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The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula and 11,000 Virgins by Bernardo Daddi (about 1333).

The angels fly toward the gilded pinnacle with their eyes covered, to keep from being blinded by God's radiance. He looks right at us, like a figure in a Byzantine icon, but this wintry God with his narrow-eyed gravitas has something most Byzantine images lack: personality.

That spark of life was seen as novel when it appeared in Italy in the early 14th century, and Giotto di Bondone, who painted that Apparition of God the Father, has been a famous artist ever since. Not much of Giotto's monumental art can travel, so fans of Old Master painting will flock to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see a show that includes just three of his works, including an imposing altarpiece painted for Florence's Peruzzi banking family.

The show is teasingly called Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art. The key word here is "Renaissance," which in the show logo is much larger than all the rest. Giotto may be the star, but the hook for the broad public is a term that has been changed and hollowed out over the centuries till it signifies scarcely more than a best-selling art brand.

The idea of an Italian renaissance in art began as a polemical tool, to beat down the Byzantine tradition that the 16th-century writer Giorgio Vasari described as "rude and inept," and to promote a naturalist evolution from Giotto to Michelangelo.

The rebirth was supposed to have something to do with a classical revival, but Greek vase painting isn't very naturalistic, and nobody knew what Roman wall painting looked like till a century after Giotto's death. "The Renaissance" was broadened and popularized during the 19th century till it became a general term for a two- or three-century slice of time, which current historians mostly prefer to call "early modern."

Yet "the Renaissance" still calls to us. It sounds fresh and hopeful, and if we can't muster the faith that Vasari and the Victorians had in the upward progress of modern civilization, we can still feel nostalgic about it.

The open secret of the AGO exhibition, which originated at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is how much its treasures from 1300 to 1350 owe to medieval fixations, such as the spectacle of pain. Saints are shown being broiled or flayed alive, mutilated or beheaded while praying. Blood gushes from the wounds of Christ on the Cross, sometimes pooling around a skull. The Byzantine influence is not hard to spot in the stylized poses of saints and Madonnas, and the iconographic details that surround them.

The private wealth that allowed Florentine citizens and social clubs to commission such images was the fruit of a medieval industrial revolution that mechanized the city's textile works. Medieval financial innovation made Florence the banking capital of Europe, and gave the Peruzzis the means to pay Giotto for their fabulous five-panel altarpiece.

Of course, the Middle Ages don't have the brand appeal of the Renaissance, whose humanistic glow helps us feel close culturally to the Europeans of Giotto's time. Bernardo Daddi's warm, almost sensual portrait of Saint Catherine of Alexandria gives visual form to this feeling of temporal nearness – the skin textures are remarkably naturalistic, and even the painting looks much younger than its 680 years.

But in some ways, Daddi's world is very remote from ours. An image in the Laudario of Sant'Agnese, one of several illuminated texts in the exhibition, shows three angels slaying the dragon Satan, while a crowd of devils looks on. This fantastic scene gains new punch when you know it was made 50 years into Europe's three-century war on witches and other Satanic helpers. In 1327, at about the time Giotto was painting his Apparition of God the Father , an astrologer was burnt at the stake in Florence.

The Getty's take on the pieces it has assembled – mostly from other museums' collections – is detailed and academic, as shown in a lavish catalogue filled with ponderously fine-grained object descriptions. Rich in cash, relatively poor in holdings, the Getty put its resources into scholarship and the sleuthing needed to reunite, for example, the three panels of a triptych by Taddeo Gaddi. The museum gave extra dimension to the Laudario of Sant'Agnese, another research object, by having its choral-music notations transcribed, recorded and played through the exhibition rooms.

Giotto is the show's headliner, but its main focus is on little-known painter-illustrators such as Pacino di Bonaguida and the Master of the Dominican Effigies. Pacino is responsible for almost half the works on display, including an arresting Crucifixion against a black background, with sun and moon regarding each other like two dark bottle caps. If you don't know Pacino and his workshop, Bryan C. Keene contends in his lead-off catalogue essay, you don't really know Florentine painting of the early 14th century.

Like any good historical exhibition, the show contains things that challenge whatever you thought you knew about the artists and the period. Many of the manuscript illustrations really are superb, and some are surprising, including a few small illustrations of initials by Maestro Daddesco, whose dynamic, geometric line teeters on the edge of abstraction.

The show gives you the predictable impression that great things were yet to come, and that was certainly true for Florentine art. But Florence was past its peak by the end of the mid-century. A banking crisis that began in 1337 destroyed the city's financial eminence and beggared the Peruzzi. A decade later, the Black Plague reduced the population by half. In terms of the city's prosperity and power, the "birth of the Renaissance" was actually a golden age that ended early and never returned.

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