We must now turn our attention to Italian painting, which at the end of
the thirteenth century produced an explosion of creative energy as
spectacular, and as far-reaching in its impact on the future, as the
rise of the Gothic cathedral in France. A single glance at
Lamentation (fig. 522) will convince us that
we are faced with a truly revolutionary development. How, we wonder,
could a work of such intense dramatic power be conceived by a
contemporary of Master Honore? What were the conditions that made it
possible? Oddly enough, as we inquire into the background of Giotto's
art, we find that it arose from the same "old-fashioned" attitudes we
met in Italian Gothic architecture and sculpture.
Medieval Italy, although strongly influenced by Northern art from
Carolingian times on, had always maintained close contact with Byzantine
civilization. As a result, panel painting, mosaic, and murals—mediums
that had never taken firm root north of the Alps—were
kept alive on Italian soil. Indeed, a new wave of influences from
Byzantine art, which enjoyed a major resurgence during the thirteenth
century, overwhelmed the lingering Romanesque elements in Italian
painting at the very time when stained glass became the dominant
pictorial art in France.
There is a certain irony in the fact that this neo-Byzantine style—or
"Greek manner," as the Italians called it—made
its appearance soon after the conquest of Constantinople by the armies
of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. (One thinks of the
way Greek art had once captured the taste of the victorious Romans of
old.) Be that as it may, the Greek manner prevailed almost until the end
of the thirteenth century, so that Italian painters were able to absorb
the Byzantine tradition far more thoroughly than ever before. During
this same period, we recall, Italian architects and sculptors followed a
very different course: untouched by the Greek manner, they were
assimilating the Gothic style. Eventually, toward 1300,
Gothic influence spilled over into painting as well, and the
interaction of this element with the neo-Byzantine produced the
revolutionary new style of which Giotto is the greatest exponent.
Altarpieces of the Gothic era were painted on wood panel in
tempera, an egg-based medium that dries quickly to form an extremely
tough surface. The preparation of the panel was a complex,
time-consuming process. First it was planed and coated with a mixture of
plaster and glue known as gesso, which was sometimes reinforced with
linen. Once the design had been drawn, the background was almost
invariably filled in with gold leaf over red sizing. Then the underpainting,
generally a green earth pigment (terra verde), was added. The
image itself was executed in multiple layers of thin tempera with very
fine brushes, a painstaking process that placed a premium on neatness,
since few corrections were possible.
Among the painters of the Greek manner, the Florentine
Cimabue (c. 1250-after 1300), who may have
Giotto's teacher, enjoyed special fame. His huge altar panel,
Madonna Enthroned (fig.
515), rivals the
finest Byzantine icons or mosaics (compare figs.
What distinguishes it from them
is mainly a greater severity of design and expression, which befits its
huge size. Panels on such a monumental scale had never been attempted in
Equally un-Byzantine is the picture's gabled shape and the way
the throne of inlaid wood seems to echo it. The geometric inlays, like
the throne's architectural style, remind us of the Florence Baptistery
(see fig. 421).
Tempera on panel,
1/2" x 7'4"
(3.9 x 2.2 m).
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Duccio di Buonisegna
The Madonna Enthroned (fig. 516),
painted a quarter century later by
1255-before 1319) for the main altar of Siena
Cathedral, was honored by being called the Maesta (majesty) to
identify the Virgin's role here as the Queen of I leaven surrounded by
her celestial court of saints and angels. At first glance, the picture may seem much
like Cimabue's, since both follow the same basic scheme. Yet the
differences are important. They reflect not only two contrasting
personalities and contrasting local tastes—the
gentleness of Duccio is characteristic of Siena—but
also the rapid evolution of style.
hands, the Greek manner has become unfrozen. The rigid, angular
draperies have given way to an undulating softness. The abstract
shading-in-reverse with lines of gold is reduced to a minimum. The
bodies, faces, and hands are beginning to swell with a subtle
three-dimensional life. Clearly, the heritage of Hellenistic-Roman
illusionism that had always been part of the Byzantine tradition,
however dormant or submerged, is asserting itself once more. But there
is also a half-hidden Gothic element here. We sense it in the fluency of
the drapery, the appealing naturalness of the Infant Christ, and the
tender glances by which the figures communicate with each other. The
chief source of this Gothic influence must have been Giovanni Pisano, who was in Siena from
1285 to 1295 as the
sculptor-architect in charge of the cathedral facade.
