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Reciprocal exhibitions between Russia and Italy bring masterpieces by Giotto to the Tretyakov Gallery
A view of the back of the Saint Reparata Polyptych by Italian painter Giotto. EPA/UFFICIO STAMPA.

MOSCOW.- The present display is organized on the initiative of President of Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev and President Giorgio Napolitano under the patronage of Cyril, the Patriarch of Moscow and all-Russia in the framework of Year of Russian culture and Russian language in Italian Republic and Italian culture and Italian language in Russian Federation.

Being a result of the joint work of the representatives of the reserch centres, museum community, and theological circles, this project has become a unique experience of collaboration between Italian and Russian experts, who made this unprecedented exchange of masterpieces possible at the conclusion of the Russian-ItalianYear.

In the famous Baptistery in Florence the State Tretyakov Gallery presents rare pieces of Old Russian art from its collection. They are the monumental “Our Lady Hodegetria”, created in the late XIII century in Pskov, one of the art centres of Ancient Russia, “Ascension” dated 1408 from the festive row of iconostasis of the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir, related to the art of the most celebrated Russian icon painter Saint Andrew Rublev, and, finally, “Crucifixion”, painted by Dionisius in 1500, which is a remarkably beautiful representation of theological idea.

As an equal participant of this outstanding project of art, history and theology The State Tretyakov Gallery carefully selected the works for display in Italy, and at the same time carried out serious contemporary scientific and technologic reserch, based on the integrated method. The results of the research, which were accompanied by detailed photography of all stages, have been published in the catalogue of the exhibition project. Therefore the State Tretyakov Gallery presented not only the masterpieces of the national medieval art, but also the most complete knowledge about them.

At the same time in Moscow, in Tretyakov Gallery, another display of works by the great Italian artist Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337) is taking place. The pieces of the painter, whose name is connected with the Proto-Renaissance Era, are exhibited for the first time here. They are Madonna and Child from the Church San Giorgio alla Costa, painted in the late XIII century, and a double-faced altar complex, which consists of 10 pieces on one pedestal - Polyptych from the Church of Santa Reparata, created around 1305 and rather recently recognized by Italian researchers as a work of Giotto.

Italian researchers attribute the work Madonna and Child (1299) as part of artist’s early work, completed while he was working on frescoes for the Cathedral of St Francis of Assisi. One death-bed composition depicting the confirmation of St Francis’ stigmata as genuine, by the altar screen, includes an image of the Madonna and Child, which is surprisingly close in iconographic terms to the icon from the church of San Giorgio alla Costa
This gives the viewer a sense of the actual position of particularly respected works within the cathedral (above the altar screen, at an angle). The term “maesta” came to be used to describe the particular approach to iconography seen in the Madonna and Child – in which the Madonna is enthroned.

The Virgin Mary is depicted as the Regina Coeli or Queen of Heaven, and all the saints and angels bow to her. This form of iconography is rooted in the Byzantine traditions that were so important for Giotto’s teachers and which remained of central importance to Giotto himself. Despite the fact that the piece has not survived in its entirety, we have a sense of what it must have looked like originally. The Madonna is seated on a light marble throne, with Gothic detailing, and curtains, and the Infant is on her lap, holding a scroll in his left hand. The work was attributed to Giotto in part due to the tragedy that took place in 1993, when an explosion rocked the Uffizi gallery and the “Maesta” was seriously damaged by fragments of glass. During the painstaking restoration work additional research was carried out, thanks to which it was recognized as a genuine Giotto.

The creation of the Polyptych from the Church of Santa Reparata was linked to the construction of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. It was a long process, and work was only completed in 1396, when the old church of Saint Reparata was subsumed by this new, grand construction. From 1331 to 1337 Giotto di Bondone was appointed to oversee the work.

The iconographic composition of this work is thought to have been directly linked with this change in the cathedral's devotion. On the obverse, facing the viewers is a portrait of Mary the Mother of God with her child, to whom the new cathedral was devoted; Saint Reparata, so revered by the people of Florence, is depicted on the reverse side of the altar image, and this was visible to the clergy during the liturgy.

The Middle Ages are commonly seen as being a period in which our peoples' culture flourished from a common source – the artistic tradition of Byzantium, but which then followed divergent paths. The great Florentine artist Giotto is one of those rare figures whose work changed the dominant aesthetic of the time. His Madonna and Child was painted in the late thirteenth century after the great Schism of the church into the Eastern Church (with its center in Constantinople, and then later in Moscow) and the Western Church (with its center in Rome), and his work demonstrates this move away from the Byzantine cannon to which those who went before him, like Pietro Cavallini and Cimabue, so rigorously adhered.

This Byzantine heritage takes on a fresh, national flavor in the work of Russia's icon painters, such as Andrei Rublev and Dionisius, and they were to continue working within these traditions, and developing them, for another century to come.

Bringing together Russian and Italian works of art in one joint project like this creates an opportunity for people to view these masterpieces of the European late middle ages in a common context, which is an important step forward in studying the connections and parallels between our cultures.

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