International Gothic Art in Italy (Part 2)


In our brief review of the chief landmarks in the general current of fourteenth- century European art, one of the earliest painters of importance to be mentioned was Matteo Giovannetti. This was because his energy and subtlety in narration and description owed much to late developments from the art of Simone Martini at Avignon, and then went on to contribute to that art some surprisingly original ideas, which were destined to have a profound effect on International Gothic. If we trace the development of Matteo Giovannetti’s style, we find that he adopted the best qualities from the “transitional” art of the Florentine painter Stefano in order to modify the dominating influence of Simone Martini; and so in such panel paint­ings as the Fodor-Correr triptych (attributed to him by Longhi) and the little Crucifixion published by Volpe, the rhythms of Simone Martini are broken up and substantially recast by means of a dark impasto derived from Stefano. Similarly, the refined art of the Master of the Codex of St. George involves a blend of Sienese art with that of the followers of Giotto, and confirms that all the best Sienese artists owed a great debt to Florence—much greater than the debt which Florentine paint­ing after Giotto is traditionally supposed to owe to Siena.

The best Florentine painting after Giotto had been the work of a generation of artists whose point of departure was the rich and subtle style of Giotto’s maturity. An outstanding example is Maso. A number of small paintings of his combine extremes of luxury with a total lack of gilding and colour, thus illustrating the strik­ing example and wealth of ideas which his work in the 1550s could offer to a wide circle of painters of his own and the next generation. After that time, however, we must turn to the art of Stefano to discover that the Florentines too had human feel­ings and could contribute a great deal towards the development of a new sensibility. Hi* group of frescoes at Assisi (attributed to him by Longhi), for example, reveals an even style in which the overall luminous impasto effect can convey delicate feeling and probe the subtlest qualities of material objects. Longhi pointed out how much this style looks forward to Gentile da Fabriano, and remarked that “the mental basis for Stefano s intense interest in the veiled representation of what is close at hand is perhaps the same as that which underlies Jan van Eyck’s passionate interest in the precise representation of what is distant; they are both slow-motion impressionists”.

These brilliant modifications of Giottesque art first appeared in Lombardy in certain works executed in Milan between 1535 and 1345. Stefano himself is known to have been there at the time, and there is evidence of his activity in what remains of the very fine but badly damaged Crucifixion in San Gottardo and the fresco frag­ments in the Archbishop’s Palace. Giovanni da Milano may well have seen these works, and indeed they may have induced him to move to Florence as early as 1346.

A few years earlier, however, a style had grown up in Bologna which modified the art of Giotto even further and was to have an even more decisive influence on the subsequent development of Italian painting. The artistic climate of Bologna was peculiarly free from the Byzantine and classical traditions, so that local artists could adapt the style of Giotto to their own unreal fantasies and also absorb influences which had reached Bologna from the North. French miniatures had arrived there at various times during the fourteenth century and, earlier still, Bolognese artists could admire the cope of San Domenico—that supreme example of a calligraphic and decorative style.

The fame of Bologna University had caused the city to bustle with intellectual activity, while at the same time there was an active middle and lower class. Hence we find developing that inimitable blend of realism and a northern kind of decorative, graphic refinement—the two basic qualities of International Gothic art. If such apparently contradictory qualities were to be combined, however, the artists con­cerned had to have a rich and vital curiosity about the real world, as well as a highly lyrical imagination which immediately placed their discoveries in an unreal world created by the conventions of their style.

This approach produced its earliest and probably unsurpassed results in a series of works painted by Vitale da Bologna in his early maturity, before the middle of the century. Look at the wild, loose-limbed fury of the St. George in the Pinacoteca at Bologna (fig. 10), the strange and bold narrative of the Semes from the Life of St. Anthony (Jig- 11), set in a wealth of observed detail, the “rustic and yet angelic tone” (Longhi) of the Mezzaratta Nativity, or the quite Parisian calligraphy of the Madonna dci Dcnti in the Vatican. All these are qualities which lead directly to the most authentic kind of International Gothic art; and yet they appear at least sixty years earlier.

One outstanding member of the generation of fervently active artists inspired by Vitale da Bologna was the great anonymous miniaturist whom Longhi calls the “Illustrator”. He illuminated sacred and legal books with such rapid abandon and such thickly laid on paint that for a long time his work ran the risk of being judged crude, whereas it really displays a rich, fresh and popular interpretation of both the sacred life of ancient times and the profane life of the artist’s own day. The early work of Jacopino di Francesco in the Rimini style shows some hesitancy, but by about 1365 he was painting figures which have considerable expressive force. An example is the face of Christ in the Crucifix in San Giovanni in Monte, described by Arcangeli as that of a “little Jew with a fleshy, hooked nose”. An original sense of humour can also be found, for example, in his well-known St. Nabor and St. Felix in the polyptych of the Coronation of the Virgin in Bologna, where the two saints are so extravagantly dressed that they look like foreign students out for a walk in the streets of Bologna.

This Bolognese school must have had a wide influence, for all, or nearly all, the artists involved worked outside their native city. In 1351 Vitale wrcnt as far afield as Udine; another artist, whom Longhi describes as “great, violent and almost insolent”, painted the Triumph of Death in the Camposanto at Pisa; in 1352 Tom- maso da Modena created in Treviso a so far unpublished series of portraits of Do­minicans, and a decade later he executed the lively Scenes from the Life of St. Ursula, in which the various figures have an almost flesh-and-blood solidity, typical of the art of the Po valley. But the art of Bologna exerted an influence even further afield, and so joined the international current. The triptych w’hich Tommaso da Modena painted for Karlstein Castle in Bohemia and the polyptych which Barnaba da Modena sent from Liguria to Murcia must both have had a considerable effect.

