Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Florence: From Craft to Art, Part 2

*Before I get started, a little note. I got so swept up in this particular topic that it went way beyond a single post. So I'll post what I've got so far, and finish it later in the following post. So Part 2 will be in 2 parts.

When I first visited Florence over 20 years ago, worshipers were not quite so thoroughly segregated from tourists as they are today in the city’s great churches. It was an odd and vaguely dismaying spectacle to watch the pious and elderly pass by major masterpieces of art to pray before some brightly colored plaster statue of the Virgin Mary with a halo of electric lights.

I suppose for them, the major masterpieces of art passed into the hands of tourists generations ago. In becoming transformed into museum spectacles, these great paintings and sculptures lost their religious meaning for the people who still used the church as a church. Today, we snicker at these images. I saw the Jesus-of-the-Sacred-Heart-with-bedroom-eyes all over Florence at one time, in just about every church on a side altar with racks of electric votive candles.

These images fail for us because we look at them aesthetically. But, these religious images were never intended to be regarded aesthetically. They were made to serve a function. That function is to assist people in their prayers.

We forget that those great masterpieces of art covering the walls of the great Florentine churches were originally made for the same purpose as the brightly colored picture of Padre Pio with La Madonna Santissima, to assist people in their prayers. And yet, their transformation into objects of aesthetic admiration began as soon as they were completed. Great mosaic and fresco cycles were made to assist and instruct the faithful at prayer, but their beauty glorified the church, the city, and brought distinction to the artist and to the patrons who paid for the whole work. An amazing and wondrous work of art perhaps dimly reflected God’s glory to the pious, but it really glorified the city that possessed it. The great work of art announced to the world the wealth, power, and ability of the city that owned it. Cities, congregations, patrons, and artists competed with one another, sought to outdo each other in making amazing things intended to last for ages. In Florence of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, these two purposes, religious function and civic glory, were not seen to be in conflict. God after all showed His continuing favor to Florence by blessing the city with wealth and with success upon success.

Italo-Byzantine Painting

Italian painting from the 12th to the 14th centuries was very conservative, deeply loyal to Byzantine art. The Byzantine Empire ruled Italy only briefly in the 6th century before being driven out by invading Lombards and rebelling Ostrogoths. The Italians remained deeply loyal for many centuries to its memory. The Italians associated Byzantine art and Byzantine culture with the memory of the Roman Empire, not Classical Rome, but Christian Rome, the Rome of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian.
The Venetians originally considered their state to be a kind of outpost of the Byzantine Empire. When they built their first great churches in the 11th century, they imported many Byzantine artists to work on them as architects, stonemasons, and mosaicists. Saint Mark’s in Venice, and the churches on the nearby island of Torcello were the first major works of Byzantine art made in Italy since the 6th century churches in Ravenna. The mosaics in Saint Mark’s have been heavily restored and modified, but the original mosaics survive in the churches in Torcello.

Cathedral of Torcello, near Venice, 11th century

Apse of Torcello Cathedral

Mosaic in the apse of Torcello Cathedral showing the Virgin Mary as Theotokos with the Apostles below, 12th century

. True to Byzantine liturgical requirements, the Blessed Virgin Mary dominates the apse half dome over the altar. Her role as Theotokos summons to mind the Incarnation and the mysteries of the Mass at the altar. Her solitary figure rises in a sea of reflected golden light. The mosaic decoration at Torcello adapts the Byzantine liturgical format to the Western basilican church.

Adapting Byzantine art to Western religious traditions was not easy or straightforward. The very formulaic liturgical art of Byzantium that emerged out of the 9th century Iconoclastic Controversy did not fit Western religious needs quite so perfectly. Eastern Orthodox liturgical regulations and their theological justifications were so complex that most Byzantine religious artists were in holy orders. By contrast, Western artists were almost all from the laity. Italian monks and other religious did not take up painting in significant numbers until the 15th century. Byzantine mosaic cycles are almost always organized around liturgical function, not narrative order. In Byzantine churches, the Theotokos usually occupies the half-dome over altars, as she does at Torcello, and as she does in the monastery church of Hosios Loukas in Greece half way between Athens and Delphi.

Mosaics in the apse of the monastery church of Hosios Loukas, 11th century.

Occupying the small dome right over the altar of Hosios Loukas is a mosaic of Pentecost. In narrative terms, this makes no sense, collapsing the distance between the Incarnation and Pentecost. The proximity of the two stories is liturgical, referring to the function of the altar and the theological nature of the Eucharist. Something else that strikes Western eyes as strange is the marginal location of the scene of the Crucifixion in Hosios Loukas.

Mosaic of the Crucifixion in the narthex of Hosios Loukas.

