Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Yoko Ono and the Vanitas Theme

Yoko Ono (1933 - ), Cut Piece, 1964, performed by Yoko Ono in New Works of Yoko Ono, 
Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, March 21, 1965. 
Photograph by Minoru Niizuma. © Minoru Niizuma. 
Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive, New York
Photo:  Museum of Modern Art Art Web site

Give Yoko Ono a chance.  Do not miss the exhibition Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971 at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).   This art enthusiast and reviewer considers Yoko Ono the most underrated of female artists around.  Profound and way ahead of her time, Ono's talents are abundant.  Moreover, she is fun.

The MOMA show covers Ono's films, texts, performances, music and more.  The exhibit begins with one of her first two films:  Match Piece (or No. 1).  Eyeblink, the other early film, appears in a nearby gallery.   

Frame from Yoko Ono's Match Piece (or No. 1), 1966,
16mm film (black and white, silent), high speed camera 2000 fr/sec., 5:05 min.
Publisher:  Fluxus Edition
The  Museum of Modern Art, New York.  The Gilbert
and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971
May 17–September 7, 2015
The Museum of Modern Art, Manhattan, New York
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

In 1966 Ono was experimenting with a high speed camera which shot two thousand frames per second as opposed to the twenty-four frames per second of a standard camera.  She filmed the lighting of a match and an eye blink in slow motion which produced images that appear almost motionless.  

The quickly burning ignited match references the briefness of our existence and the impermanence of material things - the vanitas theme. This theme** would occupy Ono throughout her career.  See the exhibit.

 *To view the film Match Piece (or No. 1), go to Flux Film No. 14: “One” by Yoko Ono at Stendhal Gallery Online Archive.  

* *For more on the vanitas theme see ArtWithHillary June and July 2015.

Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971
May 17–September 7, 2015
The Museum of Modern Art
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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Thinking about Flowers, Van Gogh and Vanitas

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

                            "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
                             Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
                             To the last syllable of recorded time,
                             And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
                             The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
                             Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
                             That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
                             And then is heard no more: it is a tale
                             Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
                             Signifying nothing."
                              William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5.

Certain themes appear and reappear as subjects for artists.  One such is vanitas, Latin for vanity. This subject came up in the discussion of Vincent van Gogh's flower paintings, see ArtWithHillary, June 2015, note 3. 

Vanitas refers to life's brevity and the foolish pursuit of earthly goods and achievements.  All is transient except for religious values.  The subject was an exceedingly popular one for Dutch painting in the early seventeenth century.

Jacques de Gheyn II's Vanitas Still Life in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is credited as the earliest known independent vanitas painting. The moralizing work is filled with symbols concerning the fleeting nature of life and the human folly of worldly possessions.  Although intended to instruct, the vanitas genre gave artists an opportunity to paint a variety of  objects and materials.  

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

In De Gheyn II's panel, an inscription on the keystone of the stone arch specifies the painting's theme: HVMANA VANA, human vanity.  The arch forms a niche occupied by a skull and bubble - reminders of the certitude of death and life's impermanence.  The bubble contains some smaller images relating to the subject.   There is a leper's rattle and torture wheel.  The former had to be carried by those afflicted so that the non-sick would be alerted to their proximity.  Leprosy, incurable during this time, resulted in the body's gradual deterioration till death. The disease was thought to be the consequence of sinful behavior.   The wheel, used for torture and execution, always effected a slow, painful death.  

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

Some scholars have noted other items embedded in the bubble such as a heart. This viewer could not discern or identify anything but the torture wheel and, with difficulty, the leper's rattle with the naked eye. Under magnification, however, a rectangular reflection on the sphere's upper left reveals a burning heart pierced by a arrow.  A tiny cross may be distinguished on the top left of the heart.  The cross figuration, however, may just be scratches on the surface of the panel. 

The heart with its flame forms the Sacred Heart, a Christian devotional symbol representing Jesus Christ's physical heart, pierced, bleeding and crowned with flames.  The fire indicates the transformative power of divine love - Christ's love and compassion for mankind.  Man's salvation comes about through His suffering.  The Sacred Heart is usually surrounded by a crown of thorns, one of the instruments of Jesus's Passion.  Its appearance represents the pain Christ endured for mankind's deliverance.  Its absence here may be the result of abrasion or paint loss.  

The Sacred Heart devotions originated in the middle ages. The church, however, did not officially recognize it until the eighteenth century.  De Gheyn II probably had Catholic roots and could have been aware of its representation.  

Although obvious Christ references were uncommon in seventeenth-century vanitas pictures, the painter was talented enough and innovative enough to create something unusual.  Furthermore, De Gheyn II had married into a prominent, wealthy and well-connected family.  He was acquainted with the most learned, forward thinkers of his contemporaries.  Financially set and free from commercial pressures, he could paint what he choose.  Even so, De Gheyn II most likely included the heart in the sense of earthly love, desire.  As such, it would fit into the general theme of all that is vanity. 

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

As for the bubble, the adage,"man is but a bubble" goes back to ancient Roman authors.  Writers in the Renaissance commonly used the comparison.  Erasmus wrote about the saying in his Adagia (II.iii.48): "Man is but a bubble.  The lesson of this proverb is that there is nothing so fragile, so fleeting and so empty as the life of man.  A bubble is that round swollen empty thing which we watch in water as it grows and vanishes in a moment of time."  Thus, it became a fitting symbol for the vanitas topos.*

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

There is more.  The painting is chockablock with symbols.  On either side of the niche is an urn.  A puff of smoke rises from the one on the right; flowers, particularly one tulip, are on the left one.  Again, these are allusions to the shortness of man's existence.  The smoke vanishes quickly.   Cut flowers duly die as  Job (Job 14.2.) describes men "He comes forth like a flower, and is cut down:  he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.” 

The flowers have another connotation.  Cut flowers were expensive in seventeenth-century Holland.  This was especially true of tulips which were introduced to Europe from Turkey in the sixteenth century. Tulips were quite different from European flowers and became exceedingly popular.  They were status symbols for the rich and prosperous Dutch burghers.  Trading in bulb futures reached ridiculous heights in the early seventeenth century.  This tulip mania speculation collapsed in 1637.  The term tulip mania has become a metaphor for any economic bubble where asset values diverge considerably from intrinsic values. When de Gheyn II painted his Vanitas, tulips were still an obsession of the rich - symbolic of man's inanity in seeking worldly possessions. Think about the current craze for women's designer handbags and the compulsive bidding up of certain ones. Be that as it may, de Gheyn II's didactic imagery continues.  The coins and Dutch medals refer to temporal accomplishments and wealth accumulation. The sculptural figures in the arch's spandrels depict the Greek philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus.  Known as the laughing and crying philosophers, they point down at the sphere.  One laughs at and one weeps at mankind's foibles. 

More could be said but the above should give readers an idea about meanings in artworks that may be lost to contemporary viewers.  Don't fail to note that what was obvious to seventeenth-century viewers may not be clear to us today.  

As for the last words of this post, take a look at one artist's thoughts on the De Gheyn II work.

2015, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Go visit the painting in the museum's Gallery 635.  

*This month, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) televised Blue Lightning, an episode of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) crime series, "Shetland."  During the two-part story, an autopsy is performed on what turns out to be a murder victim.  While performing the autopsy, the medical examiner remarks to the police official observer that the deceased "....was on the bubble."  The observer was perplexed.  She, the medical examiner, explained that the expression is American and is used when there is a sudden, unexpected death in an auto racing crash. In such a situation, the unfortunate driver is said to be a person whose "bubble has burst."  The fictitious examiner's reference to a car crash was new to this writer.  Most interesting was the the continued survival of "bubble" as a trope for life's precariousness, reminding death can happen unexpectedly, at any time.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Van Gogh's Saint-Rémy Flowers

Living Memento Mori 

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Irises, 1890,
oil on canvas, 36 1⁄2 x 29 1/8 in. (92.7 cm x 73.9 cm)
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

For the first time in 125 years, four Vincent van Gogh paintings are united in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition, Van Gogh: Irises and Roses. Two depict bouquets of irises and two of roses.  All share the same horizon line and appear as a series of pairs. Upright and horizontal orientations are shared by each floral type.  They are a study of contrasts:  vertical and horizontal formats, long and rounded bloom shapes and complementary (opposite) colors.  

