Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tony Curtis 1925 - 2010

He played everything from an androgynous poet in Spartacus to the Boston Strangler, but I'll always remember him in this movie.

Did any other straight guy ever look so good in a dress?

Thanks for everything.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

School is Hell: Gay Kids Growing Up

In response to the alarming rates of suicide among gay and lesbian teens and children, Dan Savage and his husband Terry started this project:

They're right. It really does get better once high school is behind you. At least, that was true in my case. It was also true for Michael. School was hell for both of us. My response was to put my head down and get through it and get out, which I did. I didn't look back. I went from being a sub-mediocre student and pariah to being a dean's list student in community college, and later in art school. Part of that was not only finishing school, but leaving home and leaving my home town and home state behind. That turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I probably decided upon that course as early as age 14, and the thought of it got me through a lot of despair and loneliness.
Michael had an even worse experience. He was bullied constantly throughout school. His response was to defy the assholes. He began dying his hair at 13, partly out of adolescent rebellion, and partly as a way to say "piss off!" to his enemies. He changed his hair color every time Cindi Lauper changed hers. This one high school champion bothered him so much one day that Michael grabbed him and rammed his head down a toilet in the boys' room. It took a coach and an assistant principal to pull Michael off, and to keep him from drowning the asshole like a rat. Michael seriously contemplated dropping out of school, he was so miserable. Holy Mother Church didn't make things any easier either. Michael regularly found himself suspended from catechism class, and finally dropped out of it.

But we both survived. Life now is no bed of roses, but it's a hell of a lot better than what we went through growing up.

When you're a kid and everything seems so new and terrible and insurmountable, it's hard to believe that patience has its reward. I'm not sure I would have believed it. But, try we must. Shining a spotlight on bullying hostile communities and negligent administrators is a big step in the right direction. Gay kids need to hear the message that there's nothing wrong with them, but that there's plenty wrong with the people who torment them.


A lot of people appear to be responding to the alarm bells from our young ones. There is this remarkable posting here.

And here's more from It Gets Better:

I'd be very surprised if there is anyone under 40 who reads this blog, but just in case someone stumbles upon it who's gay and thinks your alone, you have lots of friends out there just waiting. There's a big world out there full of possibility beyond the bullies and the assholes, and you will get past them.

Bill Ghrist provides us with this link to the Southern Poverty Law Center who are making available a free film and instructional kit on the issue of bullying and suicide in school.

Arthur Penn 1922 - 2010

The director of The Miracle Worker and Bonnie and Clyde dies at age 88.

He also directed this movie, which though panned by the critics, remains a longtime favorite of mine:

Religious Ignorance

A few days ago, the NY Times came out with a now famous poll showing that Americans are remarkably ignorant on the subject of religion, including their own faiths. It turns out that atheists and agnostics are the most knowledgeable followed by Jews and Mormons.

I'm not surprised by any of this. Religion is an inescapable part of art history, and I end up teaching a lot of it in my art history classes (all except modern art, significantly). I am always amazed by how little my students know about the subject, and what little they do know, they learned from TV and the movies, not from their churches. It also doesn't help that the public discussion of religion is entirely dominated by fanatics of one kind or another. Every year, I teach classrooms filled with Christian students who do not know the difference between Protestant and Catholic, who've never heard of the Reformation or Counter-Reformation, who've never heard of St. Francis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Ignatius Loyola. The students I've had who appear to be most informed about their own faith are usually Muslims. Most of my students are either Catholic or evangelical with a few Muslims. I used to get a wider religious diversity out in the suburbs with a substantial number of Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and secularists. So far, the Bronx in my experience is religiously a little less diverse, though I get the occasional Wiccan student.

I expect a certain measure of religious ignorance from my evangelical students. Evangelical Christianity does not exactly encourage intellectual activity, and tends to be ahistorical. I'm a little surprised at the ignorance I see in my Catholic students. The Catholic Church has (or had) a vigorous intellectual tradition and used to be very accomplished at producing a large population of religiously literate believers. My Catholic students are no better than my evangelical students when it comes to religious literacy, including about their own faith. I'm always surprised at their surprise when they find out that it is the Pope that has the last word in their church, and not their personal consciences. I'm guessing that American Catholicism is taking a lot of its lead in religious education from the evangelicals, who do not value knowledge, critical thinking, or reflection very much.

We are in the middle of a huge cultural conflict for which we are entirely unprepared. In these matters, our prosaic nature as Americans has not served us well at all. In my experience, most people don't know much about their own cultures, or care very much about them, unless they perceive their culture to be under threat. And yet, like it or not, we live in a cosmopolitan world where negotiating across cultural and religious differences is a necessary skill for survival. Even the Amish and the Hasidim recognize this.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Party Animals

Maybe it's time to scrap Thomas Nast's elephant and donkey for something more accurate and descriptive. Here are my suggestions.


Neville Chamberlain delivering "Peace in our time."


Mussolini in a photo op with peasants.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Taliban Dan

Alan Grayson never pulls punches, not even in his campaign ads:

The right wing punditocracy and the media mandarins are furious. The right can dish it out, but they can't take it.

More Palio Memories

The Macia del Palio:

Something more like what I actually experienced of the above march in 1988 and of the Corteo Storico that precedes the race:

America's General Ludendorf?

General Erich Ludendorf

In the last years of the First World War, the German economy was collapsing. Morale among the troops was near the bottom. Opinion at home became increasingly divided. The Kaiser and his government deferred more and more to the commander at the front, General Erich Ludendorf. Ludendorf effectively ruled Germany from the front lines toward the end. After 1917, Germany became a military dictatorship in all but name. When the offensives of 1918 failed, Ludendorf ordered the Kaiser to abdicate and ordered the Social Democratic Party to form a new government and sue for peace.

Andrew Sullivan seems to feel that something similar may be happening in the USA now with too many civilian leaders on all sides eager to defer to the opinions and wishes of military brass, especially General Petraeus. The situation of the USA is not nearly as desperate as Germany's in 1918, but it is very serious. The economy is in its worst state since the 1930s. Unemployment is at around 10% and not likely to come down anytime soon. Politicians seem much more eager to exploit the fear and anger of the populace rather than do anything about their situation. The USA remains bogged down in 2 long, intractable, and controversial wars.
Could General Petraeus, or the rest of the military brass, be setting us up for some kind of military rule, either directly or from behind the scenes? Perhaps coming in as patriotic peace-makers, national saviors, should the government become paralyzed with division? Does this sound very banana republic? Stay tuned ...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Florence: From Craft ot Art Part 5

The Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence

The Legacy of Giotto


Giotto single-handedly ended the long Italo-Byzantine painting tradition with the success of his work. Patrons in Florence, and around Italy, wanted their artists to produce something similar, something that had the same naturalism, the same drama. Artists themselves eagerly sought to expand upon what Giotto started. For them, his work opened new possibilities that were never there before, the possibility to really distinguish themselves as individual artists with a vision instead of remaining craftsmen realizing allegorical schemes devised by clerics. In the wake of Giotto’s success a generation of very individual artists with distinct visions and styles emerged, the very thing that the Italo-Byzantine style sought to discourage.

Taddeo Gaddi rode Giotto’s coat-tails to success. He had the reputation of being Giotto’s old and reliable assistant, and he inherited Giotto’s shop. And yet, he was a very distinct painter from Giotto. His work has none of Giotto’s sense of dramatic concentration. His compositions usually are much more crowded, with almost melodramatic emotionalism in the figures, and in the settings. Even more than in Giotto, the settings play a role in the drama of Taddeo’s work.
Taddeo’s most famous surviving work is the fresco cycle in the Baroncelli Chapel in Santa Croce in Florence.

Taddeo Gaddi's frescoes of the Life of the Virgin in the Baroncelli Chapel, circa 1328

He probably got the commission through Giotto’s intervention. Giotto signed the altarpiece of the chapel, which looks (to my eye anyway) like a creation of the shop.
Taddeo painted the fresco cycle of the life of the Virgin Mary on the walls. His scenes are much more crowded and dramatic versions of the story than those painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel.

Taddeo Gaddi, The Life of the Virgin

Taddeo Gaddi, The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, from the Baroncelli Chapel

The buildings in the paintings are taller, more elaborate, and less solid than Giotto’s buildings. The young Virgin enters the Temple by climbing up a large stairway set at a very dramatically oblique angle, almost theatrically isolating her as she turns to address the assembled throng like a young diva about to enter the theater. The drama of this composition proved to be very popular and influential with artists in 15th century northern Europe. The same composition appears again verbatim in the Limbourg Brother’s illustrations for the Tres Riches Heures made for the Duc de Berry almost a century later.
Light plays almost exclusively a descriptive role in Giotto’s work. Taddeo makes light play an expressive and dramatic role. For the first time, Taddeo paints the dramatic effect of sudden light in the darkness of night, the star in the night sky guiding the Magi, or in the light of the angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds watching their flocks by night.

Taddeo Gaddi, The Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Star Guiding the Magi from the Baroncelli Chapel

Taddeo Gaddi, The Annunciation to the Shepherds from the Baroncelli Chapel; note the frightened animals as well as the frightened shepherds.

There is a story about Taddeo (whose source I’m still trying to locate), about his fascination with dramatic light effects. He supposedly lost his sight from looking directly into the light of a solar eclipse, and left behind a long confession lamenting that his curiosity prevailed over his faith.
Taddeo’s more expressive style may show the influence of the mystic friar Simone Fidati, who was friends with the artist.
Taddeo’s son, Agnolo Gaddi, inherited the business from his father, and Giotto’s legacy in a kind of Apostolic Succession. He also worked in Santa Croce in the 1380s. Agnolo painted the large elaborate fresco cycle of the Story of the True Cross in the choir behind the high altar. The elaborate and dramatic family style suited the conservative tastes of the late 14th century.

Another pupil of Giotto represented in Santa Croce is Maso di Banco. Almost nothing is known about him, and there is only one surviving uncontested work of his in the Bardi di Vernio Chapel. It shows an episode from a pious legend about Saint Sylvester that takes place in the ruins of the Roman Forum. The saint bravely subdues a dragon who lived in a cave in the Forum, and whose poison breath killed a group of pilgrims to the city.

Maso di Banco, Saint Sylvester and the Dragon, from the Bardi di Vernio Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence, late 1330s

Sylvester subdues the dragon and brings the dead pilgrims back to life. Maso is a very different artist from Taddeo, inheriting his master Giotto’s accomplished integration of figures and setting, and his sense of dramatic concentration. Saint Sylvester appears twice. On the far left, he subdues the dragon. In the center, he raises the dead killed by the dragon before a group of astonished onlookers. The resurrection scene, with allusions to the story of the Raising of Lazarus, dominates the center of the picture. The saint emerging from the cave in the ground is set apart by the small arch that links his head and blessing hand, and by the brilliantly off center series of openings that take us back into the distance to a shadowed crenellated wall. In fact, that is what is so brilliant about this picture, the sense of rhyme and rhythm in all the forms of the picture. The broken arch on the left announces the location of the story in the ruins of the Forum, and echoes the curved upper back of the saint. The isolated column in the foreground sets up the vertical forms of the standing figures and has its answer in the tower in the distance on the far right. We proceed back into the picture in a series of beautifully rhythmic stages.

The most spectacular and ambitious surviving examples of Giotto’s influence are found not it Florence, but in Siena.

Siena and Painting for the Republic

The original republican fresco cycles and decoration of Florence’s Palazzo Publico are long vanished, destroyed when the victorious Medici Grand Dukes transformed the seat of city government into their first ducal residence after 1530.
Those in the older Palazzo Publico in Siena survive.

Palazzo Publico, Siena, begun in 1298

Frescoed interior of the Palazzo Publico, Siena

Siena’s Palazzo Publico was the inspiration for Florence’s headquarters for the city’s commune. Siena’s Palazzo stands on the steep slope of a hill between the city’s upper and lower central piazze. It was originally not quite the symmetrical structure that we see today. The central block was the first part built, followed by the tall Torre della Mangia, which originally stood alone. The central block and the tower were joined together later by low wings, one of which conceals a steep narrow street down to the lower piazza that today serves as the city market. The upper piazza facing the Palazzo, the Campo, is not level, but a kind of shell shaped amphitheater that takes advantage of the natural slope of Siena’s hilltop.
Like Florence’s Palazzo Publico, Siena’s Palazzo and the Torre della Mangia proclaim the hard won supremacy of the commune, the collective of the city’s guilds that governed the city. The Torre reminds us of the dark past of Siena and every central Italian city in anarchy and domination by feuding military nobles who enriched themselves through extortion. The stumps of stone feudal towers are everywhere in Siena, as they are in Florence and all central Italian cities. To this day, the Torre rises triumphantly over the decapitated towers of the city’s feudal nobility.

The skyline of Siena with the Torre della Mangia of the Palazzo Publico on the left and the dome and bell tower of the cathedral on the right. If you look carefully, you can see the stumps of feudal towers between them.

Inside the Grand Council Chamber where the city’s governing bodies were elected, the artist Simone Martini makes his spectacular debut in history with a frescoed Maesta, an updated version of Duccio’s great painting, then standing on the high altar of Siena’s cathedral.

The Grand Council chamber in the Palazzo Publico with Simone Martini's Maesta on the far wall.

Simone Martini, Maesta, 1315

Though worn and damaged, Simone’s Maesta remains a remarkably opulent painting covered with gilding and embedded with squares of mica that reflect the sunlight coming into the room like little mirrors, an effect that is impossible to photograph. In its original state, it must have been even more opulent. It was painted mostly a secco, fresco painted on dry plaster instead of the usual damp plaster, a much less durable technique than traditional fresco. Usually very bright colors were painted a secco. Today, most of those colors have worn off exposing the underpainting of Simone’s fresco.

Simone’s painting pays homage to Duccio’s great Maesta, and updates it at the same time. Simone follows Duccio’s composition of rows of saints with kneeling angels in the foreground turning inward toward the enthroned Virgin and Child very closely, but with some important differences.

Simone Martini, saints on the right side of the Maesta.

Instead of a gold leaf background, we see Giotto’s ultramarine blue, locating heaven within the realm of human reference, associating it with the sky. Some of the saints hold up a large canopy rendered in a very credible perspective that locates us in relation to each figure in the fresco making them accessible.

Another major difference is Simone’s conspicuous use of that French import, the Gothic style. It appears first in the Virgin’s throne, but as we look further, deliberate Gothic grace and elaboration are there throughout the painting. Simone made regular trips back and forth between Siena and southern France and French controlled territory. He worked for the Angevin rulers of Naples, and for the papal court in Avignon. Simone befriended Petrarch while the great poet and scholar lived in southern France. Simone would be the conduit through which so much influence between Italian artists and Gothic France would pass back and forth.

So conspicuously religious an image appears startling to American eyes, but the religious and the political merged seamlessly in Renaissance Italy. Though religious in subject matter, the message of this image to the electors who gathered in this hall was quite political and even pointed. The perfect harmony and selfless virtue of the saints in heaven was supposed to inspire the politicians in the hall. There are similar paintings in other communal halls in central and northern Italy. Simone’s colleague and frequent collaborator Lippo Memmi painted a Maesta for the great council chamber of the town of San Gimignano that imitates Simone’s painting.

Lippo Memi, Maesta in the Palazzo Publico of San Gimignano, 1317

Guariento painted a now ruined fresco on an enormous scale for the Grand Council chamber of the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. It showed the glorious assembly of the saints in heaven. It was replaced in the 16th century by Tintoretto’s huge and spectacular oil painting of the same subject.

Guariento di Arpo, Coronation of the Virgin in Paradise, remains of a fresco formerly in the Consiglio Maggiore in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice, 1365 - 1367, damaged by fire in the 16th century.

Simone Martini, Maesta

Simone Martini, Virgin and Child from the Maesta

The Maesta, in a political context, was a warning against factionalism and self-serving. Conscientious legislators were supposed to contrast the vision on the wall with the horse-trading, bullying, mendacity, and posturing that took place in front of it. Simone’s painting is very explicit about this with a written inscription that has the Virgin Mary addressing the electors directly:

“The angelic flowers, the rose and lily
With which the heavenly fields are decked
Do not delight me more than righteous counsel.
But some I see who for their own estate
Despise me and deceive my land
And are most praised when they speak worst …”

And well She might have warned when it was common for individuals and families in Italian city-states to put their own interests above those of the state to the point of treason. Siena was torn by ruinous warfare between feuding families (as were many other Italian cities including Florence), particularly between the Tolomei and the Salimbeni. The French Angevin rulers of Naples were frequently summoned to settle these conflicts. The French (and Angevin) Fleur de Lis appears on the Maesta canopy alternating with Siena’s black and white civic emblem.

In the next room of the Palazzo Publico, the Sala de’ Nove, is one of the most revolutionary painting cycles of the 14th century.
The governing body of the city, the Council of Nine, met in this room.

The Sala de' Nove in the Palazzo Publico, Siena, with Ambrogio Lorenzetti's frescoes, 1338 - 1339

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, one of two brothers (the other was Pietro), both brilliant artists and fierce competitors, painted a fresco cycle that covers three of four walls of the room. It is a very different subject from Simone’s Maesta. Instead of religious admonitions to the city’s leaders, Ambrogio paints a secular political allegory, perhaps the first such since ancient times. It is the Allegory of Good and Bad Government. The Allegory of Good Government takes up the whole wall at one end opposite the windows. The Effects of Good Government fill one of the long walls of the room to the right of Good Government. Bad Government and its effects take up the opposite left wall, which is always (significantly) in shadow. The cycle certainly admonishes the governors who met in this room, but it also argues for the success of republican government, by no means a settled issue at this time. Siena was not a democracy. As in Florence, an oligarchy of rich and powerful banking families held all the reigns of power in Siena. However, Ambrogio’s painting, like the writings of later Florentine political humanists such as Coluccio Salutati, Nicola da Uzzano, and Lionardo Bruni, argues for the success of self-governing cities in maintaining peace, justice, and prosperity, and in guaranteeing the welfare and happiness of the governed. The painting cycle argues for the accountability of a republic and against the opacity of tyranny as did the later Florentine humanists.

The Allegory of Good Government is the most medieval part of the cycle with its personifications of virtues on parade.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Common Good of Siena personified and flanked by the Classical Virtues. Romulus and Remus are at his feet. Soldiers lead captive Florentines on the lower right.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Pax lounges peacefully, a medieval interpretation of an ancient Roman fragment still housed in the Palazzo Publico.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, An allegory of Justice from the Allegory of Good Government. Concord sits at the feet of Justice and accepts the end of a chord from a Sienese citizen. The Common Good of Siena holds the other end in his right hand. Citizens hold the chord between them.