Narthex of Hosios Loukas, the Crucifixion mosaic above is on the wall to the right just beyond the mosaic of Christ over the door.

It is nowhere in the Naos or sanctuary of the church proper. It is in the Narthex. For Western Christians, this is the central image of religious life. In this Byzantine mosaic cycle, it is an episode for the instruction of catechumens and novices confined to the narthex.

The Tuscan Painted Cross

Painted cross, 14th century, hanging over the altar of San Francesco in Arezzo (the frescoes in the background are by Piero della Francesca, 15th century)

We think of the painted crosses that appeared in churches all over central Italy as Byzantine, and stylistically they are. But liturgically they are not. These crosses are very Western. They were painted to hang right over the altar, to refer to the altar and explain its sacraments. However, instead of using imagery organized for liturgical instruction, the painted cross is imagery out of a narrative, the narrative of the Life of Christ and of Salvation History. Western Christianity orients itself primarily toward salvation. The Western Christian art that emerged in the 9th century is narrative art, telling the stories of salvation. The painted crosses come right out of that very Latin tradition. The Tuscan crosses are a Latin adaptation of Greek Christian form. The most famous of all the Tuscan painted crosses is the San Damiano Crucifix painted sometime in the 12th century.

San Damiano Cross, 12th century, Assisi

Circle of Giotto, The Cross of San Damiano Speaking to St. Francis, fresco, Upper Church, Assisi, ca. 1290s

This was the cross that supposedly spoke to Saint Francis, commanding him to restore the Church. True to Byzantine form and spirit, Christ stands alive and triumphant in the center of this vivid cross. Like the Byzantine Pantocrator in a dome mosaic, Christ commands despite being nailed to the cross. His followers surround Him in the center (presumably these are the faithful who remained with Him at His death). He ascends into heaven in the top panel. There is a large population of angels. The emphasis of this cross is not on His suffering, but on his triumphant Godhead. Storytelling is kept to a minimum.

These crosses began to change in form and spirit in the 13th century with the arrival of Romanesque and Gothic influences
in addition to continuing influences from the Byzantine realms.

Cross from Pisa, ca. 1200

Christ suffering on the Cross is a surprisingly recent invention. The first great examples of the Crucifix that we are familiar with appear in Germany in the 10th century. Their influence, together with that of the mendicant preachers, met the growing need for images of a suffering and sympathetic Christ. Narrative content begins to appear on these crosses, usually the events of Christ’s Passion. A very fine example from about 1200 is this cross from Pisa. Christ no long stands triumphant on the cross, immune to mortal suffering. He now begins to hang from the cross. The head droops, the arms bend, and the eyes close in death or in suffering. The nailed feet appear to hang instead of stand. Small narrative panels surround the central figure. On the left are three scenes from the Passion, all creations of popular preaching. We see under Christ’s right arm the Descent from the Cross, the Lamentation below that, and the Entombment below that. On the right are scenes from the Resurrection: The Three Women at the Tomb just under Christ’s left arm, the appearance at Emmaus under that, and Christ Appearing to the Disciples under that. At the bottom of the cross is Christ opening Hell. At the top of the cross appears to be Christ of the Last Judgment with archangels. Gold leaf surrounds all of the figures. On a practical level, the gold leaf makes the imagery visible in a dark church, putting them into vivid silhouette. On another level, the gold leaf puts all of these events, the whole narrative, into the eternal present tense of Heaven. Many of these crosses stood on rood screens (called tramezzi or ponti in Italy), or they hung directly over altars. Many of these crosses still hang over altars in churches and chapels today. They call attention to the altar, and show the meaning of what takes place there.

Giunta da Pisano, Crucifix in San Domenico, Bologna, ca. 1250

Italo-Byzantine Rome

The Popes of 13th century Rome, such as Innocent III and Nicholas IV, initiated major campaigns to restore the city’s great though aging and dilapidated churches. Artists in Rome spent much of their careers restoring once immense and now lost Early Christian mosaic cycles in great churches such as St. Peter’s, the Lateran, and Saint Paul’s. Byzantine craftsmen were very much in demand as master mosaicists to restore ancient mosaics and to train Italian artists in the craft.
Sometimes, these artists were commissioned to replace mosaics that were thought damaged beyond repair, or more likely, simply too old-fashioned. Such was the case with the great apse mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore. Pope Nicholas IV ordered the ancient original replaced, and gave the task to Jacopo Torriti.