The exhibit highlights an aspect of art often overlooked.  That is, over time artworks may change. Specifically, in the case of these works, a pigment used by van Gogh has faded imparting a major change in the painting's coloration. 

  Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Irises, 1890,
0il on canvas29 x 36 1/4 in. (73.7 x 92.1 cm)
Gift of Adele R. Levy, 1958 
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The four large flower paintings were completed in 1890 at the end of the artist's stay at an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France.  Van Gogh had taken a roll of canvas and cut it into four equal rectangular pieces.  As was his practice, he set about painting bunches of  flowers.  These were irises and roses which he had gathered in the asylum's gardens.  

Still lifes, especially floral arrangements, were a way for van Gogh to investigate color theory.* He used flowers for intense study of color relationships, particularly contrasts and harmonies using complementary colors.  Complementary colors are opposite colors on the color wheel.  When painted side by side, such as violet against yellow or red and green, they produce the most intense contrasts.  On the other hand, colors next to each other on the color wheel yield harmonious effects.  

On May 11, van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: 

"At the moment ... I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush. I’m working on a canvas of roses on bright green background and two canvases of large bouquets of violet Irises, one lot against a pink background in which the effect is harmonious and soft through the combination of greens, pinks, violets. On the contrary, the other violet bouquet (ranging up to pure carmine and Prussian blue) standing out against a striking lemon yellow background with other yellow tones in the vase and the base on which it rests is an effect of terribly disparate complementaries that reinforce each other by their opposition."
(Vincent van Gogh The Letters, 870)

Two days later in another letter to Theo, he added:

"I’ve also just finished a canvas of pink roses against yellow-green background in a green vase....I tell you, as regards work, my mind feels absolutely serene and the brushstrokes come to me and follow each other very logically."
(Vincent van Gogh The Letters, 872)

Van Gogh would be discharged from the asylum the following Sunday on May 16.  The same day he left for Paris.  The paintings had been finished by then.  

The artist had worked with a brilliant scarlet pigment called geranium lake.  The color was highly light sensitive.  Although well-informed about pigments and their properties, the lake red faded more quickly than van Gogh had expected.  Violets (a mix of blue and red pigment) became blue; pinks (a mix of white and red pigment) turned white.  

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Roses, 1890,
oil on canvas, 27 15/16 x 35 7/16 in. (71 x 90 cm)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 
Gift of Pamela Harriman in memory of  W.  Averell Harriman
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The red which endowed the roses with their pink color disappeared. The blossoms turned white.  Bright red rose buds took on a flesh-like tone. Violet irises became blue.  Pink backgrounds white.  The compositional contrasts of  pinks against greens and violets against yellows no longer exist.  A Fauvist look had been tamed.** 

Viewers can see the "before and now" look of the paintings as well as learn about the artist's working methods in two short videos on the wall opposite the actual works.  Technical analysis has enabled the digital recreation of the images.  

Another aspect of the paintings should not be ignored.  The flowers had been in full bloom, at their peak of beauty, when van Gogh started to paint.  He had to work quickly to capture their glory.  Nature, however, was winning out.  Iris blossoms started to shrivel; roses begun to droop and lose their petals. 

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Roses1890,
oil on canvas, 36 5/8 x 29 1/8 in. (93 x 74 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, 
Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, 
Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Though the canvases pulsate with pleasure through their compositional design, impactful brushstrokes and still lush colors, they impart a slight disturbance. Thoughts go to seventeenth-century Dutch flower paintings which were symbolic of nature's fleeting earthly pleasures.**With this tradition in mind, the van Gogh series can be seen as a memento mori - a reminder of life's transience and death. Death is present amidst life.  The transitory nature of pigments is recalled.  Paintings change.  Pleasure and unease co-exist.  Van Gogh died just over two months after these works were completed.