DUCCIO. Madonna Enthroned,
center of the Maesta Altar. 1308-11.
Tempera on panel, height
6' 10 1/2" (2.1 m).
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena
Apart from the Madonna, the Maesta includes many small
compartments with scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin. In
these panels, the most mature works of
Duccio's career, the
cross-fertilization of Gothic and Byzantine elements has given rise to a
development of fundamental importance: a new kind of picture space. The
Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin (fig.
517) shows us something we have never seen before in the history
of painting: two figures enclosed by an architectural interior.
Ancient painters and their Byzantine successors were quite unable to
achieve this space. Their architectural settings always stay behind
the figures, so that their indoor scenes tend to look as if they
were taking place in an open-air theater, on a stage without a roof.
Duccio's figures, in contrast, inhabit a space that is created and
defined by the architecture, as if the artist had carved a niche into
his panel. Perhaps we will recognize the origin of this spatial
framework: it derives from the architectural "housing" of Gothic
sculpture (compare especially figs. 490 and
494). Northern Gothic painters, too, had tried to
reproduce these architectural settings, but they could do so only by
flattening them out completely (as in the Psalter of St. Louis,
fig. 513). The Italian painters of Duccio's
generation, on the other hand, trained as they were in the Greek manner,
had acquired enough of the devices of Hellenistic-Roman illusionism (see
fig. 288) to let them render such a framework
without draining it of its three-dimensional qualities.
Even in the outdoor scenes on the back of the Maesta, such as
Christ Entering Jerusalem (fig.
architecture keeps its space-creating function. The diagonal movement
into depth is conveyed not by the figures, which have the same scale
throughout, but by the walls on either side of the road leading to the
city, by the gate that frames the crowd, and by the structures beyond.
Whatever the shortcomings of
Duccio's perspective, his architecture
demonstrates its capacity to contain and enclose, and for that reason
seems more intelligible than similar vistas in ancient art (compare fig.
Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin,
from the Maesta Altar
Entering Jerusalem, from the back of
the Maesta Altar. 1308-11.
Tempera on panel, 40 1/2 x
(103 x 53.7
cm). Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena
Turning from Duccio to
we meet an artist of far bolder and more dramatic temper. Ten to
15 years younger, Giotto was less close to the
Greek manner from the start, despite his probable apprenticeship under
Cimabue. As a Florentine, he
fell heir to Cimabue's sense of monumental scale, which made him a wall
painter by instinct, rather than a panel painter. The art of Giotto is
nevertheless so daringly original that its sources are far more
difficult to trace than those of Duccio's style. Apart from his
Florentine background as represented by the Greek manner of Cimabue, the
young Giotto seems to have been familiar with the work of neo-Byzantine
masters of Rome, such as Cimabue's contemporary
Pietro Cavallini (documented 1272— 1303), who practiced both
mosaic and fresco.
Cavallini's style is an astonishing blend of
Byzantine, Roman, and Early Christian elements. The figures in his
Last Judgment (fig. 519) are in the best
up-to-date manner of the Second Golden Age (compare the Anastasis
in fig. 347), but he has modeled them in a soft
daylight that can only have come from exposure to antique wall painting
(see fig. 293). The result is an almost
sculptural monumentality that is remarkably classical. Indeed, these
saints have the same calm air and gentle gravity found on the
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (fig. 314), but
with the relaxed naturalness of the Gothic.
Apostles, from The Last Judgment, ñ.
