1500). At first sight it seems rather dull — the three female figures almost seem like a feminine wall in front of which the infant Christ is posed. But the bulk of the figures helps us to focus on the subtle devices the artist uses to enliven the composition.
No two figures look in the same direction. The infant Christ looks to the right, his mother slightly to the left; one of the saints looks down, while the other looks directly at us. The positioning of the hands around the child — two belonging to the Madonna and one belonging to the saint on the right — is also important, creating a melodious and rhythmic curve that sweeps round the child and helps unify the composition.
Realism is something that we tend to take for granted nowadays, so even though these works were blazing a trail in that direction it is hard to derive major pleasure from this. However, the compositional tricks used by the various artists give us a lot to look for and enjoy, especially as they are not immediately obvious.
The number of Botticellis — I counted nine — was impressive, and the exhibition also includes good works by such renowned names as Filippino Lippi, Andrea del Sarto, Agnolo Bronzino and even Giorgio Vasari, best known today for his biographies of the great artists of the Renaissance. For anybody interested in this period of art, this counts as a must-see show.
“Galleria Degli Uffizi: Arte a Firenze da Botticelli a Bronzino — Verso una ‘Maniera Moderna’ ” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art runs till Dec. 14; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.tobikan.jp