Italian Painting -
Gothic Period (1250-1400)
March 4, 2016
SIGNS OF THE AWAKENING: It would seem at first as though nothing but self-destruction could come to that struggling, praying, throat-cutting population that terrorized Italy during the Mediæval Period. The people were ignorant, the rulers treacherous, the passions strong, and yet out of the Dark Ages came light. In the thirteenth century the light grew brighter, but the internal dissensions did not cease. The Hohenstaufen power was broken, the imperial rule in Italy was crushed. Pope and emperor no longer warred each other, but the cries of “Guelf” and “Ghibelline” had not died out.
Throughout the entire Romanesque and Gothic periods (1000-1400) Italy was torn by political wars, though the free cities, through their leagues of protection and their commerce, were prosperous. A commercial rivalry sprang up among the cities. Trade with the East, manufactures, banking, all flourished; and even the philosophies, with law, science, and literature, began to be studied. The spirit of learning showed itself in the founding of schools and universities. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, reflecting respectively religion, classic learning, and the inclination toward nature, lived and gave indication of the trend of thought. Finally the arts, architecture, sculpture, painting, began to stir and take upon themselves new appearances.
SUBJECTS AND METHODS: In painting, though there were some portraits and allegorical scenes produced during the Gothic period, the chief theme was Bible story. The Church was the patron, and art was only the servant, as it had been from the beginning. It was the instructor and consoler of the faithful, a means whereby the Church made converts, and an adornment of wall and altar. It had not entirely escaped from symbolism. It was still the portrayal of things for what they meant, rather than for what they looked. There was no such thing then as art for art’s sake. It was art for religion’s sake.
The demand for painting increased, and its subjects multiplied with the establishment at this time of the two powerful orders of Dominican and Franciscan monks. The first exacted from the painters more learned and instructive work; the second wished for the crucifixions, the martyrdoms, the dramatic deaths, wherewith to move people by emotional appeal. To offset this the ultra-religious character of painting was encroached upon somewhat by the growth of the painters’ guilds, and art production largely passing into the hands of laymen. In consequence painting produced many themes, but, as yet, only after the Byzantine style. The painter was more of a workman than an artist. The Church had more use for his fingers than for his creative ability. It was his business to transcribe what had gone before. This he did, but not without signs here and there of uneasiness and discontent with the pattern. There was an inclination toward something truer to nature, but, as yet, no great realization of it. The study of nature came in very slowly, and painting was not positive in statement until the time of Giotto and Lorenzetti.
The best paintings during the Gothic period were executed upon the walls of the churches in fresco. The prepared color was laid on wet plaster, and allowed to soak in. The small altar and panel pictures were painted in distemper, the gold ground and many Byzantine features being retained by most of the painters, though discarded by some few.
CHANGES IN THE TYPE, ETC.: The advance of Italian art in the Gothic age was an advance through the development of the imposed Byzantine pattern. It was not a revolt or a starting out anew on a wholly original path. When people began to stir intellectually the artists found that the old Byzantine model did not look like nature. They began, not by rejecting it, but by improving it, giving it slight movements here and there, turning the head, throwing out a hand, or shifting the folds of drapery. The Eastern type was still seen in the long pathetic face, oblique eyes, green flesh tints, stiff robes, thin fingers, and absence of feet; but the painters now began to modify and enliven it. More realistic Italian faces were introduced, architectural and landscape backgrounds encroached upon the Byzantine gold grounds, even portraiture was taken up.
This looks very much like realism, but we must not lay too much stress upon it. The painters were taking notes of natural appearances. It showed in features like the hands, feet, and drapery; but the anatomy of the body had not yet been studied, and there is no reason to believe their study of the face was more than casual, nor their portraits more than records from memory.
No one painter began this movement. The whole artistic region of Italy was at that time ready for the advance. That all the painters moved at about the same pace, and continued to move at that pace down to the fifteenth century, that they all based themselves upon Byzantine teaching, and that they all had a similar style of working is proved by the great difficulty in attributing their existing pictures to certain masters, or even certain schools. There are plenty of pictures in Italy to-day that might be attributed to either Florence or Sienna, Giotto or Lorenzetti, or some other master; because though each master and each school had slight peculiarities, yet they all had a common origin in the art traditions of the time.
FLORENTINE SCHOOL: Cimabue (1240?-1302?) seems the most notable instance in early times of a Byzantine-educated painter who improved upon the traditions. He has been called the father of Italian painting, but Italian painting had no father. Cimabue was simply a man of more originality and ability than his contemporaries, and departed further from the art teachings of the time without decidedly opposing them. He retained the Byzantine pattern, but loosened the lines of drapery somewhat, turned the head to one side, infused the figure with a little appearance of life. His contemporaries elsewhere in Italy were doing the same thing, and none of them was any more than a link in the progressive chain.
Cimabue’s pupil, Giotto (1266?-1337), was a great improver on all his predecessors because he was a man of extraordinary genius. He would have been great in any time, and yet he was not great enough to throw off wholly the Byzantine traditions. He tried to do it. He studied nature in a general way, changed the type of face somewhat by making the jaw squarer, and gave it expression and nobility. To the figure he gave more motion, dramatic gesture, life. The drapery was cast in broader, simpler masses, with some regard for line, and the form and movement of the body were somewhat emphasized through it. In methods Giotto was more knowing, but not essentially different from his contemporaries; his subjects were from the common stock of religious story; but his imaginative force and invention were his own. Bound by the conventionalities of his time he could still create a work of nobility and power. He came too early for the highest achievement. He had genius, feeling, fancy, almost everything except accurate knowledge of the laws of nature and art. His art was the best of its time, but it still lacked, nor did that of his immediate followers go much beyond it technically.
