Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni
Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin and Saints
Italy (c. 1390s)
Tempera and Gold Leaf on Panel, 355.6 x 233 cm.
J. Paul Getty Museum
I’d like to take a moment to point out the diversity of skin tones depicted in this Italian work, which falls into the 14th century era of “stutter” before Italian Renaissance. This was made in Florence during a time when the city was in a a state of crisis and change.
Although it makes some White Italian people angry that I include works like these here , my point is that that has no effect on the way that these paintings are taught or included in American educational materials.
One more time: racial categories in modern Italy have no effect on how Medieval and Renaissance Italian Art is included (or omitted) from American curricula.
I think it’s important to note that some of these figures are obviously meant to have brown skin, while others have pink or white skin. Many of the dark-skinned figures in various paintings from European history are “explained” as being due to candle or wood smoke, aging pigments, “restorations gone wrong”, dirt, or some other suggested besmirching of their original and assumed to be white-skinned state.
The problem is twofold: firstly, that a dark skin color is felt to need an “explanation”; secondly, that this only seems to apply to skin/faces, and in many cases, only to some of the figures’ skin/faces. Often, other figures in the same work will have noticeable lighter or darker skin. Many images claimed to have been darkened by age or smoke include lighter portions of the same image that have not been affected, like cloth or backgrounds.
In this image, most of the aging appears to have affected the darkest shadows: it’s faded some of them to a slightly lighter grey in some places. If you look at the enormous image of this entire artwork available for free download at the Getty Museum’s website, you can see that both the lighter and darker skinned figures are affected more or less the same. Now, since we’re analyzing a photograph of an image instead of having the actual painting in front of us, it’s possible this is an effect of the photography, but it is more noticeable in the midtones of the lighter-skinned figures, and in some portions of white cloth.
Discussing race in America has always been the equivalent of shaking a bag of gunpowder and fire separated by a sheet of paper, as evidenced in popular American schlock media, a la the “Sicilian Scene” in the craptacular film True Romance.
The fact is, this is an Italian work in an American museum (specifically in Los Angeles), and I really do wonder how Americans have been conditioned to view a work like this. Plenty of young people I’m sure have viewed this painting on field trips in high school, college, and perhaps even grade school. Considering it’s a free high quality image of an important historical piece of Italian art, I imagine it’s often used by many instructors in their educational materials.
How does this piece function in American society? That’s what I wonder.