Although colors have dimmed, the visual delights of van Gogh's large bouquets remain abundant.  Such is van Gogh's genius.  See the show.

Van Gogh:  Irises and Roses
May 12, 2015 - August 16, 2015
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*Van Gogh took great interest in the color theories of Charles Blanc who published works investigating color relationships such as how certain colors are reinforced when placed next to each other.  Blanc's writings were well-known among nineteenth-century artists and highly influential.

A color star developed by Charles Blanc in 1867
Photo:  Wikipedia Commons Web site

For a concise introduction to color theory and the color wheel see TEWM The Electric Matrix of Digital Technology.

**For Fauvism examples, step outside the exhibition gallery (Gallery 955), make a  left (Gallery 962) to see House behind Trees, 1906-7, by Georges Braque (1882 - 1963) and Olive Trees at Collioure, 1905 (?), by Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954).  Both works explore van Gogh's intended color configurations.  Braque's and Matisse's pinks, greens, yellows, blues and reds are still vibrant.

***For an example, see Jacob Vosmaer's A Vase with Flowers in the museum's gallery 635.

Jacob Vosmaer (c. 1584 - 1641), A Vase with Flowers,
c. 1613, oil on wood, 33 1/2 x 24 5/8 in. (85.1 x 62.5 cm),
Photo:  ARTstor 

The vanitas theme is derived from the Book of Ecclesiastes 1:2, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."  Symbolic imagery include wilting flowers (death); butterflies (transformation); cracking parapets (time's destructive nature); and lizards (changeability).  Memento mori are versions of the vanitas theme with emphasis on mortality.   Keep in mind,  the moral aspects of these works gave artists an excuse to paint some beautiful, sensuous pictures of the life they saw around them.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Paths to Prayer II:

Italian Renaissance Sculpture 
From Florence Cathedral*
Nanni di Banco (ca. 1380/85–1421) or 
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello (ca. 1386–1466) (?),
Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrows), ca. 1407–9, marble
18 7⁄8 × 26 × 4 3⁄4 in. (48 × 66 × 12 cm)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/280
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone 

More than half the sculpture on display at the Museum of Biblical Art's (MOBIA) exhibition, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral, are small in scale. Their modest size offers particular enjoyment.  Visitors are able to take in the totality of these works at close range.  Most are unobstructed by glass. Viewing details is easy.  A good example is the marble relief Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrows) variously attributed to Donatello or Nanni di Banco but now  largely accepted as an early Donatello. Designed for the Florence cathedral's northeast entrance as the keystone for the upper register arch, this beautifully rendered Christ figure is the embodiment of pathos.  He represents the "man of sorrows" from the Old Testament's Book of Isaiah, 53.3, which contains the prophetic description of the coming Messiah: "He is despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief...."  The sculpture portrays Christ just after resurrection, neither dead nor alive. 

Luca della Robbia ((1399/1400–1482)
Dialectic (Plato and Aristotle?), 1437–39,
marble, 32 7⁄8 × 27 1⁄8 × 5 in. (83.5 × 69 × 13 cm)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/437
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

While many of the pieces displayed evoke sadness or reverence, those of Luca della Robbia charm.  In 1437, the artist was commissioned to create five marble hexagonal panels for the lower level of the cathedral's bell tower.  These would complete a cycle portraying the activities of man which was begun in the mid-fourteenth century.  

Luca was a well-known sculptor, considered by contemporaries on the level of Donatello and Brunelleschi.  Today, he is better known for his polychrome enameled terra-cotta reliefs than his marble or bronze sculptures.  The latter works, however, are equally important.  The exhibition includes three of the artist's marble panels destined for the bell tower.  They  illustrate the liberal arts, pursuits related to the intellect.  

The artist's Dialectic shows two classically garbed men engaged in a spirited discussion.  Both open-mouthed figures gesticulate with animation. The younger man points to a section in an open book as if to support his argument while the older gentleman' s gesture underlines his point. The two have been identified as Aristotle and Plato whose writings were studied in fifteenth-century Florence.  The scene's realistic actions, brings to mind present day Florence where you may witness such disputations. For the Florentines still love to enter into a good debate.  

