From Chapter 1, "Body and Soul":
“Renaissance” means rebirth. The word was originally invented, in Italy, to name a thrilling and potent fantasy. Those who first dreamed of a Renaissance - or Rinascita, as it is in Italian - wished to revive the spirit of classical antiquity after what they believed to have been centuries of cultural darkness. They longed to resuscitate the literature, the art and the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome.
During the course of almost half a millenium, the term which they used to put their fantasy into words - “Renaissance”, that rousing metaphor, devised to express a powerful and in many respects unfulfillable yearning - has gained widespread acceptance as a term of neutral historical description. It is now not uncommon to find the entire period between 1400 and 1600 referred to, en bloc, as “The Renaissance”. Thus has a colourful figure of speech been thrown over two centuries of European history. Like most blanket terms it conceals much error, mingled deceptively with some truth. It cannot be done away with but it has to be redefined.
Certain elements of the story of the Renaissance, as handed down by historical consensus, are undeniable. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, throughout the Italian peninsula, certain scholars and writers, politicians and princes, artists and architects, maguses and other men of learning became convinced that they were, indeed, living through a period of classical renewal. They hunted out ancient texts. They wrote Ciceronian speeches. They composed what they hoped might pass for Virgilian epic verse. They attempted to decipher and analyse the philosophy of Plato. They pored over the works of the Greek geometricians and astronomers. They studied the ruins of classical antiquity and brought the language of classical architecture back into use. They emulated classical sculpture. They attempted to revive what they imagined the lost traditions of classical painting to have been.
By the middle of the sixteenth century it was quite plain to the Florentine painter and gentleman, Giorgio Vasari, as he sat down to write the earliest systematic work of art history, that the cultural rebirth for which earlier generations had laboured had actually come to pass. In his pioneering three-volume history of the fine arts, The Lives of the Artists, Vasari set out to describe what he called “the progress of the Renaissance of the arts, and the perfection to which they have attained in our own time.” In his hands, the myth of the Renaissance was, itself, also polished to a kind of perfection.
Vasari’s account, while long and full of entertaining circumstantial detail, was in its broad outlines impressively clearcut. Long ago there had been the first, golden age of the ancients: a time when, in Greece and Rome, a multitude of great works of painting, sculpture and architecture had been created. This was succeeded by a period of destruction and loss, the chief engine of which was “the fervent enthusiasm of the new Christian religion.” With great diligence, according to Vasari, the early Christians “ruined or demolished all the marvellous statues, besides the other sculptures, the pictures, mosaics and ornaments representing the false pagan gods… These things were done not out of hatred for the arts but in order to humiliate and overthrow the pagan gods. Nevertheless, their tremendous zeal was responsible for inflicting severe damage on the practice of the arts, which then fell into total confusion.” This period of destruction and loss lasted for many centuries but then, finally, in Tuscany, art was rescued from this terrible state of affairs by a group of enlightened individuals who went back to the models of antiquity and to a more naturalistic portrayal of the world. Giotto, pupil of Cimabue, was the first of such men. Then came the generation of Florentines led by Donatello. Finally, art was brought to perfection by “the divine” Michelangelo - Vasari’s own mentor. Thus was the “Renaissance of the arts” complete.
But Vasari’s view of the patterns of historical and art historical development - which is still, after more than four centuries, extraordinarily influential - should be treated with caution. His picture of the Renaissance - as a return to the pure, Greco-Roman source of higher civilisation, a fresh start after more than a millenium of barbarism - is almost as misleading as it is tidy. Many popular misconceptions stem from it.
One of its chief flaws lies in the fact that it distorts the role played by Christianity in the development of art. Vasari placed a great deal of stress on the iconoclastic activities of the church’s early adherents. He did so partly perhaps because he feared a repeat of that destruction. His lifetime coincided with the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a period of extraordinarily energetic iconoclasm, which saw the religiously inspired destruction of tens of thousands of works of art across Northern Europe. It must have seemed entirely possible to Vasari that such activities would spread to Italy, and his magnum opus, the Lives of the Artists, may be regarded as, among other things, an attempt to record the achievements of the Italian Renaissance against the day when they, like the Greek and Roman masterpieces before them, might be destroyed by religious zeal. In stressing the dangers, to art, of certain types of Christian enthusiasm, Vasari failed however to acknowledge the other side of the coin - the positive, galvanic part played by the Church in the history of art down the centuries; its role as an agent of creativity, and fruitful change.
