International Gothic Art in Italy (Part 1)


For a period of about seventy years from the end of the fourteenth century, European art had an exceptionally uniform style. The interchange of artistic ideas had gradually led to the formation of a more or less universal style which spread over a wide area, from Flanders and Burgundy on the one hand to Lombardy and Bohemia on the other. As time went on, however, this style was reduced to a series of con­ventions which resulted in the fascinating but at the same time basically decadent art generally known as International Gothic.

For several centuries the very existence of this art escaped historians, and even when it came to be noticed at the end of the nineteenth century, a long period elapsed before its international character was appreciated and it could be distinguished from the medieval style on the one hand and Renaissance art on the other. It was often, sometimes unconsciously, regarded as a branch of one or the other of those arts, depending on the attitude of the individual art historian, and was hence looked on as a relatively immature transitional phase, full of unresolved contradictions and without independent life.

International Gothic was difficult to identify because of its chronological position between two civilizations, and the problem was further complicated by the fact that the Middle Ages came to an end at different times in different places, while the configuration of fifteenth-century art was not uniform in the territories north and south of the Alps. Those who based their views on the Renaissance in Tuscany consequently saw International Gothic as an inexplicable and anachronistic con­tinuation of the medieval spirit, which persisted for more than thirty years on the periphery of the new art of the Renaissance. Non-Italian art historians, on the other hand, tended to regard the strange surface realism of International Gothic as a genuine prelude to Renaissance naturalism. Even in recent times the ambiguous term naturalism has often been used as an excuse for attaching a single “Renais­sance” label to the divergent, not to say opposite, attitudes of artists like Van Eyck and Masaccio, whose ideas about nature are quite different. Van Eyck makes a meticulous analysis of surface reality, whereas Masaccio s attempt at synthesis and his lack of interest in detail spring both from a rational grasp of reality through perspective, and from a new mentality and aesthetic ideals, partly based on classi­cism. It would thus be possible to postulate a gradual development of Gothic natural­ism in the North from, say, the Limbourg brothers to Van Eyck; but it is impossible to bridge the gap between Gentile da Fabriano (the Italian counterpart of Van Eyck) and Masaccio in the same way.

Interest in International Gothic arose late in the nineteenth century, at a time when heated arguments were going on about the origins of the Renaissance. Did it gradually emerge from the heart of the Middle Ages, or was it a break-away, a revolutionary movement, leading, as Michelet put it, to the “discovery of the world and of man”?

Courajod, in liis Legons profcssccs a iEcolc du Louvre of 1887—96, sided with the medievalists in this debate and elaborated a theory of the “gothicit£ univer- selle” of the later Middle Ages. He was hence the first to suspect that the closing phases of Gothic art were characteristically international. But his chief aim was really to establish a “genealogy of the national spirit”. He maintained that the ori­gins of the Renaissance were to be found not in Italy but in a French and Flemish pre-Renaissance in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. His polemical and chauvinistic spirit, however, makes his conclusions highly suspect.

For quite different reasons, International Gothic did not find favour with Italian art historians of the same period. Even Cavalcaselle was somewhat sceptical and dis­tant about it. He expressed impatience and even irritation at what he took to be an unwarranted protraction of Gothic “puerility”. Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello consequently cut a poor figure in his History of Painting in North Italy, for his one object seems to have been to discover in them the seeds of Renaissance realism, and this was the sole measure of their achievement as far as he was concerned.

International Gothic was more commonly seen simply as a postscript to Gothic art, whose stylistic elements it continued to use in an intensified form, as though in one final fling. There seems to be indirect support for this view in the popular phrase “autumn age” which Schlosser coined in his essays on “courtly art” published in the Vienna Jahrbuch in 1895.

