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The Early Italians
"Art and Life" is a programme created for the Ballan Community House.  Ballan is a town about 65 km north-west of Melbourne, Australia.

The six weekly sessions are intended to excite an interest in Art.  They are not a course in Art History although I hope to be accurate in everything I do.  There is a place on the site where you can let me know if you think you see an error or you wish to make a comment: simply go to "Contact me" on the Home Page.  

Let's get started.

The Early Italians- AD 500-1600
The Romans
The Romans began Italian Art as we know it. Though much copied from and influenced by the earlier Greeks, Roman art moved on both artistically and geographically and spread its architecture, sculpture, frescoes and painting around the Roman world. When the Roman Empire ended (around 450AD) the Romans had become the first art “internationalisers”.
Middle Ages (5th -16th c)
Generally during the middle ages Italian art became closely linked with public life as seen in its early emphasis on architecture and the growth of Italian cities. This period of nearly 1000 years also saw strong connections develop between religious life, intellectual life and art. Italian artists borrowed selectively from the Byzantine, northern Europe (The West) and of course from antiquity. A genuine veneration of Masters and masterpieces ensured that any new developments initially looked to the past. Thus whilst local art evolved to suit local imperatives, the Roman world was never entirely forgotten. 

We begin by sub-dividing the Middle Ages.
5th -9th Centuries
The end of the Roman Empire saw the emergence of medieval art and the obvious distancing of Italian art from its Roman beginnings. Northern influences (French, Flemish) became more prominent as did the Byzantine.
10th-11th Centuries
Ironically with the decline of Roman influences in art the Romanesque period returned to the rounded-arch style building of the Romans. Significant structures appeared, especially on the Italian peninsular. More importantly for our story, extensive decoration of buildings, both secular and religious, with fresco and mosaic became the norm. Another important influence was the dispute between the Holy Roman Empire and secular empires. The Crusades (13thc) provided more opportunities for artistic cross-fertilization and development.
13th -14thc- The Gothic Period
Italian art as we know it may be said to have begun around 1250. The Papacy was re-established in Rome and the Byzantine Empire had been partially over run. Constantinople had fallen in 1204. Byzantine and Gothic (northern European) influences began to make themselves felt, and church decoration became an important source of commissions, endeavour and innovation.
Renaissance-for our purposes emphasising the 15thc
After a period of instability in the church (the Pope ruled from Avignon for a period and indeed there was more than one Pope at times) Papal authority was re-established in the 15thc. This time, paradoxically, also saw the rise of the “City State” effectively ruled by powerful families, a notable example being Florence and the Medici family. These families and states saw the arts as a way of imposing their stamp on cultural development and money began to be spent on secular luxuries as well as the more pragmatic investment in religious and civic art. Italy became pre-eminent in European art during the renaissance.  Perspective became a matter for serious study.
Our interest is in painting so the remainder of what follows will emphasise this. We will proceed by selecting artists who worked in the period we are most interested in, discussing their painting style and how this follows from what you have already read .We are also interested in individual contributions to the history of Art. Remember though that we are also interested in the part art played in life and vice-versa, so be ready for a question at the end for discussion.
The Pictures

Cimabue: Florence (1240-1302)
Santa Trinity Madonna (425 x 243 cm) 1260-80 Tempora on panel
Uffizi Gallery Florence

Painted originally for the back of the high altar, Santa Trinity Church Florence

Tempora is paint made by grinding colours with glues and egg.

Cimabue worked in Florence and was amongst the first to move away from the flatness of the Byzantine style to a more naturalistic depiction.  He is said to have begun the Renaissance though this is disputed.  Many of the pictures attributed to Cimabue may not in fact be by him including this one.  Pictures from this period which show a trend away from the Byzantine have been attributed to Cimabue in the absence of evidence to attribute to anyone else.

The Virgin is shown in majesty as the Queen of Paradise.  She is flanked by angels  who appear tp present the Virgin and Child to the viewer. The founders of Christ's kingdom on earth are pictured below her: Jeremiah and Isaiah in the lateral arches and Abraham and King David in the arch below the throne.  The picture entered the Uffizi in 1903 and was restored in 1993.  The superimposing of figures lends depth to the painting as does the concave structure of the throne which has the effect of compressing the picture inwards.   

Duccio: Siena (1260-1318)
Rucellia Madonna (450 x 290cm)
Tempora on panel
Uffizi Gallery Florence

This picture-commissioned in 1285-is known to have been in the Rucellai Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence from 1591 to 1937.  Before that its location is unknown but it probably spent some time in Siena.  Fifteenth century commentators attributed the picture to Cimabue but there are sufficient differences to indicate a new hand, notably the Gothic influences in the throne and the flowing, gilded hem on the Virgin's gown. The throne has the slender verticals associated with northern influence and the double arch of the footrest carries Gothic authority.  As in the Cimabue, perspective is absent.