Fresco. Sta. Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome
Cavallini set an important example for Giotto. In Rome Giotto, too,
must have become acquainted with Early Christian and ancient Roman mural
decoration. Classical sculpture also left an impression on him. More
fundamental than any of these, however, was the influence of the Pisanos—Nicola,
and especially Giovanni—the founders of Italian
Gothic sculpture. They were the chief intermediaries through whom Giotto
first came in contact with the world of Northern Gothic art. And the
latter remains the most important of all the elements that entered into
Giotto's style. Without the knowledge, direct or indirect, of Northern
works such as those illustrated in figures 488 or
495, he could never have achieved the emotional
impact that distinguishes his work from that of Cavallini and others.
Giotto's surviving murals, those in the Arena Chapel in Padua,
done in 1305-6, are the best preserved as well
as the most characteristic. The decorations are devoted principally to
scenes from the life of Christ, laid in a carefully arranged program
consisting of three tiers of narrative scenes (fig.
and culminating in the Last Judgment at the west end of the
520. Interior, Arena (Scrovegni)
Giotto depicts many of the same subjects
that we find on the reverse of Duccio's Maesta, including
Christ Entering Jerusalem (fig. 521). The two
versions have many elements in common, since they both ultimately derive
from the same Byzantine source. But where Duccio has enriched the
traditional scheme, spatially as well as in narrative detail, Giotto
subjects it to a radical simplification. The action proceeds parallel to
the picture plane. Landscape, architecture, and figures have been reduced to the essential minimum.
The austerity of Giotto's art is further emphasized by the sober medium
of fresco painting, with its limited range and intensity of tones. By
way of contrast, Duccio's picture, which is executed in egg tempera on
gold ground, has a jewellike brilliance and sparkling colors. Yet
Giotto's work has by far the more powerful impact of the two. It makes
us feel so close to the event that we have a sense of being participants
rather than distant observers.
How does the artist achieve this extraordinary effect? He does so,
first of all, by having the entire scene take place in the foreground.
Even more important, he presents it in such a way that the beholder's
eye-level falls within the lower half of the picture. Thus we can
imagine ourselves standing on the same ground plane as these painted figures, even though we see them from
well below, whereas Duccio makes us survey the scene from above in
"bird's-eye" perspective. The consequences of this choice of viewpoint
are truly epoch-making. Choice implies conscious awareness—in
this case, awareness of a relationship in space between the beholder and
the picture—and Giotto may well claim to be the
first to have established such a relationship. Duccio, certainly, does
not yet conceive his picture space as continuous with the beholder's
space. Hence we have the sensation of vaguely floating above the scene,
rather than of knowing where we stand. Even ancient painting at its most
illusionistic provides no more than a pseudo-continuity in this respect
(see figs. 288 and
Giotto, on the other hand, tells us where we stand. Above all, he also
endows his forms with a three-dimensional reality so forceful that they
seem as solid and tangible as sculpture in the round.
Giotto it is the figures, rather than the architectural
framework, that create the picture space. As a result, this space is
more limited than Duccio's—its depth extends no
further than the combined volumes of the overlapping bodies in the
picture—but within its limits it is very much
more persuasive. To Giotto's contemporaries, the tactile quality of his
art must have seemed a near-miracle. It was this quality that made them
praise him as equal, or even superior, to the greatest of the ancient painters, because his forms looked so lifelike that they
could be mistaken for reality itself. Equally significant are the
stories linking Giotto with the claim that painting is superior to
sculpture. This was not an idle boast, as it turned out, for Giotto does
indeed mark the start of what might be called "the era of painting" in
Western art. The symbolic turning point is the year
1334, when he was appointed the head of the Florence Cathedral workshop, an honor and responsibility hitherto reserved for
architects or sculptors.
Giotto's aim was not simply to transplant Gothic statuary into
painting. By creating a radically new kind of picture space, he had also
sharpened his awareness of the picture surface. When we look at a work
by Duccio (or his ancient and medieval predecessors), we tend to do so
in installments, as it were.
