Ariane Bankes

Mysteries unfold

Paul Hills uncovers the rich symbolism of veils, cloaks, hangings and swaddling bands in masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance

The striking yet subtle jacket image from Donatello’s ‘Madonna of the Clouds’ announces this book’s quality from the outset. Its focus is drapery, and the way that artists of the Italian Renaissance clothed their subjects, and furnished their narratives, to articulate veils of meaning that were infinitely suggestive. Marshalling a lifetime’s inquiry into the art of that era, Paul Hills — emeritus professor at the Courtauld, and author of the classic Venetian Colour — deploys an X-ray vision to drill beneath the skin, to find the pulse, the heartbeat of a painting or sculptural relief. He offers a key, a new entry point into works we thought we were familiar with; in doing so, he tweaks back a veil between us and them.

The body, naked and clothed, sacred or mythic, remains centre stage throughout. From Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua to Titian’s late Entombment some 250 years later, Hills explores the potential of fabric in artists’ hands to mediate between the material and the metaphorical, concealing and revealing truths that cluster beneath the surface. The period he writes about was one of growing wealth and luxury founded on the textile trade: silks, satins, velvets and linens flooded the cities of northern Italy, and merchants made a killing. Among these was the father of St Francis of Assisi, and Francis’s first act on realising his vocation was to fling his costly clothes at the feet of his indignant parent. If power dressing was a marker of worldly success, spirituality lay in nakedness, or the penance of the hair shirt.

As wealth accrued, citizens decked out their rooms and streets with sumptuous textiles, but as these were too pricey to be widely affordable, householders had to be versatile: they would beg or borrow hangings as occasion demanded — a wedding, the visit of some grandee or a confinement each required a different stage to be set.

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