By Katie Whipple
In September 2013 I left New York City with my boyfriend and several very heavy suitcases full of art supplies. We were headed to Rome. Just a few months before, I finished up my four years of academic study at the Grand Central Academy (now the Grand Central Atelier). I had the tremendous honor to receive the 2013 Alma Schapiro Prize, which set us up at the American Academy in Rome for the first three months of our eight-month Italian adventure.
I was giddy with excitement and possibility. I was going to live in Italy, make master copies, study Italian history, and eat a lot of gelato. I had a plan.
In the first couple days of being in the Eternal City, I could see my carefully thought-out plans gracefully drifting down the Tiber. After all, I was new to this — making my own schedule, taking education into my own hands, no teachers and no critiques. I was left in this beautiful place with the horrible realization that I had to figure out what I wanted, from my work and from myself. I suppose it was the ever-present muses of Italy that took hold of my creativity, because every door I opened from this point on was completely unexpected.
Blinking visions of painted plaster from my eyes after taking in “The Painted Garden,” I was blindsided by the Quattrocento. I found myself passing up paintings by Caravaggio, Titian, and Raphael to find my heart being stolen by Filippo Lippi. I suppose this shouldn’t be too surprising considering Lippi’s famous ability to steal the hearts of numerous women. I began making a master copy of the Angel Gabriel from Lippi’s “Annunciation with Two Donors” (1440), at the Palazzo Barberini.
In painting this copy, every day felt like I was rediscovering everything I ever loved about making art. I felt as though, for the first time since I began really learning how to paint, I was finding pieces of my own artistic voice. It was clear I needed some help, but I think history holds the answers to most questions. This was certainly believed in the Renaissance. I was picking up little pieces of myself here and there in Italy and learning to put them where they belong.
In this work, my eyes were opened to early Renaissance painting. Filippo described his own work as “a deliberate blend of the plausible with the beautiful.” He believed all paintings to be representative of a transcendent world. I agree with Filippo. These works are transcendent. I was falling in love again, this time with an entire century. Quattrocento is Italian for 400, what we would call the fifteenth century, the years 1400–1499. These paintings seemed so foreign to what I learned in school, so removed from the nineteenth-century classicism and naturalism I looked to for years.
They were smooth as glass and bright as gemstones. The design was wonderful. They were decadent and a little gaudy. I loved them for their awkward stylization and their inaccurate representation of nature. I loved them because I believe they touched on some sort of human truth. Chronologically falling between the Gothic period and High Renaissance Humanism, yet bearing little resemblance to either, the Quattrocento completely changed the way we make paintings today.
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