International Gothic Art in Italy (Part 7)


International Gothic painting in Umbria had its beginnings between 1370 and 1380 in works like Ugolino di Prete llario’s frescoes in the apse of Orvieto Cathedral. These have recently been placed in their true light by Longhi. “Though flat”, he points out, “they vibrate within the lofty space they occupy, like mosaics or tapestries ante lit ter am … and reveal a breadth of interest in life and dress, the near and the distant, interiors and exteriors, town and country” which foreshadows the coming investigations of the great Lombard miniaturists. And the diptych which Cola Petruccioli painted for the town of Spello in 1585 (fig. 70) is so rich in gold and silks, bright light, strange gestures and intimacy of feeling that it makes him an immediate precursor of Gentile da Fabriano.

It is quite impossible, however, to assess exactly how much the art of Orvieto, Siena, Lombardy or any other individual centre contributed to the formation of Gentile da Fabriano’s style, since Iris genius for assimilating outside influences and his passion for the adventures of travel make any attempt at definition very hazardous. We have already mentioned, for example, a small group of his works which seem to contain echoes of Lombard art, even though they were painted in his native region in the first decade of the century. The St. Francis in the Crenna Collection (fig. 71) is one of these, and so is the small altarpiece in Berlin, with its delicate and subtly varied rhythms rendered in the fleeting fall of light and shade. The great Valle Romita polyptych in the Brera displays in addition the twin quali­ties which are essential to an understanding of Gentile da Fabriano’s art: a lyrical treatment of line and a naturalistic vision based on a convincing use of light which illuminates and caresses every substance, every piece of drapery and every natural object on which it falls. It must be emphasised, however, that the Brera polyptych cannot be judged entirely on the same basis as other more Lombard works by Gentile, for its style is broader and more mature. The refinement of the art of Orvieto in the gilding and subtle paintwork is accompanied by a richness of line and colour and an untrammelled breadth of composition reminiscent of Sienese painting, while the careful analysis of the surface reality of human features makes his St. Jerome and St. Francis (fig. 72) very like the figures of Malouel or Broederlam.

It has often been suggested that Gentile da Fabriano’s presence in his native Marches in the early years of the fifteenth century must have had a decisive influence on local art at that time. The manner and sensibility of Lorenzo Salimbeni da San- severino are so clearly northern in tone, however, that the possible influence of Gentile da Fabriano becomes irrelevant, since the Marches must have acquired a decided taste for northern art at an early stage through a knowledge of miniatures. The triptych of the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine in the Pinacoteca at Sanseverino (it is dated 1400 and even if the date has been altered, as many histo­rians maintain, it cannot have been painted much later) is a striking example of elegant refinement in a strictly international manner. The haloes, the crown, and the architectural ornamentation in the side panels are picked out in relief on the gold ground, as in Lombard art, and the figures stand upon carpets of roses, cyclamen and lush plants—all conveyed with the accuracy of a botanist. The delicate and dry linear style sharply outlines the figures and gives an edge to the hems of the dra­peries, painted in an unusual combination of colours and tones: St. Catherine, severe and slender in her embroidered gown, has the appearance of a Chinese princess (fig. 78). Some of the saints in the fragments of frescoes in San Lorenzo in Doliolo at Sanseverino (1407) have an elegance of costume which is still more Lombard. A good example is St. Eustace with liis impressive hunting horn and long pointed hose.

The work of Niccolb di Pietro and Zanino di Pietro in the Marches may well have strengthened Lorenzo da Sanseverino’s taste for northern art later on. At any rate, his Scenes from the Life of St. John the Baptist at Urbino have a delightful blend of aristocratic and plebeian vivacity, and the coral pinks, soft greens and whites on a deep azure ground, as thick as velvet, lend a note of gaiety, while the formal arrangement in a series of crowded superimposed planes surrounded by inscribed margins is reminiscent of French tapestries. They suggest that Lo­renzo had been inspired by some excellent tapestry brought to the Marches at an early date.

In the St. John Preaching (fig. 76) the young and earnest saint addresses groups of wealthy citizens who settle down as best they can amidst rocks, delicate shrubs and spiky leaves, so that one’s impression is of a picnic in the country or a hunting party on the way home. The Baptism of St. John has the tone of a popular festival on the banks of the Jordan, teeming with fish—and we notice the toast being drunk under the rustic arbour. But there are refinements about the Baptism of Christ (fig. 77) and the Meeting at the Golden Gate which remind us of the style of miniatures. Notice the rings of cherubs about the figure of God, and the flow and sharp folds of the draperies, the capricious elegance of which recalls the work of Michelino da Besozzo.

It certainly cannot have been easy for Lorenzo da Sanseverino to maintain such a happy balance between carefree joyfulness and a measured, controlled style. Still less can it have been easy for his many followers scattered in various towns in Um­bria (which had a common border with much of the inland side of the Marches), such as Gubbio, Spello or Foligno. For all these art centres were much less open to influences from the Veneto than the coastal strip of the Marches.

The Madonna del Belvedere at Gubbio by the Umbrian artist Ottaviano Nelli (the date on the fresco must be read as 1408 or 1415) shows both his debt to Lorenzo da Sanseverino and also the differences between their two styles. Compared with his earlier polyptych at Pietralunga, this work tries to be more up-to-date by adopt­ing the style of miniatures in the sober elegance of the angels playing musical instruments and the striking wealth of embroidered and glittering gold. Yet the rougher, more down-to-earth quality of the two powerful figures of saints at the sides shows the Emilian trend in Nelli’s art, probably derived from other painters in the Marches such as Carlo da Camerino or Arcangelo di Cola.

