5.Brancacci, Text and Image

Discussion questions:  In addition to the questions in the study guide, you may consider and reflect upon: a) the distinction between ‘discursive’ or narrative art, and iconic art.  Use Tribute Money, (together with Adoration of Magi (Da Fabriano), and Trial by Fire (Giotto) as an example of narrative art.   b) the relation between Felice’s text and the fresco he commissions, and the choices of Masaccio in rendering Matthew’s text; c) What is the elephant doing in Felice’s diary?  Can its description give you some idea about Felice’s experience in Egypt? Can we think about it, in a psychoanalytic reading, as the ‘indescribable’ and alien subconscious, the hidden image that gets transformed into the recognizable and self affirming image on the walls of Felice’s family chapel?

5 thoughts on “5.Brancacci, Text and Image

  1. Something I find fascinating about diplomacy (and human interaction in general) is the amount to which the seemingly insignificant acts of ritual and etiquette dictate the bigger picture. These diplomats have to act perfectly in accordance with the expected manners in order for them to be able to even hint at the real object of their visit. This is shown in the highly ritualized series of approaches and retreats, coupled with incessant bowing, that characterize their initial meeting with the sultan—and all this before they are allowed to even complete their introductory statement, not to mention get to their reasons for their journey. If these customs were not observed, well, that would be grounds enough for the sultan (or any ruler) to ignore their requests, no matter how important, and perhaps even punish them for their breach of etiquette (note the show of military force). This applies not only to this particular delegation, but also to every state visit in nearly any period.

    In Christopher Paolini’s novel Eldest, the main character is told, as he is being taught the ritualistic manner in which he must greet the monarchs from a different country, that these codes of conduct and manners were created and must be observed so that no one becomes offended by another’s rudeness. Eragon, the protagonist, wryly replies that perhaps, rather than reducing the opportunity for offense, having all of these rules in place increases the possibility of slighting another person through ignorance or accident.

    Is there a point here? Is it possible that by creating these elaborate formalities it has somehow become easier to offend another? I think there may be some validity to this statement. In any case, it is odd how the smallest details of etiquette ultimately determine the success or failure of possibly world-changing delegations—such as this one, an attempt to put Florence back on top economically.

    I am somehow reminded of the elephant by this line of thought. Brancacci is struck by how unique and majestic this creature is—the overall effect seems to be an almost overwhelming sense of wonder, not dissimilar to the effect given by the elaborate rituals and opulence surrounding the sultan. The elephant, too, is made to perform many tricks for the viewers, much in the same way that the delegation has to go along with the rituals of state—and perhaps with as little understanding about the reasons why.

    It is so funny how little things make the biggest difference. An incorrect bow or ill-conceived phrase can ruin a state visit, whereas a perfect observance of ritual and etiquette can spell success. It is a delicate dance between total submission and standing for what is needed by who is being represented—like most things, balance is key.

  2. The image in the Brancacci Chapel represents one of St. Peter’s stories, who was the patron saint of the Brancacci family. The story is called “Payment of the tribute”, which talks about when Jesus was stopped at the entrance of Cafarnao by the taxman. He then told Peter to fish on the shore of the lake and to find a golden coin in stomach of the first fish he would catch. He did as his master said, found the golden coin and entered the city. But what would the parallell between Felice Brancacci’s adventure to Egypt and this biblical tale be?

    Felice was sent to Egypt for economic purposes: his aim was to create new trade routes between his Florence and the Eastern cultures. After successfully carrying out his duty, the golden florin was accepted by the Sultan and accepted as currency in the lands under his domain. My best guess to why he would choose this particular story to celebrate his expedition is because they, as Jesus did with God’s word, spread their commerce and currency in foreign land. Perhaps Saint Peter is Felice Brancacci himself, who confided in God and paid the tributes required, not questioning him, and later benefitting from such decision. Maybe Felice Brancacci is (boastfully) Jesus himself, the one who is meant to spread the word of God, as he expanded Florence’s trades and the use of their currency.
    Other critics believe that there is no connection between his journey and this fresco; rather the depiction both praises divine knowledge and refers to the use of the cadastre, which was going to be in use soon after: as Jesus accepts human practices of paying tributes once entering a foreign land, men have to accept the custom of paying the required taxes to the community.

    Masaccio decided to “split” the story in three parts, which, nevertheless, look as if they were connected in the fresco. Saint Peter fishing for the golden coin on the left, the apostoles, Jesus and the taxman (turned with his shoulders facing us, pointing at the city’s doors with one hand and requesting money with the other) in the centre and finally, on the right, Saint Peter paying the required entrance fee. There is a juxtaposition between nature and buildings, the first on the left and the latter on the right hand side of the composition. The disciples are situated in a semi-circle around Jesus, probably to represent the centrality of this figure to humans.

  3. I found the passage on the elephant absolutely fascinating. This long description seems to represent all of Felice’s emotions as a traveler in a foreign land. Everything is new, alien. Elephants are creatures that all of us can recognize today. We can visit them in zoos, see pictures online, read about them in books (I will admit, I was a huge fan of the children series about Babar, king of the elephants).
    But what if we didn’t have this access to images and books? What if we only new about our immediate surroundings? Imagine going to a foreign place, where the practices and sights are completely unfamiliar. In a sense, most of us can understand cultural differences, we are in London, after all. Yet this pales in comparison to Felice’s world. He is traveling in a different time, in a place with language and custom barriers. And then he sees a creature, new and alien. His shock concerning the elephant expands farther than simply studying an animal. He dedicates such a large amount of his time on this creature because it represents all that is foreign, all that is new.
    This description is one of the best sections to understand Felice’s emotions. Though we do get the sense of his shock concerning bribery, this section represent an overall feeling of ignorance. Maybe that is a harsh term. It represents a feeling of being outside of your comfort zone, without the knowledge of a strange system and strange sights.
    Today we have greater access to the world around us. We can travel, read, search the internet for information. To fully get the sense of his surprise, his interest, we have to attempt to place ourselves in his position. A closed world, opening to alien experiences.

  4. Tribute Money is one of my favorite works of Renaissance Art, mainly because when you study Art History, the sudden appearance of narrative art really is jarring. In that way, I feel as though I understand just how fascinating it must have been to Christians and Italians in general at that time. While Iconic Art is controversial and flimsily justified, Narrative Art truly captures the essence and purpose of Biblical storytelling. Lovers of Iconic Art claim that the experience of seeing and relating to an icon is a spiritual one that builds a closer bond to Divinity, but I have a hard time understanding what could be more experiential than witnessing the unfolding of Biblical events through equally symbolic Narrative Art.

    I may be the only one, but I really wasn’t captured by the description of the elephant in Felice Brancacci’s diary. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading it, I was actually genuinely intrigued by the first hand account of corruption and greed in the Renaissance Mediterranean. I think my boredom toward Felice’s depiction of the elephant is rooted in my modern perception. A detailed visual account of an exotic animal must have been riveting to 15th century Italians, but I’m well aware of what an elephant looks like. I’ve seen them in zoos, I’ve seen them in pictures, I’ve seen them at the circus, listening to a meticulous detail by detail account of an elephant is simply as boring as watching paint dry. What’s actually engaging about the diary is both Felice’s surprise and unpreparedness for the environment he entered, and the general hostility that he was thrust into. Having a previous knowledge of Masaccio’s Tribute Money and learning the story of the painting’s benefactor completely enriched the experience of seeing it. And that’s essentially what I think Renaissance artists were intending.

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