Our glance travels from detail to detail at a leisurely pace until we
have surveyed the entire area. Giotto, on the contrary, invites us to
see the whole at one glance. His large, simple forms, the strong
grouping of his figures, the limited depth of his "stage," all these
factors help endow his scenes with an inner coherence such as we have
never found before. Notice how dramatically the massed verticals of the
"block" of apostles on the left are contrasted with the upward slope
formed by the welcoming crowd on the right, and how Christ, alone in the
center, bridges the gulf between the two groups. The more we study the
composition, the more we come to realize its majestic firmness and
clarity. Thus the artist has rephrased the traditional pattern of
Christ's Entry into Jerusalem to stress the solemnity of the event as
the triumphal procession of the Prince of Peace.
Giotto's achievement as a master of design does not fully emerge from
any single work. Only if we examine a number of scenes from the Padua
fresco cycle do we understand how perfectly the composition in each
instance is attuned to the emotional content of the subject. The tragic
mood of The Lamentation (fig. 522)
is brought home to us by the formal rhythm of the design as much as by
the gestures and expressions of the participants.
The very low center of gravity, and the hunched, bending figures
communicate the somber quality of the scene and arouse our compassion
even before we have grasped the specific meaning of the event depicted.
With extraordinary boldness, Giotto sets off the frozen grief of the
human mourners against the frantic movement of the weeping angels among
the clouds, as if the figures on the ground were restrained by their
collective duty to maintain the stability of the composition while the
angels, small and weightless as birds, do not share this burden.
The impact of the drama is heightened by the severely simple setting.
The descending slope of the hill acts as a unifying element and at the
same time directs our glance toward the heads of Christ and the Virgin,
which are the focal point of the scene. Even the tree has a twin
function. Its barrenness and isolation suggest that all of nature
somehow shares in the Saviour's death. Yet it also invites us to ponder
a more precise symbolic message: it alludes (as does Dante in a passage
in the Divine Comedy) to the Tree of Knowledge, which the sin of
Adam and Eve had caused to wither and which was to be restored to life
through the sacrificial death of Christ.
GIOTTO. Christ Entering
Jerusalem. 1305-6. Fresco. Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua
GIOTTO. The Lamentation.
1305-6. Fresco. Arena (Scrovegni)
GIOTTO. Madonna Enthroned,
ñ. 1310. Tempera on
panel, 10'8" x 6'8" (3.3 x
2 m). Galleria
degli Uffizi, Florence
What we have said of the Padua frescoes applies equally to the
Madonna Enthroned (fig. 523), the most
important among the small number of panel paintings by Giotto. Done
about the same time as Duccio's Maestd, it illustrates once again
the difference between Florence and Siena. Its architectural severity
clearly derives from Cimabue (see fig. 515). The
figures, however, have the same overpowering sense of weight and volume
we saw in the frescoes in the Arena Chapel, and the picture space is
just as persuasive—so much so, in fact, that the
golden halos look like foreign bodies in it.
The throne, of a design based on Italian Gothic architecture, has now
become a nichelike structure that encloses the Madonna on three sides
and thus "insulates" her from the gold background. Its lavish
ornamentation includes one feature of special interest: the colored
marble surfaces of the base and of the quatrefoil within the gable. Such
make-believe stone textures had been highly developed by ancient
painters (see figs.
288 and 289), but the tradition had
died out in Early Christian times. Its sudden reappearance here offers
concrete evidence of Giotto's familiarity with whatever ancient murals
could still be seen in medieval Rome.
There are few artists in the entire history of art who equal
the stature of Giotto as a radical innovator. His very greatness,
however, tended to dwarf the next generation of Florentine painters,
which produced only followers rather than new leaders. Their
contemporaries in Siena were more fortunate in this respect, since Duccio never had the same overpowering impact. As a consequence, it was
they, not the Florentines, who took the next decisive step in the
development of Italian Gothic painting.
1284— 1344), who painted the tiny but intense
The Road to Calvary (fig.
1340, may well claim to be the most distinguished
of Duccio's disciples. He spent the last years of his life in Avignon,
the town in southern France that served as the residence-in-exile of the
popes during most of the fourteenth century. Our panel, originally part
of a small altar, was probably done there.