Duccio's style moved on from Cimabue in that he incorporated narrative into his pictures.  Here the Virgin and the angels are bound up together to form a dramatic image and the picture space is held together by the strong sinuous hemline of the Virgin's gown.  Emotion is conveyed in the faces and colour choice even though the image still subscribes to the Byzantine via the frame.  Duccio had a lasting influence on Sienese painting.

Giotto: Siena (1267-1337)
Orgissanti Madonna (325 x 204cm)
Tempora on panel
Uffizi Gallery Florence

Giotto was the giant of the early Renaissance.  He confirmed the portrayal of figures in a naturalistic way emphasising their three-dimensionality and he was equally at home in the mediums of fresco and panel painting using tempora.  He probably began his artistic life in Florence but moved around and created major works in other cities, notably a fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel Padua.  Giotto rephrased composition so that figures appear to have a "life" and he extended the narrative style seen in the previous picture by Duccio.  There is often a quiet majesty about Giotto's works, an understated monumentality which settles the devotional qualities of the picture in the mind of the observer.

This work shows the Virgin in Maesta (majestic and surrounded by saints and angels).  Depth is shown in the fully rounded figures and the perspective of the throne.  New colours are seen in the subtle violets and pinks and the Virgin looks out at us whilst her Child offers a encompassing blessing.  Unidentified Saints surrounding the central figures give the impression of three-dimensionality though the emphasis is always on the centre of the picture.  Gothic influences are obvious in the throne backing and the thin columns flanking the central figures.  Note the confused perspective.

Badia Polyptych (91 x 334cm) c1230
Tempora on five panels.
Uffizi Gallery Florence

This large church panel would have originally been seen behind the altar or along the front of the altar at the bottom. It comes originally from the Bardi Chapel, Church of Santa Croce, Florence and it shows all the features of Giotto's work.  You are invited to try and identify the figures on either side of the Madonna.  I can find St Peter (keys), possibly St Mark (gospel writer), perhaps St John the Baptist wearing a rough cloak and perhaps St Nicholas of Bari (often shown as a Bishop).  Let me know if you can do better than I have!

Ambrogio Lorenzetti Siena (1285-1348)
Presentation in the Temple (257 x 168cm) Signed and dated 1342
Tempora on panel
Uffizi Gallery Florence

In this picture Gothic style and perspective are secure.  The floor mosaic, slim, receding pillars and positioning of the figures lead us confidently into the picture.  Gothic columns and arches anchor the picture in its space.  Painted for Siena cathedral, the principal figures are the Virgin with St Joseph standing behind her and St Simeon holding the child, offering a blessing.  Anna, an Old Testament prophet stands to the right and the other female figure is possibly Mary Magdalene.  St Simeon's words: "Lord lettest now thy servant depart in peace according to thy word"  tell us of his fundamental spiritual satisfaction at having seen the Son of God.  The picture echos this satisfaction with its symmetry, magnificent colouring and brilliant composition.  Colouring helps re-inforce the picture's perspective with the brighter colours at the front of the picture and the darker colours at the back. 

The Lorenzetti brothers Pietro and Ambroglio both worked in the Sienese manner begun by Giotto.  Ambroglio's pictures tended to be less formal, figures are brighter and "move".  He was a perceptive observer of his fellow human and his painting style anticipated the full flowering of the Renaissance by 100 years.  The brothers were the first to incorporate scenery into their pictures.
Both painters probably perished in the Great Plague of 1348.

Masaccio: Rome (1401-1428)
Madonna and Child (25 x 18)
Tempora on Panel
Uffizi Gallery Florence

Dead at 27, Masaccio makes his debt to Giotto very clear.  Figures are rounded, natural and constructed firmly in three-dimensional space.  Masaccio used light to show the contours of the body yielding a variation of tone that defined the contours of the figures - he was the first to "paint" light in this way.  His figures have the Gothic monumentality of Giotto but because of his handling of light are more convincing though often somewhat severe.
The Virgin and Child was a common theme in Renaissance art.  Here Masaccio portrays the Child as he might have any baby; playfully grasping His mother's arms.  The Virgin's face is faintly troubled as she, perhaps, has a premonition of her Son's death.

Piero Della Francesca: Urbino, Florence etc (1415,1420-1492)
Diptych of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino (47 x 33) each panel Tempora on panel c1460?
Uffizi Gallery Florence

Much of Piero's work has been lost and this is the only picture by him in Florence. Influenced by Masaccio and other early Renaissance painters, he was apprenticed at 15 and is known to have been in Florence in 1439. He traveled extensively in Italy and was known as a mathematician as well as a painter and his work is characterised by vibrant use of colour, accurate use of perspective and large pastel areas which create a feeling of space and order. Piero was a humanist whose church commissions were completed to earn a living rather than from any religious conviction. His portraits are greatly influenced by antiquity.
These two head-and-shoulders portraits are quite small, but monumental and classically inspired never-the-less. Both profiles are down-to-earth, striking and presumably realistic. The figures face one another suggesting fidelity and partnership, and they dominate a pale scenic background rather than being placed indoors or surrounded by objects signifying status. Both portraits show attention to the light falling on each figure and this together with Botticelli's colour-schemes and geometrically inspired compositions broke new ground in Renaissance art.
The portraits have pictures on the back, each with a horse-drawn vehicle carrying the Duke or Duchess surrounded by paraphernalia indicating their status and achievement.

Sandro Botticelli: Florence (1445-1510)
La Primavera (Spring) (203 x 314cm) Tempora on panel c1499?
Uffizi Gallery Florence
Even today Botticelli (the little barrel) is seen as a somewhat eccentric painter. He absorbed all painterly developments up to his time and embarked on an almost whimsical celebration of the exotic with extravagant taste, decoration and flawless technique. He was patronised by the Medici family and created some of his greatest secular masterpieces for them including La Primavera and Botticelli was also  invited to Rome to assist in decorating the walls of the Sistine Chapel with frescoes.  Allegory has an important part in Botticelli's painting; indeed La Primavera is probably completely allegorical.
Eight figures are spread across the canvas in two subtle curves with Cupid hovering above. The most enigmatic of these enigmatic figures is Flores in the millefiori-patterned dress. They stand in a garden under a grove of superbly painted orange trees. From the right the figures are: Zephyrus- Greek god of the west wind, Cloris- a forest Nymph, Flores-the Roman goddess of flowers, gardens and spring, Venus-Roman Goddess associated with love and fertility, her son Cupid hovering above her, the Three Graces-Roman Goddesses of charm, beauty, creativity, and grace, and Mercury-a messenger in Roman mythology. Just what these gods and goddesses might be up to has been the subject of conjecture for over 500 years.  
The story unfolds from the right. Zephryus rapes Chloris and she is transformed into Flores whom Zephryus then marries. Venus and Cupid overlook all of this and the Three Graces help us to remember life's better moments. Mercury is in attendance possibly to relate what happens back to his masters. The figures stand in a garden under an orange grove. There are over 500 flowers represented in the garden showing about 170 species- a major painting event in itself. 
This is a Pagan work; commissioned by the Medici family to celebrate the marriage of an orphaned nephew of Lorenzo (Mercury in the picture may be Lorenzo himself). The work took a year to paint and was intended to hang in the newly-wed's bedroom and it is possibly meant to chart the course of the marriage. The nephew and his bride never met before they were married and they married as teenagers; a process common enough amongst the nobility of the time but recognised as risky never-the-less. Thus the marriage has a potentially bad start- perhaps alluded to in the rape of Chloris by Zephryus but things improve when Zephrys marries his victim now morphed into Flores. The Three Graces offer potential hope for the young couple, only Mercury seems taskless apart from reporting the event.  However there may be other meanings attached to the beautiful Mercury's inclusion in the picture as he is shown with his back to the action and reaching up to pluck an orange from an overhanging tree. Does Mercury represent a homoerotic element in the picture? Does he ignore the marriage allegory and allow the possibility of another form of love: picking the forbidden fruit? Even the three graces inject a note of confusion with their diaphanous dresses and alluring female forms. This was the first time see-through material had been painted on this scale. Why are they represented so erotically?
Botticelli put much effort into representing the flowers-he took a year to complete the picture overall and the flowers portray a year of seasons. The choice of blooms perhaps supports a connection to the marriage. Strawberries- particularly those growing all over Chloris- indicate seduction and the Periwinkles coming from her mouth indicate love. Does love triumph over adversity here? Are the young couple being encouraged to persevere with their arranged marriage?
The most enigmatic figure in the composition is Flores. Magnificently dressed in a floral gown she identifies with the natural beauty around her. Her face however is at least androgenous and her enigmatic outward gaze adds further to the many confusions in the picture.  And...have you noticed that she may be pregnant?
Carnal love and divine love appear to meet in Primavera. The unattractive events of the right-hand side of the picture are alleviated by the presence of the Three Graces bringing hope and aesthetic and intellectual beauty to the union. The picture is a wonderful composition with clever perspective and is a superb illustration of Botticelli's painterly skills; however we are left with an intellectual challenge which has survived for over 500 years. La Primavera is one of the Uffizi's greatest treasures and pilgrims come from around the world to wonder at its meaning and enjoy its enigmatic beauty.

La Primavera, detail

La Primavera, detail

La Primavera, detail