Vasari’s view of history also rested on a misconception of the relationship between the self-consciously new age of the Renaissance and the period which preceded it - the Dark Age, as Vasari saw it, being a time of more or less undifferentiated ignorance and cultural stasis, lit only by a few sparks of isolated individual genius (Giotto being the most notable of such sparks).
The truth is that the period preceding the fully-formed Renaissance of the textbooks - the period before that two-century slice from 1400 to 1600 - was itself witness to an upheaval in human sensibilities. It is impossible to appreciate the complex energies which animate a work of painting such as Masaccio’s Expulsion from Paradise - with its ugly, agonised, expressive figures - or a work of sculpture such as Donatello’s St John the Baptist - a figure of the prophet pulsating with inner mental energies - if you have been led to think of those masterpieces purely in terms of a classically inspired rejection of the medieval past. How “medieval”, indeed, these acknowledged masterpieces of “Renaissance” art can seem.
In many ways it makes more sense to think of the Renaissance itself as a culmination rather than a rebuttal of certain medieval tendencies. If no attempt is made to understand its complex origins, then the complexity, the richness and much of the beauty of its art will remain unappreciated and misunderstood. The way back to those origins is no straight Roman road leading directly to the classical past, but a more winding and circuitous route. All roads do not lead to Rome. This one begins (and ends) in Venice.
One of the most impressive monuments to the art and faith of the pre-Renaissance world is the great onion-domed cathedral of St Mark’s, in Venice. Built in the late eleventh century, it was created in large measure by master craftsmen from the Byzantine Empire, in the Near East. Much restored though it is, it remains a fundamentally Eastern cathedral, a Hagia Sophia on the fringes of the Adriatic. It is a testament to the closeness of the contacts between Eastern and Western branches of Christianity during the time of its making. Byzantine craftsmen were highly sought after in Venice, and here they created an interior of blazing Byazantine splendour.
On the inside it is a piece of architecture which seems more organic than planned, a kind of cave or grotto dedicated to the overwhelming of the senses. Look down and vision loses itself in the intricacies of its Cosmati-work floor. Look up and the eye is intoxicated by the dim burnished gold of million upon million mosaic tesserae, figuring host upon host of impressive but hieratic saints and angels.
The interior of St Mark’s speaks of a religious world in which the ambition to represent the natural world with any degree of accuracy, or to conjure believable images of man, would have seemed eccentric or pointless. This is because the theology of the period was focussed, essentially, on the transcendent and awesome otherness of God - and not on the brief interval when, in the figure of the mortal Christ, He took on human form. The images of God and his saints we see in St Mark’s were created in order to conjure up the awe-inspiring and mysterious nature of heaven itself. Here, relatively little emphasis was placed on the human dimension of the Christian story. Christ was represented in his triumphant, risen form - as Christ Pantocrator, all-powerful and dauntless, the master of human destiny. Mosaic was valued for its glittering, otherworldly qualities, and considered the most appropriate medium for the depiction of sacred mysteries, precisely because it created images so far removed from representations of mundane reality. The gold of Byzantium may have derived, ultimately, from the gold of ancient Egypt, where Greco-Byzantine painters had lived and worked from ancient times: so the hieratic golden transformation of the figure in Byzantine mosaics and paintings (where much gold leaf is used, in a technique known as chrysography) perhaps carries with it distant memories of the stiff and solemn gold-embossed mummies of the old Pharaohs.
By no means all of the art created in Italy during the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was as splendid as that created for the interior of St Mark’s. But nearly all of it did observe the same fundamentally non-naturalistic set of conventions. During the thirteenth century, however, an extraordinary change came over art on the Italian peninsula. Instead of depicting Christ the king, artists began to depict Christ the man, bloodied and suffering. Painting and sculpture were changed forever. It was at this moment that the true foundation stone of Renaissance art was laid. A single charismatic individual was largely responsible for bringing Christ down to earth, and for effecting this change - not an artist, but a man sometimes referred to by his followers as alter Christus, “the other Christ”. His name was Saint Francis of Assisi.
At the end of the twelfth century, when St Francis was born, Italy was in the throes of social change. In the late Middle Ages the Italian peninsula was the site of a sudden and huge expansion in banking, trade and the textile industry. This brought with it the reconstruction of great cities, the start of a genuinely bourgeois culture and the premonitory signs of the break-up of feudal society. It has been christened, not altogether inaptly, the Medieval Industrial Revolution. It brought extreme wealth to some - St Francis’s own father was a wealthy cloth merchant - and it also altered the fabric of human experience. This was a period which witnessed the first systematic recovery of urban life since the days of the Roman Empire. The textile industry required a workforce on a huge scale to maintain profitable production, and cities on a large scale sprang up to serve it.