The bearded male figure seated in the middle of a long draped bench on the right is the city of Siena (and its common good) personified. He wears the city’s stark black and white in his robes. Public classical virtues flank him on the right and the left. To the right, moving from left to right, are Magnanimity, Temperance, and Justice. To the left of Siena, moving from right to left, are Prudence, Fortitude, and Peace, who lounges on the arm of the throne. Flying around Siena’s head are the three private Christian virtues of Faith and Hope with Charity at the top. Romulus and Remus suckle the she-wolf at the foot of Siena (the Sienese claimed Remus as the founder of their city). To the right of the founding brothers, victorious soldiers present captives (perhaps captured Florentines in a fond remembrance of Siena’s great unexpected victory at Montaperti in 1260).
Citizens to the left of the brothers hold a chord that begins in the right hand of Siena. The other end is held by the figure of Concord who sits at the feet of an elaborate allegory of Justice, both criminal justice on left, and civil justice on the right.

The allegory on the end wall belongs to the Middle Ages, to the world of allegories and symbols, but the long side wall is truly revolutionary. It shows the effects of Good Government in the city and in the surrounding countryside. Ambrogio shows these virtues lived out in the city of Siena itself. Instead of showing a generic typical city, or an appropriately symbolic city from ancient literature or Scripture, Ambrogio paints Siena itself in a striking and still vivid portrait of the city.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Good Government in the city.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Good Government, detail

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Good Government, detail; dancing in the streets (illegally).

Reflecting the influence of Giotto and Maso di Banco, Ambrogio uses the setting to tell the story, and it’s a very particular setting. He very skillfully piles up the buildings on oblique angles and has streets coming and going at odd angles, as can still be seen in Siena today. We see a bustling prosperous city full of activity. There is a shoe shop, and next to that, a scholar lectures students. In the center, very fashionably dressed women dance in the street (something that was illegal in Siena at the time). As we go up in the painting, we see horses and pedestrians appearing and disappearing around corners. Laundry hangs on wooden poles outside windows. Construction workers lay bricks on the very economical scaffolding of that time set right into the walls (you can still see these now pigeon infested holes in stone and masonry walls all over the city; I presume that they were left open for maintenance scaffolding; timber is still scarce around Siena). Ambrogio brilliantly realizes the experience of traveling through the actual hill-top city.

The City of Siena today.

To the right of the city, occupying half of the wall, is the effects of Good Government in the surrounding countryside. This is one of the first masterpieces of landscape in Western art, a remarkable recreation of the Tuscan countryside that still can be seen right out the window of the Sala de’ Nove.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Good Government in the countryside.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Good Government, detail.

The countryside around Siena today viewed from the city's walls

The gently rolling hills of the Tuscan landscape, covered with fields and vineyards, recede by stages into the distance in the painting, just as they do in life. The vegetation is spotty in the heavily cultivated landscape just as it is in the Sienese countryside today. As in the city, the countryside bustles with activity with peasants harvesting and tending vineyards. Peasants in the foreground drive donkeys loaded with sacks of grain for sale in the city. Another drives a pig to sell to the butcher. Fashionable young nobles emerge from the city gate to go hawking and meet the peasants. Significantly, they pursue their noble pastime in the stubble of already harvested fields instead of in standing wheat (as Frederick Hartt points out).
Hovering above the gate between the city and the country is a personification of Security, perhaps based on the flying figure of a Roman Victory. She holds a gallows and a scroll with and inscription saying that Just Government denies power to the wicked.

On the opposite wall is the Allegory of Bad Government with its effects. This painting is heavily damaged, perhaps deliberately because of its subject matter. Tyranny sits surrounded by vices in an inversion of the Allegory of Good Government. Everything goes to hell in hand-basket in a Siena unjustly governed.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Bad Government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Bad Government, detail, the face of Tyranny.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Bad Government, detail, its effects in the city.

The ideas behind Ambrogio’s cycle are still firmly rooted in Medieval thought. The purpose of government is to assist in the Christian project to save souls by securing peace and prosperity, and by promoting virtue and prohibiting vice. Ambrogio presents this idea in medieval terms of allegory on the end wall. What is really new and forward looking is his application of those concepts to the actual experience of living in the city of Siena at that time.