Schlosser’s conclusions as to sources have been partly superseded, but his force­ful and often brilliant pages contain the first hints that a particular artistic atmos­phere was to be found as a common factor in the art of Western Europe at the turn of the fourteenth century. His phrase was echoed in 1921 in Huizinga’s study of fifteenth-century society in Burgundy, entitled The I Failing of the Middle Ages. Huizinga’s work, however, is of much greater value as an evocation of a period of history than for the light it throws on the figural arts. In the first place, he tended to see International Gothic as a purely cultural phenomenon and failed lo pay sufficient attention to its sources; and secondly, he still tended to interpret it 6imply as the death throes of the preceding age. In other words, he still found it difficult to appreciate International Gothic as an independent style, the real originality of which lay in the confident expression of a unique world of images and emotions.

The most important aspect of this originality lies in one of its most evident and yet most debated qualities, namely its strictly international character. There are many—even among those who accept the term International Gothic as a useful working definition—who point out that all the great art movements, from Roman­esque to Baroque, have been international, and that Gothic art, too, was always in­ternational in that it occurred all over Europe. Others admit that there is a stricter and different kind of universality in International Gothic, but then proceed to deny this in practice by claiming to find a primary source, or at any rate a dominating influence, in a single country. This amounts to a late echo of Courajod’s view, and has been repeated on a number of occasions by those art historians who have been particularly impressed by the contribution of French and Flemish art to the Inter­national Gothic style and its numerous offshoots. Such denials of the validity of the term International Gothic have led to attempts to define the style in other ways, ranging from such partially successful terms as “courtly art”, “cosmopolitan art” and “weicher Stil“ to the quite colourless title “European art around the year 1400“ given to the exhibition of 1962 at Vienna.

The truth of the matter is that it is not just a question of a general affinity of means of expression or the circulation of a common artistic language, for these are phenomena found at all periods.We are faced rather with the existence of a homo­geneous style, resulting from a continuous exchange of ideas: a dialogue, as Pacht called it, which gradually echoed through various European countries, each indi­vidual voice adding its own original contribution.

It is only fairly recently that art historians have paid due attention to the strictly international aspect of International Gothic, and even now there are scholars who deny the existence of the style or express reservations about it. It thus seems desir­able to trace its outline, not by means of hypotheses about the cultural background of the times, but by comparing individual contributions and making a close in­vestigation of sources.

This is not the place for a full-scale review of all the opinions expressed by scholars on the nature of International Gothic, but certain interpretations are of sufficient importance to deserve mention. We must first mention again Schlosser’s essay of 1895, in which lie attempted to trace the cultural routes along which artistic ideas travelled between the greater and the lesser courts of northern Italy (Treviso, Padua, Verona) and those of the nearby Tyrol and Bohemia. Next in time comes Dvorak’s study of the earliest diffusion of Avignonese culture in Bohemia, published in the Vienna Jahrbuch in 1901. In 1912 Pietro Toesca tackled the problem of Lombard paintings and miniatures in more strictly critical terms, and his work is still an indispensable basis for any research in that field. Between 1950 and 1940 there appeared a whole group of studies on International Gothic art in certain individual countries: Post wrote on Spain, Sterling on France and Stange on the German countries. Since that time, the most important contributions to our knowledge of sources and influences are to be found in the many studies of detail, such as Porcher’s work on French miniatures, Saralegui’s study of Valencian painting, Pacht’s work on the influence of the ouvraige dc Lombardic, and various articles by Longhi con­cerned particularly with influences from the Po valley and developments in Tuscany and Lombardy. Finally, Panofskv’s reassessment of the Flemish contribution to International Gothic includes some brilliant pages—almost a separate study in themselves—on the Flemish social and cultural background.

In dealing with problems of this kind, one must beware of making generaliza­tions, as even Panofsky occasionally does, or of fitting the facts into an ideological straight-jacket, as Antal does in his well-known study of Florentine painting in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, where he attempts to associate the development of art with the facts of social history.

Since what we are concerned with is essentially a “movement”, its roots cannot be satisfactorily explained without reference to the historical background of the times, for it is against this background that late fourteenth-century developments in art took place. It is well known that there was a general European crisis at this time, involving the political, social and cultural framework of the Middle Ages. The Church was rent by a schism which deeply undermined its authority; the Holy Roman Empire had long since lost even its symbolic significance as a supranational unity in the Christian culture of the West, and was now no more than an empty phrase; and chivalry was a thoroughly decadent and outdated institution, because its idealized concept of life had lost all meaning.