This was a moment of social expansion and change but it was also a moment of social crisis. Tens of thousands of impoverished rural laboureres flooded towards the cities - the largest of which was Florence, its textile production and dying works served by the River Arno - where the slave wages on offer in the new industry were preferable to the complete uncertainty of life lived on the land. There was, at the start of this process, nowhere for this horde of people to live in the old medieval rabbit warrens of streets that made up the towns of the time. Initially, they made vast rudimentary encampments outside the city walls.
There was no existing mechanism for the care - and, perhaps just as important to those who employed them, the control - of such a mass of people. The church of the time was ill-equipped to minister to their needs and found itself quite unable to cope. It was this spiritual and social void that the mendicant friars, such as Saint Francis and other charismatic preachers such as his contemporary St Dominic, set out to fill. They took Christ’s message to the new urban poor, huddled in their shanty towns around the city gates - as well as to the newly rich within the city walls. The friars represented a new breed of aggressive, ascetic, itinerant holy man - who went out into the world to reclaim it for God rather than retiring into enclosed monasteries to do His work.
Largely under the impetus of the Dominicans and Franciscans, the early thirteenth century saw a church-building boom to cater for the new urban congregations. The most famous Franciscan church - the richest, the most splendidly decorated, the most frequently visited and the most hallowed - is the cathedral of San Francesco built after the saint’s death in his home town of Assisi. It is also, however, the least characteristic of the great Franciscan foundations, being a shrine to an individual rather than a building designed to save and serve the masses. Despite its splendour, a much stronger sense of what St Francis and Franciscanism were truly about is conveyed by a Franciscan church such as Santa Croce in Florence. These were working churches. They are big but not especially finely worked, with thin walls and simple wooden roofs. They had to be large, to accommodate the masses who came to hear the friars preach; and since literally hundreds of such buildings were required, by the social conditions of the day, they had to be inexpensive and quick to build. Nowadays the interior of Santa Croce is lined with splendid marble tombs to illustrious Florentines, but originally the effect would have been much plainer, all the decoration having once consisted of paintings carried out in the cheap and fast-worked medium of fresco, or coloured plaster. The traces of such work still survive in fragments around the edges of the tombs but the best place to appreciate the original effect of the decoration is in the apse, where the original frescoes remain intact, albeit faded - a world of vivid images designed to communicate the stories of the Christian faith to a congregation which could neither read nor write.
The Franciscan churches were always built on the edge of town, the better to minister to those living, in their makeshift dwellings, on the margins of the city. This can be hard to appreciate today, now that the cities which they once bordered have expanded to contain them. But the original relationship of church to city has been accidentally preserved in Pistoia, where the church of San Francesco is abutted by the main bus station, a large square inhabited, at night, by a population of modern transients; while in Florence the links are preserved in the very architecture of Santa Croce’s surroundings. The line of houses facing the church, punctured by narrow winding streets, was once the boundary of the town.
The frenzy of Franciscan church-building may be traced directly back to the events of his short life, which entered legend, thanks to his disciples, almost as soon as he had died. He was born in 1181, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, but before he reached his mid-twenties he had renounced all worldly goods in order (as he put it) “to wed Lady Poverty”. One day in 1205 he had a vision in the ruined Church of San Damiano in Assisi. Standing in this small dark cell of a church, before a plain wooden panel painting of Christus Triumphans, Christ triumphant upon the cross - the picture survives but has since been moved to Santa Chiara in Assisi - Francis experienced a vision. The figure of Christ seemed to speak to him: “Don’t you see that my house is falling down? Go and build it up again.” Out of that one, small, tumbledown church, where Christ had seemed to speak would come a host of other churches. Out of that one speaking image there would come a great flood of other images, adorning the great wall spaces of Franciscan architecture.
At first, Francis acted literally on the instructions of the speaking image, and began to repair ruined churches using money derived from the sale of bales of his father’s cloth. He was summoned by the Bishop of Assisi and reprimanded for damaging his father’s livelihood. Francis’s response was to renounce worldly goods and his earthly father. He modelled his life, from then on, on that of the Saviour. He and those who followed him followed strict ideals of poverty and humility, emulating Christ and his Apostles. Francis became a travelling preacher, going as far as Syria to preach his faith to the unconverted. He offered to demonstrate the power of his belief to the Sultan of Egypt by walking through fire.
