'The perspective appealed to my scientific instincts, with its geometry incised into the white gesso priming'

martin kemp

The Annunciation, 1442–48, by Domenico Veneziano (about 1410–61), 10½in by 21¼in, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Credit: Bridgeman Images

Martin Kemp says:
This magical little picture, the central predella panel from Domenico Veneziano’s St Lucy Altarpiece in Florence, marks my transition at Cambridge from natural sciences to art history. The perspective appealed to my scientific instincts, with its geometry incised into the white gesso priming. However, the maths do not rule. The space of the loggia and garden – and the passage of light – is as delicately tender as the meeting of the Virgin and Angel. I particularly like the closed door (porta clausa) that is a symbol of virginity, as is the trellis of roses without thorns.

Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford, is a leading expert on Leonardo da Vinci and art and science. His latest book, Living with Leonardo, was published in March.

John McEwen comments on The Annunciation:
Domenico, as he is known, was one of the most innovative painters of his time. His novel artistic concern was the way light changed colour – well illustrated in this picture, with its play of out-side and in. Piero della Francesca was his assistant for a period and it’s through him that Domenico has most influenced the course of art, because his personal legacy amounts to a mere two signed works and some plausible attributions.

Little is known of his early years; only his name suggests that he was Venetian. As a boy, he was in the Florentine workshop of Gentile de Fabriano and, after his master’s death, worked in the 1430s with Pisanello in Rome. The most vivid glimpse of him is offered by Vasari, albeit from hearsay and written in
the following century: ‘Domenico was a good, kind person who enjoyed singing and playing the lute.’

Vasari says he was murdered by an envious artistic rival, which has been proved a falsehood. A 1438 letter to Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, begging to paint him an altarpiece, survives.

His masterpiece is the high altarpiece, showing The Madonna and Child with Saints, for the Florentine church Santa Lucia de’Magnoli—one of the defining religious works of its time.

Sadly, it has long been removed from its proper devotional place to the Uffizi Gallery and further vandalised by the breaking up of its predella – a structurally supportive lower tier of five smaller panels illustrating events in the lives of the principals, including The Annunciation. The Fitzwilliam and the National Gallery in Washington DC have two each and the other is in Berlin’s Staatliche Museen.