VISITORS to the northern Adriatic city of Rimini nowadays head to the beaches, but in the medieval age would have come to the distinguished court of the Malatestas. Giotto and later Piero della Francesca and the architect Alberti all worked there.
Dante commemorated the bedroom politics of the place when he damned the incestuous love of Francesca da Polenta (see also Silvio Pellico’s tragedy Francesco da Rimini, Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem, and the opera by Riccardo Zandonai).
At the turn of the 14th century, a small group of artists here broke away from the predominant Byzantine formalism to explore a radical new realism. The National Gallery recently acquired one such work, Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and Other Saints, which is the centrepiece of this delightful display. It had been auctioned off from Alnwick Castle and bought by an American.
It is attributed to Giovanni da Rimini (documented 1292 to 1309 or 1314/15), and is shown alongside his Scenes from the Life of Christ, which is also dated 1300-05 and was probably part of the same diptych (Galleria Nazionali d’Arte Antica di Roma, Palazzo Barberini), and the only other work securely identified as from his hand, Virgin and Child with Five Saints (Faenza).
The three egg-tempera panels were last seen side by side at an exhibition of trecento art in Rimini in 1995, and are brought back together with an immunity from seizure under Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 as having a known ownership from 1933 to 1945. The diptych had been in the Camuccini collection (Rome) at least till the mid-19th century.
In response to the intellectual challenges of Islam and the faltering grasp on the poverty of Jesus within a developed material culture, new mendicant orders sprang up in the 13th century. Churches were built for the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians across Europe. Giotto worked for the Franciscans in Rimini shortly before 1300, when Giovanni was commissioned by the Augustinians.
The Barberini panel is divided into six scenes, from top to bottom: the nativity and washing of the infant Jesus, the crucifixion, the deposition, the harrowing of hell, the resurrection with the three Maries at the tomb, and Christ triumphant.
Similar depictions appear on the 12th-century elephant-ivory panel (V&A, 295-1867) that was originally part of a carved diptych and later recycled as a book cover.
Where those figures are static, Giovanni commands a surprising degree of naturalism: the Virgin reels backwards at Calvary and has to be supported; at the entombment, she leans over to kiss her dead son; and, in heaven, the saints ranged either side of Christ have become individuals.
The work now owned by the National Gallery shows a similar awareness of bodily movement as St Catherine hectors the emperor or as St John the Evangelist is presented in heaven between the Virgin and Christ.
Perhaps the most affecting touch is seen in the Faenza work, where Giovanni appropriates the Orthodox model of the Virgin Pelagontissa, in which the child chucks his mother under the chin. Here the toddler turns in his mother’s embrace and grasps her thumb in his fingers. Each of us knows how tightly a child can hang on to us. As firmly, Christ holds our attention.
“Giovanni da Rimini: A 14th-century Masterpiece Unveiled” is in Room 1 at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 8 October. Phone 020 7747 2885.