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Nicola and his pulpit for Pisa: 1259

In the mid-13th century the cathedral authorities in Pisa commission a pulpit for their baptistery. The sculptor is Nicola, from southern Italy but now living in Pisa and so known as Pisano. In his youth he may have been influenced by the classicizing ideas of the emperor Frederick II, who encourages architects and artists in his realms to look to antique models.

Certainly this is what Nicola does when designing the reliefs for his Pisa pulpit, completed in 1259. There are plenty of ancient sarcophagi around to inspire him. His Virgin Mary, in scenes such as the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi, is a powerfully sculpted figure. But she looks for all the world like a Roman matron.

Nicola follows his success in Pisa with another pulpit in a similar style for the cathedral in Siena, completed in 1268. And his son, Giovanni Pisano, later produces a magnificent pulpit for the cathedral in Pisa, more than rivalling his father's in the baptistery.

These later pulpits of father and son have a more expressive quality. They avoid the direct, even blunt, borrowing of antique forms seen in the Pisa baptistery pulpit. Such an evident interest in the classical past will not reappear until Brunelleschi. But Nicola demonstrates that in this matter the early masters of the Renaissance cannot claim absolute priority.

The Scrovegni Chapel: 1300-1310

In 1300 Enrico degli Scrovegni, son of a rich banker, buys the derelict site of an old Roman arena in Padua. On it he builds a house for himself and a chapel. Variously known now as the Scrovegni Chapel or Arena Chapel (from its site), this little building is the first great milestone in Italian art and an early pointer in the direction of the Renaissance.

The reason is that the frescoes on its walls are the chief masterpiece of Giotto. The artist is already working in a Franciscan church in Padua, probably in about 1305, when Scrovegni employs him for his arena project.

Giotto undoubtedly uses assistants, for the sequence of frescoes - covering every inch of the interior walls - is completed in about two years. But the detailed schematic arrangement is entirely his, together with the greater part of the painting.

The brilliance of the scheme is that the entire gospel story of the Holy Family, spanning three generations (the Virgin's parents, the Virgin herself and Jesus) is told with great clarity and drama in the panels which run, like a strip cartoon, in three rows along the walls. The Annunciation has the central position at the top of the east wall, but this is also its correct place in the narrative sequence.

The genius of Giotto

The elegance of the chapel's overall scheme would be nothing without the power of the paintings themselves. Giotto's genius is revealed both in his way of dramatising each moment and in his treatment of the figures. Each panel is like a small stage on which the artist arranges the players to reveal the drama, just as a director would in the theatre.

But these are painted people, unable to move. In the earlier Byzantine tradition a virtue is made of this limitation. Byzantine figures are richly static, as if selecting and holding a significant expression or gesture. Giotto loses none of the solemnity of Byzantine art, but he adds solidity.

Giotto achieves a three-dimensional quality, a sense of depth and space, by his unprecedented use of modelling, shadow and perspective. These skills in themselves makes his people appear more real, but Giotto's sturdy approach to the human face and body adds another new element.

His people are more than real. They have a heroic stillness, a superhuman quality which becomes a characteristic of Italian Renaissance art - seen over the next 250 years in artists such as Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and Michelangelo.

The final magical ingredient of these frescoes is an implied sense of movement. Artists have often found ways of depicting limbs in action, as far back as the bullfighting acrobat in Minoan Crete. But Giotto's secret is different. His hint of movement is that of a coiled watch spring. He freezes his figures just when the energy is already in place for the next moment.

Numerous good examples could be found in the Scrovegni Chapel. My own favourite, perhaps, would be the mother of the Virgin gently pushing the young girl up the steps for her presentation in the temple.

In addition to the originality of Giotto's work, the chapel points to the future in another way. Scrovegni himself is painted by Giotto, at the base of the Last Judgement on the west wall, presenting his chapel to three female saints. Rich private donors, keeping company with saints, will become a feature of Renaissance art. Scrovegni is one of the first.

He has good reason to wish to be seen in holy company, for his wealth derives from his father's sin of usury. The chapel is an expiation for that sin. Scrovegni would surely be astonished to know how much credit has accrued to his family name over the centuries, thanks to his father's tainted money and his own immaculate taste.

Duccio and the Maestà in Siena: 1308-1311

In the same decade as Giotto's chapel in Padua, another masterpiece of Christian narrative is created in Siena. In 1308 the cathedral authorities commission from Duccio the great altarpiece now known as the Maestà ('Majesty').

The tradition of the altarpiece, with panels depicting holy figures, goes back many centuries to the lavish blend of gold and jewels and enamelled scenes favoured by Byzantine emperors for the altars of their churches. In those cases the scenes depicted are simple. But Duccio, like Giotto in Padua, undertakes something much more ambitious - an account, in narrative scenes, of the whole Christian story.

Duccio has only two sides of a great screen to decorate (the development of the ambulatory behind the altar means that pilgrims can marvel at both back and front), whereas Giotto has all the walls of a chapel. But the Sienese painter boldly undertakes even more scenes than his rival. There are about 40 narrative panels in Padua and nearly 60 in Siena, reinforcing the great central scene of the Virgin and Child enthroned.

Duccio and his assistants work as fast as the team in Padua in their creation of this marvellous object. The documents reveal that on 9 June 1311 it is carried in a joyous musical procession from Duccio's studio to the cathedral - where it remains on show nowadays in a specially built museum.

Duccio's treatment of the people in the gospel story shares the new realism of Giotto, though the overall style of these panels with their gilded backgrounds has elements of the Byzantine tradition of Christian art.

With these masterpieces in Padua and Siena, Italian painters bring to a new peak two great traditions of Christian art - the fresco cycle and the altarpiece. The panels in later frescoes become larger, eventually filling the whole wall (as, for example, in Raphael's Stanze in Rome). In altarpieces, by contrast, the narrative subsequently shrinks to a few incidents in the predella, allowing maximum emphasis on the central scene of the Virgin and Child or of the Crucifixion.

Duccio's work contains elements of two styles which will later go their separate ways, each bringing results of great beauty. The chunky realistic quality which he shares (to a lesser degree) with Giotto reappears a century later in the work of Masaccio, leading to a strong native Italian tradition. Meanwhile a more refined and slender quality in some of Duccio's figures is developed by Simone Martini, the greatest Sienese painter of the next generation and possibly trained in Duccio's studio.

Simone's Annunciation in the Uffizi is a good example of this refined style, which by the end of the 14th century is popular throughout Europe - becoming known later as International Gothic.

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