The National Gallery of Art presents The Beffi Triptych: Preserving Abruzzo's Cultural Heritage, on view in the West Building's Rotunda from June 15 to September 7, 2009. The first work of art to be transported out of the region of Abruzzo, Italy, in the aftermath of a violent earthquake, the triptych is one of the most important works from the National Museum of Abruzzo in the city of L'Aquila. The Italian government has loaned the altarpiece for display at the National Gallery of Art until Labor Day in gratitude to the United States for being among the first to offer assistance to the region after the earthquake and as testimony to the Italian commitment to restore fully the cultural heritage of the region.
The Beffi Triptych has been lent by the Soprintendenza dell’Abruzzo e la Direzione Regionale dell’Abruzzo. Its presentation at the National Gallery of Art is made possible by the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali and the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C.
An informational handout, which is made possible by the Italian Cultural Institute, Washington, is available at the Gallery.
"Following in the long tradition of the United States' strong ties to Italy and the Gallery's exceptional Italian collections and loan exhibition programs, we are delighted to welcome The Beffi Triptych and in doing so, aid in preserving this region's cultural treasures," said Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art.
"When faced with such an appalling tragedy as this, the government's commitment to ensure that any damaged works representing our artistic heritage be restored and returned as quickly as possible to the people living in the affected areas is particularly important," stated Italian Minister of Culture Sandro Bondi. "Churches, piazze, and old buildings are in fact symbolic of the deepest memory and identity of these places. It is not by chance that all over the world, along with the deep grief over the numerous losses, the prevailing concern has been for the state of the artistic heritage, which, abroad as well as at home, is perceived as the true essence of our country."
Ambassador Castellaneta, referring to The Beffi Triptych, added, "Its value goes well beyond its artistic merits: it is a treasure that represents our cultural heritage and civilization. It is a testament to the people of Abruzzo, and Italians as a whole, who were able to preserve this masterpiece from being damaged during such a sudden and tragic event as the earthquake. The triptych is the ambassador of the Abruzzo cultural recovery in the United States and confirms once again that no earthquake is strong enough to destroy the bridge that spans the two shores of the Atlantic."
The Abruzzo Earthquake
The Abruzzo region—located in central Italy—was struck on April 6, 2009, by an earthquake that measured 5.8 on the Richter scale. More than 300 people perished, 1,500 were wounded, and 65,000 were left homeless. The Protezione Civile Italiana, an emergency management agency, intervened immediately and has since allowed more than half the evacuees to return to their homes.
The earthquake also caused extensive damage to Abruzzo's cultural heritage, damaging 25 percent of its historic buildings. The National Museum of Abruzzo suffered so much damage that the building was condemned. The Italian government is strongly committed to the rebuilding of public buildings and private homes in Abruzzo, and aid is pouring in from around the world to assist with humanitarian outreach as well as the reconstruction and restoration of the artistic, historic, and cultural heritage damaged by the quake.
The Beffi Triptych
The Madonna and Child with Scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin (The Beffi Triptych), a highlight from the collection of the National Museum of Abruzzo, L'Aquila, is named for the nearby town of Beffi, where it once adorned the Church of Santa Maria del Ponte. Painted in the early 15th century by an anonymous follower of the Sienese artist Taddeo di Bartolo, The Beffi Triptych, unlike many other works of art in the museum, suffered only minimal damage that has been repaired.
The wings of the triptych depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, who appears in the central panel, enthroned with the Christ child beneath an elegantly brocaded canopy. The left wing features Christ's Nativity, which takes place in a cave under the watchful gaze of an ox and an ass, following Byzantine tradition. Mary holds the swaddled infant while Joseph, at right, ponders the miraculous event. At the top, angels announce the birth to shepherds tending their flocks; below them, two shepherds adore the newborn child, and at the lower left, maidservants prepare his first bath. Represented at a smaller scale, the kneeling figure to the right wearing red and black stockings is the unidentified donor of the altarpiece.
The right panel portrays the Dormition, or Death of the Virgin, who lies on her funeral bier, surrounded by the 12 apostles. Angels scent the air with incense from censers incised in the gold ground, giving the scene a heavenly aura. The figure in the foreground represents the disbelieving priest who, according to legend, attempted to overturn Mary's bier, but whose hands were frozen when he tried to commit that sacrilege. Above the Virgin and apostles, the Assumption of the Virgin is depicted with Christ holding Mary's soul, which traditionally takes the form of an innocent, swaddled infant. At the top, Christ crowns Mary as Queen of Heaven.
The triptych was received at the Embassy of Italy on June 2 as the guest of honor of the celebration of Italian National Day, dedicated this year to the victims of the earthquake.
The Master of The Beffi Triptych
The Beffi Triptych is one of the most representative paintings of the Late Gothic Period in Abruzzo. Works by the Master of The Beffi Triptych are distinctive for their lively narrative detail, highly expressive figures, and brilliant colors. In addition to panel paintings, this anonymous master illuminated manuscripts and also created frescoes. He is unanimously identified with the painter who frescoed the vault and walls of the presbytery of the church of San Silvestro in L'Aquila at the beginning of the 15th century.
A Legacy of Cultural Exchange
From its inception, the National Gallery of Art has been inspired and influenced by the Italian tradition in art and architecture. Beginning with founder Andrew W. Mellon's collection as the nucleus of its holdings and later augmented by the Samuel H. Kress and Joseph Widener collections, the Gallery's permanent collection of Italian paintings is regarded as the most important in the United States. It is complemented by noted collections of Italian sculpture and drawings. Among its many masterpieces, the collection boasts the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas: Ginevra de' Benci (c. 1474/1478).
The West Building's grand, Italianate Rotunda is an appropriate setting for this Italian work. The architect of the West Building, John Russell Pope, was trained at the American Academy in Rome and was deeply influenced by classical Italian architecture, believing that it perfectly expressed the American ideals of democracy and humanism. The Rotunda itself was modeled after the ancient Pantheon in Rome, and Italian stone is prominent throughout.
From its founding democratic ideals to its art and architecture, America—and specifically Washington, DC—have long drawn inspiration from Italian culture and principles. As the nation's art museum, the National Gallery of Art's rich history of preserving Italian culture reflects the United States' longstanding ties to Italy. The Beffi Triptych: Preserving Abruzzo's Cultural Heritage follows in the Gallery's long tradition of more than 80 international loan exhibitions that have brought the art of Italy from abroad to be showcased in the nation's capital.