In its sparkling colors, and especially in the architectural
background, it still echoes the art of Duccio (see fig.
518). The vigorous modeling of the figures, on the other hand, as
well as their dramatic gestures and expressions, betray the influence of
Simone Martini is not much concerned with spatial clarity,
he proves to be an extraordinarily acute observer. The sheer variety of
costumes and physical types and the wealth of human incident create a
sense of down-to-earth reality very different from both the lyricism of Duccio and the grandeur of Giotto.
Road to Calvary.
1340. Tempera on panel,
(25 x 15,5 cm)
Musee du Louvre, Paris
THE LORENZETTI BROTHERS.
and Ambrogio Lorenzetti
See also COLLECTION:
Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti
This closeness to everyday life also appears
in the work of the brothers
Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (both died
1348?), but on a more monumental scale and
coupled with a keen interest in problems of space. The boldest spatial
experiment is Pietro's triptych of 1342, the
Birth of the Virgin (fig. 525), where the
painted architecture has been correlated with the real architecture of
the frame in such a way that the two are seen as a single system.
Moreover, the vaulted chamber where the birth takes place occupies two
panels. It continues unbroken behind the column that divides the center
from the right wing. The left wing represents an anteroom which leads to
a large and only partially glimpsed architectural space suggesting the
interior of a Gothic church. What Pietro Lorenzetti achieved here is the outcome of a development that began three decades earlier in the work
of Duccio (compare fig. 518): the conquest of
pictorial space. Only now, however, does the painting surface assume the
quality of a transparent window through which—not
on which—we perceive the same kind of
space we know from daily experience. Duccio's work alone is not
sufficient to explain Pietro's astonishing breakthrough. It became
possible, rather, through a combination of the architectural
picture space of Duccio and the sculptural picture space of
525. PIETRO LORENZETTI. Birth of the Virgin.
Tempera on panel, (1.9
x 1.8 m). Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena
The same procedure enabled Ambrogio Lorenzetti to unfold a
comprehensive view of the entire town before our eyes in his frescoes of
1338-40 in the Siena city hall (fig.
526). We are struck by the
distance that separates this precisely articulated "portrait" of Siena
from Duccio's Jerusalem (fig. 518). Ambrogio's
mural forms part of an elaborate allegorical program depicting the
contrast of good and bad government. To the right on the far wall of
figure 526, we see the Commune of Siena guided by
Faith, Hope, and Charity and flanked by a host of other symbolic
526. AMBROGIO LORENZETTI. The
Commune of Siena (left),
Good Government in the City and portion of Good
Government in the Country (right).
1338-40. Frescoes in the Sala della Pace.
Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
The artist, in order to show the life of a well-ordered
city-state, had to fill the streets and houses with teeming activity
(fig. 527). The bustling crowd gives the
architectural vista its striking reality by introducing the human scale.
On the right, outside the city walls, the Good Government fresco
provides a view of the Sienese countryside, fringed by distant mountains
(fig. 528). It is a true landscape—the
first since ancient Roman times—full of sweeping
depth yet distinguished from its classical predecessors (such as fig.
290) by an ingrained orderliness, which lends it
a domesticated air. Here the presence of people is not accidental. They
have taken full possession of nature, terracing the hillsides with
vineyards, patterning the valleys with the geometry of fields and
pastures. In such a setting, Ambrogio observes the peasants at their
seasonal labors, recording a rural Tuscan scene so characteristic that
it has hardly changed during the past 600 years.
527. AMBROGIO LORENZETTI.
Good Government in the City. Fresco, width of entire
wall 46' (14 m). Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
AMBROGIO LORENZETTI. Good Government in the Country. Palazzo
THE BLACK DEATH.