Jacopo Torriti, apse mosaic, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, ca. 1294

Torriti’s great mosaic is a magnificent hybrid of Byzantine form and some very un-Byzantine subject matter. This is the most important mosaic in the church visible from almost everywhere inside. Instead of the Theotokos required by Eastern Orthodoxy, we have a very Western image of salvation. Mary, the first Christian, receives the crown of glory at Christ’s right hand, an image of the reward that awaits all the faithful who die in grace. Christ and the Virgin sit together on the same throne in the middle of a great blue aureole filled with stars. While the forms of the Virgin and Christ are very Byzantine with the formalized drapery and flattened chiaroscuro, the figure composition is very French Gothic, right off the tympana of any number of French cathedrals. The twining pattern of acanthus is very Roman, specifically Early Christian Rome. If we look carefully, we can see all kinds of birds and other creatures inhabiting its branches. The most truly Byzantine scenes are those below showing the Nativity and the Dormition.

Pietro Cavallini, who the 15th century Florentine master sculptor Ghiberti refers to as “the most noble master,” created a much more subtle hybrid style whose monumentality would influence other Italian painters such as Cimabue, Duccio, and especially Giotto. Very little of Cavallini’s work survives, but what is left is striking. He was commissioned to do a series of narrative panels of the life of the Virgin just below an older apse mosaic in the church of Santa Maria Trastevere (“Across the Tiber”) in Rome.

Mosaics in Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome, the apse mosaic is from the 12th century. Pietro Cavallini made the mosaic panels of the Life of the Virgin beneath the apse mosaic in the 1290s.

He remains very loyal to the early Christian prototypes that he spent much of his life restoring, as we can see in the mosaic of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

Pietro Cavallini, The Presentation in the Temple, mosaic in Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome, ca. 1290s.

It is a grave, simple composition focusing on a Roman ciborium where Simeon takes the Christ Child the left of the altar. Joseph with the offering of doves repeats Simeon’s gesture. What is new is a sense of space and volume in the rudimentary perspective of the stage-prop architecture. We can really see this in the very painterly treatment of the drapery. Instead of reducing drapery folds to flat pattern, Cavallini makes them describe the solid bodies underneath with the most subtle gradations of color. The figures are even more genuinely architectural and solid than the stage prop buildings they move amongst. They are built up out of spheres and cylinders beneath the very fluid drapery.

This painterly effect appears even more dramatically in Cavallini’s one surviving fresco, a fragment of a once very large Last Judgment that filled the west wall of the nearby church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

Pietro Cavallini, Last Judgment (fragment), fresco, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome, ca. 1290s

Pietro Cavallini, Apostles from the Last Judgement

Pietro Cavallini, Apostles from The Last Judgment.

Pietro Cavallini, head of an Apostle from the Last Judgment.

Pietro Cavallini, angels from The Last Judgment

Pietro Cavallini, head of an angel from The Last Judgement.

All that remains is the Christ the Judge enthroned with angels and enthroned Apostles flanking Him. Chiaroscuro is the use of light and dark to describe three-dimensional form on a flat surface. Byzantine artists go to ingenious lengths to defeat that spatial quality of light and dark. Cavalini stops fighting it, and instead embraces that spatial aspect of chiaroscuro. He turns the thrones of the Apostles at an angle facing inward further enhancing the spatial quality of the picture. Gradations of light and color describe solid monumental forms underneath flowing drapery. Cavalini’s Apostles and angels have a heroic grandeur and simplicity of form that looks forward to Giotto, and eventually to Masaccio and Piero della Francesca.

Italo-Byzantine Florence

Examples of Byzantine art, like this 13th century panel painting, continued to find their way into Italy and to profoundly influence Italian painters.

13th century Byzantine Icon

Among them is the first great named Florentine painter, Coppo di Marcovaldo. Since so much of his surviving work is in Siena, and in cities once allied with Siena (such as Orvieto), some people speculate that Coppo was taken prisoner in the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. Indeed, he was working at that time, and it is entirely possible that he may have fought in the battle as a soldier in the Florentine militia. However, it is more likely that he was commissioned by patrons in these cities and traveled there to do the work. Coppo takes the Byzantine panel format and uses it on a grand scale, such as the seven foot high Madonna and Child in Orvieto in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi.

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Maesta, Santa Maria dei Servi, Orvieto, ca. 1265

In contrast to the Byzantine prototypes, Coppo’s Madonna has a kind of brittle almost expressionist emotional quality. Instead of the easy transitions of form, and self-possession of Byzantine art, Coppo’s forms are mostly angular and seem to take on a life of their own independent of describing anything. This is especially true in the gold striations in the Madonna’s blue robes. Coppo’s Christ child follows the Byzantine prototypes very closely, but much with much more vitality. He sits much less securely on His Mother’s lap. She regards us with a melancholy beyond what the prototypes require. The indented halo continues that kind of nervous radiance that we see in the gilded striations of the robe. Coppo’s large Madonna and Child is the earliest of a type of Italo-Byzantine composition called a Maesta, the Virgin and Child in majesty enthroned in heaven with attendant saints and angels. Two angels attend the Virgin behind the throne in Coppo’s painting.

