The Early Renaissance Revisited at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Ask most people to name a Renaissance artist and the answer will likely be Michelangelo. Or Da Vinci. Or Raphael.

What about Giotto di Bondone? Perhaps. Bernardo Daddi? The name sounds familiar. Pacino di Bonaguida? Is he related to Al?

Enter the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art, a monumental gathering of masterpieces by the first Renaissance masters – some we know and others who remain anonymous – whose works illuminated the way for artists like Michelangelo and Da Vinci to create their masterpieces.

Much like the recent Picasso and Frida and Diego exhibits, and even 2010’s Drama and Desire, the scope and splendour of Revealing the Early Renaissance re-enforces the AGO’s status as a world-class art institution. The gallery’s collaborating curator Sasha Suda (who worked alongside Christine Sciacca of Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum) noted that the exhibit took about a decade to put together. While some artwork comes on loan from other museums, much of it has never travelled outside of Italy. Evidently, arranging the delivery of 700-year-old paintings and books from Europe to Canada isn’t as easy a wrapping it in Styrofoam and slapping a FedEx sticker on it.

The exhibit starts with an introduction to Florence in the 14th century, noting how a booming economy attracted some of the wealthiest citizens and leading artists of the day.

From there you’ll encounter rooms filled with treasures like Giotto’s stunning Peruzzi Altarpiece (pictured above), its colour and design spectacular against the gold leaf background in each panel. Meanwhile, Daddi’s Martyrdom of St. Ursula and 11,000 Virgins loses none of its tragic allure, despite the wear and tear the centuries have taken on it.

Manuscripts also make up a good portion of the exhibit, the images they contain still vibrant and nearly untouched thanks to the protection being enclosed in books brings. The Master of the Dominican Effigies created many of those on display, though his name is sadly lost to history – a staggering thought considering the excess of talent  and precision he employed.

After you take in the panels, paintings, altarpieces and statues, be sure to leave time to enjoy the crown jewel of the exhibit: the Laudario of Sant’Agnese – a hymnbook illustrated by The Master of the Dominican Effigies and Pacino di Bonaguida that was sold page by page to European collectors 200 years ago. The AGO boasts 24 of the 28 pages known to exist, together for the first time in centuries, beautifully framed and on display. The pages were subsequently transcribed by the American chamber group Lionheart Vocal Ensemble, whose performance of part of the hymn can be heard over speakers at the exhibit, or live when the group visits the gallery on April 6.

The exhibit is punctuated by iPads placed throughout the space, giving guests a glimpse at what lies beneath a painting’s image via infrared technology. And, as they have with past exhibits, the AGO brings together a variety of Renaissance themed offerings, from the food in FRANK restaurant and the Galleria Italia to symposiums and talks.

This exhibit is a must see for any art lover, just as the individual works within it were 700 years ago. Get there before it’s gone. After all, the Renaissance doesn’t come along everyday.

Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art runs until June 6. Click here for more details.