What a photo shows & and a painting reveals

by Michael Djordjevitch

This photograph offers us a characteristic contemporary view of the Pazzi Chapel in Florence, seen here at the end of a long axis next to the Church of Santa Croce.  This is a view we can appreciate through wrought-iron gates even when as here the church grounds are closed.  

While a popular station on the touristic pilgrimage trail because of its association with Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the Dome of Florence's Duomo, this building turns out to be something of a mystery

Here we see the chapel from another angle, in a painting from 1885 by Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905) , "La Cappella dei Pazzi; Il chiostro di Santa Croce a Firenze".  The painting shows another characteristic view of the chapel, this one particular to the 19th and earlier centuries. 

This view reflects the fact that our chapel was once also a chapter house, a place for meetings of the governing body of the Franciscan Monks to whom the church of Santa Croce once belonged.  In this capacity the chapel was closed to the outside world, accessible only though its cloister. 

The courtyard and the columns of its cloister were therefore once the primary frames for viewing and experiencing the Pazzi chapel, a fact reflected in this painting, where we see the chapel simultaneously framed by the columns of the cloister and an intrinsic part of its contemplative courtyard. 


We see how this original context can be dramatized through the artistry of the artist in this second painting, from 1858, by Carl Georg Anton Graeb.  When we compare the two paintings the immediate difference that presents itself is that of the foreground.  Carl Graeb includes so much more of the cloister, envelops us in it. 

We also look in vain for the campanile which towers over the chapel in Orlando Borrani's painting; Graeb eliminates it to fix our attention on the chapel. Though securely in the middle ground of his view, Graeb pulls the chapel into the foreground of our experience through its framing and placement in the image, the play of light and shade, and the suppression of potentially competing elements such as the bell tower. 

Fine as Borrani's painting is, it is Graeb's which more fully makes use of painting's artistic possibilities, and takes fuller advantage of compositional technique to dramatise its subject while pulling the viewer into its orbit. Paradoxically, there is a compelling realism to Graeb's painting despite its clear distortions of angle and form. 

Contrast this sense of heightened and dramatised reality with what a photograph taken from a similar angle shows us. Here it is not just that the vegetation and glare obscure the Pazzi Chapel.  In the photograph the cloister does not soar.  It appears smaller, it is not monumental, entirely everyday.  The cloister in the painting, on the other hand, not only frames an exceptional building but also parakes of its special qualities, acting as both frame and extension.

The original context for the Pazzi chapel, seen here in a painting of 1718, was fundamentally changed when the smaller adjacent courtyard was demolished, opening the chapel to a direct view from the street.  This new, direct, and uninterrupted view tends to dis-enchant the chapel in a similar way to the photograph above.  No longer a personal discovery, a surprise, the chapel is now a public exhibit, competing for prominence with the adjacent church. Now foregrounded, the chapel takes pride of place in the new world of tourism, a changed reality that seems flat and de-natured indeed when one considers the Pazzi chapel's original role within its local Franciscan world. Further, there are real-world connections between presenting the world in a disenchanted way and creating new, unenchanting realities. 

You can find more on the dramatizing artistic possibilities of painting, and the pitfalls of the one-point realistic perspective we see in photography, here: