International Gothic Art in Italy (Part 4)


Moving eastwards into the Veneto, we find that Veronese art soon began to share many “international” characteristics with Lombardy, and later made good use of the declining ideals of Lombard art. By the end of the fourteenth century, Cangrande’s vigorous attempt to unite the territories of the Po valley under his own rule had proved a glorious failure, and the time was not far off (1426) when Venice was to push westwards and annex Verona. Nevertheless, Verona’s geographical position astride the two great natural routes to Central Europe was to make her one of the chief centres of International Gothic art. In this sense there is some truth in Schlos- ser’s theory that the art styles found north and south of the Alps are closely related. Such a view must be somewhat modified nowadays; and so must the opinion that the northern influences in the art of Verona and the Trentino were exclusively Tyrolese and Bohemian, for the fact that Pietro Raponda, like Alcherio, linked the courts of Italy with that of the Due de Berry suggests much wider ramifications. Links with Lombardy were, as we have said, more numerous and more important, and we must naturally take into account the effect on the whole of the Veneto of Gentile da Fabriano’s long residence there during the first twenty years of the fifteenth century, when he painted the frescoes for the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, 27 now lost, and those for the Broletto at Brescia.

The famous frescoes of the Months painted at the turn of the century in the I orre dell’Aquila at Trento can throw light on this question. Many scholars see in them the hand of a Bohemian artist—perhaps theWenceslas whom a document shows to have been court painter to the Bishop of Trento. But as early as 1912, Toesca attributed the frescoes to the Veronese School, and this attribution remains the most likely up to the present day, for it points out the many striking reminis­cences of Lombard miniatures. These are so numerous that the painter concerned— probably from Verona—must have been inspired by miniatures, and added other more “international” elements in forming his own style.

The frescoes abound in elegant pastimes and farm occupations: snowballs in the castle park, scythes, rakes, vats for the grape harvest, pails of milk and so on. At this period of European art such keen observation is found only in Lombard sketch­books, though the heavy backgrounds of interwoven plants and the vertical per­spective recall the methods of tapestry.

By the end of the fourteenth century, Verona also had some encyclopedias of popular science, illuminated for the Carrara Library, which are very like Lombard encyclopedias in aims and methods. The treatise on Vices and Virtues in the British Museum (the so-called Cocharelli manuscript) has one of the earliest examples of the representation of cultivated fields, while all kinds of pinkish shells and shell­fish are strewn around the borders of another leaf. And the pages of the Carrara herbal—one of the greatest examples of a botanical treatise—bear delicate vio­lets, campanulas, tamarisks and cucumbers of almost natural size in pale water­colours.

The whole of Stefano da Verona’s work provides evidence of links between Milan and Verona. Not that Stefano was much attracted by the spectacle of nature, except in so far as it gave him an opportunity to turn it, by a feat of the imagination, into delicate linear rhythms. These are perhaps the very essence of his style, which is closer to that of Michelino than to the art of the North. The Madonna in the Rose Garden at Castelvecchio (fig. 58) shows none of the botanical accuracy of the Lom­bards, though the flat hedge seems to flow round the painting, as though it were in a herbal. Gently woven reeds surround the floating angels, the tripping flight of the quails and the drowrsy repose of the peacocks, each individual figure being independent and intent upon itself. (The peacock is Stefano’s favourite creature, because of its long undulating profile.) The dreamlike atmosphere is quite unlike that of the Paradise Gardens from the Rhine valley, which seem childish and sickly-sweet by comparison. Though the theme is the common one of the “Hortus conclusus” from medieval hymns to Mary, Stefano simplifies the complicated flower symbolism in his Rose Garden. He seems rather to refer to the “mystic rose”, and, as Longhi has pointed out, the Madonna is iconograpliically the same as the traditional Madonnas of Humility. But the chief difference between this panel and others from north of the Alps lies in the very subtle balance of line and feeling which transfigures any suggestion of realism or leisured worldliness. There is a similar madrigal-like light­ness of touch in the little choir of angels in the fresco of the Nativity in San Fermo, and in the slender garland of angels arranged in the form of a gently undulating mandorla about the Virgin Enthroned in the Colonna Collection. This last is one of the greatest of all paintings in the International Gothic style.

The late Adoration of the Magi in the Brera (fig. 59), signed and dated 1455, shows his finks with Michefino even more clearly. The many unusual reminiscences of miniature painting, the varied human features and head-dresses, the exotic animals and the ranks of curious onlookers craning forward, all indicate a strictly Italian interpretation of “international” iconography. Much the same might be said of Michefino’s Adoration in the Bodmer Offices in which the elegant rhythmic flow succeeds in elevating material which might otherwise seem too detailed in description and narrative.

It is very difficult to trace the development of Stefano’s style, for few works can be attributed to him with certainty, and important paintings like the fresco for the church of Santa Eufemia have been irreparably damaged in the course of the cen­turies. But his many drawings indicate the breadth of his range and confirm his consummate skill in handling fine. Many of these drawings show a surprisingly idiosyncratic technique, with long parallel and cross hatcliings, suggestive of en­gravings; and there are some female figures in the Uffizi until almost monumental bodies by contrast with their small heads of curly hair, which are strikingly similar to certain drawings by Parri Spinelfi of Arezzo. They were, in fact, attributed to him at one time. This confirms Longhi’s suggestion that there were finks between Veronese and Tuscan art at the time when Ghiberti’s neo-Greek rhythms were all the rage in Florence.

There is further and stronger confirmation of such finks in the 1520s, when a group of Florentine sculptors migrated to Venetian territory in the hope of finding a more congenial atmosphere in which to give play to their nostalgic love for a deli­cate and picturesque Gothic style. It is hence not surprising to find Nanni di Bartolo using very much the style of Pisanello’s frescoes in decorating the Brenzoni tomb in San Fermo with draperies and frames of flowers. Other Tuscan sculptors used a similar style for the tomb of Beato Pacifico in Venice, and for that of the Serego family in Sant’Anastasia, Verona. Perhaps the best example of this liking for vege­table decoration in sculpture is to be found in Lamberti’s groups of figures at the corners of the Palazzo Ducale—about which Ruskin was so enthusiastic. Tree trunks twist and twine about in the Original Sin, and the Drunkenness of Noah is crowded with a wealth of vine shoots.

Followers of Stefano produced, around 1440, other works which frankly echo Michefino’s style at a higher level than the work of Lombard artists. Moreover, Veronese art itself began to exert an influence in Lombardy at about this period, so that works like the polyptych at Aquila or the altarpiece of the Madonna della Levata by Giovanni Badile at Castelvecchio reveal close finks with the polyptych by the Zavattari in Castel Sant’Angelo or the grey tones of Cietario’s work.

After 1420 Pisanello must also have been aware of Stefano’s work, for it was then becoming influential in Verona. But there is a quite different quality of line about the impetuous humility of the angel bowed down before the Virgin in his Annunciation in San Fermo. It is sharp and analytical rather than melodic. The Madonna of the Quail reveals a similar but harsher version of Stefano’s use of line and its general manner is sufficiently ambiguous to allow it to be used as evidence in favour of Pisanello in the arguments regarding attribution. From 1415 onwards, however, a stronger personality was working alongside Pisanello in the person of Gentile da Fabriano. For five years the two worked together on the lost frescoes in the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. Reminiscences of Gentile da Fabriano crop up in Pisanello’s work over a long period. Even before the tired and rather fragile Madonna in the San Fermo Annunciation, we can find them in his Scenes from the Life of St. Benedict (now split between the Uffizi and the Poldi Pezzoli), which art historians have long attributed to a succession of different artists. Pisanello’s hand, however, can be recognised in the soft radiant pigment, broken up by occasional touches of exquisite colour in the refined and rather enig­matic execution of the few, interrupted gestures and the disquieting juxtaposition of the forces of good and evil. An angel and a crow whisper in the ear of the young hermit in the Poldi Pezzoli (fig. 40), who is as naked as a classical ephebe. The detailed outline of dark bushes breaks up the gold ground, while thick grasses decorate the earth and clothe the saint’s nakedness as though with a loin cloth. This motion­less, visionary atmosphere was particularly congenial to Pisanello, and recurs in the 5/. Jerome in London (fig. 41), where the saint, seated against a background of rocks illuminated from the opposite side, thoughtfully counts his beads, in a landscape which is strongly reminiscent of Gentile da Fabriano and Lombard art. It occurs even more strongly in the St. Eustace in London, where the elegant, heraldic figure of the saint pauses at nightfall in a forest thronged with animals, while packs of dogs follow him, anxiously sniffing the damp ground.

One final example of the strong influence of Gentile da Fabriano on Pisanello is to be found in the late panel in London—the only one which he signed (fig. 42). The little Madonna and Child in a bright blue and yellow tongued halo constitute a variation on a theme of Gentile, as they float above St. George’s straw sombrero and St. Anthony’s dark hood, which makes him look like a mourning figure by Sluter: a suggestive confrontation of primitive monastidsm and brilliant chivalry which marks the “autumn of the Middle Ages”.

The limited dimensions of all these panels and, still more, of his medals, were particularly suited to the art of Pisanello. He is less successful in the famous and enormous fresco in Sant’Anastasia in Verona, depicting St. George and. the Princess. The fresco is high up on a Gothic wall, but is really conceived as though it were to be dewed from close to, so scrupulously exact are its details. Pisanello happily chose for his painting the psychological moment of suspense immediately before the dramatic rescue, but the atmosphere is inevitably swamped by innumerable details of portrait and costume. The result is a kind of sad and elegant farewell to the romances of chivalry, involving a persistent feeling of confusion and anxious revery, an impres­sion of closely scrutinized reality but deprived of any breath of life.

From the 1420s onwards there is evidence that PisaneUo travelled outside his native region more frequently, whether in the sendee of the Gonzagas, the Estes, the Viscontis or, from 1449, the Aragonese rulers of Naples. The fact that he was in Naples at the time of an early flowering of the Flemish Renaissance style, there seems at first sight to lend support to the old theory that he was already aware of the Renaissance world in his late work as portraitist and medallist.

The fact is, however, that in the famous portraits oiLioncllo d’Este in Berga­mo and the Princess of the Este Family in the Louvre (fig. 45) his keen but im­passive curiosity leads him still to prefer the use of line in order to trace the flat, motionless features, which stand out only slightly against the neutral or unreal botanical ground. A faint illusion of plasticity about the gently floating figures is conveyed by means of tiny brush strokes, and a cold, almost lunar luminosity is imprisoned, or so it seems, within the outlines. The apparent realism of individual features (only a few of his drawings are genuine portraits) need not deceive us as to Pisanello’s real intentions, for it has no more than an emblematic and heraldic significance, just like the butterflies, carnations and columbines scattered over the background in the Princess of the Este Family.

It is now dear why PisaneUo chose to sign himself “painter” even on medals, for especiaUy on the reverse side his figures stand out in an intensely pictorial rather than plastic way, and are bathed in a soft light which is reminiscent of the lustreless surface of wax. They provide final proof that PisaneUo belongs to the world of the Middle Ages with its fables, condotticri and emperors, its ancient symbols, and myste­rious heraldic beasts: hence the unicorn and the maiden in the moonlight, the group of menacing vultures perched on precipitous rocks, and the three infant heads joined together, between pieces of armour and olive twigs.

The history of Venice in the early fifteenth century is quite different from that of any other Italian state of the time, for the complicated Venetian constitution was designed to ensure that the power of the ruling oligarchy was continuously and jealously watched over by the other state authorities. Even the doge was subject to this kind of surveillance, so that his position was more akin to that of a constitu­tional monarch than of a feudal or Renaissance prince. The speculations of Venetian business-men were carried on with a skill which enabled them to further their own and a variety of state interests simultaneously; and the state itself knew how to combine its work as the scourge of the Turk with profitable maritime trade or efforts to extend Venetian territory inland.

The continuous commercial activity involved in receiving and sorting precious goods destined for the Rhine and the Danube, and Venice’s long-standing indul­gence towards oriental luxury may well have favoured the slow emancipation of art from the preceding tradition. There was a group of second-rate artists, such as Lorenzo Veneziano and Jacobello di Bonomo, who were working more or less successfully in this direction. Venice had no true cultural tradition of her own and consequently borrowed much from the mainland. The art of Verona and Bologna was particularly influential even before Gentile da Fabriano’s long stay in Venice gave a strong impetus to the refinement of Venetian International Gothic.

Fifteen years before Gentile’s arrival, in fact, that powerful and original artist, Niccolo di Pietro, was already at work there. Various attempts have been made to trace the sources of his style in Venetian art, but his early works can be most con­vincingly linked with Emilia. His Coronation of the Virgin in the Galleria Barberini is reminiscent not so much of Jacobello di Bonomo’s heavy polyptych on the same subject at Fermo, as of that by the Modenese artist Serafini, an easy-going follower of Vitale. There are very close similarities in the way the heavy robes are draped on the floor, in the idea of placing curious angels peering over the corners of the throne, and in the heavily bearded and frowning figure of God the Father surveying the gold-encrusted and gem-studded scene.

There is further evidence of this relationship in the Madonna and Donor of 1594, the harsh Crucifix of 1404 at Verucchio, and the Coronation of the Virgin at Rovigo (fig. 44). But his later works reveal an increasingly bizarre and fanciful treatment which perhaps suggests a direct knowledge of Bohemian painting. Thus the face of St. Lawrence in the Accademia has an exotic quality. His eyes are almost slits beneath his thick hair, and his head emerges from an enormous gold-encrusted dalmatic. We can see from this painting that Niccolb di Pietro tends not so much towards the pictorial subtleties of Gentile da Fabriano—whose work was now well-known in Venice—as towards a taste for vast, highly decorated surfaces and bright colours. Hence he seems to return to the old tradition of oriental luxury and Byzantine icons, but in a late Gothic interpretation. The St. Ursula in the Metropolitan Mu­seum (fig. 45) is in a similar style. The saint dominates the scene and stands out against the intense red of the background, enveloped as she is in a great damask gown decorated with large gold circles. Her companions gaily bustle about her, and their strongly-defined features have a very pink and compact quality which is reminiscent of a group of Bohemian Madonnas painted about 1400.

The only other painter whose work reveals such an original, northern tone is Zanino di Pietro, but he has a liking for the grotesque in human features and his composition is generally German in manner. This can be seen in the crowded Crucifixion in the triptych at Rieti and even better in the Scenes from the Passion in the tapestries in the Museo Marciano.

As Longhi rightly suggested, it was Zanino di Pietro who supplied the drawings for these tapestries, which were then woven by Franco-Flemish artists who reversed the drawings and gave them a more northern tone (fig. 46). But the wide borders with spiky leaves are just like those which can be found all along the Alps from Piedmont to Trento or Bressanone; and it is not difficult to find quite close simi­larities between his Road to Calvary and, say, the one by Jaquerio at Ran verso. Here is further evidence, then, of the circulation of the same iconography and artistic spirit all over the Alpine regions. The fact that Zanino’s chief works are in the Marches suggests that he was most influential outside his native region, and that his expressionism may have lent vigour to painting in the Marches and even along the Dalmatian coast.

Leaving on one side this rather northern phenomenon, we find that the most typical representative of the strictly Venetian International Gothic style is Jacobello del Fiore. His early polyptychs at Teramo and Pesaro—painted just after the turn of the century—show only too clearly their links with the modest local art of the 1570s and 1580s, in which tall, lean saints were gradually becoming modified and enhanced with Gothic rhythms and elegant costumes. But in the Stockholm trip­tych with the Adoration of the Magi (fig. 47), he chose a better source of inspiration. He developed the more lyrical and imaginative vein of the Master of Sant’Elsino, so that we find an imaginative procession of camels and horses which, though drawn without depth, stands out from amongst jagged spurs of rock.