Taddeo Gaddi (1300?-1366?) was Giotto’s chief pupil, a painter of much feeling, but lacking in the large elements of construction and in the dramatic force of his master. Agnolo Gaddi (1333?-1396?), Antonio Veneziano (1312?-1388?), Giovanni da Milano (fl. 1366), Andrea da Firenze (fl. 1377), were all followers of the Giotto methods, and were so similar in their styles that their works are often confused and erroneously attributed. Giottino (1324?-1357?) was a supposed imitator of Giotto, of whom little is known. Orcagna (1329?-1376?) still further advanced the Giottesque type and method. He gathered up and united in himself all the art teachings of his time. In working out problems of form and in delicacy and charm of expression he went beyond his predecessors. He was a many-sided genius, knowing not only in a matter of natural appearance, but in color problems, in perspective, shadows, and light. His art was further along toward the Renaissance than that of any other Giottesque. He almost changed the character of painting, and yet did not live near enough to the fifteenth century to accomplish it completely. Spinello Aretino (1332?-1410?) was the last of the great Giotto followers. He carried out the teachings of the school in technical features, such as composition, drawing, and relief by color rather than by light, but he lacked the creative power of Giotto. In fact, none of the Giottesque can be said to have improved upon the master, taking him as a whole. Toward the beginning of the fifteenth century the school rather declined.
SIENNESE SCHOOL: The art teachings and traditions of the past seemed deeper rooted at Sienna than at Florence. Nor was there so much attempt to shake them off as at Florence. Giotto broke the immobility of the Byzantine model by showing the draped figure in action. So also did the Siennese to some extent, but they cared more for the expression of the spiritual than the beauty of the natural. The Florentines were robust, resolute, even a little coarse at times; the Siennese were more refined and sentimental. Their fancy ran to sweetness of face rather than to bodily vigor. Again, their art was more ornate, richer in costume, color, and detail than Florentine art; but it was also more finical and narrow in scope.
There was little advance upon Byzantinism in the work of Guido da Sienna (fl. 1275). Even Duccio (1260?——?), the real founder of the Siennese school, retained Byzantine methods and adopted the school subjects, but he perfected details of form, such as the hands and feet, and while retaining the long Byzantine face, gave it a melancholy tenderness of expression. He possessed no dramatic force, but had a refined workmanship for his time—a workmanship perhaps better, all told, than that of his Florentine contemporary, Cimabue. Simone di Martino (1283?-1344?) changed the type somewhat by rounding the form. His drawing was not always correct, but in color he was good and in detail exact and minute. He probably profited somewhat by the example of Giotto.
The Siennese who came the nearest to Giotto’s excellence were the brothers Ambrogio (fl. 1342) and Pietro (fl. 1350) Lorenzetti. There is little known about them except that they worked together in a similar manner. The most of their work has perished, but what remains shows an intellectual grasp equal to any of the age. The Sienna frescos by Ambrogio Lorenzetti are strong in facial character, and some of the figures, like that of the white-robed Peace, are beautiful in their flow of line. Lippo Memmi (?-1356), Bartolo di Fredi (1330-1410), and Taddeo di Bartolo (1362-1422), were other painters of the school. The late men rather carried detail to excess, and the school grew conventional instead of advancing.
TRANSITION PAINTERS: Several painters, Starnina (1354-1413), Gentile da Fabriano (1360?-1440?), Fra Angelico (1387-1455), have been put down in art history as the makers of the transition from Gothic to Renaissance painting. They hardly deserve the title. There was no transition. The development went on, and these painters, coming late in the fourteenth century and living into the fifteenth, simply showed the changing style, the advance in the study of nature and the technic of art. Starnina’s work gave strong evidence of the study of form, but it was no such work as Masaccio’s. There is always a little of the past in the present, and these painters showed traces of Byzantinism in details of the face and figure, in coloring, and in gold embossing.
Gentile had all that nicety of finish and richness of detail and color characteristic of the Siennese. Being closer to the Renaissance than his predecessors he was more of a nature student. He was the first man to show the effect of sunlight in landscape, the first one to put a gold sun in the sky. He never, however, outgrew Gothic methods and really belongs in the fourteenth century. This is true of Fra Angelico. Though he lived far into the Early Renaissance he did not change his style and manner of work in conformity with the work of others about him. He was the last inheritor of the Giottesque traditions. Religious sentiment was the strong feature of his art. He was behind Giotto and Lorenzetti in power and in imagination, and behind Orcagna as a painter. He knew little of light, shade, perspective, and color, and in characterization was feeble, except in some late work. One face or type answered him for all classes of people—a sweet, fair face, full of divine tenderness. His art had enough nature in it to express his meanings, but little more. He was pre-eminently a devout painter, and really the last of the great religionists in painting.
The other regions of Italy had not at this time developed schools of painting of sufficient consequence to mention.