International Gothic Art in Italy (Part 9)


The International Gothic art of southern Italy can be judged to some extent by the standards we have already established, for there was a general current of Mediterranean art which reached southern Italy from the Adriatic coast, the Tyrrhenian coast and Spain.

Mediterranean art in this general sense had its distant origin in developments in Provence, whose influence reached Palermo (via Liguria), where Bartolomeo da Camogli’s Madonna of Humility of 1346 shows clear signs of Avignonese influence in the deep blue ground and the fall of the draperies. Links with Provence are even clearer both in a group of Neapolitan illuminated codices such as the De Musica of Boethius in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples and the famous Angevin Bible in the Bibliothfcque Nationale in Paris, as well as in certain panels once attributed to the School of Avignon. These are the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Ado­ration of the Magi—the first two at Aix-en-Provence and the third in the Lehmann Collection. From the time of King Robert, in fact, there had been close links be­tween Naples and Avignon (an Angevin fief), until finally Queen Joanna fled there from Naples in 1548 and ceded the fief to Pope Clement VI. It is hence not abso­lutely necessary to suppose that Roberto d’Oderisio went to Avignon in Joanna’s retinue in order to account for the clear echoes of Avignonese art in his most mature works. He was also influenced, moreover, by Maso di Banco, who painted the fres­coes for Santa Barbara in the Castelnuovo and probably had more effect on Neapoli­tan art than did Simone Martini during his brief visit. Hence the frescoes in the nave of the Church of the Incoronata (painted not earlier than 1552 and attributed by Bologna, following Cavalcaselle, to Oderisio) reveal both Maso’s “spacious ideas” and the decorative style of Avignon. But in the later Madonna of Humility in San Domenico Maggiore and in the Picta. at Trapani, the insistent use of ornamental flowers and the flat borders winding lazily over the ground produce a decorative quality which is undoubtedly superior to the modest kind of Sienese art then known in Naples and often associated with the work of Fei or Andrea Vanni. An even better example of this tendency is the noteworthy Picta of about 1590 in the museum at Salerno. Bologna has rightly described it as one of the best works to be found in Naples before the turn of the century. Its fanciful use of line, its pictorial subtlety and its delicacy of feeling make it a “courtly” work.

A new chapter in Neapolitan art begins in the early years of the fifteenth century with the frescoes in the Cappella del Crocefisso in the Church of the Incoronata. One of those involved was an artist from the Marches whose originality and vigour are reminiscent of Carlo da Camerino. An increasing succession of artists from the Marches arrived in Naples and left their mark there, including Arcangelo di Cola and Bartolomeo di Tommaso da Foligno. After 1440 the latter was always the most influential painter in every region where the art of the Marches penetrated.

The result of these successive waves of influence from the Marches was a tendency to expressionism and later on a withdrawal from reality into a graphic style. Hence there was not likely to be any difficulty in absorbing those influences which reached Neapolitan territory from Valencia. This explains why art historians have associated the lively and popularizing frescoes in various monasteries in the Abruzzi, Campania and the inland parts of Latium now with the Marches and now with Valencia. There are examples in the Badia Morronese near Sulmona, in San Silvestro at Aquila, at Subiaco and at Celano.

An excellent mid-century case of this interweaving of styles in Neapolitan art is the work of Giovanni da Gaeta, who has been studied by Zeri. There are various echoes of the art of the Marches in his earliest painting, the Madonna of Mercy of 1448 (painted in Sardinia but now at Cracow), and in the triptych (painted atGubbio but now at Pesaro) depicting San Bernardino between St. Louis and St. Clare. He may well have paid a visit to the Marches. Especially noticeable is his eccentric taste for meticulous graphic detail, so that the angels’ wings in the panel at Cracow have wide points like circumflex accents and the mitre of St. Louis at Pesaro has a wealth jy of tiny pearls. This tendency increases so much in his later works that it almost becomes caricature in the triptych of the Nativity at Fondi and in the Coronation of the Virgin at Gaeta, where the thin, elongated figures of female saints have a hard and heavy outline which involves a strange blend of influences from the distant art of Cavallini and from Spain (fig. 99).

From the time when he painted the Coronation of the Virgin (1456) until the end of his long career (documented up to 1472), Giovanni da Gaeta must have seemed a very backward and provincial artist in the strikingly cultured and inter­national circles of Naples which had formed around Alfonso of Aragon immediately after the middle of the century. The royal collection of paintings included works by Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, and Petrus Christus, and so indicated clearly the eager interest in Flemish art which then gripped Naples—an interest wrhich was stimulated by the presence in the city of great foreign artists such as Fouquet, Jaco- mart Bago and the sculptor Sagrera from Majorca, who was in charge of building operations at the Castelnuovo. This was the situation in Naples in 1450 when Ajitonello da Messina was working in Colantonio’s workshop; and it enabled him to work towards a new use of light and a new analytical naturalism which he could not have encountered in his native region at that period.

The gradual development of a courtly style in Sicily was largely the result, once Bartolomeo da Camogli had left the island, of the influx of a considerable quantity of Pisan and Sienese art. On the whole, these incoming paintings were mediocre in quality, and sometimes they had a hard, arid tone, untempered by the methods of late Gothic painting. Only one Sicilian painter successfully adapted this style, by lending a quite local kind of calm and sober sentiment to the richly embroidered silks and subtly engraved haloes of Siena. He worked at Trapani at the turn of the century and painted a triptych and the Madonna del Fiore (rightly attributed to him by Longhi), both now in the Museo Pepoli at Trapani. Other local painters gave fresh life to the calligraphic style of Siena in their many vigorous, earnest and popular versions of the Coronation of the Virgin.

The Master of the Trapani triptych is thus the only considerable Sicilian artist to precede the Master of San Martino, whose work contains all the best qualities of International Gothic painting in Sicily from about 1420 onwards. We have already seen that Valencia had now produced art of high quality which was soon absorbed into the general Mediterranean circulation. It consequently became known in Syra­cuse (Pietro Scaparra and Giovanni Peudelebra had gone to Spain from Syracuse) and in Sardinia, where a painter from Barcelona, who had adopted the style ol Valencia, left behind the fine San Sebastiano polyptych, now in the museum at Cagliari.

From about 1420 onwards the art of Valencia found a worthy interpreter in the Master of San Martino. One might almost take him for an emigrant Spaniard to judge from his polyptych of Scenes from the Life of St. Lawrence. In fact the quite Spanish vivacity of the composition, with its heavy outlines and vehement gestures, caused Bottari to deny that it was his work. Bottari also attributed the top part of the polyptych in the church of Santa Maria in Syracuse to a Catalan artist on account of its similar Spanish style. On the other hand, it is true that in its centra] part the Master of San Martino (fig. 100) tries to tone down his expressionism by introducing more subtly decorative calligraphy and gilding, while at the same time giving the faces and gestures of his figures a calmer gravity.

This quality recurs even more clearly in the very fine but badly worn triptych in San Martino, where certain details have all the finesse of a miniature. At the same time this painting reveals the first signs of the kind of Veneto-Marches style which we saw in Vivarini’s works of about 1440. It spread rapidly down the Adriatic coast and was brought to Sicily by the many artists who migrated there from these more northerly regions. Similar signs can be detected even more easily in the triptych of 1455, formerly at Termini Imerese, depicting the Madonna with St. Michael and St. John the Baptist. It has been attributed to Gaspare da Pesaro—a rather myste­rious figure, whose style is an even richer blend of the art of Sicily and the Marches.

In the second half of the century the rhythm of development of Sicilian art is differ­ent from that of Naples. In Naples, as we have seen, Flemish art was influential at an early stage, whereas in Sicily we still find subtle blends of Spanish Gothic and the “Adriatic ’style as well as more naturalistic Gothic elements from the Ligurian coast.

One work which stands out in noble isolation from this mixed style is the large and impressive fresco in Palazzo Sclafani. In it the old medieval theme of the Triumph of Death is given the “vertical” treatment that one finds in tapestries, and there is a crude contrast between the pleasures of worldly life and the horrors of the corruption of the flesh. So international is its style that it has been the subject of all sorts of attributions and comparisons, involving Jaquerio, Pisanello, mid-century Neapolitan painting and even Francesco Cossa. The most likely solution to the problem of attribution, however, is that first suggested by Valentiner. lie attributed it to the artists responsible for the Legend of St. George now split between the Louvre and the Art Institute of Chicago. Perhaps we can identify him as Martorell.

As for the influence in Sicily of the art of Italy’s east and west coasts, it was Longhi who emphasised the considerable affinities between artists from Umbria and the Marches such as Gerolamo di Giovanni or Antonio da Fabriano, and artists from the Provence and Nice such as Charonton or Durandi. The influence of Piero della Francesca underlies the work of both groups. By the time these echoes reached Sicily, however, they had died down into the sort of archaic dignity and gravity that one associates with icons. They can be seen in the mysterious poetry of Tommaso da Vigilia’s work, and shine forth also in the tranquil brilliance of the Corleone polyptych of the Coronation of the Virgin and the Petralia Sottana triptych. Both of these were painted about 1460, when Antonello was completing his fusion of the analytical and precise manner of Flemish art with Italian interest in form. Such works deserve a brief mention here because of their individual and archaic treatment of new ideas, but their chronology and their sources of inspiration are such that they really belong to another fascinating and largely unwritten chapter in the history of international relationships in painting.

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