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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Italian Painting of the Later Middle Ages

Until the late eleventh century, southern Italy occupied the western border of the vast Byzantine empire. Even after this area fell under Norman rule in about 1071, Italy maintained a strong link with Byzantium through trade, and this link was expressed in the art of the period. Large illustrated Bibles (“giant Bibles”) and Exultet Rolls—liturgical scrolls containing texts for the celebration of Easter, produced in the Benevento region of southern Italy—enjoyed great popularity from about 1050 onward. Miniature illustrations in the Bibles, which relate to contemporary monumental wall paintings produced in Rome, were strongly influenced by early Christian painting cycles from Roman churches. After the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by Christian armies of the Fourth Crusade, precious objects from Byzantium made their way to Italian soil and profoundly influenced the art produced there, especially the brightly colored gold-ground panels that proliferated during the thirteenth century. A Madonna and Child (60.173) by Berlinghiero, the foremost painter of the period working in the Tuscan city of Lucca, is one such example: in this panel, the Madonna gestures solemnly toward the infant Christ, depicted as a miniature adult, who wears a philosopher’s robes and gestures in blessing. This composition is of the Byzantine type known as the Hodegetria, which may be translated as “One Who Shows the Way,” as the Madonna points to Christ as the way to salvation. Starburst-like ornaments at the crown of the Madonna’s head and on her right shoulder (a third would have appeared on her left shoulder, here concealed by the figure of Christ) are also traditional Byzantine motifs, symbolizing Mary’s virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ.

At the end of the thirteenth century and beginning of the fourteenth, three great masters appeared who changed the course of painting: the Florentine Giotto di Bondone (1266/76–1337), the Roman Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1240–after ca. 1330), and the Sienese Duccio di Buoninsegna (active ca. 1278–1318). Giotto’s figures are volumetric rather than linear, and the emotions they express are varied and convincingly human rather than stylized (11.126.1). He created a new kind of pictorial space with an almost measurable depth. With Giotto, the flat world of thirteenth-century Italian painting was transformed into an analogue for the real world, for which reason he is considered the father of modern European painting. Duccio, founder of the Sienese school of painting, brought a lyrical expressiveness and intense spiritual gravity to the formalized Italo-Byzantine tradition. In a small devotional panel of the Madonna and Child (2004.442), Duccio bridged the gap between the spiritual world of the figures and the real world of the viewer by means of an illusionistic parapet, among the first of its kind in Western painting. Other exceptional artists who painted during this period were Taddeo Gaddi (1997.117.1), Maso di Banco (43.98.13), Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti (2002.436; 13.212), and Simone Martini (1975.1.12; 41.100.23). Simone Martini added an elegance and refinement to the spare form of Giotto’s art. Pietro Lorenzetti, a pupil of Duccio, produced works innovative in their imaginative detail and expressive naturalism (2004.442).

At the start of the fourteenth century, elements of the Gothic style that emerged in twelfth-century France began to appear in Italian painting: architectural motifs such as the pointed arch, a refined delicacy of detail, increased naturalism, and an emphasis on fluid form. By mid-century, a surge of artistic output concentrated in central Italy integrated new ideals into earlier modes of depiction. The Byzantine devotional image of the Galaktotrophousa, or Virgo Lactans, which depicts the Madonna nursing the Christ Child, achieves a new elegance in Sienese master Paolo di Giovanni Fei’s sumptuously detailed panel (41.190.13). Bartolo di Fredi referred to pictorial traditions of both East and West in The Adoration of the Shepherds (25.120.288), in which the stable of Christ’s nativity is set into a cave. The artist used this projecting structure to experiment with perspective and the conveyance of spatial depth.

The technique of fresco painting, known from antiquity and especially popular in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, was used to decorate the walls and ceilings of churches, public buildings, and private dwellings.