The feudal luxury of European courts and aristocratic circles casts a flimsy veil over a serious economic crisis which is reflected in the chronic succession of wars, the even more ferocious civil strife, and the increasing use of a monetary system which widened the gap between oppressed and oppressors amongst the town-dwellers. The lower classes in town and country had in common their poverty and resentment, and there were abortive risings aimed at procuring social justice and religious reform within the Church.

Scholasticism, too, was worn beyond repair by the end of the fourteenth cen­tury, in spite of the fact that it had earlier brought about a close unity of thought. The empty verbal contortions which it produced in a vain attempt at reform make a sad spectacle, and its pedantic subtleties find an echo in contemporary poetry, where they are superimposed on the elegant niceties of courtly love. Only rarely, at the time of Charles d’Orleans, did poetry rediscover an exquisite grace and delicacy of feeling. More frequently it was lost in the technical acrobatics of rhyme and an endless labyrinth of allegory—mysteries to which Guillaume de Machault held the intricate key.

And yet, os happens in every period of crisis, the seeds of a profound transforma­tion were being planted amidst the forces of disruption. As early as 1524, Marsilio da Padova was able to formulate in his Defensor pacts a “modern”, autonomous lay state which confined the Church to its spiritual realm and then went on to claim rights over that realm for itself. Even scholasticism gave birth to forces of opposition, in the shape of the critical movement headed by Duns Scotus and Ockham, the scientific experimentalism of the Mertonians at Oxford and of Autrecour t, Buri- dan, and Oresme in Paris, and the increasing tide of Averroism, anti-intellectualism and irrationalism. These anti-Aristotelian attitudes are closely related to the birth of fideist theology and to the various radical changes in religious feeling brought about by the great fourteenth-century mystics: Eckhart, Tattler, Suso and St. Catherine. A new attraction was found in pious sensibility, and all the diffeient facets of religious fervour—dcvotio modcrna, as it was called can be seen in the religious iconography of the time. This is the background to ihose movements foi Church reform which became tinged with heresy first inWycliffe and then moie strongly in Huss.

In the late fourteenth and the first half of the fifteenth century, the great uni­versities underwent a profound transformation. Some, like the University of Paris, actually acquired political influence and often played an important role in inter­national affairs; and as new universities sprang up, they were gradually drawn into the new national structure of the state in which they were situated. Thus the mem­bers of Prague University had, after 1409, to swear allegiance to the crown of Bohemia. A new university aristocracy grew up alongside the old military aristoc­racy and acquired what might be called a caste status. For them, the old-fashioned dignities of chivalry were replaced by gown, ermine hood and long gloves as emblems of a new kind of prestige. Where scholasticism had not acquired the ancient and glorious reputation which it enjoyed in Oxford and Paris, university teaching turned to the studia humanitatis, and so a new kind of humanism appeared on the scene, its methods based on textual analysis and rhetoric instead of dialectics and scholasticism. The new university teacher was a man of letters rather than a scientist. His learning placed him in aristocratic isolation, and his religious attitude was likely to be founded more on faith than on reason.

The most striking aspect of the transformation of society is the growing eco­nomic and cultural influence of the middle classes. Now that commerce and finance had long been developing, the middle classes began to form a complex social entity’, and at the same time the old feudal nobility w’as giving way to a new nobility of courtiers and civil servants. Lawyers, economists, secretaries and bankers flocked to the courts and vied with one another in a grand enthusiasm for art patronage. The nobility and clergy continued to be the patrons of architecture; and courtly culture, or that deriving from much earlier chivalrous origins, continued to influence the middle classes and even remained as their standard of quality; but the middle classes were also responsible for new’, quite profane trends, such as an increasing interest in portraiture, tapestry and the illumination of manuscripts. In literature, the decay of courtly poetry was similarly offset by new middle-class stimuli, evident in the prose of Froissart or Ldpez de Ayala and the poetry of Chaucer.

This tenacious survival of an aristocratic culture accompanied by the increasing social importance of the middle classes has been seen by art historians as closely reflecting the twin sources of the International Gothic style. Its rich decorative elegance and fascinating decadence are seen as expressions of a courtly code which pervaded every form of public and private life, while the curiosity and meticulous attention to the details of reality in human types and their surroundings are seen as reflecting the dynamic realism of urban life and a merchant economy.

But this notion of twin sources does not explain all the complexities of Internation­al Gothic art, and it runs the risk of degenerating into an artificial formula. We have already suggested, for example, that rich ornamentation cannot be exclusively aristocratic in origin. In addition to the great courts of Western Europe and the aristocratic circles associated with them at such places as Dijon, Prague, Milan and Paris, there were other non-courtly centres of artistic activity such as Tuscany, Flanders and Bologna. The International Gothic style is in a sense almost always courtly in that its idealism tends to reduce a painting to a rhythmical pattern, but this same stylized and idealized vision can often be associated with mystical literature or a particular religious attitude, as in the case of the German Schone Madonnen. Furthermore, extreme stylization is often accompanied by a certain feeling of excitement or subtle and intense emotion. All these are qualities which make the Master of the Rohan Hours, the Master of Trebon, Giovanni da Modena and Jaquerio outstanding examples of a kind of ageless expressionism.

It is much more satisfactory not to attempt to classify International Gothic, but to stress instead the multiplicity of artistic impulses involved. They come from a variety of sources and may sometimes be found in close proximity of time and place within the same framework of religious or profane iconography. And it is important to note that they amalgamate into a common artistic language which is so clearly defined as to be recognisable at sight even before a work’s country of origin is known.

The formation of so unified a style from such diverse artistic impulses was in large measure due to a preference for what one might call portable works of art, such as miniatures, small panels and tapestries. The miniature had pride of place in this art traffic, partly because it was the chief object of the intense enthusiasm of contemporary collectors. It is no coincidence that many of the greatest miniaturists of all time—the Limbourg brothers, Michelino da Besozzo, the Master of the Rohan Hours and Jacquemart d’Hesdin—belonged to a single generation. And the whole range of contemporary artistic expression, from the “courtly” to the “bourgeois”, can be found within the rich sphere of this art. The discovery of everyday life was accompanied by a desire to escape into rich, courtly paradises. Religious feeling may be expressed in a very’ worldly manner, or it may be intensely dramatic; traditional religious iconography is to be found alongside the profane iconography of early humanism. Panel painting, moreover, was almost entirely dependent on minia­tures. Even if due allowance is made for the numerous examples which have been lost, panel paintings must have been outnumbered by miniatures. Indeed the latter even supplanted the former in Lombardy, where the numerous diptychs, small polyptychs and portable altars were little more than enlarged miniatures. They could easily be transported and, like miniatures, were designed for the private pleasure of collectors. The monumental Spanish retables do not really constitute an exception to this general rule, for they were often conceived as an ensemble of small panels.

Tapestries were also collectors’ pieces, because they were portable. At this period they were so popular that they tended to supplant fresco painting, for they had a subtle double attraction, taking on the character of “woven frescoes” and offering a vertical arrangement of spatial depth. Conversely, the stylistic devices of tapestry frequently reappear in frescoes. Those in the castle at La Manta in Piedmont and those by Lorenzo da Sanseverino at Urbino are good examples.

The travels and migrations of the artists themselves also tended to produce affini­ties of style. The invasion of France by Flemish miniaturists at the turn of the cen­tury, or Mar£al de Sax’s stay in Valencia, for example, had a decisive influence on International Gothic painting; and there were also collectors like Alcherio who were almost the “commercial travellers” of painting.

The breadth and complexity of this art movement make it dangerous to attempt a brief summary. The few past attempts to correlate what happened in various parts of Europe have obscured the fact that these different movements occurred simulta­neously. A more useful and suitable approach is to identify the main local centres of activity’, to indicate their chief contributions to the general style, and to estimate the extent of their influence in other individual regions.

