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West Building Audio Tour: Italian Renaissance Paintings, 13th–16th Centuries

Use your smartphone to explore a wide range of works through the voices of National Gallery of Art curators. Set your own pace by listening to as many stops as you like in the order you choose.

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To listen to information about a work of art, enter the stop number in the box below, select go, and press the play button when the stop appears. Please be mindful of other visitors and use headphones while listening to the audio tour.


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    Stop 380
    El Greco painter
    Greek, 1541 - 1614
    Laocoön 

    Suspecting trickery, Laocoön, a mythical priest of Troy, had warned his countrymen not to accept the wooden horse left outside the city by the Greeks and had hurled his spear at it to prove that it was hollow. He thus incurred the wrath of the gods for desecrating an object dedicated to the goddess Athena. El Greco depicted serpents, sent by the angry gods, engaging Laocoön and one son in a mortal struggle, while a second son lies dead at his father’s side. The identity of the unfinished figures on the right is unclear. Using writhing line, lurid color, and illogically conceived space, the artist projected an unrelieved sense of doom. 

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    Stop 360
    Titian artist
    Venetian, 1488/1490 - 1576
    Ranuccio Farnese 

    Ranuccio Farnese was about 11 or 12 years old when Titian painted his portrait. As a member of the powerful and aristocratic Farnese family, Ranuccio went on to an illustrious career in the Catholic Church. He was made archbishop of Naples at the age of 14, and he later served as archbishop of Milan and Ravenna, among other positions, before dying when he was only 35 years old. Adult responsibility came to Ranuccio when still a child, as Titian so brilliantly conveyed through the cloak of office, too large and heavy, sliding off the youth’s small shoulders. The characterization of a boy in the role of the man gives this image great poignancy.

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    Stop 318
    Raphael artist
    Marchigian, 1483 - 1520
    The Alba Madonna 

    In this “Madonna of Humility,” the Virgin Mary is seated directly on the ground instead of on a heavenly throne or a sumptuous cushion. The artist grouped the figures in a broad, low pyramid, aligning them within a circle in such a way that they not only conform to their space, but dominate it as well. The Roman style Raphael adapted can be seen in the painting’s delicacy of color and mood, with figures draped in rose pink, pale blue, and green, set in an idealized, classical landscape. Despite the serene atmosphere, the Christ Child’s gesture of accepting the cross from John the Baptist is the focus of attention of all three figures, as if they have foreknowledge of Christ’s later sacrifice for humankind.

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    Stop 349
    Raphael artist
    Marchigian, 1483 - 1520
    Saint George and the Dragon 

    A Roman soldier of Christian faith, Saint George saved the daughter of a pagan king by subduing a dragon with his lance; the princess then led the dragon to the city, where the saint killed it with his sword, prompting the king and his subjects to convert to Christianity. One unusual feature of the painting is the saint’s blue garter on his armor-covered leg. Its inscription, HONI, begins the phrase Honi soit qui mal y pense (Disgraced be he who thinks ill of it), the motto of the chivalric Order of the Garter, of which George is the patron saint.

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    Stop 315
    Giovanni Bellini painter
    Venetian, c. 1430/1435 - 1516
    Titian painter
    Venetian, 1488/1490 - 1576
    The Feast of the Gods 

    In this illustration of a scene from the Roman poet Ovid’s Fasti, the gods, with Jupiter, Neptune, and Apollo among them, revel in a forest setting, eating and drinking, attended by nymphs and satyrs. The lustful Priapus, god of fertility, stealthily lifts the gown of the sleeping nymph Lotis, as seen on the right. According to the tale, he will be foiled by the braying of Silenus’s ass a moment later.

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    Stop 313
    Leonardo da Vinci artist
    Florentine, 1452 - 1519
    Ginevra de' Benci [obverse] 

    Ginevra de’ Benci was the daughter of a wealthy banker in Florence, and her portrait—the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas—was probably commissioned about the time of her marriage at age 16. It is one of the artist’s earliest experiments with the new medium of oil paint. He placed her in an open setting at a time when women were still shown sheltered within the walls of their family homes, with landscapes glimpsed only through open windows. The three-quarter pose, neither facing fully forward nor in profile, is among the first in Italian portraiture. The juniper leaves framing her refer to her chastity, the greatest virtue of a Renaissance woman, and pun on her name; the Italian for juniper is ginepro

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    Stop 307
    Andrea del Castagno painter
    Florentine, before 1419 - 1457
    David with the Head of Goliath 

    This shield was intended for display in ceremonial parades, rather than for protection in battle. The subject was especially appropriate for an audience in 15th-century Florence. As the smallest major political power on the Italian peninsula, the city saw itself as a young David contending with such mighty Goliaths as the Pope, the duke of Milan, the king of Naples, and the doge of Venice. Here, David is depicted preparing to attack Goliath, having already chosen a smooth stone for his sling. The conclusion appears at the bottom of the shield; the terrible giant’s severed head, with the stone embedded in its forehead, lies at David’s feet as a warning to the city’s enemies. 

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    Stop 310
    Fra Angelico painter
    Florentine, c. 1395 - 1455
    Fra Filippo Lippi painter
    Florentine, c. 1406 - 1469
    The Adoration of the Magi 

    The Adoration of the Magi appears to be the product of two artists—Fra Angelico may have started the altarpiece, but the greatest part of the work was taken up by Fra Filippo Lippi. Fra Angelico was a Dominican known for his great monastic devotion; his saintly deportment is mirrored in the quiet piety of his paintings. The representation of the Virgin Mary here expresses his style in the pure, simple form of her head and the gentle refinement of her features. The wise men and their attendants, as well as the broad-faced Joseph, are usually attributed to Fra Filippo and his more earthy style. 

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    Stop 301
    Duccio di Buoninsegna painter
    Sienese, c. 1250/1255 - 1318/1319
    The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel 

    This panel is one of two owned by the Gallery from one of the most important monuments of Western painting: the towering, two-sided altarpiece known as the Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna. The Maestà dominated the main altar in Siena’s cathedral for nearly two centuries. In the 1770s the altarpiece was sawn apart, and individual panels were subsequently dispersed. Standing on either side of this Nativity are two Hebrew prophets, whose writings—quoted on the scrolls they hold—are thought by Christians to foretell Jesus’s birth. The Virgin Mary was Siena’s patron saint, and devotion to her had a strong civic as well as religious dimension. 

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