Thomas Celano, in the first biography of Francis, begun just two years after his death, recalled the effect which the experience before the crucifix in San Damiano had on him: “he found himself other than he had been when he entered … he became almost deranged … he felt that the change he had undergone was beyond expression.” It is significant that Francis’s first revelation should have been prompted by the sight of a work of art. He felt that images could bring men closer to God, and much of his preaching was fervently visual - acted out as well as spoken. He himself was an artist, a performer, whose entire existence was consecrated to a startlingly vivid imitation - the imitationes Christi, or imitation of Christ. His sermons were delivered in the plain and unadorned speech of ordinary men and punctuated by extraordinary coups-de-theatre designed to provoke a kind of visionary sympathy with the sufferings of Christ - a visceral, not merely intellectual, appreciation of the extent of God’s self-sacrificing love for man. One day in the main city square of Assisi he gave a sermon on Christ’s suffering to the assembled townspeople, at the end of which he asked them to remain where they were. He then went into the church of San Rufino and took off his habit, ordering one of his followers, Brother Pietro, “to drag him naked in front of the people, with the cord he had round his neck. He commanded another friar to take a bowl filled with ash, climb onto the platform from which he had been preaching, and from there to throw and pour it onto his head.”
Francis’s love of theatre was part of his desire for a felt rather than a reasoned faith. Three years before his death he was spending Christmas near the village of Greccio, in Umbria, when he told another of his followers, Brother John Velitta: “This Christmas I would really like to bring home to the people of Greccio what the birth of Christ at Bethlehem was like. They ought to see how poor he was, lying there on straw, with the ox and the ass beside him.” Francis devised a vivid sculptural assemblage, a three-dimensional mock-up of the scene of the nativity. He ordered a crib to be made, and had models of Joseph and Mary and the Christ child, fashioned in as lifelike a manner as possible, placed within it. On Christmas night the local people were invited to worship and they came bringing torches. Francis sang the Christmas gospel and spoke to the people of the birth of Christ and the gift of the grace of God. Those who were there noticed that every time he said the name of Jesus he seemed to fall into a trance of love. Every time he said the word Bethlehem he bleated like a lamb.
Francis’s teaching was rooted in pathos, so he emphasised Christ at his most vulnerable, focussing on the Nativity and the Passion, Baby Jesus and Christ on the Cross - an emphasis which would be followed by the Catholic Church and its artists for centuries. The most extreme instance of Francis’s passionate identification with Christ’s suffering on the Cross is his reception of the stigmata - the moment when, according to his followers, the bleeding wounds of Crucifixion were burned into his hands and feet by a Christ-like figure who appeared to him in a vision.
However the stigmata came about, this particular episode goes to the heart of St Francis’s electrifying brand of piety. He received the stigmata when he was alone, fasting and meditating in the wilderness. Although he mortified the flesh and denied his own body, Saint Francis never the less managed to put the body - suffering and agonised though it was - centre stage. The intense physicality of so much Western art, its morbidity and its eros, may be traved in some degree back to the example of Francis.
During and immediately after the saint’s own lifetime, the new piety spread by his followers profoundly changed the character of art and architecture throughout the Italian peninsula. His intense identification with Christ, and with the human dimensions of the Christian story, led directly to a new and insistent physicality in Italian art. Painters were encouraged to do - within their own sphere of activity - what Francis had done. They were to move their audiences, to make scripture visible and apprehensible. Francis, receiving the stigmata, had bled. Now art bled too.
The impact of the Franciscan movement on painting in Italy in the thirteenth century - the Dugento, as it is known in Italy - was most immediately and graphically apparent in pictures of Christ on the Cross. One way of seeing and thinking about the Saviour was displaced by another. Earlier Italian depictions of the crucifixion- such as the one in San Damiano before which Francis underwent his mystical experience - depict the traditional Christus Triumphans of the Italo-Byzantine style, a Christ who has transcended his human suffering and looks out calmly from the cross with his head held high. During the early decades of the thirteenth century, under the influence of the new Franciscan spirituality, this vision of Christ fell out of favour. Painters began, instead, to paint a more mortal Christ, a Christ suffering in torment on the cross - just as Francis had conjured him up in his sermons and theatrical performances.
There is a naturalistic imperative built into the very nature of the Franciscan sensibility, which demands sympathy with the mortal pains of Christ. To compare the San Damiano Christus Triumphans with one of the most emotional of the new Crucifixions, that by Coppo di Marcovaldo, preserved in the Pinacoteca at San Gimignano, is to measure the gap between the religious sensibilities of one era and another - to see, made visible forever, the difference between art before and after Francis. The bland, calm, complacently all-powerful Christ of San Damiano has given way to another, more disturbing and engaging figure. Coppo’s Christ is racked by pain and sorrow, his arms awkwardly outstretched, his tendons straining against his own weight, his body sagging and twisted to the left. His beard is flecked with sweat and his dark eyes are filled with an appalling pain. This was the face of the new art.
“Heed all these things as though you were present,” wrote the author of the most influential thirteenth-century Franciscan tract, The Meditations on the Life of Christ, written at about the time when Coppo di Marcovaldo painted his crucifix. Coppo’s work of art was itself an attempt to enable the ordinary person to make precisely that leap of the imagination - to place himself or herself at the foot of the cross, in Golgotha, in year zero of the Christian faith, and to weep over the death of the God who became a man. On either side of the agonised body of the Lord, we see a series of small but harrowing vignettes from his last days, including The Betrayal, The Flagellation, and a touching if imperfectly preserved Lamentation in which Mary presses her cheek to the cheek of her dead son as he lies on the ground, as if hoping to revive his cold body with the warmth of her own. The Franciscan faith did not only revolutionise the image of Christ; it also gave an entirely new status and urgency to narrative art. Emphasis was placed, in particular, on the Passion of Christ, on his humiliation and isolation and suffering in the days leading up to his death.
The extreme nature of this great shift in sensibilities should not be underestimated. It is not only the “historical background” to the Renaissance, as textbooks often express the matter, but a part of it. The rise of Franciscanism marks a sea-change in attitudes, and in that sea-change may be found the origins of many of the most distinctive impulses of Renaissance art. The notion that an enhanced realism, or an enhanced psychological penetration, or an enhanced persuasiveness might be desirable, in art - all these Renaissance articles of faith can demonstrably be shown to have been prefigured in the imperatives of Franciscan piety. Franciscanism was a credo which unleashed the imagination of artists, because it encouraged a certain independence of vision - an independence which has become deeply ingrained in the Western art tradition itself. It is sometimes thought that the Christian religion and the Renaissance were forces pulling against one another. As the role of Franciscan ideas in accelerating artistic change demonstrates, religion was one of the great driving forces behind the Renaissance - not the brakes, so to speak, but the motor.
Flesh and stone
Francis’s emphasis on the body penitential, the body bleeding and in pain, had just as powerful an effect on sculpture as on painting, and it led artists in thirteenth century Italy to look at the art of the past with a different eye. Roman sculpture acquired a new significanece for the artists of the thirteenth century. They looked at such art, however, not with the archaeological fascination of later, more self-consciously “Renaissance” artists and humanists - for the idea that classical antiquity represented a standard of taste and culture was yet to be stated, in their time. They looked at classical art in more practical terms and with a more straightforward voracity. Roman sculpture, which pitted real bodies one against another, contained many useful hints and suggestions for sculptors with the new Franciscan set of priorities in their heads. It became a kind of treasure house of suggestions, both physical and emotional. Wandering among the relics of antiquity, artists saw a world of possibilities for their own work : bodies sensual, bodies beautiful, bodies writhing, all ripe for transposition into the stories of the Christian faith.
Early in the second half of the thirteenth century Nicola Pisano carved an elaborate marble pulpit for the Baptistry in Pisa. It is the first and most compact example of what has been called Dugento classicism - a composite work of sculpture in which figures clearly modelled on those in ancient Roman art enact scenes from biblical legend. The Virgin in Pisano’s Adoration of the Magi, heavy and statuesque, with her straight Roman nose and impassive eyes, looks like a Juno who has mysteriously wandered into the wrong story. The three kings, with their neatly trimmed beards and swept-back wavy hair, are also derived from ancient Roman sarcophagi - many of which still line the walls of the medieval Campo Santo just a few hundred yards from the Baptistry in the centre of Pisa. Another and in some ways yet more striking instance of Pisano’s classicism is to be found in the form of his Daniel, who supports one of the corners of the pulpit on his shoulders. Modelled on an ancient statue of Hercules, he is one of the earliest heroic nude figures in Italian art, and thus may be said to inaugurate a tradition which would culminate in the gigantesque David of Michelangelo.