In 1540 Simone Martini, by then an old man, arrived at the splendid papal court at Avignon, to be followed soon afterwards by Matteo Giovannetti and other Italian artists such as the outstanding Florentine or Sienese miniaturist responsible for the Codex of St.George in the Vatican (fig. 8). Avignon cannot, however, be considered as the place of origin of International Gothic, but it was there that for the first time conditions were suitable for the birth of an international style, since the Papal policy of enhancing its own prestige had attracted thither French and Italian artists as well as some of the best minds in Europe, such as Jean de Jandun, Marsilio da Padova, Coluccio Salutati, Luigi Marsigli, Petrarch and Johann von Neumarkt. The magnificent frescoes painted in 1544 by Matteo Giovannetti and his assistants in the Palace of the Popes and in the Charterhouse at Villeneuve-les-Avignon are the earliest works in which the twin forces of French and Italian Gothic are inte­grated. The French element is characterized by its vibrant, swelling linearity and profane splendour, and the Italian element by its unfailing interest in volume and space. Although Giovannetti’s frescoes at La Chaise-Dieu and his sketch-book of goldsmiths’ designs have been lost, they indicate that his reputation soon became international. But the first fruits in France of the new art of Avignon (no contem­porary frescoes survive) are a group of works, belonging to the decade 1565—75, such as the vellum sheet in the Louvre with the Road to Calvary or the portrait of Jean le Bon.

More widespread repercussions occurred not only in southern Italy but also in Prague, which was becoming the cultural capital of Eastern Europe under Charles IV. Bolognese scholars supplied his court with legal learning, and Petrarch with humanism. Cola di Rienzo was a guest there, and it became a centre of heated theological debate.

The famous Liber Viaticus by Johann von Neumarkt is one of a group of very fine illuminated manuscripts of the latter half of the century and shows how rapidly the style of Avignon could be assimilated. Other miniatures were also influenced, as were frescoes like the Scenes from the Apocalypse in the chapel of St. Catherine at Karlstcin. In these, however, there is an intensity of emotion and a gravity of form derived from local tradition, which suggests that Bohemian art may also have found inspiration in the work of Tommaso da Modena, who visited Karlstein, and perhaps also in Bolognese legal manuscripts.

At about the middle of the century the art of Avignon acted as a bridge between the Catalan style and Italian painting. This can be seen in a triptych of 1550 now in the Walters Art Gallery at Baltimore. Contributions from the style of Avignon are here intermingled with influences from Liguria, Emilia and the Marches, brought respectively by Barnaba da Modena and Master Antonio, the latter of whom went to Catalonia shortly before 1550.

Let us now move on from these antecedents to the beginnings of International Gothic proper. We find that Lombard miniature painting as well as the brief but vigorous flowering of Bohemian International Gothic and the work of the great French and Flemish miniaturists, all began within a short time of one another, soon after 1580.

Traditional Lombard realism was now intensified by a new curiosity about surface reality, and readily absorbed the new taste for rich courtliness at the same time. This ouvraige dc Lombard ie involved a newly-awakened interest in the specta­cle of nature and the application of the principles of large-scale painting to the restricted space of miniatures. The new style spread quickly in all directions and was particularly influential in late fourteenth-century France. This is the stage at which the enthusiastic patronage of the great courts of Paris, Dijon, Angers, Hesdin, Ypres and Melun began to play an important part in drawing together diverse styles. A strong interest in artistic developments already existed in France when major artists from the Moselle valley, Gelderland, the lower Rhine valley and Flan­ders arrived to graft on to aristocratic French culture their own frankly bourgeois realism. And changes were also brought about as a result of the arrival of the first miniatures from Lombardy. The earliest evidence of this is to be found in the closing years of the century in the polyptych at Dijon by Broedcrlam, the panels by Jean deBeaumetz for the Charterhouse atChampmol, and the very subtle grisailles in the Psalter illuminated by Andre Beauneveu for Jean de Berry.

