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How to buy a Masterpiece:
A visit to the galerie Sarti

By Joseph E. Romero

PARIS, 8 July 1998 - For most people, Early Italian paintings can only be found in museums. But did you know that you could still buy one? If your pockets are deep enough, or if your lottery ticket is a winner, Galerie Sarti in Paris has some surprises for you. After 25 years on Jermyn Street in London, the Galerie Sarti has settled in Paris and opened with a show until 25 July devoted to early Italian painting. Claire Sarti gives Culturekiosque a private visit to some early Italian master paintings which could still hang on your walls.

Why Paris after 25 years in London?

Claire Sarti: We had very few English customers. Our clientele is essentially Italian, French and American, in that order, and it matters little to them whether we are in London or Paris. In terms of our furniture sales, we do not deal in English furniture, so there was no reason to remain in London. Furthermore, the French are much more interested in art than the English. The English were great collectors in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then, they have sold the vast majority of their holdings. England became a country of suppliers and sales for art and antique dealers, but this is no longer true today. Apart from Sotheby's and Christie's, there are no longer any great auction sales in the English countryside or in Ireland. There is more merchandise today in France.

On Saturday, for example, French families go out for a walk and often visit museums and galleries with their children. They come into our gallery with the same matter-of-fact air as if they were going to the cinema or the Louvre. In England, this does not happen. Families do not visit art galleries. The British walk into a gallery if they plan to purchase something. There is not the same general interest in art in Britain as in France.

JR: Are you saying that the French are more cultivated than the English?

CS: Well, the interest shown during the last French elections in favor of giving 1% of the government's budget to culture is not something that interests the English. In England, I never heard people talking about how much is spent for culture. The French vote for a budget because they think it is important to renovate the Louvre, create new museums, acquire new works. That preoccupies a Frenchman. Even the most modest of Frenchmen will visit the Biennale des Antiquaires in September and bring his wife and perhaps even an older child, spending 70 francs a person to see the major Paris Antique show. In London, at Grosvenor House, the equivalent of the French Biennale, you have only 15,000 - 16,000 visitors whereas you count 70,000 - 80,000 for the French Biennale. In England, only collectors or those with a specific interest will visit Grosvenor House.

In regard to Italian art of the 14th to 16th centuries, there has always been a traditional interest in this country. In England there is no such interest. Early Italian paintings can be found in the National Gallery of course, but there is no real interest on the part of the British public. In France, there were great collections, notably during the 19th century.

JR: For example?

CS: The Edouard Aynard Collection in Lyon, the Alexis François Artaud de Montor Collection later dissolved in major auction sales, but preserved in catalogues and where attributions were not always accurate because art history was not what it is today, but nonetheles extraordinary paintings - important because of their number and quality. Therefore, in France there was knowledge and a taste for this period.

JR: How do you explain this interest in France?

CS: I think it is traditional. I do not know exactly why, but perhaps the proximity of France to Italy. The French travel a great deal. Even today, for example, many visitors to our gallery are astonished to see these works for sale in a gallery. They think that these paintings could only be found in a museum, which indicates that these paintings have not been seen in France for a very long time. Admittedly, one finds one or two on view during the Biennale, but one never sees a major grouping or important stock of paintings from this period. Nobody has shown such works in a very long time.

JR: People are not put off by the apparent rarity or the reality of the commercial aspect of a gallery?

CS: No, all sorts of people ring the door. Students, retired persons, people who are not potential clients or collectors, all came without timidity or shame, visited the exhibition and bought the catalague. This proves an interest in the works exhibited.

JR: Aside from the lucrative 25-year-old family business interest in this period, what attracts you personally to early Italian painting?