There is none the less a slightly awkward, inexpressive quality to the scenes on Nicola Pisano’s pulpit, as if he had not quite managed to internalise his influences when he created it. There is a new weight and solidity to these bodies, carved in relief, but they do not always relate dynamically to one another and the overall effect is occasionally flat. The pulpit is like a play written in a foreign language - a language which, the playwright senses, contains infinite possibilities, but in which he himself cannot quite attain eloquence. But the ambition behind it is unmistakeable - to find a way of making an art more naturalistic, more physically credible, more direct and more dramatic. That ambition would be more fully realised by Nicola’s son, Giovanni Pisano, in his masterpiece - the pulpit which he carved some 40 years later, during the early years of the fourteenth century, for Pisa Cathedral.
Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit, like his father’s in the neighbouring Baptistry, is also supported by a number of nude and heroic figures, each of which displays a strong consciousness of the forms and the emotional possibilities latent in Roman art. Giovanni Pisano looked not only to Rome for inspiration, but also to recent developments in Northern art, which had undergone its own naturalistic revolutions in the thirteenth century. It seems very likely that he was inspired by the vigorous, highly realised sculpture of the great French Gothic cathedrals as well as by the sarcophagi in the Campo Santo. He must also have been influenced by the agonised physiques in thirteenth-century paintings of the Crucifixion. This complex web of influences all converged to one end in his work - a dramatic heightening of actuality and feeling. The body antique and the body ascetic have merged into one.
It was Giovanni Pisano, more than any other artist, who brought Italian sculpture to life in the age of affective piety. The reliefs on the Pisa Baptistry pulpit are among the most original narrative works of European sculpture. The Nativity recalls Francis’s determination, “to bring home to the people of Greccio what the birth of Christ at Bethlehem was like.” That is precisely what Pisano showed the people. Pisano also showed them Mary’s tender joy in her swaddled child, and the baby’s own sleepy vulnerability. The infant Christ appears twice within the panel, once sleeping, once being washed; and in the second vignette, where he sits supported within the crook of Mary’s arm, Pisano has brilliantly captured the creased, solemn, comical, dopey, myopic, heavy-headed essence of a newborn child. The landscape in which the artist set his scene has been imagined with startling fullness and clarity, a compendium of visual detail in which we see sheep grazing and shepherds standing and a dozing dog curled up into a ball. Pisano revels in the plenitude of the Creation, showing a joy in the making of his fictive world which both embodies anmd communicates the joyfulness of his biblical theme. All here seems fresh and newborn, touched with grace; this is a world charged with the vital impulse. Pisano’s style itself has an organic character in this relief. The art historian John White has compared it to “a vine heavy with fruit”. The determination to place a scene within a landscape as fully realised as this was new in Italian art, and here too Francis may have played a role. His ecstatic joy in nature, expressed most vividly in the famous canticle to Brother Sun, encouraged artists to pay a different quality of attention to the visible world.
Pisano was not lacking in a tragic sense. The Crucifixion on his great pulpit is a depiction of the three crosses on Calvary with the good and bad thieves flanking Christ above a milling crowd of onlookers. Mary faints dead away as Roman soldiers break the legs of the thieves. The Apostles reach up towards the horribly suffering figure of the dying Christ, whose skin is stretched to the thinnest of membranes over the cage of his chest and whose bony arms have been almost pulled from their sockets by the tugging weight of his torso. The scene is crowded with figures, each of whom - with the exception of the single, unpleasantly meticulous soldier piercing Jesus’s side with a now-broken spear - expresses a different version of the same compassion or despair.
Pisano’s influence was felt throughout Italy during the early years of the fourteenth century. One of the most memorable reflections of the new religious and artistic sensibility during the century after Francis’s death was Lorenzo Maitani’s series of marble reliefs which decorate the pilasters on the facade of Orvieto Cathedral. Begun in circa 1310 - just as Giovanni Pisano was finishing his great pulpit for Pisa Cathedral - and completed in 1330, the reliefs represent stories from the Old and New Testament. Like his Pisan predecessors Maitani was fruitfully aware of the example of ancient Roman art. His decision to do away with conventional frames and to tell his stories in continuous, flowing bands of imagery is strikingly reminiscent of Trajan’s Column in Rome and it lends his work a foliate quality, making each of the pilasters a tree sprouting images. The most impressive and unpleasantly memorable scene at Orvieto is that of Hell in the relief depicting the Last Judgement. The damned writhe and strain against the demons and snakes that have come to torture them. There is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth and one unfortunate member of this cast of the damned has been part-swallowed by some curious kind of dragon. The scene greatly impressed Michelangelo and this figure, slumped in abjection and horror, stuck in his mind. He adapted it for the the figure of Christ in one of the last and greatest of his own works: the late, pathetic, unfinished Pieta in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence.