Meanwhile, a group of skilful Florentine artists was at work in Lombardy. To­wards the middle of the century their paintings at Cliiaravalle and Viboldone brought back the Giottesque style after a gap of about ten years. Giottino must have been among them, for he painted an Assumption of the Virgin in the altar cupola at Chia- ravalle, while only a fewr years later Giusto painted his Last Judgement in the altar cupola at Viboldone. Giovanni da Milano may also have been amongst these artists, and may have been responsible for a fresco cycle which was destined to exert a strong influence in Lombardy. During his first years in Florence, moreover, there must have been a certain mental affinity between him and the more direct followers of Maso and Stefano, for we notice frequent points of contact between Giovanni’s analytical subtlety, Giusto’s religious gravity and Giottino’s intensity of feeling. But there is no doubt that Giovanni da Milano also brought to Florence certain typical qualities of the art of the Po valley and the North, w hich make him a striking and immediate precursor of International Gothic. That a similar kind of art already existed in Lombardy can be judged from the fine fresco cycle of Scenes from the Life of Christ, painted in 1350 or a little earlier in the castle chapel at Montiglio—then a Visconti possession. A new refinement in the embroidered brocades and linear flow’ and a vibrant, elevated sensibility show that traditional Lombard realism was now tending tow’ards aristocratic refinement under the influence of French miniatures and more recent echoes of the art of Avignon. In fact the wilful but dignified little figure of Christ among the doctors teems to spring directly from the art of Simone Martini at Avignon.

It is hence not surprising that one of Giovanni da Milano’s earliest paintings in Florence the Barberini altarpiece in the Galleria Nazionale in Rome-could be described as a series of framed illuminated pages, rich in courtly elegance, surface realism and intimate feeling. Later on he tended to adopt the Tuscan style of polyptych. But the gradual increase in solemnity from the Prato polyptych (perhaps pointed as early as 1554) to the Ognissanti polyptych of about ten years later (now in the Uffizi) derived largely from the almost liturgical art of Giusto. Thus the un­hurried narrative of the scenes in the Prato predella (fig. 15) gives way to the con­templative fervour of the choirs of saints, martyrs and prophets in the Ognissanti predella (fig. 12), though the artist still remembers to make his costumes elegant and pay due attention more than anyone else at this period—to the surface reality of landscape, clothing and other material objects. Even the solemn frescoes in Santa Croce reveal an occasional interest in everyday things, as well as sudden outbursts of intense feeling and even subtle portraits such as that of the guest at dinner in the house of the Pharisee, who brings to mind von Rumohr’s acute observations on Giovanni da Milano as a precursor of Van Eyck. Longhi has also pointed out how strongly tliis “sacred and profane” art influenced Masolino and Sassetta, and an even more direct influence can be seen in a number of frescoes painted in the coun­try churches and oratories of Lombardy. They reveal traces of Giovanni da Milano’s individual style, and also—at Viboldone, for example—of what he had derived from Giusto; and, as we shall see, they closely foreshadow new developments in Lombard miniatures from about 1580 onwards.

The new art of the mainland, and particularly that of the Po valley, also began to penetrate into the Veneto towards the middle of the century. In Venice itself, a single work in this style had already been produced in the triptych by Matteo Gio- vannetti with side panels depicting St. Hcrmagoras and St. Fortunatus (now in the Museo Correr). But the scattered gilding which gives the figures of the two saints a kind of ghostly weightlessness was not in itself sufficient to break down the rich abstractions of the ancient and highly cultured Byzantine tradition, and still less could it hope to modify the prescriptions of Byzantine iconography, even though the figure of the donor shows a penetrating understanding of the human face (fig. 9). Yet his sharp features and ill-shaven chin were painted long before 1565—the date of the portrait of Jean le Bon in the Louvre, which is usually held to be the first portrait in European art.

In their cautious and tentative efforts to free themselves from tradition, the artists of the Veneto tended to seek inspiration in the art of Emilia. We have already mentioned that Emilian art penetrated into the Veneto, and it will also be found to underlie the increasingly Gothic quality of Venetian painting in subsequent decades, whether in the strong, fanciful style of the Master of Sant’Elsino, or the almost chivalrous Meeting of Augustus and the Sybil at Stuttgart painted by Jaco- bello di Bonomo about 1570, or else the numerous altarpieces painted in the Veneto between 1370 and 1390.

There is something quite different and more deliberately original about the work which the Paduan artist Guariento produced in the 1550s, when lie had laid aside his early dependence upon Giotto. In his Madonna and Child in the Metro politan Museum in New York (fig. 15), for example, the intense chromatic effects and the Child’s tightly wrapped but highly rhythmical robe denote a Gothic tend­ency which involves a new vitality of expression rather than mere decorative splen­dour. It is the same kind of vitality which was later (about 1560) to cause Lorenzo Vcncziano to make his paintings more “continental” in tone, and it is strikingly evident in the Scenes from the Life of St. Sebastian (fig. 14) which Semitecolo

painted in Padua in 1567. After 1550, however, Guariento’s work reveals an unexpectedly pronounced Gothic quality which Longhi associates with the second wave of Florentine art to reach Lombardy (about 1550), and especially with the work of Giusto. It is true, of course, that Giusto did not settle in Padua until later, but he may already have been in the city by this time. Hence the frescoes of Ages and Planets in the church of the Erernitani have an overall subtlety of tone which must surely be related to the “transitional” style. This is still more evident in the very fine privately owned Madonna of Humility. The 9ubdued chromatic tones give an effect of lightness, while the Madonna’s small face, beneath a tall crown and framed in golden hair, has a tender elegance which reminds one of the “weicher Stil” and is more delicate and sincere than a Madonna by Lochner.

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