602. Gold Ground
Best: Lorenzo Monaco, David (1405-10). David strikes a commanding pose, holds a ‘cither’ realistically on his knee, and has the most human face in the gallery. The gold background sets off the beautiful green, pink and blue of David’s robes.
Worst: Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, St. Catherine Disputing and Two Donors (1380). Look at St. Catherine’s fingers, the background niches, the bizarre scale: the artist is totally at a loss as painting (60 years post-Giotto) moves to three-dimension representation.

603. Florence
Best: Fra Carnevale, Birth of the Virgin (1467). A catalogue of Florentine fashion, relegating the Virgin’s birth to a footnote. Stunningly, the architecture is 85% of the large canvas, with a strong ultramarine blue sky behind and precise Tuscan landscape off to the side.
Worst: Botticelli, Three Miracles of St. Zenobius (1500). More a cartoon than a painting, with one of the worst landscapes in Italian art, this is the bad Botticelli influenced by Savonarola, with forced, phony expressions as spectators smell the rotting corpses.

604. More Florence
Best: Fra Filippo Lippi, Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement (1439?). One of the great enigmas at the Met: why is the man cut off by the casement; why is he positioned behind the woman; and why is he looking past her? If it’s the first chaste double portrait, it’s also the first with a view onto a landscape.
Worst: Liberale da Verona, The Chess Players (c. 1470). Not a bad painting, but enough already with the “fashionable” frizzy blonde hairdos, and the distracting column in the foreground.

605. Portraits
Best: Raffaellino del Garbo, Madonna and Child with Saint Joseph and an Angel (1500?). Three beautifully wistful, distinctive faces and an unusual Christ Child pose, grabbing his mother’s breast. The background dissolves, as do the two putti holding the wrinkled blue cloth behind Mary’s gorgeous face.
Worst: Francesco Francia, Federigo Gonzaga (1510). Either “exceptionally sweet,” per the label, or creepily simpy. This stands out like a cartoon among the more realistic, psychologically engaging portraits surrounding it.

606. Northern Italy
Best: Andrea Mantegna, The Holy Family with St. Mary Magdalen (c.1500). Joseph is the great face of the gallery, while Mary Magdalen is a fresh-skinned quiet beauty. Mary is different, perhaps the only one sensing clearly her son’s fate. They all look left, while the Child counters with a sideways glance right, toward His mother. Mantegna projects power, and the distemper medium gives the tight composition a softly woven look.
Worst: Bartolomeo Vivarini, The Death of the Virgin (1484). The squashed faces of the seven mourners behind the Virgin appear painted from a fun-house mirror, and the eight putti holding the shield of heaven are ugly and unhappy-looking for no discernible reason. The hillside castles don’t make perspectival or military sense, either.

625. More Gold Ground
Best: Simone Martini, St. Andrew (c. 1320). A bold and assured figure, with lines of experience on his face and a world-class beard, surrounded by a stamped gold halo and a 700-year-old decorative frame. Notice how cleverly Simone has finessed the saint’s right arm.
Worst: Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child (c.1300). Not because it’s bad – it’s rather unexceptional, although the Christ Child has an overlong body, tiny head and sits weightlessly in the crook of Mary’s elbow – but because the Met paid $45 million for it in 2004 and I’ve never seen a visitor look at it for more than ten seconds, despite its prominent location.

626. Gothic Altarpieces
Best: Jean Bellegambe, The Le Cellier Altarpiece (1509). A rare (for the Met) French work, lighter and more decorative than surrounding Spanish and Italian examples, but what makes it so charming are the vignettes of tiny angel musicians around, behind and below the devotional image.
Worst: Master of Varlungo, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels (c.1290). It’s too late here for this too-early anonymous work, with ridiculously elongated body, impossibly floating Christ Child, missing left arm and a perspectivally confused throne.

627. Northern Italian Gothic
Best: Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child (1480) and Pieta (1476). How to choose? The Pieta is powerful, richly volumetric and deeply theatrical, even with a gold background. Madonna and Child is flatter, quieter, but more exquisitely beautiful. The background and fly on the cracked parapet are realistic, while the hanging fruits and purple cloth turn the painting otherworldly.