The Sienese Painters at Assisi

Pietro Lorenzetti could hold his own with his brother and rival Ambrogio, and even outdo him when it came to compositional daring. A case in point is his triptych of the Birth of the Virgin, an amazingly bold painting in an age where panel painting was still dominated by shrinework and gilding.

Pietro Lorenzetti, The Birth of the Virgin, 1342

This painting originally had pinnacles, gilded colonettes, flanking panels of saints, and a predella panel at the base. What we have left today are the three remarkable center panels. Pietro very brilliantly transforms the three panels into a single coherent scene that convincingly recedes into space. It is an amazing feat of early perspective that anticipates the creation of linear perspective about 80 years later. The joins between the three panels become columns through which we look into a birth chamber with a side entrance hall. One of those fictional columns cuts through a figure as if overlapping her. Floor tiles, the pattern on the bed cover, and especially the vaulted ceiling converge toward a central recession area that is very skillfully placed off-center enhancing the illusion that we are looking into a room. The panel on the left where Joachim receives the news of his daughter’s birth opens into the outdoors, into what looks like a courtyard, saving the painting from becoming a kind of tableau in a box frame. The left panel implies a much larger world beyond the one that presents itself in these three panels. This brilliant experiment in early perspective did not appear out of nowhere. It was built upon the experiments of both Duccio and Giotto with settings and space.

Pietro Lorenzetti’s most ambitious work can be found in the transepts of the Lower Church of San Francesco at Assisi.

South transept of the Lower Church of San Francesco, Assisi, with frescoes by Pietro Lorenzetti

He probably worked on it in several stages over many decades. The last part completed was a Passion cycle in the south transept that builds upon the monumental drama and emotionalism of Giotto and Cimabue. Pietro could see major accomplishments by both of those artists by climbing the stairs and looking in the Upper Church.

Something of Giotto’s drama and concentration come through in Pietro’s very moving Descent from the Cross.

Pietro Lorenzetti, Descent From the Cross, 1320s, from the south transept of the Lower Church, Assisi

We move from the horror of watching a disciple pull the last nail attaching Christ to the cross out of His foot to the tender sorrow on the left. Unlike Giotto’s completely limp dead Christ, Pietro’s Christ appears to collapse down from the cross into the arms of His family and friends in a series of falling angles. His broken body appears to bridge two groups of figures, both of them grieving. One of the most striking passages shows the face of the Virgin Mary pressed against the inverted face of her dead Son.

Pietro Lorenzetti, Descent From the Cross, detail

Pietro’s enormous panel of the Crucifixion is one of the last and finest variations on Cimabue’s ruined Crucifixion in the Upper Church.

Pietro Lorenzetti, Crucifixion, from the south transept of the Lower Church, Assisi, 1320s

Though badly damaged, Pietro’s painting returns to Cimabue’s original conception of the event as a cosmic catastrophe. Christ the oversize dying god-man reconciles heaven and earth. Pietro adds his own teeming sense of drama to the crowds below, as the magnificent crucified Christ attended by grieving angels looms against the blue sky. While large and out of scale, Pietro’s Christ hangs on the cross and suffers pain as vividly as any such figure by Giotto or Duccio. The flanking crosses of the two thieves place the event back in the realm of human history.

Simone Martini painted the fresco cycle and designed the windows in the Chapel of Saint Martin in the Lower Church.

Chapel of Saint Martin in the Lower Church of San Francesco, Assisi, with frescoes of the Life of Saint Martin by Simone Martini, circa 1320 - 1330

A window from the Chapel of Saint Martin designed by Simone Martini

He too could use the new sense of setting and pictorial space to great narrative advantage, as well as the Lorenzetti brothers. Simone could also bring to his scenes a striking sense of characterization that was like no one else at the time. True to his ties to French Gothic art, Simone imagines the early life of Saint Martin, a Roman soldier under the Emperor Julian, in terms of French chivalry. He portrays the young Martin’s investiture in terms of that for a French knight.