This combination of the plastic vigour of Bolognese art with the elegant narrative vivacity of the Marches, is typical of the best of Nelli’s many fresco cycles. In 1410 or soon after, he painted a number of delightful middle-class and domestic scenes in his Scenes from the Life of the Virgin in the church of San Francesco at Gubbio. They seem to come straight from a Lombard sketch-book. The same high quality is maintained in the frescoes in the church of Sant’Agostino at Gubbio, painted in 1415 or thereabouts; but it has deteriorated by the time we reach the frescoes in the Trinci Chapel at Foligno. Their content is too anecdotal and popular and they have a facile quality which suggests hasty execution.

Nelli’s rather provincial and popular interpretation of late Gothic elegance can also be seen in his panel paintings, and especially in the polyptych in the Vatican, recently reconstructed by Roli, with the Adoration of the Magi in the centre. However, there is a small panel of his in the Longlii Collection (fig. 79) in which his technique is unusually subtle. Under the triple arches of what looks like a puppet theatre, John the Baptist points to an unwound scroll bearing his warning to Herod and Herodias, while Herodias, dressed up like some lady of the manor, listens to the argument with a suspicious and sulky expression.

Nelli’s art never reaches great heights, but he illustrates very well how Umbrian painting fits into the general pattern of International Gothic art in Italy. We might sum up Umbrian art by saying that its vast collection of frescoes constitutes a more popular, and sometimes quite decadent counterpart to Lombard miniatures, with which it shares a liking for the anecdotal and for realistic detail. There are some Umbrian frescoes, however, which will bear comparison with Lombard miniatures. Examples are the Scenes from the Lives of Romulus and Remus (unfortunately damaged), the Liberal Arts and the Virtues, all in the Palazzo Trinci at Foligno. The Virtues are represented as extremely elegant persons intent on aristocratic occupations and are surrounded by borders of delightful roses and inscriptions in French, the whole having a suggestion of tapestry about it.

A different but vigorous style of painting is to be found at Camerino, the home town of that minor but inspired artist, Arcangelo di Cola. Zeri has rightly shown that the work he produced before he went to Florence in 1420 was much influenced by Carlo da Camerino who, at least by the closing years of the fourteenth century, “was turning out a refined and original kind of Gothic art in which reminiscences of the Bolognese school are combined with distant echoes of the Lorenzettis”. We can see this in his Annunciation in the Pinacoteca at Urbino. In the case of Arcan­gelo di Cola, however, these local sources of inspiration are continually enriched and refined under the influence of Gentile da Fabriano. Thus his early Madonna del Latte in the Museum at Ancona (fig. 80) has a subtlety about the gilding which clearly echoes the refinement of Gentile da Fabriano, while the greedy gesture of the child has all the flavour of Emilian art. The influence of Gentile da Fabriano is even more pronounced in the fluid rhythms and gentle decorative effect of his Madonnas, particularly the very fine one in the Frick diptych in New York. It is true, of course, that we can see the influence of the unsettled art of Florence of the 1420s in the later altarpiece now in Mexico City, yet the subtle overall chiaroscuro effect of Gentile da Fabriano is still evident, and is mingled with, touches of striking naturalism in the lateral figures, the gleaming fish and the drops of water flying about St. Christopher’s legs.

After spending several years in Florence, Arcangelo di Cola returned home and clearly tried to associate himself with developments which had been going on in Umbria and the Marches since 1450 under the influence of Bartolomeo di Tom- maso da Foligno.

Bartolomeo di Tommaso’s career began in the period 1425—55, and his early paintings belong within the sphere of Carlo da Camerino’s work at Ancona. He was subsequently influenced by Salimbeni and Gentile da Fabriano and then went on to adapt the novelties brought back from Tuscany by Arcangelo di Cola, blend­ing them with echoes of the Sienese artist Sassetta. By the 1440s this complex process of development had brought him to the stage of using a difficult, allusive and abstract style. The first signs of this occur in the Rospigliosi triptych of about 1445 in the Vatican, which Longhi has shown to be his work.Within the rich engraved frame of Gothic arches and spires, the few colours used—sulphurous yellows, vio­lets, reds and blues—are combined in a deep and dense chiaroscuro; and there is something quite abstract about Mary’s brocade dress, which Zeri describes as an enormous hieroglyphic”, “a gigantic mandorla inlaid in a variety of colours . And yet, unlike the Magi in the Adoration of the Magi (fig. 81), it contains a number of inventive touches in the purest International Gothic style.

His style reaches its most extreme form in the late frescoes in the Paradisi Chapel in the church of San Francesco at Terni, attributed to him by Longhi. The Last Judgement makes continual use of conventional symbols, literary references and archaisms, and provides the most extreme example of his liking for the unreal in the coldly grotesque treatment of the figures. They bow and bend at the whim of the harsh undulations of concave, convex and serpentine lines within a space which has lost all contact with objective reality.

Apart from a minor artist like Nicola di Maestro Antonio, Bartolomeo di Tom- maso had no direct followers. His work is of special interest, however, as the most striking example of this final stage in International Gothic painting, and in addition it can help us to understand a whole group of artists whose careful anachronisms and romantic restlessness constitute an attempt to use a limited knowledge of the new art of Florence for risky experiments in a hermetic, calligraphic style which they continued to adopt right up to the closing years of the century. Gerolamo di Giovanni for example, combined Bartolomeo’s incisive portrayal of character with echoes of Squarcione and the new art of Piero della Francesca. It is possible, too, that Delitio, an artist from the Abruzzi, was initially influenced by Bartolomeo’s work at Camerino before absorbing other influences, especially from Tuscany. But Bartolomeo di Tommaso is even more important for an understanding both of the minor, strictly local art of Latium during the 1440s and 1450s with its overtones of folklore, and also of the meticulous, almost fussy style of Giovanni da Gaeta.

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