The Pisani, father and son, had a great influence not just on Italian sculptors but also on Italian painters, and especially on Giotto, who is often regarded as one of the founders of Western painting.
Giotto’s finest surviving works, a series of early fourteenth-century frescoes in the Arena Chapel, in Padua, brought Italian narrative painting to a new pitch of expression. The paintings in the Arena Chapel - so-called because it was built on the former site of the Roman arena in Padua - were commissioned from Giotto by Enrico Scrovegni, the wealthy son of a usurer. Scrovegni seems to have intended the chapel as an expiation of the sins of his father, which may explain its dedication to the Virgin of Charity. Giotto’s masterpiece, painted between approximately 1304 and 1312, was more than a skilful plea for a rich man’s soul. It was a grand, lucid summation of narrative developments in the fresco tradition that had developed and accelerated during the previous hundred years. Painting was still in the throes of great change at the turn of the fourteenth century. But from this flux, Giotto created a monument.
Although the Arena Chapel was a private commission, carried out for an unusually rich and prescient patron, it was shaped by the priorities of Franciscan piety just as surely as any of the ecclesiastical buildings of the mendicant expansion. Enrico Scrovegni had extremely close contacts with the Franciscan order, and the iconography of the Chapel was almost certainly worked out by a Franciscan monk. A barrel-vaulted stone rectangle, Scrovegni’s chapel consisted of nothing except walls to be painted, necessarily pierced by a couple of windows. It is the ne plus ultra of Italian architectural hospitality to fresco, being a box designed expressly for the graphic exposition of scripture. Here you can see and feel what a great painter, inspired by the Franciscan ideal of empathy with Christ, could achieve. Giotto projected his imagination on to every wall.Walking into the building is an almost overwhelming experience, like stepping into a cinema and finding that they are showing fifty films all at the same time.
The artist was required to paint scenes from The Life of the Virgin on the left hand wall, scenes from The Life of Christ on the right hand wall and The Last Judgement on the far wall above the altar. Giotto’s narrative and pictorial sense was strongly influenced by the Miracle Plays of his time, which were themselves deeply influenced by the Franciscan approach to the communication of scripture. He treated the space almost as if he were a playwright working in two dimensions. He reduced the complex narratives of apocryphal texts such as Jacopo de Voragine’s The Golden Legend - the main source for painters wishing to illustrate the life of the Madonna, to which no allusions are made in the New Testament - to strong and simple patterns of action.
In one of the earliest scenes from The Life of the Virgin Giotto was called upon to depict a convoluted tale from The Golden Legend in which Mary’s exiled father Joachim sought shelter with shepherds living in the wilderness. The artist reduced this story to a single dramatic scene in which two men in the middle of nowhere are suddenly confronted by a refugee. Joachim, head bowed, conscious of the humiliating nature of his request, stares down at the ground waiting for an answer. The shepherds’ dog, who jumps up to greet him, knows that Joachim is a holy man, blessed by God. But the shepherds themselves are still unsure of what to do. One glances at the other, his face furrowed by doubt, to see if his own suspicions about this stranger are shared. That glance, shot furtively sideways, is something which only Giotto, among the painters of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, could have invented.
Giotto simplified and reduced the elements of art in order to get to the centre of the emotions and meanings of the stories which he was given to depict. In a later scene from the Life of the Virgin we see Joachim embracing his wife before the gate to a city. Everything in the structure of the picture - a careful piece of asymmetry, in which the husband and wife have been placed to the left of the arch that frames a group of witnesses to their joy - concentrates attention on the hug that is its reason for being. The embracing figures of Joachim and Anna, gently inclined towards one another, absorbed in one another, are full of a tenderness which is all the more convincing for being so self-contained. Two draped columnar figures have become one. The fall of their robes, the touching of their faces, the linking of their arms and bodies, all are absorbed in a pattern of love.
While Giotto’s sense of drama was nourished by the sacred theatre and the sermons of his time, his sense of form was much influenced by contemporary sculpture. We know that the pulpits of the Pisani had greatly impressed him. The figures in Giotto’s art are full of life but they have been conceived as if they have a sculptural mass. Many of them have the “Roman” solidity, the slow solemn bulk of the figures in Nicola Pisano’s work. The sculptural gravitas of Giotto’s figures sets them apart from mundane existence, gives them a weight and a consequence that underlines the significance of the story being told. In the scene of the Flight into Egypt, Mary, riding her donkey side-saddle with the Christ child in her lap, has been given the grandeur of a great equestrian statue.
