The characteristic qualities which won him such renown are unexpected combinations of brilliant color and an extraordinarily graceful line which is both visually appealing and dramatically expressive, all fused to produce profoundly moving works on a variety of scale.
Lorenzo, or Don Lorenzo as he was known, was a monk (‘Monaco’ means monk) who, while keeping a studio outside his monastery, Santa Maria degli Angeli, maintained his monastic vows and was closely associated with the Camoldese order all his life. Like many of the great monk artists, Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci before him and Fra Angelico (ca. 1395–1455) after him, Lorenzo produced illuminated manuscripts throughout his career. His first influences as a painter were the successful Florentine workshops of Niccolo di Pietro Gerini (1340–1414) and Spinello Aretino (ca. 1350–1410) whose artificial solemnity already seemed archaic by the 1390s. For Don Lorenzo, the crucial, formative moment was the return from Spain in 1403 of Gherardo Starnina (1354–1413) who introduced an elegance and brilliance of color that had an immediate impact on Monaco, as an altarpiece in Empoli of 1404 painted in this new style bears witness.
Lorenzo Monaco produced a wide range of works from exquisite illuminations to massive polyptychs. Two of the latter are especially important, both representing the Coronation of the Virgin, one painted in 1414, now in the Uffizi, the other, darker and more dry, about five years later now in the National Gallery, London. The Uffizi altarpiece was painted for Don Lorenzo’s own church, Santa Maria degli Angeli, and is a great masterpiece that exemplifies all his qualities of invention and expressiveness. It is a fully sustained work from the sinuous airiness of theAnnunciation on the pinnacles, to the majestic central scene of the Coronation to the resplendent Saints and choirs of angels, standing on an arch of star-filled cerulean blue. Underneath are predella panels that display Lorenzo’s ability to depict narrative scenes in which religious content is underlined by compelling secular detail. Lorenzo was capable of solemn, almost sculptural works, as the four singular and regal Old Testament Patriarchs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York illustrate. Lorenzo Monaco also produced smaller scale devotional panels often such subjects as a Processional Cross or the Madonna of Humility. After Lorenzo’s death in about 1424 his artistic successor was the Dominican monk Fra Angelico.
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Books on Lorenzo Monaco
Antonio Natali and Angelo Tartuferi, ed., Bagliori Dorati: Il Gotico Internazionale a Firenze 1375-1440, exh. cat., Florence, 2012.
Angelo Tartuferi, ed., Lorenzo Monaco: a bridge from Giotto’s heritage to the Renaissance, exh. cat. Florence, 2006.
Laurence Kanter, ed., Painting and Illumination in Early Renaissance Florence 1300-1450, exh. cat., New York, 1994.
Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco, Princeton, 1989.