For almost twenty years at the beginning of the new century, there was a great deal oi artistic activity. During this time, the passion for book collecting was respon­sible for the production of priceless Psalters and Books of Hours. The delightful miniatures by the Limbourg brothers in the Chantilly Book of Hours (fig. 1) dis­play a newly discovered vault of heaven in pale blue, with emerald meadows below, and turreted castles and woods which stand motionless in the still air. The even light of morning falls on all objects with equal intensity 3 whether they are near or distant,  while the occupations of farmworkers and the pastimes of the rich are conveyed with the same perfect elegance. The Rohan Book of Hours, on the other hand, has a quite different pathos and visionary feeling, and the artist—perhaps a Spaniard has produced something similar but superior to the work of Belbello. The Boucicaut Hours (perhaps the work of Jacques Coene, who was in Milan in 1599) reveals even more clearly a blend of the Flemish style with French refinement. In all the many miniatures produced at this time, the parade of luxury is balanced by elegance of form and scrupulous attention to detail, whether of environment, human features or dress. And from the same workshops came the best examples of contemporary panel painting, such as the round Pietd in the Louvre (fig. 2) and the Coronation of the Virgin in Berlin (fig. 5).

From now on this flowering of French and Flemish art was to exercise an influ­ence throughout Europe. It served to intensify and refine local styles, which were themselves sufficiently mature to contribute to the international current.

The altarpiece atTrebon in Bohemia is a fourteenth-century work (it may have been painted as early as 1580) by an unknown but skilful painter, who uses the delicate linear and chromatic qualities of the great local tradition to achieve a new tonal effect of exceptional evocative and emotional force. It belongs at the culminat­ing point of a phase in painting which must surely have begun about twenty years earlier. The linear grace of French art had meanwhile appeared on the scene—it is quite evident in the Jindrichuv Hradec Madonna—but had nothing to teach the Bohemians; and they always add to it a delicate modelling which shows how rich and influential sculpture was in this region. It is in Bohemia that one first finds the commonest type of the Schone Madonnen in which the rounded flow of the draperies governs the movement and volume of the body underneath rather than vice-versa.

From here this style spread throughout Germany, and later influenced panel paint­ing. In Bohemia, too, one finds the most important examples of the “weicher Stil”, characterized by soft linear effects and a delicate and extremely spiritualized sense of beautv.

For almost half a century Bohemia had been busy exploring and absorbing the styles of other parts of Europe. Now it began to communicate its own art to a vast region, stretching from Munich and Salzburg to Nuremberg and Vienna. All the best works produced in these centres in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, such as the HolyTrinity in London, the unusual Lamentation (n°1857) in Berlin (fig. 5) and the Paehler altar in Munich, show traces of the Bohemian style; and it may well be that echoes of French and Flemish art reached these regions via Bohemia.

As one would expect, Bohemian influence is strongest along the Rhine valley. Local art traditions are here chiefly concerned with deep religious feeling, conveyed by means of an almost brutal intensity of expression in human features and gestures frankly ingenuous tones of popular religious feeling and a feminine delicacy of mystical piety.

The richly decorative quality of French art had the effect of refining this over- audacious realism in a way which can best be seen in the small Crucifixion in the  Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne (fig. 4)—resplendent with life and colour and yet scarcely larger than an illuminated page—as well as in certain works by Konrad von Soest, and especially in the work of Master Francke, who displays a very individ­ual blend of intense, elevated feeling, imaginative force and stylistic refinement.

Germany was traditionally more inclined to absorb outside influences than to transmit its own, but it soon produced a style destined to have far-reaching influence. As early as 1595, Mar$al de Sax moved from Westphalia to Valencia, with the result that a group of local artists—Miguel Alcaniz, Pedro Nicolau, the Master of Rubielos, Gonzalo Perez and others—added a new force of expression, fanciful ornamentation and exotic human features to native Spanish International Gothic. At the same lime, the art of Barcelona—its chief exponent was Borrassd, whose fresh Spanish narrative loquacity was somewhat influenced by Italian art (fig. 6)—ceased to have any vitality. And in its turn the Valencian style was to join the main current of Mediterranean art, and reach out to southern Italy and Tuscany.

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