In all his subsequent work Jacobello continued to make judicious use of the various styles then current in Venice. His Madonna of Mercy of about 1415 (fig. 48) in the Accademia, for example, was influenced by Gentile da Fabriano, who toned down his sentiment, colour and rhythm. Similar in treatment is a hitherto unknown St. Catherine (fig. 49) to which my attention was drawn by Longhi, in w hose collec­tion it now* is. She holds with balanced symmetry part of a wheel and a palm—the symbols of her martyrdom. The folds of her pale blue gown with its bright red lining reach rhythmically up her neck and even touch her very fair hair; and her bright and fresh complexion gives her face an unusually frank and smiling grace, in spite of the faint suggestion of the Byzantine tradition in the trace of shadow at the top of her nose.

Only in the Scenes from the Life of St. Lucy in the Pinacoteca at Fermo (fig. 50), painted before 1420, did Jacobello succeed in recapturing such delightful grace. Against the background of groups of soldiers, poor people, noblemen and subtly imaginative decoration, St. Lucy herself stands out for her noble and steadfast, but not insipid candour in all her actions: the distribution of alms, her defence and even her martyrdom. Faced with death, she stands erect in her rich, pearl-stud­ded dress, surrounded by vermilion flames which lick about her but scarcely touch her.

Unfortunately Jacobello’s later works do not reach the same high standard. His tendency to switch from one style to another led him to adopt the complicated, ill* understood and cryptic manner ofGiambono later on. There is already a suggestion of this in his clumsy Justice with two Archangels (1421), and it is even stronger in the late Coronation of the Virgin in the Accademia in Venice.

Giambono had begun his career about 1420, and was therefore young enough to prolong the life ol International Gothic art until nearly 1460 with paintings which increasingly suggest a state of decline and decay. But his best Madonnas— those in the Museo Correr, the Ca’ d’Oro (fig. 52) and the Hertz Collection—echo Gentile da Fabriano’s luxuriousness and melancholy, especially in the exotic faces with slightly slanting eyes beneath lofty eyebrows, in which a luminous pallor is contrasted with delicate touches of shading. The gentle fall of the draperies is typical of Gentile da Fabriano, but is here complicated by a succession of folds revealing both rides of the thick velvets and rich embroidered damasks, so that the Correr Madonna has no reality other than that which it gains from its cryptic pattern. This almost baroque taste for luxury reaches what is perhaps its highest level in the Archangel Michael in the Berenson Collection (fig. 51). This is the central part of a polyptycli now split between Padua, the Museo Bardini in Florence and the National Gallery in Washington. The colours stand out against the dark green ground with all the translucency of fine lacquers, while the figure of the archangel has a subtle symmetry” and an insistent frontality which recall the style of Niccol6 di Pietro. In fact Giambono s work seems to be more closely linked to Niccol6 di Pietro than to the art of Verona.

But Giambono’s painting can also convey a keen sense of pain or grief and even becomes exprcssionistic in the tear-stained faces of the mourners in the Dormition of the Virgin at Verona. In other works of his, however, this vein becomes simpler and more intimate and so conveys a stronger sense of pathos. This can be seen in the Stigmatization of St. Francis in the Cini Collection. The strain and pain in the saint’s face is seen against a landscape like those of Pisanello, in suffused light reminiscent of Gentile da Fabriano.

There is a slight suggestion of plasticity and monumentality in the frescoes of the Serego tomb in Sant’Anastasia and in the St. Clirysogonns on Horseback in San Trovaso in Venice. Particularly in the latter, however—painted between 1450 and 1440—the lazily curving outlines and the insistence on decorative effect show that Giambono deliberately dissociated himself from the new art which was gradually gaining strength in the hands of subtle and sensitivepainterslike Jacopo Bellini and Antonio Vivarini.