The bare wall was first dampened and coated with a layer of coarse lime plaster, called arriccio, on which the design was drawn or brushed in red earth pigment (sinopia). The overall composition was painted in sections known as giornate—Italian for “a day’s work.” Each of these sections was composed of a smooth plaster layer called intonaco. Pigments diluted in water were applied directly to the wet intonaco; as the plaster dried, a chemical reaction bound the pigment to it. Embellishments applied to a dry wall—fresco a secco (secco is the Italian word for dry)—are far less durable, as the paint tends to flake off over time. Fresco is vulnerable to moisture and may be damaged in a cool, damp environment; the arid Mediterranean climate is favorable for its preservation.

The medium of fresco enabled artists to depict complex narratives, and to experiment with depth and spatial relationships. They were often painted in a series, or cycle, for a single space. Usually fresco cycles consisted of scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the saint to whom a church or monastery was dedicated. Between 1253 and 1340, many of the outstanding artists of the period, including Cimabue and Giotto, contributed frescoes depicting episodes from the life of Saint Francis (1181–1226) to his basilica at Assisi. Chapels dedicated to other saints are part of the basilica. One, dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, bears ten frescoes by Simone Martini, exquisite in their rich characterization, coloration, and detail. They are among the greatest examples of the Sienese master’s oeuvre, and some of the finest frescoes produced in fourteenth-century Italy.

About 1303, the Paduan nobleman Enrico Scrovegni commissioned Giotto, renowned as the greatest painter of his day, to fresco the Arena Chapel in Padua. In cycles depicting scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ, Giotto’s naturalism, compositional clarity, and the volumetric, sculptural presence of his figures combine in scenes of unprecedented drama. These frescoes were widely praised for their innovation by Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch; along with Giotto’s fresco cycles for the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels at Santa Croce in Florence—remarkable for their ambitious description of space and scale—they are masterworks that influenced two centuries of artists (1971.115.1ab).

Panel Painting
Through the fourteenth century, the primary support for portable paintings—from monumental church altarpieces to diminutive works used in private devotion—was the wooden panel. Masters were assisted by pupils and workshop members in their lengthy and complex preparation. Modern technical analysis and x-radiography have deepened our understanding of this process, allowing for a close examination of the materials and techniques used by the artist. The basis of our knowledge, however, is a 600-year-old source: a treatise on the art of painting called Il Libro dell’arte, composed about 1390 by the Italian painter Cennino Cennini (ca. 1370–ca. 1440).

A seasoned plank—one that had been allowed to dry out for some time—was first layered with several coats of size, a glue made from animal skins. In Italy, the planks used for panel paintings were often made of native poplar, a widely available wood that was, however, soft and vulnerable to warping. A piece of linen soaked in size was often laid over the front of the panel to conceal any surface flaws. Over this, coats of gesso were applied. Gesso, a mixture of powdered calcium sulfate (commonly called gypsum) and animal glue, provided the ground for preliminary drawings.

When the underdrawing was complete, the panel was ready for gilding. Areas to be gilded were prepared with a layer of bole, a reddish clay that provided an adhesive surface for fragile gold leaf. The gold leaf was made by pounding a small amount of gold into thin sheets, which were then applied to the panel using a tool called a gilder’s tip. The gilded surface was rubbed with a hard-tipped instrument to smooth and polish the gold leaf, a process known as burnishing. Additional decoration could be incised or stamped into the surface using metal rods, called punches, with patterns cut into one end. The tip of the punch, placed against the panel and struck from the other end with a mallet, pressed the design into the wood. Punching was often used to achieve the intricately detailed haloes surrounding the heads of holy figures. Finally, the panel could be painted. Medieval artists used tempera paints, made by mixing ground pigments with egg yolk. This medium produces a brilliant, pure hue.

Many paintings of this period have engaged frames made of wooden strips attached to the outside edge of the panel, some examples of which survive (2004.442; 41.190.13). Original frames may sometimes bear hinge marks, indicating that the work was once part of a diptych or triptych, designed to be closed. Independent panels were often used on private altars in a domestic setting.

For large church altarpieces, it was necessary to join together independently painted panels with an elaborate frame. Usually, the Madonna and Child were shown on the main panels, flanked by saints and apostles, identifiable by their attributes. A strip of smaller panels—called the predella—at the bottom of the altarpiece depicted additional figures or narrative episodes from the life of Christ, Mary, or the saints (43.98.6).