The Christ of Santi di Tito who rose twice

The Resurrection by Santi di Tito (Florence, 1536 - 1603), a masterpiece preserved in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, is a work in which Christ is actually... resurrected twice.

There are actually two resurrections to be admired in the superb masterpiece that Santi di Tito painted for the Medici altar in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, the place where the panel is still preserved today. The first is the subject of the altarpiece; it is the resurrection of the mighty Christ rising with his banner and dismaying all the guards of the tomb. The second, on the other hand, is the material resurrection that the work experienced after the terrible flood of Florence in 1966: the waters of the Arno also rushed into Santa Croce, upsetting the basilica’s heritage and causing painful devastation in the sacred building that in some cases, think for example of Cimabue’s Crucifix , would have been irreparable. The Resurrection had to undergo a first urgent intervention as soon as the waters receded and it was possible to save the church’s patrimony, and then it was more extensively restored between 1968 and the 1970s: however, the humidity had seriously damaged the painting, and its preservation conditions worsened after a short time, so much so that in 2003 a new restoration, lasting three years, became necessary, with the aim of guaranteeing its preservation for the future.

The latest restoration has also been able to make us reread the work as Santi di Tito’s contemporaries must have seen it: so here is the new resurrection of the Medici altarpiece, the one carried out by the restorers of the Superintendence of Florence. A resurrection that has unveiled the true nature of Santi di Tito’s altarpiece, that is, its dimension as a great masterpiece, and a resurrection that has made us understand why already in the sixteenth century it was a work highly praised by the connoisseurs of the time. The poet Raffaello Borghini spoke of it in Riposo, a dialogue on art that is fundamental to understanding sixteenth-century Florentine painting: the scholar spent florid words on Santi di Tito’s Resurrection , deeming it “of the best that he has done,” “yes for the observation of the sacred istoria, yes for the honesty and yes for the things of the proper painter, which are well accommodated in it.” A work so sublime that Borghini compared it to one of the greatest masterpieces of the second half of the 16th century in Florence, the Resurrection painted by Bronzino for the Santissima Annunziata.

Santi di Tito, Resurrezione (1574 circa; olio su tavola, 430 x 290 cm; Firenze, Basilica di Santa Croce)
Santi di Tito, Resurrection (c. 1574; oil on panel, 430 x 290 cm; Florence, Basilica of Santa Croce)

Santi di Tito divides his altarpiece into two distinct registers. At the bottom, there is the earthly world: the soldiers cannot sustain the emotion they felt before the miracle, and they faint, fall to the ground, and collapse overwhelmed by the prodigious vision. One of them, the one with the tawny beard on the right, is one of the four who have not yet lost consciousness, and though on the ground he cannot look away from the risen Christ: he maintains a certain composure, but does not hold back his wonder. The other three are even more astonished, one would say frightened, they fidget and writhe in disheveled poses, they seem to want to flee but they too cannot help but observe the triumphant Christ. What calmness, on the other hand, is shown by the pious women who are arriving at the tomb, and the angel who points out to them the tomb of Jesus, sitting in the middle of the throng of soldiers with the most serene attitude in the world! A calmness that also reigns in the upper, divine register: angels and cherubim prayerfully assist Christ’s exit from the tomb. There is also an angel, on the left, addressing one of his companions, as if asking him for a comment on the miracle Christ is performing. And the latter, in a Greek athlete’s chiasmus, with his body of perfect proportions, “the most beautiful among the sons of man,” carries the crucigerous banner, the symbol of his triumph over death, and is the conduit between heaven and earth.

Apparently it is an entirely conventional work, simple and easy to read, faithful to the principles of the Counter-Reformation, able to observe fully all the canons of propriety, as was fitting for a work that was meant to arouse pious feelings in the faithful. In contrast to Bronzino’s Resurrection , which Borghini criticizes in Riposo for that angel “so lascivious that it is a disconvenient thing.” Here, on the contrary, no lasciviousness and no yielding to decoration is likely to mislead the faithful, placed before the Gospel episode as it unfolds diachronically, from the arrival of the pious women until the resurrection takes place. The Church of the time wanted works that were easy for the faithful to read, and Santi di Tito conforms to ecclesiastical dictate. Yet his Resurrection is also a work that rests on a complex composition and dense and cultured artistic references. Santi starts from Bronzino’s Resurrection , which is some 20 years earlier, from 1552, while the Medici altarpiece was executed around 1574. The Bronzino original, however, is reread in the light of Santi di Tito’s fundamental experiences: “the frequentation of Taddeo Zuccari’s workshop and the recovery of the late Raphael in the years of his youthful stay in Rome,” scholar Nadia Bastogi has written, “appear to be the decisive experiences for the artist’s emancipation from the late Florentine manner and his evolution from early 16th-century devotional painting.” Bastogi, in particular, points out how Santi di Tito echoes Raphael’s Transfiguration in communicating the momentum of Christ’s pelvis, how there are structural affinities with Taddeo Zuccari’s Conversion of Saul in the spatial depth and upper register, and how there are also classical quotations, especially in the bodies of the soldiers lying on the ground: the example of the Fauno Barberini comes to mind. The compositional layout itself, noted Marco Collareta, is a synthesis of the research on spatial and luministic movement that Santi di Tito was conducting in those years. Observe the rhythm that Santi di Tito imprinted on his altarpiece: here, Bastogi wrote again, “the diagonal directions of the composition are highlighted by the gestures of the characters, such as the two soldiers who flee specularly to the sides; by now beyond Mannerist contrapposto, they create a real spatiality with expedients of naturalistic illusionism: the foot raised in the foreground, the elbow piercing the ideal plane of the table, the hand foreshortened toward the viewer.”

And then, the lights and colors, admirably recovered from the intervention in the early 2000s, which restored not only the support, but also the pigment alterations that had dulled the brilliance of the colors: and here the careful and engaging calibration of the lights is the result of a direction that could be said to be attentive to ’special effects.’ The delicacy of the morning light that accompanies the arrival of the pious women is thus overcome by the glow emanating from the risen Christ, whose dazzling light floods and illuminates, with strong chiaroscuro effects, the astonished soldiers, while the angelic procession that witnesses the resurrection is enveloped in a delicate penumbra. Finally, the colors also look to Bronzino: they are soft, pale, precious, refined hues. There is, however, a new sensibility that seems to make its way among Christ’s muscles, among the studied attitudes of the soldiers from life, among the shadows that rest on faces and bodies. It transpires, from this Resurrection of Santi di Tito, as a throbbing need for verisimilitude, for adherence to the natural. An extraordinarily modern need, one that opens to the new century.

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