CS: This is a question of personal taste. Early Italian painting begins around 1300 but there is very little from that period. There are a few even earlier works, but very, very few that are still Byzantine. In this display we begin circa 1310 and go up to about 1500. During this period, painting changes a great deal. I prefer the 14th century to the 15th. In the 15th century, one attempts to do prettier things. I prefer Sienese to Florentine painting because Sienese painting seems closer to the origins or sources of this style. There is no hard rule. I think what is interesting during these two centuries is to look at painters who brought something new as opposed to those who simply illustrated what was asked of them; that is, paint religious subjects which stimulated the beliefs of the faithful and illustrated religious episodes for those who could not read.

JR: Why is the term "primitif" applied to this painting?

CS: This is a French term. In English one refers to this period as early Italian. I believe the term "primitif" was invented in the 1920s. It seems a little pejorative and means the beginning of painting, as when one talks about primitive objects in discussing African objects, etc. Today, such terms have no meaning, but it has remained and in the end is not such a bad term because everybody understands what it means and the period that it covers. We haven't another term in French for the painting of this period.

JR: Shall we begin the visit?

CS: I thought we would look at six or seven works.

JR: Have you chosen works which represent innovation?

CS: In this room we have some of the most important pictures. This is probably the most important picture in the exhibition. It is a portrait by Perugino (Pietro di Cristofano Vannucci), done when he worked in Verrocchio's workship along with Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and Ghirlandajo - a very good workshop. He was very young, just over 20 years old. It is a Portrait of a Young Man. Firstly, portraits from this period are rare and it seems that this is the best-preserved portrait from this epoch. The state of conservation of paintings from this period is extremely important. This portrait is set against a background of fine green cloth which helped with the painting's attribution. This cloth background is not common in Florence at this time but in Umbria where the young Perugino was trained before his arrival at Verrocchio's workship. There are two portraits in this exhibition, the other of a young woman.

JR: What constitutes innovation during this period?

CS: The title of the exhibition is "From the Sacred to the Profane", therefore the period from 1470 where one begins to paint for reasons other than religious representation. Many historians agree that this begins with portrait painting. It seems that patrons who commissioned religious paintings for their private chapels and palaces had themselves represented as small figures in the painting - small because they were less important than the religious figures. The patron or the patron's children were painted and represented with precision since one recognises faces and details. This is the beginning of the portrait and it announces the 16th century.

JR: Is it safe to assume that the Church, princes and soon merchant bankers could impose their wishes on an artist during the creative process?

CS: Without a doubt, but it is difficult to reconstruct the period. Artists experimented and questioned matters relating to technique, style and representation. Some evolved progressively towards the profane. In this display there are three such paintings which date from 1470. Nothing before that date treats the profane.

JR: Do we know who they are?

CS: Unfortunately not. Here we have The Resurrection of Christ by Giovanni di Paolo, considered the greatest Sienese painter of the 15th century. What is particularly interesting here is the use of iconography. In each period and in each city there was an imposed iconography. Here we have a Resurrection. In Siena at this time, around 1430, the conventional iconography for a Resurrection was a cave with an open door, the tomb within, Christ coming out of His tomb holding a banner and wearing a shroud. Several soldiers are asleep on the ground below. Paolo sought to modify the composition and produce something new. He used the cave as an oval to symbolise the world, erased the door because it spoiled the geometry, and practically removed the tomb. Rather than the usual white shroud, Christ is dressed in a an elaborate gold robe which symbolises much better the victory of Faith over death. Here, Christ is majestic and victorious with only two soldiers to close the oval. This is very stylised and documents a very modernistic painter for this period, notably in terms of composition. He also illustrated Dante's Divine Comedy and in each of the illuminations one can see the stylistic innovations that he brought to his epoch.

JR: What kind of technique was used to produce these paintings?

CS: All but two paintings in this exhibition were produced on treated softwood panels of poplar for example, covered with glue and fine layers of gypsum, a complicated process best explained in the catalogue which accompanies this show. The drawing was then incised into the ground. The gold ground was applied first, on a preparation of natural red clay pigment mixed with egg whites known as tempera. Egg whites were used as a varnish. Gold coins were beaten into thin sheets of gold leaf which were applied with water. The gold ground was then burnished with an agate or other precious gem. In the last quarter of the 15th century around 1470 there were experiments with canvas, although we tend to date the appearance of canvas paintings around 1500. Canvas would enable artists to work with mixed oils to produce colors which were impossible with tempura.

