The Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages as they are more properly known, lasted from the decline of the Roman Empire to the rediscovery of ancient learning known as the Renaissance. Of course, the dates for this period vary depending on whom you ask: the Roman Empire fell in AD 476, but everything had been going to shit for some time before then; some would say that Rome was a lost cause as early as AD 271, when the Emperor Aurelian ordered the construction of a wall around the city since it was no longer safe from attack by barbarians. Certainly mediaeval art started at that point, because from then on people gradually forgot how to draw.
The rot set in remarkably quickly, as is evident from statues of Roman emperors. The Emperor Tacitus (September 275–June 276) is the last one to have a relatively normal-looking portrait bust; except his horrible neckbeard is made to look even worse than it must have been by incompetent imperial sculptors, who have covered his neck with a growth of poisonous lawn mushrooms sprouting from his jowls. By the reign of Diocletian (284–305) nobody in Rome could sculpt realistic hair at all. After he and his co-emperor Maximian (286–305) abdicated there were no more proper portraits; henceforth official propaganda featured emperors with distorted and misshapen faces, like children’s drawings (or Picasso’s).
As of AD 400 there weren’t even portrait statues anymore: from this point on emperors’ faces were seen only on the sides of hideous gold coins of humiliatingly low quality. Romulus Augustus, the last Roman Emperor, looked in his portrait like a Barbie doll after twenty seconds in the microwave; though his predecessors Majorian (457–461) and Libius Severus (461–465) jointly win the prize for shittest portraits in Roman history, with Olybrius (who ruled for three unmemorable months in AD 472) coming in a close second for the spectacularly incompetent full-frontal representation which defaces such few low-value imperial coins as were issued during his reign. Had he lived longer, the art would surely have been worse; the coinage makes him look like he suffered from a youthful case of dropsy.
For the better part of a millennium art in Europe persisted at this pathetically low level; Rome itself, which had boasted three quarters of a million people in AD 14, over a million residents throughout the second century (until the reign of the brutal Emperor Caracalla began), and still had a population of half a million in 271, shrank and dwindled until it was reduced to a dismal malaria-ridden village with fewer than ten thousand people living in it, many of whom made their livings by attacking and robbing pilgrims heading to St Peter’s. The city’s lowest point may have been January 897, when Pope Formusus, who had died the previous year, was exhumed, dressed again in his papal vestments and put on trial in the Basilica of St John Lateran by his successor and enemy Pope Stephen VI. The corpse was found guilty, desecrated, and thrown into the river Tiber.
Such were the conditions under which mediaeval art was produced; no wonder none of it is any good. Florence was the first city in Italy to wake up from the Dark Ages and try to revive something like the grandeur of the ancient Romans; but even here the Renaissance arrived slowly and met with resistance. Artists and patrons alike had grown accustomed to, and comfortable with, Gothic mediocrity; some remained suspicious of new virtues like quality, beauty and competence.
Luckily Giovanni dal Ponte was a fast learner. His pictures from 1410–1415 are already an advance on his early images and his immediate tradition: he has finally figured out modelling, shading and form, and also has a sense of volume. He will, of course, never learn how to use perspective properly, but from this phase onwards it is at least clear that he is trying to show events that take place in time and space. Yet his taste remains suspect: in a crucifixion from this phase of his career (San Miniato: collection of the Cassa di Risparmio di San Miniato), the loincloth of the crucified Jesus is rendered with swooping, cursive and stylised brushstrokes in a manner that seems inappropriately, disturbingly playful; below him the cloaks of the mourning Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist are rendered realistically, but with bold brushstrokes more appropriate for an Impressionist painting.
Between 1415 and 1420 Giovanni dal Ponte began to try to make his figures into something like real people, with warm flesh and individual features. He was also keen to represent relationships between figures. In his first major Madonna and Child (Private Collection) Giovanni paints baby Jesus playing with a bird in his mother’s lap, tapping the tip of its beak with his right index finger whilst grasping its tail with his left hand. This is not a pet: this dove represents the Holy Spirit. Giovanni is not making a profound theological point; he is simply trying to take a conventional symbol and make it seem a natural part of this composition. It almost works, except that the bird is wretchedly drawn; it looks like a small dragon who burnt its own skin off by mistake.
The final phase in Giovanni’s development began in around 1425, after his release from prison; all his greatest work comes from these last dozen years of his life. The predella (or frieze below an altarpiece) preserved in Brussels (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique) with three scenes (of St Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata, St Anthony Abbot tempted in the desert and the Adoration of the Magi) shows just how far he developed as a narrative painter in a few short years. A 1420 panel (Private Collection) illustrating a few scenes from Boccaccio’s 1341 epic poem the Teseida is attractive, but crowded and hard to read – whereas this later work excludes any elements not directly related to the stories being told. Giovanni has evidently lost much of his taste in decoration for its own sake.
Two altarpieces by Giovanni dal Ponte are substantially complete: the triptych with St John the Evangelist (London: National Gallery) from 1433/35 shows off everything that this painter could do well: narrative scenes, crowds, individual figures, and relationships between pairs or small groups. Giovanni was equally comfortable showing St John giving alms to the poor, receiving divine visions from angels in his sleep, or being boiled alive in a cauldron. Yet the 1430 ‘Coronation of the Virgin Mary’ altarpiece (Florence: Accademia) might be Giovanni’s most perfect single work. In the London altarpiece there is too much for the eye to take in all at once – the effect is overwhelming – whereas ‘The Coronation’ subordinates all other elements to the story being told in the main panel. This is, for all its grandeur, a gentle, contemplative piece, and Giovanni has even managed to control his flamboyant brushstrokes, more or less.
In 1423, when Gentile da Fabriano (1370?–1427) unveiled his famous ‘Strozzi Altarpiece’ (Florence: Uffizi Gallery), the ‘International Gothic’ style in which Giovanni worked had reached its summit. The next year, Masolino (1383–1447) and his young assistant Masaccio (1401–1428) completed the first frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Perspective, realistic light, anatomically-correct figure drawing and classically-inspired composition were suddenly introduced to painting for the first time since antiquity. The Renaissance had started; nobody wanted Gothic art anymore; decorative, stylised mediaevalism was dead. Within a gener-ation Giovanni dal Ponte was forgotten.
The Accademia di Firenze’s exhibition, the first ever to be devoted exclusively to Giovanni dal Ponte’s work, will do nothing to rescue his reputation from obscurity. Clearly he was a skilled painter. There is delicacy, tact and judgment in his pictures; he appears to have understood some-thing about love, certainly not least that between a mother and child. In his sense of colour and his calligraphic brushstrokes he demonstrates real verve. He had the intelligence to learn quickly, and his manner never stopped developing. Giovanni’s main problem was his stubborn adherence to an outdated, inferior tradition.
At best, mediaeval art is pretty decoration; more often it involves an absorbed, eccentric, self-indulgent crudity – of concept no less than execution. Giovanni dal Ponte squandered his talent on trivial curiosities – all for the sake of being able to express himself in a quirkily ‘individual’ manner. Nobody bothered to tell him that there were more important things in painting than bright colours and funny-looking strokes.
Then again: how could he not figure that out for himself, with the Renaissance erupting all around him? Were he and men like him too stupid to see what was happening, or simply not good enough to paint like that themselves?