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Behaving Badly in Perugia’s National Gallery

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Sometimes I behave badly in museums and galleries. Not outrageously, mind you. I don’t pull fire alarms or try to smuggle in a cup of coffee. I don’t even stand right in front of art works, blocking the view of other visitors.

But I don’t always prepare myself properly, and once inside I get really greedy -- to see more than I can absorb -- and impatient when I realize I cannot see everything! This is bad, not for others but for myself and my enjoyment of the place.

Really, I know better than to go charging in, determined to see the whole damned place in one go, or die trying. Not a good approach. Most galleries/museums, such as Perugia’s wonderful Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria (National Gallery of Umbria) are simply too large to be enjoyed in a single bite. Same with the Vatican Museums in Rome. It’s insane to believe a visitor can see and appreciate everything in one visit.

In my opinion, it’s better to practise some triage. Make choices. Do a bit of research before you arrive, figure out what are a few things that you really want to see. Be a bit ruthless. If you try to look at every single piece with the same level of interest and intensity, you’ll go mad. So conserve a bit of energy. Sit when you see a public bench or chair. Use a washroom when it’s available.

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So here is a bit of my prep work for my visit to Perugia's National Gallery in June. I’m going to make a beeline for Sala VIII and spend a good chunk of time examining Fra Angelico’s great altarpiece, the Guidalotti Polyptych, which was painted in about 1447. It’s believed this polyptych (that is, a many-panelled painting) was painted for the Guidalotti family by Fra Angelico for the Cappella di San Nicolò (the Chapel of St. Nicholas) in Perugia’s wonderful church of San Domenico.

(The top two photos – the Virgin of the Annunciation and the Angel of the Annunciation are pieces from this polyptych; the third photo just above is the entire altarpiece.)

By the way, Fra Angelico, who belonged to a Dominican order, is often referred to as “Beato” Angelico. He was given the title Beato, or the Blessed, apparently because of his virtues, but I imagine it also had to do with his great gifts as a painter. (The title Fra is an abbreviation of frate and is a conventional title for a friar or brother).

Beato Angelico has left stunning frescos all over central Italy – in Cortona, in Florence (especially the cells in San Marco) and even in the Vatican, where he worked on the lovely little Cappella Niccolina, now part of the Vatican Museums (and rarely open to the public.)

The central panel of the Perugia polyptych shows the Madonna and Child enthroned with angels. The baby Christ is naked, sitting with one hand raised in benediction, the other holding a half-open pomegranate. (The open fruit is often used as a symbol of the fullness of Christ's suffering and resurrection.)

Around them are four saints: Dominic and Nicholas of Bari (identified by markings on his stole) on one side; John the Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria (with her wheel) on the other side.

Other panels of the polyptych include:
• two tondi above the side panels of the main register depicting the figures of the Annunciation (see photos above)
• six panels incorporated into each of the side pilasters depicting various saints; and
• the three predella panels (which run along the bottom of the piece.) These depict scenes from the life of St Nicholas of Bari (two of these are copies of the originals, which are now in the Vatican’s Pinacoteca, which I’ll explain a bit later.)

These scenes include portrayals of the birth of St. Nicholas; him listening to the preaching of a bishop to a congregation of women seated in a flowery field; the saint saving from dishonour the daughters of a poor gentleman; and the miracle of causing a hundred measures of wheat to rain down and relieve the famine in the city of Nuri. On the upper portion the saint appears from behind a rock, having been invoked by some devotees to calm a tempest.

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Art historians suggest that the figure of St Nicholas of Bari seems to be a portrait of Pope Nicholas V, Fra Angelico's friend and patron who was elected Pope in 1448 and for whom Fra Angelico painted frescoes (1448-9) in similar style in what became known as the Cappellla Niccolina of the Vatican.

This Perugian polyptych was moved from San Domenico (a church well worth visiting!) after vaults in the nave of the church collapsed in 1614. Later, three of the panels that make up the work were confiscated from Perugia during the Napoleonic period. Two were shipped to Paris after 1810 but were later returned to Rome and are now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, that is, the picture gallery in the Vatican Museums.

The remaining panels from San Domenico were moved to the Perugia’s National Gallery in 1860. They were assembled in a new frame in 1915, together with copies of the missing predella panels.

While in the National Gallery of Perugia, I’m also going to spend some time in Sala X, examining an altarpiece from the church of St. Antony di Padua by Piero della Francesca. Piero della Francesca brings a mathematician’s eye to his work, which show his interest in achieving perfect perspective.

In the spirit of not over-crowding myself, I won’t say any more about PDF just now, but will save that for another blog post!


Comments (9)

Jane:

great post, Sandra. I want to go there and take your blog with me.

Anne:

Sandra, you have such a knack for hitting the nail on the head - I really have to fight off that burning desire to see it ALL when I visit museums too. (This did not stand me in good stead in the Pitti Palace...I reeled out of there drunk from overindulgence!)

I really enjoyed Fra Angelico's work in San Marco. His Annunciation is one of those images we almost become immune to from seeing so many replicas, but then to see the real deal - stunning! So full of grace.

Great post, look forward to the PDF entry :)

Sandra, your plan is great. Lucky you, you'll be enjoying these beautiful pieces in person soon.

sandrac:

Jane, when you go, don't take my blog -- take me, please!

Thanks Anne, for your kind words. The Pitti Palace is incredibly overwhelming, isn't it? A couple of years ago, I took a Context tour of the picture gallery and in 3 hours, I think the guide touched on maybe one or two pieces in every room -- there is just SO much!

Thanks, Candi!

I think that has always been my problem also and why sometimes I prefer smaller museums. I can't seem to just spend time in a few rooms if I am there. Great post!!

Love the title of this post! Too funny. I too have gone into major overwhelm/meltdown in museums. I only made it thru about a fourth of the rooms in the Uffizi before I just couldn't take more in.

One great thing about the Internet is that it's made it much easier to "preview" collections and decide what you really want to see. That Fra Angelico altarpiece looks fabulous.

Have a great weekend!

sandrac:

Hi Girasoli -- I know what you mean about smaller museums, they can be really appealing. And churches -- they can be so beautiful but even if there's a lot of art, it's not often overwhelming (and you can often find a place to sit!)

Thanks, Annie! You're so right, thanks to the Internet it is possible to plan ahead and not be at the mercy of museum planners.

I think the next time I visit the Uffizi, I'm going to start in the last rooms (that always get short shrift) and work my way to the first rooms. Reverse chronological.

Excellent advice. I am another one that can just get into overload unless I pick out some highlights and focus on those pieces. Or break up and return multiple days. I had to do that in the Uffizi. I got so wrapped up in the early rooms (loving everything) and started fading by Botticelli. I ended up skipping ahead because I really wanted to see Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes.

sandrac:

Marta, that's so true -- if I don't pace myself, I run out of energy. Then, I wind up not enjoying the art as much as I would if I had returned a few times!

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