The first four decades of the fourteenth century in
Florence and Siena had been a period of political stability and economic
expansion as well as of great artistic achievement. In the 1340s both
cities suffered a series of catastrophes whose echoes were to be felt
for many years. Banks and merchants went bankrupt by the score, internal
upheavals shook the government, there were repeated crop failures, and
in 1348 the epidemic of bubonic plague—the
Black Death—that spread throughout Europe wiped
out more than half their urban population. The popular
reaction to these calamitous events was mixed. Many people regarded them
as signs of divine wrath, warnings to a sinful humanity to forsake the
pleasures of this earth; in such people the Black Death engendered a mood of otherworldly exaltation. To others, such as the gay company
in Boccaccio's Decameron, the fear of sudden death merely
intensified the desire to enjoy life while there was yet time. These
conflicting attitudes are reflected in the pictorial theme of the
Triumph of Death.
The most impressive version of this subject is an enormous
fresco, attributed to the Pisan master
ñ 1321-1363), in the Camposanto, the cemetery
building next to Pisa Cathedral. In a particularly dramatic detail (fig.
529), the elegantly costumed men and women on
horseback have suddenly come upon three decaying corpses in open
coffins. Even the animals are terrified by the sight and smell of
rotting flesh. Only the hermit, having renounced all earthly pleasures,
points out the lesson of the scene. But will the living accept the
lesson, or will they, like the characters of Boccaccio, turn away from
the shocking spectacle more determined than ever to pursue their
hedonistic ways? The artist's own sympathies seem curiously divided. His
style, far from being otherworldly, recalls the realism of Ambrogio
Lorenzetti, although the forms are harsher and more expressive.
In a fire that occurred in 1944,
fresco was badly damaged and had to be detached from the wall in order
to save what was left of it. This procedure exposed the first, rough
coat of plaster underneath, on which the artist had sketched out his
composition (fig. 530). These drawings, of the
same size as the fresco itself, are amazingly free and sweeping. They
reveal Traini's personal style more directly than the painted version,
which was carried out with the aid of assistants. Because they are done
in red, these underdrawings are called sinopie (an Italian word
derived from ancient Sinope, in Asia Minor, which was famous as a source
of brick-red earth pigment).
529. FRANCESCO TRAINI. The
Triumph of Death (portion), ñ.
Fresco. Camposanto, Pisa
530. FRANCESCO TRAINI. Sinopia
drawing for The Triumph of Death (detail). Camposanto, Pisa
Sinopie serve to introduce us to the standard
technique of painting frescoes in the fourteenth century. After the
first coat of plaster (arriccio or arrricciato) had dried, the
wall was divided into squares using a ruler or chalk lines tied to
nails. The design was then brushed in with a thin ocher paint, and the
outline developed further in charcoal, with the details being added last
in sinopia. During the Renaissance, sinopie were replaced by cartoons:
sheets of heavy paper or cardboard (cartone) on which the design
was drawn in the studio. The design was then pricked with small holes
and transferred to the wall by dusting ("pouncing") it with chalk. In
the High Renaissance, however, the contours were often simply pressed
through the paper with a stylus. Be that as it may, each section of the
wall was covered with just enough fresh plaster (intonaco) to
last the current session, in order for the water-based paints to sink
in. (Some insoluble pigments could only be applied a secco to dry plaster.) Each day's work
progressed in this manner. Since the work had to be done on a scaffold,
it was carried out from the top down, usually in horizontal strips.
Needless to say, fresco painting was a slow process requiring numerous
assistants for large projects.
Traini still retains a strong link with the great
masters of the second quarter of the century.
More characteristic of
Tuscan painting after the Black Death are the painters who reached
maturity around the 1350s. None of them can compare with the earlier
artists whose work we have discussed. Their style, in comparison, seems
dry and formula-ridden.
Yet they were capable, at their best, of
expressing the somber mood of the time with memorable intensity. The
Pieta of 1365 (fig.
Giovanni da Milano (documented 1346-1369) has all the emotional appeal
of a German Andachtsbild (compare fig.
although the heritage of Giotto can be clearly felt even here.
Oil on panel,
(122 x 57.5
Galleria deU'Accademia, Florence