It has been well said that painters can be divided into two classes, those who make man light and those who make him heavy. Giotto belongs to the second category. He has a formidable sense of gravity. His people are statuesque, weighty presences, more solid-seeming than the world which they occupy, which is rendered in a deliberately schematic way. Giotto’s landscape is a bare place, a staged backdrop of mountains that look like icebergs, on which few trees grow. Likewise the buildings in which Giotto’s action takes place are not ornate but stereotypical. They are necessary settings - a portico, a gate, a manger - which have been made deliberately nondescript in character.
No attempt is made by the painter to adjust the scale of the figures to the scale of the architecture. Such a concession to merely mimetic ends would necessarily have diminished the figures in his art and that would have been unthinkable. The double scale, which remained a convention of Italian painting until the fifteenth century, simply gave visible form to the priorities of Giotto’s painting. (Its replacement during the Quattrocento by the convention of mathematically calculated linear perspective may be counted a loss as well as a gain.) Nothing, in Giotto, must detract from the narrative, so nothing inessential intrudes into his works.
Story is all, in this space, but narrative events are invariably tinged by a sense of ritual. Characters always seem aware of the momentousness of the actions in which they are engaged and this is part of what lends them their grave and solemn air. The apostles gathered around Christ in The Last Supper and The Washing of Feet have been made to seem powerfully if quietly conscious of the sacramental nature of that which they are witnessing. Even Giotto’s traitorous Judas embracing Christ - with a dreadful, clinging, unreciprocated hug which parodies that of Joachim and Anna on the opposite wall of the chapel - seems to know the enormity of what he has done. The Betrayal is a vile act formalised, given a kind of stateliness by the artist. It is an obscene rite.
Giotto’s dramaturgical focus was unwavering, but unlike many of the more nakedly emotive painters preceding him he had the ability to communicate with a nuance of expression or gesture. He showed artists the power of understatement. When he came to the climax of the cycle of The Life of Christ he depicted neither the Christus Triumphans of the pre-Franciscan tradition nor the Christus Patiens, the agonised Christ favoured by the painters of late thirteenth century Italy. Instead he simply painted Christ dead on the Cross, thin and white and just hanging there. It is a scene of aftermath to which all present respond with mingled pain and dignity. The Magdalen touches the blood oozing from Christ’s feet and begins to shudder, trying still to hold in her tears. Mary, fainting, her face impassive as she slips from consciousness, is supported by two apostles.
Even when he came to paint The Lamentation, the yet more sorrowful aftermath of this aftermath, and the true emotional climax of the entire sequence of frescoes, Giotto showed restraint. The grieving figures are not in paroxysms of sorrow. They have not lost control of themselves. The angels above seem to be in greater agonies. Christ, who once was upright, now lies stretched out on the ground. The redeeming tragedy is here expressed, with the utmost formal simplicity, as a shift in axis. A vertical has become a horizontal. This banal fact of death comes across so strongly partly because Giotto’s figures generally seem so upright that to see one any other way is extremely unsettling.
Giotto put so much feeling into the figures of the mourners, gathered around Christ, that they seem full, almost to overflowing, with an inner life. Giotto’s mastery of expression, here, plays against the statuesque qualities of his figures. Seeing them show such emotion is shocking. It is as if one were to see a statue cry, tears coursing down a stone face. In painting their grief, Giotto painted something more than grief alone. He painted man’s capacity for fellow feeling. Yet there is no hint of a resolution to the scene. By making this dreadful sorrow into a process, with no end in sight, Giotto invited - is still inviting - us to participate and show our own fellow feeling.
The grief of his figures seems mingled - absolutely bound up with- a quality of spiritual contemplation. By giving them this quality of contemplation, by making them at once actors in a scene and meditators upon it, Giotto has bridged the gap between art and the world. We too, the congregation before the picture, are invited to become witnesses to Christ’s death, to see and to feel its dreadfulness. It is as if his figures are responding to the scene on our behalf - are showing us the way to respond to the death of Christ, in the picture, and thereby allowing us in. There is a kind of openness about their faces, not exactly a blankness but an Everyman quality. They could be everyone, and by extension everyone could be them. Because Giotto’s art insists on including us it is still as harrowing as when it was first painted.
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: BBC Books (21 Oct 1999)
Product Dimensions: 25.6 x 19.3 x 2.8 cm