JR: How large were workships during this period?

CS: They varied, although some were quite large and some painters had workshops in several cities because of the volume of their work and the workshop's reputation. Aprentices would remain with a particular workshop anywhere from one to ten years, and in some instances their whole careers, depending on the importance of the workshop and the master.

JR: Were they considered laborers?

CS: Yes, but they were relatively well-paid. They would work with a master painter in a church for a fresco or in his workshop on panels. Some would change workshops or cities because of personal interests. As one advances through the 15th century, leading workshops tended to reproduce images which became popular. An example would be the tondo by Mainardi, one of 19 existing versions of a composition by Ghirlandajo that are mostly in museums or a few still in private collections. All are different and executed by different painters, and it is very difficult to distinguish the imput of each artist. Most specialists consider that the prototype is in the Louvre and attributed to Ghirlandajo. These are clearly painters who worked in Ghirlandajo's workshop. This does not make the others less interesting, because at the time this image was very popular and there are differences in the background landscape or choice of colours, clothing of the figures.

JR: But surely not all of these versions are considered equal aesthetically or successful in their execution?

CS: That is true. Some are more awkward than others. The one presented here, for example, is one of the prettiest and is equal in quality to the one in the Louvre for the care, finish and refinement of the details in the faces and clothing. There are other versions which were done by workshop assistants who had less talent.

JR: What happens when one of these comes to market, specifically this one?

CS: From a market view-point, this picture is equally interesting. Mainardi was Ghirlandajo's brother-in-law and the most important member of the workshop after Ghirlandajo. It is very close in quality to the master. Moreover, Mainardi had his own production which was considerable. Here, he used a subject which belonged to his master, but produced a work that is quite personal. In earlier periods it is interesting to find the work of a master's assistant in areas of a picture which are less clever. Any honest attribution will obviously note the intervention of an assistant. Often, the master painted only the essential parts of a picture. For example, with a Virgin and Child, the master would paint the faces and leave the background to the assistant.

JR: Or an angel or two?

CS: Voilà! Over here, we have a very important painter, Gherardo Starnina, who brought a new style to Florence at the beginning of the 15th century. We are presenting three of his works, which can be regarded as an indication of the progress of art history during our century. The painter is not represented in the Louvre, probably because the Louvre collection of early Italian painting was put together at the beginning of this century. At that time, the works currently attributed to this painter were anonymous. They were always hung together, and he was referred to as the Maestro del Bambino Vispo since his works were instantly recognisable for the alertness and spirit of the children portrayed who were never still, but always scrambling or climbing on their mothers' knees. No one knew who he was until a Dutch art historian [Jeanne Van Waadenoijen] convincingly demonstrated that he was Gherardo Starnina. She based her findings on biographical data by Vasari who was himself a painter and a contemporary of Starnina. This research was critical in dating his work around 1400 - 1410, much earlier than previously thought, thereby establishing that it was in fact Starmina who introduced the international Gothic style which flourished in Florence at the beginning of the 15th century. At the same time, he becomes a precurser to Lorenzo Monaco and is now regarded as the more important painter. This explains, from the viewpoint of art history, his absence from the Louvre and other museums.

We are showing three examples of his work: a Virgin with Child in quite extraordinary condition executed shortly after his return from Spain where he spent a long period in political exile. The Hispano-Mauresque influence can be seen in both the fabric of the cushion on which the Virgin is seated and the polka-dot design of her dress, and the halo of the Child. It was in Spain that he came in contact with Spanish as well as French and Flemish art, and probably during this period that he developed this new style with its soft flowing drapes and human faces which were more natural and expressive. So it is in fact Starmina who expelled the Gothic from Florence. Alongside this work, you can see a smaller similar subject as well as a minute Head of an Angel which is full of charm.

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