What we find in northern Italy at about 1440 is not really the birth of a new age, but rather what Longhi calls “a world in gestation”, as the aims of contemporary art converge with those of the late work of Masolino. The capricious and abstract use of line is modified to produce calm and balanced rhythms. Light is now used to give solidity to form and model it slightly, thus freeing it from the exclusive tyranny of line; and a sort of sweet melancholy and calm dignity seems to give new life to the old tradition of medieval classicism.

The chief representative of this new world is Antonio Vivarini, at least until about 1445, or rather until his brother Bartolomeo became his close collaborator and added his own artisan sense of solidity to Antonio’s ethereal forms. In the panel of St. Ursula and her Companions (figs. 54, 55), which Antonio painted for the seminary at Brescia, the saint’s companions seem to use the staffs of the two banners to steady their long, slender bodies crowned with delightful little heads of fair hair decked with red and black ribbons; and the artist’s line wanders with quiet elegance into the shawls about their necks and the sleeves and folds of their robes. In the polyptycli from Santo Stefano, now in Vienna, and the St. Sabina in San Zaccaria in Venice, Vivarini succeeds delightfully in blending this quiet tenderness of form and feeling with dazzling jewel-like colours; while in the famous panels of Martyrs at Bergamo and Bassano he ventures to make historical allusions and suggestions of perspective in an atmosphere of evocative fancy and rich ornamentation, which were to influence Squarcione and even the more traditional work of CriveUi.

The key point in this development is 1440. At about that time Jacopo Bellini clearly still belonged to the world of late Gothic art and especially that of Gentile da Fabriano, with whom he collaborated in Florence as early as 1425. In the St. Jerome in Verona, animals like those of Pisandlo graze in the unreal landscape of rocky spurs and pebble-strewn river beds; but the whole scene is bathed in a pale, even light and one can faintly discern the “new” motif of the classical cippus.

In 1441 Jacopo Bellini competed with Pisanello in Ferrara on a portrait of Lio- nello d’Este at the feet of the Virgin. Again his painting is clearly related to the bright pointille style of Gentile da Fabriano, and this link is still more evident in the two panels of the Annunciation in Sant’Alessandro at Brescia (lig. 55), where the gilding radiates a diffused light and there is also a touch of reality about the flow of the draperies.

There is a small group of minor, but by no means negligible followers of Jacopo Bellini and Antonio Vivarini. They include Donato Bragadin, the Master of the Scenes from the Life of the Virgin in the Louvre and especially the Master of the Ludlow Annunciation. The last of these was perhaps not an Italian, but he was a refined painter who adapted Jacopo’s manner to his own taste for exotic and effective graphic detail. One’s glance is enchanted as it moves from the vase of Flowers, cage of doves and basket of clothes in the foreground to the fantastic succession of architectural struc­tures in perspective, and then to the distant background of misty hills conveyed in the most delicate of hues.

The work of Squarcione is less immediately associated with the tender, almost ethereal forms of these extreme examples of Gothic art, for he is better known as the source of inspiration of a style which seeks intense plastic effects. Yet the Madonna in the Vitetti Collection and the Madonna with straw-coloured hair in the Musee Jacquemart-Andr6 in Paris take up the ethereal forms of Vivarini and add to them a note of extravagance and humour. This particular note is very clear in the Saints of the famous polyptych in Padua (fig. 56). The tortuous knottiness of their forms is much more graphic than plastic, and recurs in the work of his subtlest follower, Schiavone, who worked with Squarcione before 1460.

Also worthy of mention is Squarcione’s series of panels of Saints belonging to a polyptych probably painted for some destination in Lombardy, but now split be­tween museums in Bergamo and Pavia and the Longhi Collection. They are of interest, because their style is similar to that of Bonifacio Bembo and provides further evidence of the advance westwards of the minor Venetian Renaissance and its links with Lombard painting after 1440.

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