Coppo’s nervous emotionalism becomes even more pronounced and astonishing in a painted cross now in San Gimignano.

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Crucifixion, ca. 1250, Pinacoteca, San Gimignano

Medieval art tends to reduce forms it cannot quite comprehend, like those of the human body, to pattern. Coppo takes that medieval pattern and makes it expressive of pain and agony. As in the Servite Madonna in Orvieto, forms take on an expressive life of their own, especially those of the hair and in Christ’s face.

Time has not been kind to the work of Cenni di Pepi, better known as Cimabue, a nickname in old Florentine dialect meaning “ox-head.” His great painted cross that once stood on the tramezzo of Santa Croce in Florence was severely damaged in the 1966 flood. Some of his frescoes in the ceiling vaults of the Upper Church of San Francesco in Assisi vanished forever in the disastrous 1997 earthquake.
Vasari began his Lives of the Great Italian Painters and Sculptors with Cimabue. He considered Cimabue’s career to be the beginning of the grand progress of Florentine (and thus Italian) art toward the High Renaissance summit. Cimabue was not a beginning, but an end. Cimabue was the last great master of the centuries long Italo-Byzantine style. He was one of the great conservatives of art, breathing new life into traditional formats. His work combines the expressive emotionalism of Coppo with the grandeur of form created in Rome. Even in its now ruined state, the Santa Croce cross has a tragic emotionalism expressed through abstract form that comes out of Coppo.

Cimabue, Painted Cross from Santa Croce, Florence, ca. 1285 (as the cross appeared before the 1966 flood)

Cimabue's Santa Croce Cross in its present state after the 1966 flood and after restoration.

Christ’s whole body now has the emotional force of the head in Coppo’s cross. Cimabue makes the body of Christ into a large sagging S shape against the hard geometry of the cross. Cimabue’s crucifix has some of the painterliness and subtle gradations of tone found in Cavallini’s work. Cimabue gives his cross a grandeur of form beyond both of those artists. Cimabue’s monumental sense of form universalizes Coppo’s emotionalism into something that stands for all tragedy and all time.

We can see this same tragic grandeur again in another splendid ruin of a once great painting, Cimabue’s fresco of the Crucifixion in the Upper Church in Assisi.

Cimabue's frescoes in the apse of the Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi

Cimabue, Crucifixion, Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi, ca. 1280

Photo-negative of Cimabue's Assisi Crucifixion.

It is part of a large cycle of paintings in the apse of the Upper Church. It is a wreck. Vasari, writing in the 16th century, described it as barely legible. Cimabue used a kind of chemically unstable lead white, apparently for its brightness. Over time, the lead oxidized and blackened. Meanwhile, the colors of the shadows faded creating a kind of photo-negative effect.
His vision of the Crucifixion is violent and very grand. There is violence on earth and violent emotion in heaven. The giant figure of the dying Christ links both. The large sagging S shape of Christ against the hard geometry of the cross is even more pronounced in this painting. On Christ’s right, His friend’s and followers grieve. Mary Magadalen reaches out toward Him in vain. To Christ’s left, the crowd mocks and jeers Him. Raised fists of mockery ironically echo Mary Magdalen’s desperate gesture. In heaven, angels swarm toward the center in a composition that beautifully continues the reach of Christ’s out-stretched arms. Though for us, this painting sadly is a ruin, it once influenced generations of later artists. We will see its reverberations through almost two centuries of painting.

Here is Cimabue’s version of the Assumption of the Virgin from the same Assisi cycle.

Cimabue, Assumption of the Virgin, Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi, ca. 1280

Even in it’s ruined state, this is still a magnificent and moving picture. It’s a composition very similar to Torriti’s apse mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, but much more concentrated and dramatic. Christ, and the recently deceased Virgin sit together and embrace on a rainbow within a single mandorla as they are both borne heavenward by symmetrical groups of angels. The formality of the larger composition puts the emotional tenderness of the embracing Mother and Son into sharp relief.

To be continued …


Leonard said...

Wow, simply wow...thank you so much Doug.


JCF said...

Another awesome post, Doug!

Starting on my trip, and continuing, I began finally LOOKING AT/reading a book I've wanted to see for years (that I own) called "Conventual Franciscans."

It traces the history and saints of the order, and places a heavy emphasis on the "Sacro Convento" at Assisi (w/ dozens and dozens of glorious pictures).

The year this beautiful book was published? 1996 (the year before the disastrous earthquake), Sigh.

Looking forward to the next entry!

Unknown said...

Deeply grateful for this highly informative and well written post-- am going on to read your other posts

(I have pasted whole chunks of your comments to my tumblr blog, hope you don't mind).

Counterlight said...

feel free to paste away, and thank you.