Simone Martini, The Investiture of Saint Martin

Simone Martini, The Investiture of Saint Martin, detail, musicians

The perspective setting is as accomplished, if less adventurous, as anything by the Lorenzetti brothers. All the figures are vividly individualized, especially the musicians.

The Emperor Julian and an accompanying officer react with growing astonishment and outrage as the young Martin renounces his weapons and violence.

Simone Martini, Saint Martin Resigns His Commission and Renounces His Weapons

Simone Martini, Saint Martin Renounces His Weapons, detail

Simone places Martin at the beginning of stream passing through a ravine that leads to the distant barbarian enemy, indicating Martin’s intention to go to them. Martin announces that his enemy is the devil, and not the barbarians. Martin says to the Emperor that only preaching and good works can defeat the devil, not violence.

In one panel from Martin’s career as Bishop of Tours, he sits so lost in meditation that a young priest tries to gently rouse him to celebrate Mass.

Simone Martini, Saint Martin Meditating

Simone Martini, Saint Martin Meditating, detail

. A kneeling deacon offers him the missal. Simone seems to have learned something of Giotto’s sense of emotional calibration. We can sense the growing anxiety in the young priest as Bishop Martin fails to stir. Simone inherited a great storytelling tradition not only from Siena and Duccio, but also from Giotto and from French Gothic art.


All of this eager experimentation with humanism and optical painting came to an abrupt end in the summer of 1348 with the Black Death. The catastrophe killed thousands upon thousands along with scores of artists. The plague probably killed Maso di Banco and both of the Lorenzetti brothers. Their names disappear abruptly from the records in 1348. Taddeo Gaddi survived the plague and died in 1366. Simone Martini died in 1344. A sharp reaction against Giotto’s legacy and toward the direction of conservatism, expressionism, and anti-naturalism would take hold of central Italian painting for almost a half century after the disaster.
The local school of painting in Padua remained a hold-out for Giotto's legacy at a time when it was widely rejected. Padua has Giotto's greatest surviving work, the frescoes in the Arena Chapel, and you can see their influence all over town to this day. These artists are not very well known to the larger public, perhaps because Padua remains a little off the beaten tourist path.

Altichiero painted 2 major fresco cycles for chapels attached to the Shrine of Saint Anthony of Padua (locally known as the Santo). Something of Giotto’s sense of mass and emotional gravity informs Altichiero’s work together a Sienese sense of spectacle and fascination with character and incident.

The Shrine of Saint Anthony of Padua (The Santo), Padua

The Chapel of San Felice in the Santo, Padua

Altichiero, The Crucifixion, from the Chapel of San Felice, completed 1379

Altichiero, The Crucifixion, detail, soldiers gamble for Christ's garment.

The Florentine painter Giusto de' Menabuoi painted almost all of his best-known work in Padua. His most famous and exuberant work is the fresco cycle that fills the interior of the Baptistery attached to the Cathedral of Padua.
In its organization of the walls into distinct episodes and insistence on rendering mass with chiaroscuro, he reflects the influence of both Giotto and Altichiero. The spectacular and visionary quality of his work, especially in the dome frescoes, is all his own.

The Cathedral and Baptistery of Padua

Frescoes by Giusto de' Menabuoi in the Baptistery of Padua, 1370s.

Giusto de' Menabuoi, The Wedding at Cana, from the Baptistery frescoes, a very busy version of the same composition by Giotto in the Arena Chapel across town.

Giusto de' Menabuoi, Paradise, fresco in the dome of the Padua Baptistery.


The pageantry, the excitement, the before and after craziness, the injuries of the Palio of Siena:

In July 1988, I lived in the Contrada del Istrice (the Hedgehog) in Siena. I was one of those thousands of people crammed into the center of the Campo during the race. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The horse race is one of the most dangerous in the world and lasts only seconds. The Before and After citywide craziness lasts for weeks. The locals take this very seriously. The Contrada del Nicchio (the Sea Shell) won that year. How could I forget? They paraded triumphantly all over town for days after the race.