Pesellino review – a lost star of the Florentine Renaissance shines again

<span>Photograph: Guy Bell/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Guy Bell/Shutterstock

It was a gossipy aside that was to shape art history. After seeing Titian’s latest painting in his studio, the Florentine Michelangelo praised it to Titian’s face but on the way home commented backhandedly to his friend and biographer Giorgio Vasari that it was a shame these Venetian artists didn’t learn to draw. Over the centuries, the contrast between Florentine “design” and Venetian “colour” became a cliche. It even stoked up William Blake to rage at the Royal Academy for promoting soft Venetian colourism against the true tradition of drawing.

Pesellino at the National Gallery overturns that simplistic view in a jewel case of a gallery where golden searchlights illuminate a universe of colour straight out of 15th-century Florence. The paintings of Francesco Pesellino cover all the top themes typical of a Florentine artist in the early to mid 1400s, from the journey of the Magi to the Annunciation. But what glow in your mind are his intense, almost psychedelic blues, reds and golds. In his painting King Melchior Sailing to the Holy Land, a dawn sky unfurls in layers of pink against the azure heavens, beautifully observed and freely brushed. This isn’t rigidly “designed”: you sense the light is changing as you look, and recognise that Pesellino has captured the passing beauty of a brief moment.

This could be the earliest painting of dawn’s delicacy. It was done about a decade before Giovanni Bellini painted a north Italian dawn with similar rosy magic in his Agony in the Garden – which you can see in the National Gallery’s new gallery of the Venetian Renaissance. Born in 1422, Pesellino died in his mid-30s, leaving a scattered corpus of often quite tiny works. He is not known for any iconic masterpiece and his biography in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists only runs to a page, and is very garbled. Still, Vasari, a century after his death, knew Pesellino had to be in the book. His talent stood out, and he would have done still greater things “if death had not cut him off so prematurely”.

There’s something noble, even quixotic, about the National Gallery’s attempt to resurrect this lost star and give Pesellino his due almost six centuries after his death from plague. This is as full a retrospective as he’s ever likely to get and it only fills one room. But it’s a room bursting with life.

Those colours bloom afresh in the main exhibit, in which Pesellino tells the story of David and Goliath on two low, wide wooden panels. These crammed narrative scenes have been brilliantly restored in the National Gallery’s workshop, their colours as bright as Pesellino intended, you believe. Gold dust spatters highlighted details. Red caps and filigree frocks, embossed armour and horses’ bejewelled reins enliven the cavalcade. Yet the poetry of Pesellino’s colours comes out most radically, again, in his skies: the brightness of the foreground is set against a low threatening sky of white, grey and blue, obscuring the day.

The ground too is dark, a deep green that’s almost black. This makes a resonant setting for the speckle of pale flowers Pesellino has painted, a floral array that looks forward to Botticelli’s Primavera. But if he’s good at colour, that’s just part of a sharp eye for nature. This is where the Florentine habit of meticulous drawing comes in, for Pesellino’s David and Goliath panels are full of sharply studied, lovingly animated animals. Lifelike dogs prowl, sit and sniff the flowers. Horses rear, rest and, in battle, die.

The biblical story of David, the shepherd boy who volunteered to fight the mighty warrior Goliath armed with only a stone and slingshot, and killed him with a surgical strike to the forehead, was beloved by Renaissance Florence. David, seen as the symbol of this small city republic defying Goliath-scale enemies such as Milan and the pope, was heroically sculpted by Donatello, Verrocchio and Michelangelo. Pesellino however tells the whole story in a gilded comic strip with a brutal battle at its heart – a fight so close and cruel you can’t tell which side is which.

That realism is not pacifist. The fighting is all part of a splendid spectacle of chivalry, with knights in armour fighting to impress the ladies who meet the victors outside the gates of a walled city which is clearly Florence.

The National Gallery is right to put this two-panel story at the centre of its show. It is a masterpiece. And like so many masterpieces of the Florentine Renaissance, it was probably made for the Medici family, the wealthy bankers who became unofficial rulers of this so-called republic. They commissioned many images of David to show their republican zeal even as they corrupted the city government. Pesellino’s two panels are thought to have decorated chests in the Medici Palace.

Giants, dogs, knights, sublime skies – the beauties and wonders Pesellino painted were once part of everyday day life in a city where chests and bedheads were artistic marvels. Their context is gone but the joy remains.

• Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed is at the National Gallery, London, 7 December to 10 March