In the excellent exhibition catalogue, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, Director of Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and one of the two curators of the exhibition, draws attention to the idea that church decorations, whether sculpture, painting, stained glass or whatever medium, should be viewed in a religious context.  The imagery foremost was created as an expression of faith, intended to inspire faith.  In the case of the bell tower reliefs, he proposes that the iconographic program refers to the writings of a Florentine Dominican theologian active in the thirteenth and early fourteenth century.  Specifically, the scenes relate to the text which describes the church as bringing new life to human knowledge activities and the role these activities have in disclosing Christ's perfection.  Interpretations aside, Luca's naturalism captivates.

Installation View, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello:  Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence CathedralMuseum of Biblical Art, New York,  
left to right, attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), 
model (two vitrines) for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, ca. 1420–52, wood
and model (one vitrine) of the Lantern for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, 
15th or 16th century, wood (elm and walnut), wax, and plaster
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/493 and 485.
Photo:  Hillary Ganton  

Not to be forgotten is the architectural masterpiece of Filippo Brunelleschi:  the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the main church of Florence.   Six hundred years after its creation, the dome still dominates the city.  Until St. Peter's in Rome was built, Brunelleschi's construction was the highest dome ever made.  

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
Photo:  TesoroTreaures Web site     

Traditionally, domes were built using wooden scaffolding which would support the structure as it went up.  The cathedral's space was just too big.  The dome had to cover a width of approximately 150 feet - almost as big as the ancient Pantheon built around 129 A.D.  Furthermore, the dome had to start about 180 feet above the ground.  There was just not enough wood around to make this method feasible.  Brunelleschi came up with an ingenious plan to solve the problem.  He would create a double shell - one dome within another - made with masonry that locked in place as each layer was completed.  The dome's downward and outward pressure would be counter-balanced by stone and wood chains secured with iron.  To accomplish the task, Brunelleschi invented new types of lifting mechanisms as well as innovative means to obtain the needed supplies down the city's Arno River.  At the time, there was much doubt his dome would hold up.  Its success put all criticism to rest.

Attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446),
Model for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, ca. 1420–52, wood, 
dome: 39 3⁄8 × 27 ½ in. (100 × 70 cm);
apses: 21 5⁄8 × 24 ¾ × 13 ¾ in. each (55 × 63 × 35 cm each)**
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/493
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

The authorship and dating of the two models in the exhibition**,  the dome's model and the model of its lantern, remain debatable.  They were made to give a more complete idea of how the structure would look.  However, the originally polychrome exterior decorations were lost during their restorations carried out after the disastrous flooding of the Arno in 1966.  Today, they look bare but still give viewers an idea of Brunelleschi's genius and working procedures.   He would create models to explain particular construction details that workers could follow.  To maintain control, Brunelleschi made sure not all was revealed in these mock-ups. 

The Florence cathedral was consecrated on March 25, 1436 some sixteen years after it was begun.  For this occasion, Guillaume Dufay, the most important composer in Europe during the mid-fifteenth century, wrote his celebrated motet, Nuper rosarum flores.  The music's  verses describe the church as magnificent and "...a temple of great ingenuity...." Enjoy the music and, above all, do not miss the MOBIA's show. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Guillaume Dufay (c. 1397 - 1474) - Nuper rosarum flores

Sculpture in the Age of Donatello:  
Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral
February 20 - June 14, 2015
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*Please note:  this is the second part of a two-part blog post.  For part I see ArtWithHillary April 2015.
**In the exhibition installation, the model for the dome and the model for the apses are in separate vitrines.  

Postscript:  Sadly, the Museum of Biblical Art will close on June 30, 2015.  The museum was unable to secure the needed funding to continue.  Over its ten years of existence, MOBIA has presented critically acclaimed exhibitions contributing to New York City's cultural and intellectual life.  The current presentation, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral, assures the museum will go out on a high note.