On 25 March 1482 the town of Ascoli Piceno was granted some rights of self government by the Pope. 25 March is also the Feast of the Annunciation and in carrying out his commission for the Franciscan church of the Annunciation, Carlo Crivelli has conflated the two events — one political and contemporary, the other religious.
The archangel finds himself in a street in Ascoli and, oddly, he is accompanied by the patron saint of the town, Saint Emidius, who seems to be intent on distracting heaven’s emissary from his solemn task by engaging him in a discussion about the model of the town of Ascoli which identifies him and which he is carrying. This is indeed a very strange setting for the Annunciation — one of the protagonists is in a very public place separated from the other by a thick stone wall. Presumably the conversation is taking place through the window grille, not unlike the somewhat strained discourse between a visitor and an inmate in a prison.
In the background, on the bridge, a man is reading a message which has just been delivered by carrier pigeon. This is a reference to news of the papal grant which is arriving at the same time as the angelic Annunciation and is a parochial counterpart to the ‘special delivery’ which at this very moment is reaching its recipient via the dove of the Holy Spirit. One feels that the action is taking place in a somewhat airless silence — the street is peopled, but not bustling, the inhabitants seem to be stilled — caught in time as the news is dispensed. The townscape itself is represented in pristine condition, the streets are beautifully paved and the buildings are sumptuously decorated in Renaissance style. Every detail is rendered in Crivelli’s trademark hard-edged clarity from the dovecote high above the street to the little child watching the proceedings from the top of the stairs and the peacock and eastern carpet adorning the loggia on the first floor of the Virgin’s palazzo. Inside her room the Madonna is surrounded by the clutter of everyday life.
Crivelli does not let the architecture get in the way of his narrative — the shaft of light bearing the dove of the Holy Spirit enters the room via a very convenient hole cut in the solid wall. But, being Crivelli, he adds another characteristically quirky detail — the golden light or energy has left some sort of residual matter or reflection while passing through the masonry, imparting a golden efflorescence to the immediate surrounding of the cavity.
Crivelli’s pictures are so appealing because of this quirkiness, this ability to surprise and amuse us with some unexpected detail.
Birdwatchers have invented a wonderful word — jizz — which they use to explain what it is about a bird which makes it quintessentially that bird rather than another similar type — its colour, shape, the way it flies and perches etc., all rolled into one. Well Crivelli has a very strong jizz — he is instantly recognisable and one always feels drawn to him when one glimpses his pictures for the first time.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
c1483–5 Leonardo da Vinci: Virgin of the Rocks, Paris, Musée du Louvre
1487 Hans Memling: Portrait of Martin van Nieuwenhove, Bruges, Memling-museum
1487 Sandro Botticelli: Madonna of the Pomegranate, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi