Art and Architecture in 14th Century Florence, Siena and Padua

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The Town Halls of Siena, Florence and Padua

It has been suggested that if all documentary records had been lost, it would still be possible to understand much about the nature of society in late medieval Siena, Florence and Padua just by looking at the architecture and decoration of their town halls. It might be edifying to examine this suggestion in some depth.

In medieval times all three cities were prosperous places anxious to advertise that prosperity to their citizens and neighbouring towns. They all three, in different ways, used their town halls to do this. The major functions of these town halls were to act as centres for judicial control, commercial management, government and public ceremonial, but additionally the design of the buildings and their setting were often strongly influenced by this desire to express the prestige of the city state. It is worthwhile examining the settings before looking at the buildings themselves.

One of the most impressive sights in Tuscany is the skyline of the hill-top town of Siena, dominated by the Duomo with its campanile and by the tower of the Palazzo Pubblico. Near the centre the tower is hidden by narrow streets and tall buildings, but the view changes dramatically as one emerges onto the Piazza del Campo with the elegant Palazzo Pubblico along the south-east border. The huge open shell-like space of the Campo slopes gently down towards the Palazzo Pubblico. Its floor is paved in brick, and is divided into nine sections - a reflection of the fact that Siena at the time was ruled by the elected Council of Nine who were responsible for commissioning the work. The siting of the Palazzo Pubblico at the edge of this impressive space, and the uniformity of style in those old buildings round the square that still survive is testimony to the power and authority of the ruling Council: the whole complex represents a major expression of civic pride by the authorities of medieval Siena.

Florence, by contrast, is a city built on a river - the Arno. This means that the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo do not dominate the skyline in quite the same way as their Siena equivalents, except when the city is approached from the south. From across the river the view is as striking as the views of Siena, the towers of the Palazzo Vecchio and the nearby Bargello competing with the Duomo and campanile for attention. Once again the motivation of the ruling Commune to express their civic pride in the city by the grandeur of their public building is self-evident.

The approach to the city centre from the east past the Bargello finds the Palazzo Vecchio not dominating the adjacent Piazza della Signoria in quite the same way as the Palazzo Pubblico does the Campo in Siena. It occupies a smaller space, and also it is in the corner of the square, directly facing only about one third of it. We have to turn to documentary evidence - and some inspired guesswork - to discover the main reason for this. It seems that the building was originally conceived as facing the north, and was subsequently redesigned to face the larger cleared space to the west.

The Palazzo della Ragione in Padua supplies a complete contrast to the other two buildings. It is a much less tall building and therefore not visible from any great distance. It stands between the quite large open spaces of the Piazza della Frutta to the north and the Piazza delle Erbe to the south, both of which still contain thriving markets. The inference is that those who commissioned the building of the Palazzo had less need to express their authority through an imposing civic building than the rulers of Siena and Florence - those in Padua felt secure in their tenure of power.

Palazzo Vecchio The most forbidding of the three buildings is the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Its fortress-like appearance and slightly trapezoid shape jutting out into the square create a feeling of awe and impregnability to the onlooker. There are no entrances at ground level in the main facade, and the windows on the ground floor are small and undecorated. The eye passes rapidly up the slightly decorated windows on the first and second floors to the battlement-like fortifications on the unusually high crenellated parapet above. And these fortifications are real - the machicolations between the huge corbels are clearly visible from the ground. The whole facade is then dominated by the large tower on the right hand half of the building, rising straight up from the front of the protruding parapet. This heavily fortified tower - with its own machicolations and crenellations - lends weight to the conclusion that Florence in the early 14th century was a turbulent and war-like community, whose governors had a need to defend their offices, homes - and presumably treasury - with the utmost rigour. The fact that the tower is not central, but offset to one side, seems to point to the incorporation of an existing tower into the design, and hence to a possible major influence in choice of site in the first place.

As the Palazzo Vecchio was the most important civic building in Florence, there was obviously a need for another location from which the civic ceremonies that were an integral part of city life could take place. The Loggia dei Lanzi which stands beside it provides evidence of one such place. It has a tall and elegant decorated arcade which would have been accessible to the public. There are small relief sculptures of the four civic virtues on the top of the outside (the three theological virtues are round the corner).

Palazzo Pubblico The Palazzo Pubblico in Siena is much more a symbol of the power of government than an actual fortress. True, there are crenellations all the way along the top, and the massive tower has a superficial air of a fortified one. But closer inspection reveals that the machicolations are false and what fortress-like appearance there is is mainly for decorative purposes. The whole uniform facade is much less forbidding than the Palazzo Vecchio. The doors are at ground level and harmonize with the ground floor windows to give a much more welcoming impression. The first and second floor triforate windows are more ornately decorated than those of the Palazzo Vecchio. The front of the building is decorated with the black and white shields of the city of Siena, and the symbol of the city, the she-bear suckling the infants Romulus and Remus, stands out prominently from the side.

If the tower itself was not for defensive purposes one might question why it was so large. The answer must lie in the attempt to give Siena the prestige of a great and powerful city - perhaps in competition with Florence whose tower at the Palazzo Vecchio is of a similar height. The tower obviously contained a bell, which could be used to mark the hours, announce curfews at dusk, and summon council members to meetings in the Palazzo. The height of the tower more or less matches the depth of the Campo - adding to the overall harmonious effect.

Jutting out in front of the Palazzo is the Cappella di Piazza, a tiny open chapel with sculpted piers and highly decorated capitals and panels. The fact that there is a chapel here at all with easy access for the public is interesting, particularly when the enormous Duomo is only a few minutes walk away to the west. It has the appearance of a later style than the rest of the building, and the inference that it somehow represents a response to the communal suffering of the Black Death is probably valid. As many of the ceremonial events that took place in the Campo would have had a strong religious content an outside chapel would be of use.

It is interesting that an entirely different impression is given if the Palazzo is approached from the back. As the ground slopes steeply away from the Campo the back of the Palazzo had to be supported on a much higher structure than the front. The overall effect is much grimmer than the front - with a formidably high brick wall topped by the tower, and a large solid structure jutting out from the back. Only the open loggia at the top of the central part of the building relieves the impression of strength and impregnability. This might have acted as a deterrent to would-be aggressors approaching from the south-east.

Palazzo della Ragione The Palazzo della Ragione in Padua, like the Palazzo Vecchio, is also an unusual shape - an irregular parallelogram. However, unlike the Palazzo Vecchio, its ground floor is a series of open arcades providing easy access to the public for their markets. This part of the building thus reflects the essentially agricultural economy of the Padua area, and although the Palazzo housed the seat of justice in the city its immediate impression is one of commerce rather than power.

The strangest feature of this building is the curved roof, which covers the whole building in a regular curve like an upturned keel-less boat. The rest of the building is curious as well. The first floors of the north and south facades are made up of arches of slightly different sizes, with a central aisle linking north and south which is not exactly central. Closer inspection reveals that these are part of a double-storey loggia that has been built on each side to create more coverage of the open spaces. The conclusion is that these must have been additions to an original older building. Forming part of the outside of the original building, and with access from the east and west sides, are staircases to the upper floor. The public therefore had an access to this floor which could be controlled if necessary. This is consistent with the upper part of the building being set aside for the administration of justice leaving the commercial activity down below.

The whole of the interior of the Palazzo della Ragione is one vast room. There are few clues from merely looking at the decoration as to what purpose this might have been put: the walls are covered from end to end by a large number of frescoes of mixed secular, religious and astrological subjects, many of the latter being later repaintings of 14th century originals. Perhaps it was a location where university-trained intellectuals would feel at home.

The interior of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence was almost completely rebuilt for the Medicis in the 15th century - the only room which might give us indications of 14th century Florence is the Camera dell’ Arme. However this is a plain, now undecorated, room with a ribbed vault ceiling supported by plain octagonal pillars giving no clue to the use the room was put to (except its name).

The Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, however, does yield more information. The entrance to the Podesta’s quarters on the left of the building gives onto a small cortile with a staircase leading up to the upper floors of this part of the Palazzo. The courtyard is an open space in which armed soldiers could easily be kept as a bodyguard to the Podesta or for order-keeping duties in the town. The first floor contains an open loggia which looks down on the courtyard, providing some recreational space for the inhabitants of the building. (Documentary evidence tells us that the Podesta, usually a foreigner, never left the confines of the Palazzo).

The open loggia on the top at the back of the central part of the building affords a good view of the surrounding contado, faces south-east to catch the evening sun, and is thus sheltered from the midday heat. This would be an excellent recreational space for the other “prisoners” of the Palazzo, the members of the ruling Nine and their families.

A good insight into the attitudes of the Sienese is given by the frescoes in the large Council Chamber on the first floor. On one end wall is the fine Maesta by Simone Martini, and this is faced by his equally impressive fresco of Guidoriccio da Fogliano on a magnificent horse leading the successful Sienese siege of Montemassi. The Sienese clearly saw nothing incongruous in this juxtaposition of military might and religious adoration. In the relatively small Sala de’ Nove next door there are the famous frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti of Good and Bad Government. These vivid allegories, prominently displayed in this small room in which all the key political decisions in Siena must have been taken, allow one to infer a real effort on the part of the Nine to provide genuinely good government for their citizens.

In conclusion, the buildings and their decoration give many pointers to the lives of the more influential citizens in medieval Italy, although not a great deal about the ordinary folk. Naturally enough there is much more to be gleaned when additional documentary records are studied.


Diana Norman (ed) Siena, Florence and Padua Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400 Yale University (1995)

John White Art & Architecture in Italy 1250-1400 Yale University (1993)

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Duccio's The Crucifixion in the Maesta and Giotto's The Crucifixion in the Arena Chapel

In any narrative sequence of paintings which includes the life of Christ the scene of the Crucifixion is likely to figure prominently. Both the subject paintings were part of such sequences, but in neither case are they the most significant painting in the set.

The painting by Duccio and his assistants (which I shall call the Duccio for brevity) formed the centrepiece of the back of his famous Maesta, originally the altarpiece for the Siena Duomo and now in the cathedral museum. It is the largest panel in the back, and is centrally placed. However, situated as it was, it could presumably only be seen by the clergy and not by the general public, who would only see the scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary on the front, dominated by the large central picture of the Virgin Enthroned. Mary had been adopted as the Patron Saint of Siena, and hence has pride of place on the altarpiece.

The Giotto is one scene in the fresco decoration of the Arena chapel in Padua. It is not given any special prominence, the dominating scene being the Last Judgement on the west wall. The chapel was commissioned by the wealthy banker Enrico Scrovegni and was where he and other members of his family were buried. Prayers would have been said for his soul, and the major focus of the frescoes was the acceptance into heaven of Enrico, who is depicted in the fresco of the Last Judgement donating the chapel to a figure which is probably Saint Mary of Charity. The Crucifixion as such is therefore not of central importance here.

Because of their intended locations the two paintings are of course of entirely different sizes and painted on entirely different media. The Duccio is quite small - only about a metre high - and is painted on wood using tempera, a mixture of coloured natural dyes and egg-yolk, with much gilding, including the background. The predominant colours of the figures are greens and reds. The Giotto, on the other hand, is two metres high, and was painted with colours mixed with plaster which hardened and were incorporated into the frescoed wall as it dried. The predominant colours are the brilliant azurite blue of the background and the yellows and browns of the figures.

We do not know the exact dates at which the two paintings were executed, but there is documentary evidence that the Duccio was painted between 1308 and 1311, and the Giotto between 1304 and 1313. There is no evidence that either painter was familiar with the ongoing work of the other, but it is probable that both were familiar with earlier treatments of the same subject such as the Cimabue Crucifixion in the upper church at Assisi.

Despite the relatively small size of the Duccio, the available techniques allowed the artist to incorporate more detail and more figures into the scene than in the Giotto. The Duccio shows all three of the victims at Calgary instead of the lone figure of Christ in the Giotto. The latter shows some twelve faces of the crowd below (with the outlines of about another twelve), whereas the former has over 40 faces shown with the suggestion of still more behind. More strikingly, the Duccio has a greater sense of depth to it, both with Christ being clearly nearer the front than the other two victims, and the figures in the crowd being placed on a slope rising up from the foreground. The figures in the Giotto on the other hand are all in more or less the same plane. In the Giotto the space between the outstretched figure of Christ and the crowd is taken up with ten symmetrically placed angels, one of whom catches the blood from the wounded rib and two others from the wounded hands. In the Duccio the angels (13 in total) are all in the space above the cross.

Duccio's Crucifixion As one might expect in a work whose major purpose is the celebration and adoration of the Virgin Mary, the Duccio has her as the main focus of the crowd scene. Dressed in her traditional dark blue she gazes up at the cross with an agonised expression while she is comforted by a disciple (presumably James). In the Giotto attention is given equally to the figures of the Virgin Mary on the left, the Roman soldiers quarrelling over the robe on the right, and, more strikingly still, the weeping figure of Mary Magdalen embracing the foot of the cross in the centre.

The crowd in the Duccio, particularly those to the right of the picture, convey more of a sense of hubbub and confusion at the dramatic scene than does the crowd in the Giotto. A figure in the centre of the crowd gestures with his full arm towards the cross, while the elderly figure behind him argues fiercely with his neighbour. There are three or four other upraised arms and another heated discussion. Even the angels weep and gesture more dramatically than those in the Giotto, and the rocky foreground is wilder and more dramatic. The right-hand crowd in the Giotto appear calmer, and the pose of the soldier’s right arm and the faces turning away from the cross carry one’s eyes across the painting away from the central scene. The only gesture towards the cross is one more of benediction than anger, and is made by the haloed king who is not even facing the cross. (Perhaps this figure is the centurion mentioned by Luke.)

Giotto's Crucifixion The faces in the Giotto are, typically, more differentiated than those in the Duccio. The agonised face of Mary is painted in a more realistic style than the rather idealised face in the Duccio, as are the faces of the comforting figures. The group to the right of the Giotto are engaged in conversation in a much more realistic way than the crowd in the Duccio.

These differences in realistic effect as opposed to dramatic quality reflect to some extent the different contexts of the two pictures. The Giotto was part, but not the central part, of a series of narrative scenes, whereas the Duccio was the centrepiece, albeit on the reverse side, of a similar set of scenes. Also, of course, the differences reflect the different stylistic idioms of the two painters. But what the two pictures undoubtedly have in common is that they are masterpieces emerging at the start of the period of greatest flourishing of religious art in European history.


Diana Norman (ed) Siena, Florence and Padua Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400 Yale University (1995)

John White Art & Architecture in Italy 1250-1400 Yale University (1993)

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The 14th Century Reliquary Busts of Saint Fina (attributed to Romanelli) and of Beata Humiliana

A major difficulty facing the commissioners and sculptors of reliquary busts was a concern that the busts themselves would be the objects of worship rather than the actual relics contained therein. Idolatry, the worship of graven images, is a sin - saints are to be prayed to for intercession in the salvation of souls rather than as minor gods in their own right. It is probably for this reason that most of the sculpted images of the 14th century that survive, particularly those of women, appear to be more idealised than life-like. Among the finest examples are the reliquary of Saint Fina, painted in about 1380 and now in the Museo Diocesano e Sacro in San Gimignano, and the bust of Humiliana Beata, dating from a little before 1394, now in the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Croce, Florence.

Both these two sculptures do indeed seem more idealised than life-like. The face of the Beata Humiliana that is not hidden behind the nun’s vestments is of an idealised beauty, with the straight nose, full lips and slightly dimpled chin of a very beautiful woman. The large expressive eyes look demurely downwards in an expression of humility - a perfect portrait of a Beata Humiliana. To modern eyes the Saint Fina is a portrait of a pretty young girl with a slightly mischievous twist to her mouth and a lively twinkle in her eyes, accentuated by the curved eyebrows. However we can be almost certain that Fina herself never looked like this - after all she was an invalid who spent most of her short life in bed. (A remarkably similar face, although a little older, is the smiling Madonna in the carved wooden figure of The Virgin and Child by Romanelli in Lucignano Val di Chiana). One reason that they both have been sculpted in this way is that they would have been paraded in front of the adoring multitude on Saints days and perhaps at other festivals.

Beata Humiliana The most obvious difference between the two works is of course the medium used. The more expensive commissions, and hence the most prestigious, were those like the Beata Humiliana made of silver and silver gilt. Beata Humiliana was a local saint in Florence, and the bust was commissioned by an obviously well-to-do member of her family. Not many women were commemorated in this way, although there exist several silver and gold busts of men such as the St Zenobius in the Florence Duomo and St Donato in Arezzo. We do not know the name of the sculptor of the Beata Humiliana, but he would almost certainly have been a member of the powerful Florence goldsmiths guild, a segment of the silk guild. But we know that members of the guilds were trained to work in more than one medium - and the creator of the Beata Humiliana shows skills we would more readily associate with carvers or sculptors in stone or marble, for example in the exquisitely sculpted folds of the simple head-dress.

Saint Fina The Saint Fina is carved from painted wood, a less expensive and hence more widely used medium for reliquary busts. (For example there are two or three others displayed in the museum at San Gimignano beside this one). It is suggested on stylistic grounds that it was the work of Mariano d’Agnolo Romanelli, a Sienese wood-carver who also worked in stone. The medium of wood allows more detail to be applied to the surroundings than with the silver. Saint Fina’s hair and crown for instance are delicately carved in great detail, as are the flowers and lion’s paws at the foot. Wood also gives more opportunity for colouring, and with Saint Fina we have as well as the delicate shades of the face, a blue coloured dress with a gold pattern on it, and a red lace-like pattern round the bottom of the neck.

A similarity between the two busts is that both have an entrance for closer access to the relic itself inside, the normal arrangement for all reliquary busts. In the Beata Humiliana this is a small hinged plate at the back of the head, while in the Saint Fina it is the whole crown that forms a hinged lid.

Perhaps a more interesting similarity is that each bust probably incorporates a feature from the life story of the saint. Saint Fina’s bed is supposed to have miraculously burst forth with a blaze of flowers, and it is possible that the wreath of flowers round her bosom reflects this. The Beata Humiliana is wearing a simple veil, which may refer to the story that she is supposed to have given away all the grand clothes her husband gave her.

Without a doubt both works are exquisite examples of the multi-faceted skills of 14th century Italian craftsmen, which can continue to be much admired today.


Diana Norman (ed) Siena, Florence and Padua Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400 Yale University (1995)

John White Art & Architecture in Italy 1250-1400 Yale University (1993)

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Art-historical Analysis and Evaluation of Major Buildings in 14th Century Florence and Siena

Many of the major buildings in this period are either incomplete or the result of a piecemeal design process. To some extent this hampers attempts at art-historical analysis and evaluation. Throughout history the construction of major buildings has often taken many long years, with many changes and inconsistencies in the process from original inception, commissioning, design, construction, decoration, opening and subsequent use - to say nothing of later amendments and additions. There are many reasons for this, ranging from changes in the political scene, changes of sponsor, changes of artists and craftsmen involved, errors in construction, changes of mind of those involved, changes in available finance, to traumatic changes in the general environment such as that caused by the Black Death. These changes may hamper the evaluation of the buildings as they now exist, but as we shall see the processes of change often provide insights into art-historical analysis of the subjects which would not otherwise be present.

Siena Duomo The Duomo at Siena is probably the most obvious example of a building that changed as it went along - indeed it was never finished - but there are other examples such as the Florence Duomo, the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena and the Orsanmichele in Florence which all illustrate the point.

Professor White described the Siena Duomo as a “structurally preposterous folly that still dominates Siena like the skeleton of some long-stranded whale”. The construction of the building as we now see it occupies the whole period from 1250 to 1400. We do not know the date of its founding, but documents exist covering the vaulting of the choir, the aisles in the nave and the bronze ball on the dome ranging from about 1226 to 1264. Recent research has revealed that the 13th century building was different to the original designs and different again to the larger building constructed in the 14th century. The unique feature of the original 13th century Duomo was the hexagonal arrangement of the piers supporting the dome itself.

From an art-historical point of view an interesting feature of the sequence of events is that the choir stalls, a high altar, and most notably the famous pulpit sculpted by Nicola Pisano were all incorporated in the 1260s, long before the building itself was finished. In 1260 the Sienese, against all the odds, had inflicted a resounding defeat on the Florentines at the battle of Montaperti, and much effort was made to attribute this stunning victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Obviously the Duomo, dedicated to Mary, was a key focus for her worship, and the sooner the cathedral could be used for this purpose the better. The Pisano pulpit is intricately decorated with scenes from the Nativity, in which of course Mary plays the prominent role.

At about this time work began on the great West facade, although how much was built before the major enlargements to the nave and aisles were started is a matter for scholarly controversy. What is certain is that it was not completed for another 75 years.

Meanwhile another major artistic event had taken place in Siena in 1311, the installation of the famous Duccio Maesta in the cathedral - an event carried out with much pomp and ceremony throughout the streets of the city - reflecting the ever-growing state of the city’s self-confidence and power. The painting was placed on the high altar of the cathedral, and as far as we know when the altar itself changed location the Maesta went with it, although by the 16th century it had been replaced.

By 1317 a major new plan had been approved to extend the East end of the cathedral by constructing a new baptistery on the lower level and extending the choir above it, and building a new gigantic facade to match the West facade in height and splendour.

But by 1321 an even more grandiose scheme was devised - the turning of the whole cathedral through 90 degrees by constructing the so-called Duomo Nuovo using the existing nave and choir as the mere transepts of the vast new edifice. The old dome and nave would have been too small, and in all probability would have to have been rebuilt. Work started at great speed on the new project, and parts of the new nave exist today. The first recorded mentions of this Duomo Nuovo project are contained in a report that was commissioned on the new baptistery which is very interesting from an art-historical point of view. Whether or not the main author of the report, Lorenzo Maitani, had his own axe to grind in proposing this colossal new project we shall probably never know, but nevertheless it gives valuable insight in 14th century ideas about structural engineering and such things as the symmetry of the buildings and whether or not the dome should be central to the crossing point of the nave and transepts.

By 1355 the Black Death had taken its toll and it had become clear that the Duomo Nuovo was beyond the scope of the city’s resources as well as being structurally unsound. Work was undertaken to raise the nave of the existing cathedral and continue with the extension over the new baptistery and completion of the facades.

The baptistery facade was left unfinished at the end of the 14th century, but comparison of the existing work with the original design makes for interesting art-historical scholarship. Great pains were taken to dampen the verticality of the original by emphasising the horizontal lines, particularly those of the three main storeys beneath the rose window. Also there is the comparative flatness of the finished product, testimony to the increasing importance of pictorial, as opposed to sculptural and architectural, concepts.

Without fore-knowledge of this extraordinarily complex set of changes in concept and design it is difficult to evaluate the Duomo as an art object in its own right. There are too many oddities about it which would never have been incorporated in an original design. To name but a few - the dome is too low for the existing surrounding nave and parts of the original exterior of the drum are now visible from the interior. Again the expansion of the cathedral means that the campanile is no longer free-standing but rises rather uncomfortably from part of the existing building. However there is no denying the impressive overall effect the Duomo has in Siena, standing as it does on the hill near the equally impressive civic centre of the Campo and Palazzo Pubblico.

Florence Duomo The same considerations, but to a less marked degree, apply to the Duomo at Florence. At the end of the 13th century a decision had been taken to build a new cathedral on the site of the old church of Santa Reparata rather than patch up and extend the existing building. The reasons for this are not documented, but are fairly obvious. Florence’s great rival Siena had already embarked on the ambitious Duomo project, and in Florence a new Duomo was necessary to boost the city’s increasing prosperity and prestige.

Art historians argue about how much of the re-building had been achieved by 1334, when Giotto was appointed capomaestro. The campanile, probably designed by Giotto, was started that year, but was not completed until after his death in 1337. In 1357 work began on a new design for the nave by Francesco Talenti. There is a startling effect that Talenti’s large vaulted naves have on the exterior - leading to blind windows and a clear join between old and new on the outside.

Documentation after 1350 is interesting. In 1367 there was a committee of no less than seven architects and painters who decided to extend the nave further east and to enlarge the cupola - but with no clear idea of how the cupola was to be vaulted and put in place. Further changes to the plans as the building progressed resulted in a fairly comprehensive heightening of the whole cathedral as well as making it larger. The Florentines must have been aware of the project in nearby Siena, which although halted and changed after the Black Death, was nonetheless resulting in a highly prestigious rival building. There is some evidence that the large hidden arched buttresses supporting the clerestory walls under the aisle roofs were originally intended to be exposed to view as they contain decorations of blind arches which are now not visible.

Evaluation of the Florence Duomo as a 14th century building is made more difficult by the fact that the most imposing feature, the elaborately decorated west facade, was only built in the late 19th century. However the way the Duomo occupies a central space in Florence make it, together with the separate campanile and baptistery, an imposing part of the city landscape - particularly when viewed from the hills across the Arno.

Palazzo Pubblico Siena The Palazzo Pubblico in Siena is a much less piecemeal-designed building than the two Duomos. The massive front facade along the bottom of the Campo appears to have been little altered from the original concept. The only major change was the addition of a third storey on either side of the main block in the 16th century. The Cappella di Piazza in front of the facade looks like something of an afterthought, and probably was not envisaged in the original design.

There were however changes to the buildings behind the facade. For instance a new prison was added in 1330 and a new Sala del Gran Consiglio, larger than the original sala, was added on top of it in 1342. The evaluation of the building itself in art-historical context is thus relatively easy, for example comparisons can be made with the more defence-oriented structure of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and the less defence-oriented structure of the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua.

Internally however the evaluation of the decorations in some of the main rooms is not so straightforward. In the Sala dei Nove the murals by Ambrogio Lorenzetti form a co-ordinated scheme of three paintings clearly designed to suit the purpose of the room for which they were designed, the room which formed the innermost seat of government by the Nine. However the murals in the Sala del Consiglio are not so obviously part of a co-ordinated design. At one end there is Simone Martini’s Maesta - a highly religious subject but placed in a Siena-oriented setting. On the opposite wall there is the totally secular mural attributed to the same artist of Guidoriccio da Fogliano riding out to war. Beneath this is the townscape now believed to have been covered by the Mappa Mundo (now lost) by Lorenzetti. On the adjacent north wall is the sprawling battle scene painted by Lippo Vanni in 1363. What has proved a field day for scholarly art historians is the discovery, using modern techniques, that the plaster on the right hand side underneath the Guidoriccio lies on top of, and in consequence must be later than, that of the Vanni. Hence the attribution of the Guidoriccio to Martini has to be in doubt.

Florence Orsanmichele The Orsanmichele in Florence is an interesting example of a building that went through a number of fundamental changes during the period. In 1285 the original small church, destroyed in 1239, was replaced by an open hall for selling corn. However a painting of the Virgin started to work miracles in about 1292, and after a fire in 1304 the hall was rebuilt in 1307. By 1357 a new loggia had been built and it was not till later in the century that this loggia was finally closed in so that the building could once more become a church.

The fact that there was a miracle-working shrine in the centre of Florence - a stone’s throw from the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo - meant that the confraternity who administered it rapidly became one of the wealthiest in the land. New images of the Virgin replacing those removed or destroyed by fire continued to work miracles, and in 1359 Andrea Orcagna built the monumental tabernacle to house the latest Virgin and Child with Angels attributed to Bernardo Daddi. An altar dedicated to Saint Anne was later installed beside the tabernacle. Then to reflect the importance of the contribution of the guilds to the maintenance of the shrine it was decided that the external pillars would be decorated with sculpted statues of their patron saints, although these were not put in place until the 15th century.

Thus from an art-historical analysis viewpoint each facet of the building has to be considered separately and in its historical context. There are the remnants of the old corn market on the first floor, the Daddi painting, the Orcagna tabernacle, the Saint Anne altar, the loggia - first as an open space and later enclosed - the stained glass windows of the enclosed church, and finally the statuary on the exterior. Thus in common with most of the other buildings we have considered, evaluation of the building as a whole is comparatively difficult, while analysis of the individual parts is made easier by a knowledge of the history.


Diana Norman (ed) Siena, Florence and Padua Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400 Yale University (1995)

John White Art & Architecture in Italy 1250-1400 Yale University (1993)

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Altarpieces in Florence and Siena

The Strozzi Altarpiece Diana Norman argues that 14th century religious artists sought to convey a sense of mystery and awe whilst, at the same time, encouraging empathy and close involvement with the holy men and women represented. Citing Orcagna's Christ in Glory with Saints (The Strozzi altarpiece) as an example, she goes on to argue that the sense of awe is present with Christ appearing as a divine vision removed from this world in terms of space and time (an effect heightened by the use of the mandorla). This is in contrast to the empathetic effect caused by the realistic treatment of the drapery and the modelling of Christ's head. Which sense predominates is obviously a question of individual judgement in each case, but it is interesting to explore the reasons why the balance between awe and empathy might well differ intentionally in particular altarpieces.

Possible reasons for this different balance are many, and include such things as the influence exerted by those commissioning the work, the perceived political necessities of the time, the position and liturgical use to which the particular altar is put, the reaction of the people viewing it and last, but by no means least, the artistic skills and temperament of the painter himself. As we shall see, for a full understanding of the work all of these things provide fruitful lines of enquiry.

Baroncelli Chapel Giotto A good example of an altarpiece where knowledge of the commission for the work is invaluable is The Coronation of the Virgin with Saints by Giotto and his workshop in the Baroncelli Chapel in Santa Croce, Florence. The central panel of this five-panelled polyptych shows Christ crowning the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven. This awe-inspiring scene is made more empathetic by the placing of four suppliant figures at the feet of the central figures and filling the adjacent four panels with a vast quantity of realistically painted faces all, bar one, facing the heavenly couple. Even this one musician who faces the viewer seems to invite that viewer to participate in the devotion. We do not have documentary evidence of the actual commission, but it is clear from many indications that the chapel was commissioned by the wealthy Baroncelli family as a funerary chapel. As such an important consideration would be the saying of masses for the departed souls, and asking Mary, the divine mediatrix, to intercede on their behalf. One can even speculate that the primacy given to Mary, a descendant of the line of David, reflects a preoccupation of the Baroncelli family with securing advantageous marriage alliances with similarly well-placed families.

As an example of a political situation that was highly influential in the design of altarpieces we need look no further than the five altarpieces commissioned for the Siena Duomo. Following the overwhelming defeat of the Florentines at the battle of Montaperti in 1260, the whole city of Siena was brimming with civic pride and self-confidence. The battle took place shortly after the Feast of the Assumption, commemorating the day when the Virgin Mary was believed to have been elevated three days after her death into heaven. The works carried out at the Duomo in the early part of the 14th century reflect this, and in particular the dedication of the cathedral to the Virgin Mary of the Assumption, who was thought to have interceded on the Sienese behalf in the battle. The sculptures for the facade by Giovanni Pisano stressed her role in the Incarnation, and particularly the huge Maesta by Duccio is rich in Marian scenes and images. The whole city turned out to join in the celebrations when the completed Maesta was ceremonially installed in the cathedral in 1311 - as well as being a hugely important religious event it was also obviously highly political in nature.

We shall consider the central panel of the altarpiece below, but of interest at this point is to note that this central panel was surrounded by highly realistic scenes from the life of Mary, both in the upper panels and in the predella. The general public were clearly expected to be awe-struck with the central image, but to empathise strongly with the Marian cult displayed around it, and hence by implication with the civic powers who had adopted her as their guardian. It is also significant that the scenes from the life of Christ, dominated by the Crucifixion, are on the reverse side of the altarpiece, where because of their position on the high altar they could only be seen by the clergy.

P Lorenzetti Birth of the Virgin From 1330 onwards four more altarpieces were commissioned for the Duomo - all of which continued the heavy Marian emphasis, but with different scenes from her life. Pietro Lorenzetti painted The Birth of the Virgin, Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi an Annunciation, Bartolommeo Bulgarini The Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds and Ambrogio Lorenzetti The Purification of the Virgin. All of these altarpieces contain highly religiously emotive scenes, but placed in an easily identified-with homely setting, and with human touches abounding. For example in the Lorenzetti the central figure is Anne lying on her bed, with the baby Mary being washed by two nurses at the foot of the picture. The nurse holding the baby dips her other hand in the little basin which is being filled by the other nurse. Meanwhile two more attendants bring more water and linen into the room. In this particular altarpiece the painter’s amazingly subtle use of space and perspective serve to draw the viewer in to participate in the scene even more fully. The central and right-hand panels both represent the scene in the same room - the kneeling figure before the bed is even bisected by one of the dividing pillars. Meanwhile the left-hand panel defines a space receding at right-angles to the bedroom, giving the whole design more spatial depth. How much of this empathetic effect was carried out at the request of the commissioning authorities and how much at the painter’s whim is unclear - but what is certain is that this altarpiece, together with its other Marian counterparts, must have contributed significantly to the sense of political well-being and civic pride in the city.

Duccio: Polyptych 28 The two great mendicant orders flourishing in the 13th and 14th centuries were the Franciscans and the Dominicans, each of whom embarked on church-building programmes in most large cities in Italy. Many of these new churches required altarpieces, and often the design of a particular altarpiece reflected its position in a particular order’s church. For example there is a polyptych, probably by Duccio and his workshop, in the Pinacoteca in Siena, The Virgin and Child with Saints, (known as Polyptych 28) which was almost certainly once the high altarpiece of San Domenico in Siena. The central Madonna looks not at the Christ Child but to the viewer’s right, in much the same way as other “Duccio” Madonnas. The sense of devotional awe created by the central figure - albeit not as striking as others from the same workshop - is clearly of a high order. But placed as it was in a major Dominican church it is the saints to either side that reach almost equal importance. One of these is of course St Dominic himself. The purpose of including such saints was to commemorate the dedication of the church itself, to remind the worshipper of the achievements of major figures from the order and to identify local clerics and holy men with the order. In this particular case several panels exist of a very derivative altarpiece produced some twenty years later by Ugolino di Nerio for the high altar of Santa Croce in Florence, which is a Franciscan foundation. Tantalisingly, only three of the saints in the major panels have survived. St Peter and St John are remarkably similar to the “Duccio”, but we do not have the equivalent to the St Dominic - presumably this would have been St Francis.

Duccio: Maesta Madonna It is difficult for 21st century viewers of art, now well accustomed to seeing dozens of Madonna and Child paintings by Duccio and his workshop and successors, to imagine the sense of awe and wonder that must have struck Duccio’s contemporaries when they first saw his masterpieces such as the Maesta. Despite all that we have said about the perceived political requirements for this commission, it is nonetheless quite clear that the painter went to great - and successful - lengths to provide a central figure of outstanding awe-inspiring beauty. It is difficult to express in words the serene effect of the slightly tilted head, the delicate colouring of the face, the soft flow of the drapery, the intricate patterning of the border to the robe, the long-fingered hand gently holding the Christ Child - all providing an image surpassing in brilliance anything that had been seen before, even from such masters as Guido or Cimabue. This central figure is also surrounded by a host of worshipping saints and attendant angels - a startling innovation at the time. These saints are painted in richly varying and subtle tones, repeatedly drawing the eye back to the central figure. Another innovation, reflecting once again the local identity of the Duomo, are the four kneeling saints at the front of the panel - these are the local patron saints of Siena. Their posture and hand gestures underline their significance as intermediaries between the painting’s audience and the Virgin. Duccio himself clearly looked upon this work as his own masterpiece as the painted inscription on the base of the Virgin’s throne reads (in translation): “Holy Mother of God be thou the cause of peace for Siena, and, because he painted thee thus, of life for Duccio”.

Virgin of the Assumption & Saints As a final exercise, let us consider how knowledge of these four elements, the commissioning, the political situation, the liturgical use and the painter’s own preferences may further one’s understanding of one particular altarpiece. In the latter part of the 14th century altarpieces tended to get more and more elaborate and ornate, with more and more architectonic features than in the earlier half of the century. Taddeo di Bartolo’s Virgin of the Assumption and Saints, was painted for the high altar of the Pieve in the provincial town of Montepulciano at the turn of the 14th century. It is a highly elaborate, large (some 5 metres high), ornate and complex work, with features that might be calculated to inspire both awe and empathy from its viewers.

From an inscription at the foot of the painting we know it was commissioned by one Jacopo Aragazzi who was a member of one of the town’s important families - but also the archpriest of the Pieve. We do not have details of the commission itself, but it seems reasonable to infer that a wealthy priest was eager and willing to pay for a grandiose centrepiece for his main church, and that his motives would have been the promotion and glorification of the local town as well as any purely religious feelings. Hence the first impression of grandeur and awe rather than intimacy and empathy.

Taddeo was a Sienese painter, and the central subject of the altarpiece is not the usual Madonna and Child but the Virgin of the Assumption - very much a Sienese cult as we have already seen when discussing Duccio’s Maesta. Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries Montepulciano had come under the influence of several larger Tuscan cities, but it was Siena that was the most powerful and the most eager to establish its dominance over the town. Hence it is plausible that the choice of subject and artist represented yet another episode in a long and well-established tradition of close political and cultural ties between Montepulciano and Siena. If this is true then the artist’s attempts at empathising with his viewers had an ulterior motive of promoting Siena as well as promoting religious fervour. The patron saint of the town, St Antilla, is depicted near the top of the right hand panel presenting a model of the town itself to the Virgin. She is delicately painted with a gentle hand gesture holding the model. Apart from the saint at the bottom of the panel who involves the viewer by looking out from the picture, Antilla is the most arresting of the figures in the right-hand panel.

Unlike large cities such as Florence or Siena, Montepulciano did not have rival churches built by the principal monastic orders of St Francis, St Dominic and St Augustine. So it may be because of this that these are three of the male saints portrayed in the left hand panel of worshippers. The presence in Heaven of holy men dressed in their priestly garb would serve to emphasise the importance of the priesthood to the general public - indeed the jewels on the crozier and mitre of one of the bishops (St Donatus) are actually worked in relief. But the most striking feature of the whole work as regarding its overall religious content is the way in which it continually points upwards to Heaven. The frame and surrounding panels contain no less than thirty-five arches, pinnacles or crosses pointing upwards. The hands of the Virgin folded in prayer point upwards. The surrounding worshippers (bar one) gaze upwards. The painting is, unusually, taller than it is wide, and the topmost panel shows Mary finally admitted to Heaven.

And what of the painter himself? At the foot of the Virgin in the central panel there is a group of apostles, only one of whom, Thaddeus, looks at the viewer. This figure seems to be more carefully painted and in a lighter tone than the others, and art historians have speculated that this may well be a self-portrait by Taddeo himself. It is tempting to think that this represents a gesture on his behalf to invite the citizens of Montepulciano to empathise with him and recognise him as the maker of this magnificent monumental work of art.


Diana Norman (ed) Siena, Florence and Padua Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400 Yale University (1995)

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14th Century Funerary Chapels in Padua and Florence

The funerary chapels of Padua and Florence are among the finest works of art from 14th century Italy. Usually these chapels were donated by rich well-to-do citizens to honour their achievements in life, and very often they form a means for the ultimate salvation of the souls of the donor and his family. Often the donor and sometimes his family would be depicted in the decorations of the chapel, usually kneeling to the Virgin Mary, the great intercessor, and often presented to her by local or name saints.

It is difficult for 21st century viewers to appreciate the extent to which 13th and 14th century people believed in God, and their absolute belief in the tenets of the Catholic faith - and their need to ensure their eventual passage to heaven. Those who had obtained great wealth on earth were obviously better placed to build or endow prestigious and expensive chapels, and to employ the very best artists of the age to supply the decorations. The more sumptuous the expenditure on the decorations the more God was being glorified, and hence the better the chance of the donor to achieve the ultimate goal of salvation in the after-life.

Last Judgement from the Arena Chapel Probably the most famous 14th century funerary chapel is the Arena Chapel in Padua, built and paid for by Enrico Scrovegni. Scrovegni's father had been a notorious usurer who had amassed a great deal of money, and Enrico had become a highly influential and wealthy banker in Padua. The central mural in Giotto's majestic scheme for the chapel features the Last Judgement. It is over the door which faces the tomb of Enrico, and is clearly designed to represent the donor's hopes of salvation - and it is entirely possible that by building such a sumptuously decorated chapel he was also trying to distance himself from his father's dubious reputation.

At the bottom left of this mural, near the foot of the cross, is a representation of Enrico himself presenting a model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary, who is flanked by two other saintly figures. The gesture of the Virgin towards Enrico clearly indicates her acceptance of the gift and by implication his acceptance in heaven. (The model is also supported by a clerical gentleman who may or may not have been a member of the Cavalieri Guadenti, a military-religious order who may have been co-donors of the chapel).

Amongst the souls in torment shown on the right of the picture are usurers being hung with their money-bags round their necks, in the company of Judas who betrayed Christ for love of money - further evidence of Enrico distancing himself from his father. In his will Enrico proudly boasted that "I built that church and that monument at my own expense and by the Grace of God".

Another rich and influential Paduan who built a major funerary chapel was Raimondo Lupi, a formidable soldier in the service of the Carrara. He donated the Oratorio di San Georgio next to the enormous Santo on the then outskirts of Padua. The proximity to the large church made it very handy for the friars to say daily masses for the soul of the departed - there is even a small door in the side of the chapel making for easy access for the friars.

Funeral of St Lucy The chapel contains a scheme of painted frescoes by Altichiero. On one wall are scenes from the life of St George, a soldier saint whose exploits could well have been chosen to show that a successful soldier such as Raimondo could still perform goodly works and be accepted in heaven. On the facing wall are scenes from the lives of saint Lucy and Saint Catherine - the two patron saints of the hospital endowed by Raimondo - further evidence of the patron's good works.

The mural that actually faces the central picture of Christ's Passion on the cross is a votive portrait of Raimondo and members of his family kneeling towards the Virgin Mary, most of them in soldier's armour (including Raimondo), and each one supported by an appropriate saint. In the case of Raimondo this is not surprisingly St George himself. Raimondo actually died before the chapel could be completed, and this was done by his nephew Bonifacio - who not unnaturally is also portrayed in this votive picture.

Bonifacio Lupi was something more than a soldier - he was a diplomat and politician as well. His personal lasting memorial is the Lupi chapel, dedicated to St James the Great, inside the Santo itself. The chapel is highly decorated and fairly shallow, and is in the liturgical North wall of the knave. The central Altichiero fresco is of Christ's crucifixion, and interestingly this is flanked by two tombs - one that of Bonifacio and the other a relative from the Rossi family. The fresco over the Rossi tomb shows Christ being lowered into his tomb, and that over Bonifacio's tomb shows Christ rising from the tomb. Somewhat unusually the altarpiece is not painted but sculpted, perhaps because the altarpiece over the high altar in the main basilica is also sculpted.

King Ramiro As the chapel is dedicated to St James the Great, many of the frescoes shows scenes from St James' life. In one scene featuring Saint James interceding on behalf of one King Ramiro, it has been suggested that the features of the King bear a striking resemblance to those of King Louis the Great of Hungary, a ruler whom Bonifacio had visited on behalf of the Carrara. Furthermore it has been suggested that other well-known members of the Carrara court are visible in the assembled Council, including Bonifacio himself, Petrarch, della Seta, and even Francesco il Vecchio and his son Franceso il Novello. If this is so, it means that Bonifacio is trying to include himself and his peers as part of the godly collection of people who are favoured by no less a person than St James the Great.

Lupis presented to the Virgin But this is not enough for Bonifacio. On the east wall is a fresco showing Bonifacio and his wife Caterina being presented to the Virgin, with the Christ child on her lap, by St James in the case of Bonifacio and by her name-saint St Catherine of Alexandria in the case of St Catherine. Bonifacio is dressed in full armour, and his wife in rather ordinary garb. Significantly the normal conventions are reversed by having Bonifacio on the left hand of the Virgin, presumably so that he is facing his tomb from which he expects to rise again to everlasting life on the day of judgement.

Thus Lupi has acquired a place in the major pilgrimage church in Padua which will allow his name to be remembered as long as it stands. Indeed Pope Urban VI granted a special indulgence to anyone of the general public who visited the Lupi chapel to do honour to St James the Great.

St Anthony presenting Padua to Belludi Another notable private chapel in the Santo was the Conti chapel, painted with frescoes by Giusto de'Menabuoi. As well as the Conti family this chapel also honoured a local cult figure, Luca Belludi. There is a famous fresco of Saint Anthony of Padua appearing to Luca Belludi and presenting to him a walled city which is clearly identifiable as Padua.

Padua Baptistery The most powerful patron of all to endow a funerary chapel was Fina Buzzacarina, the consort of Francesco il Vecchio, who arranged for the Baptistery next to the cathedral to be turned into a funerary chapel for herself and her husband. There is actually no documentary evidence that she is the donatrix, but clues in the pictures themselves make this highly likely.

There are more family chapels in evidence in Florence than in Padua, perhaps because in the latter town the noble families were very much under the controlling influence of the Carrara, who probably only allowed his closest associates such as the Lupis to build family chapels on their own initiative.

Giotto Fresco of St Francis in Santa Croce In Florence the church with the largest number of 14th century funerary chapels is the Franciscan church of Santa Croce. The earliest, the Bardi family chapel, contains a set of frescoes of the life of St Francis by Giotto. One of the debates about all these chapels is about who has the most influence on the subject-matter chosen for the decorations - is it the donor, the owners of the church (in this case the Franciscans) or is it the artist? It is most likely that the prime mover is the donor (or his family) - he who pays the piper calls the tune. However it is obvious than in a church like Santa Croce the Franciscans would have been highly influential, and the life of St Francis would of course be highly acceptable as a subject. As for the artist, it is probably enough to say that he was able to stamp his own unique artistic style on the chosen subjects, and in all probability was involved all along in the choice of subject-matter and the planning of the whole scheme.

Giotto: Coronation of Virgin In the Baroncelli chapel in the same church there is a marble tomb for the Baroncelli family, incorporating a mural of the Virgin and Child by Taddeo Gaddi, who executed the frescoes on the remainder of this lavishly decorated chapel. In order to spare no expense, the Baroncelli commissioned a large altarpiece of The Coronation of the Virgin with Saints. This is signed by Giotto, although there is some scholarly debate about whether it is more likely to have been produced by others in Giotto's workshop. Giotto also painted the frescoes in the Peruzzi chapel in the same church.

Altarpiece in Strozzi Chapel In Santa Maria Novella there is the post Black Death Strozzi chapel, with an altarpiece by Orcagna and mural paintings by his brother Nardo di Cione. There are several unusual things about this chapel - firstly the altarpiece itself shows the figure of Christ as a full-length centrally placed figure - an idea harking back to the 12th century .The other unusual feature is that there is no figure which can be identified for certain with any of the Strozzi family, except there are two diminutive figures being led by the Archangel Michael to paradise in one of the murals, which may be meant to represent two of the family. Additionally, as befits an altarpiece for a Dominican church, St Thomas Aquinas is given a prominent position among the saints. The commissioner of the altarpiece was Tomaso Strozzi, so maybe he was influential in this prominent position for his name-saint.

There are of course many other funerary chapels, but this review of some of the best known should be sufficient to emphasise the enormous art-historical significance of these major works of art.


M Meiss Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death Princeton (1951)

Diana Norman (ed) Siena, Florence and Padua Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400 Yale University (1995)

John White Art & Architecture in Italy 1250-1400 Yale University (1993)

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The Influence of the Mendicant Orders on Art and Architecture

In the 13th century there was a very large building programme of churches in Florence, Siena and Padua (as well as other cities in Italy) by the great mendicant orders. In Florence the Dominicans took over and rebuilt the enormous church of Santa Maria Novella, while the Franciscans founded the church of Santa Croce. The Augustinian hermits built San Spirito and the Carmelites founded Santa Maria del Carmine. All these projects were achieved with the assistance of money from the state, who recognized the influence these orders had on the daily lives of the people. Originally in the suburbs, the churches were gradually incorporated within the city as the walls were extended outwards.

Similarly in Siena the great (and rather ugly) church of San Domenico was built by the Dominicans and was later enclosed within the walls, although the Franciscan friary of San Francesco, the Augustinian Sant’Agostino and the Carmelite church remained outside until the new walls were built in 1326. In Padua the main Dominican church of Sant’Agostino has been destroyed, but the great Franciscan pilgrimage church of Sant’Antonio (the Santo) still dominates the west of the city.

But as well as all this impressive building work the mendicant orders showed a significant and important attachment to other visual arts. In particular they regularly commissioned high altarpieces for their major churches, and many of the funerary and other chapels therein contain frescoes and other paintings which, if not actually commissioned by, were certainly influenced by, the mendicants themselves.

St Francis in Assisi Can one detect any differences between the art commissioned by the Franciscans from that by the Dominicans? St Francis, who died in 1226, inspired tremendous religious piety and fervour. His personal style of spirituality in preaching and emphasis on what would now be called “Human Rights” was reflected in much of the art that was produced. Probably the most famous set of Franciscan paintings is on the upper and lower churches of San Francesco in Assisi, where the painters, including Cimabue, possibly Giotto, Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti and others, have executed a masterly set of murals of the life of saint Francis as well as scenes from the old and new testaments. The association of the life of St Francis with the life of Christ became a typical Franciscan obsession. Indeed as it was easier in some ways for Italian people to identify with a local more contemporary person than with Christ, St Francis became something of a rebel-figure standing against the establishment. In 1930 the Mexican writer Rivera bizarrely claimed that Giotto was a propagandist of the spirit of Christian charity, the weapon of the Franciscan monks of his time against oppression.

St Francis himself took a vow of poverty, and he is often depicted “marrying” a personification of poverty, as in Giovanni di Biondo’s altarpiece for the Rinuccini chapel in Santa Croce. The Franciscans also had an almost mystical attachment to light, and there are instances of paintings, such as Taddeo Gaddi’s frescoes for the Baroncelli chapel in Santa Croce, where light appears as an important part of the scene.

Rucellai Madonna The major saints of the Dominican order were Saint Dominic, the founder of the order, St Augustine, whose rule the Dominicans followed, Saint Peter Martyr, a 13th century martyr, and St Thomas Aquinas, who was credited with producing the key religious works of the Dominicans. Many or all of these saints are traditionally present in altarpieces and other works destined for Dominican churches, such as Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna. This has roundels on the frame which have been identified as St Dominic, St Augustine (possibly) and St Peter Martyr amongst others.

Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas in Spanish Chapel One of the chief rooms used by the Dominicans in Florence was the chapterhouse, now known as the Spanish Chapel, in Santa Maria Novella. In this room the friars would gather every day to hear the reading of the rules, and also to confess their transgressions to their fellows. It was also used as a general meeting place for the friars, and when visiting Dominicans from other cities visited they would be entertained here. It therefore must have been of great significance to the Dominicans to look at the extensive decorations on the walls and vaults of this room by Andrea Bonaiuti. Over the altar is the crucifixion, a fairly standard scene for a friary. On the opposite wall are scenes from the life of St Peter Martyr, a saint whose life was devoted to preaching - a Dominican pre-occupation. On the west wall is the Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas, with the personification of wisdom and learning and all the virtues and visual arts. Above him is the scene of the Pentecost, when the apostles were given the gift of tongues to propagate the Christian message throughout the world.

Spanish Chapel East Wall The most complex picture is on the east wall, where St Dominic himself is seen conducting the congregation into heaven, another Dominican priest is giving absolution to a kneeling figure - possibly the major contributor of funds, Guidalotti. Down below St Peter Martyr is preaching while St Thomas Aquinas shows his works to the unbelievers. The Dominicans owed their allegiance directly to the Pope, and he is duly depicted with the Holy Roman Emperor and other dignitaries outside Florence cathedral at the bottom left of the picture. Much of the allusion in this picture is now not understood, but what is quite clear is that it must have been of great significance to its 14th century audience of friars.

Montepulciano Altarpiece As a final thought, it is interesting that in the Taddeo di Bartolo altarpiece produced for the small town of Montepulciano in 1401, all three major saints of the mendicant orders are depicted together - Saints Augustine, Francis and Dominic.


Diana Norman (ed) Siena, Florence and Padua Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400 Yale University (1995)

John White Art & Architecture in Italy 1250-1400 Yale University (1993)

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The Building of the Siena Duomo

Siena Duomo Professor White likens the Duomo in Siena to a great white upturned whale dominating the skyline of the hilltop city. Certainly it is one of the strangest buildings in Tuscany with, arguably, the strangest history. The history of the building is inevitably caught up with the history of the city itself, and of the outside environment. And throughout the 13th and 14th century the progress of the actual building seems to have been distracted by the progress of other discrete major works of art which were placed in it.

The original Duomo was started in about 1226. One of the outstanding innovative features of this original Duomo was the group of intricately carved capitals on the pillars of the nave, with their elaborately carved figures and animals, birds and foliage. The first chancel, crossing and dome were almost complete by 1260, by which time another highly unusual feature had been incorporated - a hexagonally designed crossing at the centre.

In 1260 a defining event in the history of Siena took place. On the eve of the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary the Florentines were preparing to attack the much smaller town of Siena. The Capitano de Guerra for Siena, dressed in sackcloth, led a procession of clergy and people to the uncompleted Duomo and dedicated his forthcoming military exploits to the Virgin, undertaking that if Siena was successful she would be adopted as the protector of the city and worshipped there for evermore. This exercise proved astonishingly successful as the largely Ghibelline Sienese forces unexpectedly routed the Guelphs of Florence at the battle of Montaperti.

Pisano Pulpit in Siena Duomo This event seems to have accelerated the progress and commissioning of several works of art in the Duomo. In 1265 a superb carved pulpit was commissioned from the Pisan architect Nicola Pisano, who had already achieved great renown for his work on the pulpit at Pisa itself. The Siena pulpit was constructed with the help of other artists who were to become in some cases even more famous than Nicola - including his son Giovanni and the Florentine Arnolfo di Cambio, who later became the moving spirit behind much of the later stages of the Florence Duomo. The pulpit is octagonal in shape and shows scenes from the life of Christ in startlingly detailed relief round the top. At the base of the central column are the seven liberal arts (the first time in Italian art) and the figure of Philosophy. Four of the eight pillars appear to be resting on the backs of lions.

Also at around this time an elaborate set of carved wooden choir stalls was designed, but these were subsequently destroyed.

In 1264 a decision was taken to increase the size of the still incomplete Duomo, doubtless to reflect the growing size and self-confidence of the city. The nave was slightly enlarged and also heightened - it was now to be slightly higher than the chancel.

In 1284 (probably) construction work began on the west facade under the supervision of Giovanni Pisano. As this effort seems to have been halted around 1310 and re-started to a possibly different design some 40 years later, we cannot be sure how it originally looked, but we can see amongst other things some elaborately carved door jambs for the three portals (especially the central one).

Oculus by Cimabue or Duccio The next major commission was for the great round oculus of stained glass, variously attributed to Duccio or Cimabue, which was installed in the east wall (and later moved to its present location in the new east wall). This window, in keeping with the dedication of the Duomo to the Virgin of the Assumption, has the Assumption as the central scene, with Mary’s burial below it and her coronation in heaven above it. The side panels are of the four other patron saints of Siena, and in the four corners are the four evangelists.

Duccio's Maesta Another major event - and doubtless major distraction from the building work - was the installation in 1311 of Duccio’s celebrated masterpiece, the Maesta. This had already acquired a huge reputation before it was installed, and a large procession of all the major citizens of the town processed with it from Duccio’s workshop to the Duomo where it was installed over the high altar. (It was subsequently moved and later desecrated by carving it up and distributing its component parts to various different locations). The main portion of the Maesta is a further celebration of the Virgin Mary enthroned, surrounded by a company of saints - including the four patron saints kneeling before her in supplication. It also contains an inscription whereby Duccio asks for Mary’s blessing on his own work and life.

Siena Baptistery In 1317 another major decision was made - this time to extend the cathedral eastwards over a new baptistery which was to be built at a level below the chancel, with a huge new facade rising to the same height as the west facade. As well as enhancing the overall grandeur of the whole building, this would have the additional benefit of providing an imposing front to people approaching the Duomo from the newly constructed civic centre of the Palazzo Pubblico and Campo. Indeed unusually for a baptistery the figure in prime position on the facade is not John the Baptist but a representation of Siena itself.

In 1321 the Opera del Duomo commissioned a report from a group headed by the Sienese architect Lorenzo Maitani to assess the structural state of the new work. This report was critical of several things about the construction itself, but also questioned the lack of symmetry of the overall design. In particular, because of the new extension, the centre of the crossing would no longer be central under the dome. Rectifying this would entail major expensive and difficult works to the dome and its supporting vaults. Maitani’s radical new suggestion, which may have been at the back of his mind all along as he compiled the report, was to build a colossal new cathedral incorporating the existing one, but turning it through 90 degrees so that the existing nave became the north transept and the existing south transept was extended to become the new nave. This enormous project, the Duomo Nuovo, was started in 1339 and proceeded at breakneck speed. Records do not show how many people were employed on the project at any one time, but we do have documentary evidence from the construction of the Duomo at nearby Orvieto, where at one time 260 people were employed.

Meanwhile four new altarpieces for four side chapels commemorating the four patron saints of Siena were commissioned from Pietro Lorenzetti, Simone Martini and his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi, Bulgarini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti. All these altarpieces would enhance the overall Marian theme of the Duomo by featuring important events, additional to the Assumption in Duccio’s Maesta, in Mary’s life (Birth, Annunciation, Nativity, and Purification).

Duomo Nuovo - Siena Work on the Duomo Nuovo proceeded under the capomaestro Giovanni d’Agostino. An enormous new west wall was started - the so-called facciatone. The decorative sculpture on this is intricate and magnificent, and of particular interest is the lunette at the top in which the figures of Christ and two angels seen from close to appear to lean outwards, but as they were designed to be seen from far below would actually seem perfectly realistic.

In 1348 work was severely disrupted when the Black Death claimed about one half of the entire population of Siena - 25,000 out of 50,000. In 1355 another report was commissioned when the new nave walls started to buckle, and a new group of experts, including the Florentines Talenti and Benci di Cione, recommended the abandonment of the whole Duomo Nuovo project. At around this time the government of the Nine had fallen and been replaced by a government of the Twelve. The decision was accordingly taken to cut their losses and complete the old building, completing the new choir over the baptistery and adding new higher clerestory and vaults along the whole length. This latter move had the curious effect of swallowing part of the drum beneath the dome, and making part of the drum visible from inside the cathedral rather than the outside.

West Facade The magnificent west facade was also completed at around this time. Much scholarly argument attaches to the question of whether the fact that the verticals of the upper story do not coincide with the verticals of the lower means that the design was altered, perhaps to incorporate the changed design of the circular rose window. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the facade, probably completed by Giovanni Pisano, remains one of the masterpieces of Sienese art. It is not just a building with sculptures added to it, but clearly is designed and executed as one artistic whole - more as a piece of sculpture, to use modern parlance, in itself. The individual sculptures (the originals of which are now preserved in the Cathedral museum to protect them from the weather) form a cohesive group of old and new testament figures, with the addition of some figures from antiquity, which lean out, gesture to each other, talk and react to each other in an entirely innovative way.

The baptistery facade was never completed, and together with the remains of the Duomo Nuovo forms an eloquent testimony to the saga of ambition and incompetence that produced the amazing building of the Siena Duomo.


Diana Norman (ed) Siena, Florence and Padua Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400 Yale University (1995)

John White Art & Architecture in Italy 1250-1400 Yale University (1993)

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The Influence of Learning on Art in 14th Century Padua, Florence and Siena

Of the three cities it was Padua that had the more impressive record as a seat of learning, and not surprisingly it is Paduan art which probably reflects this more than that of the other cities. Padua’s university dates from 1232 when it was founded as an offshoot of Bologna university.

Walls of Salone in Palazzo della Ragione The most obvious evidence of the influence of learning in Paduan art is the decoration of the upper walls in the Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione. These by tradition have been attributed to Giotto, but the evidence of the actual paintings has been lost because they were extensively overpainted following a fire in 1420. (There was also extensive damage during a hurricane in the 18th century). However it is confidently assumed by modern scholars that the new paintings followed faithfully the scheme of the original. This scheme, possibly devised by a local scholar Pietro d’Abano, consisted of no less than 333 separate compartments. This highly complex scheme involves zodiacal and other astrological symbols, seasonal representations, the labours of the months (wherein each month has a particular traditional labour associated with it), the planets and the children of the planets (whereby each planet has human occupations traditionally associated with it). These planets and some of the other figures are portrayed in their classical Roman guise, although a profoundly Christian message is also intended - the twelve apostles are all represented as is a large picture of the coronation of the Virgin. The lower part of the walls have paintings, attributed to Giusto de Menabuoi, of saints, including local Paduan saints, and the seven virtues. The main purpose of all this is unclear, but it is entirely possible that decisions of the government of Padua which were made here were influenced by astrological considerations.

Petrarch in his Study The civic humanism for which Padua became renowned was exemplified by the presence in Padua of scholars such as Petrarch and his close associate Lombardo della Seta. In what remains of the Reggia, the Carrara seat of government largely destroyed or rebuilt after the fall of the Carrara, there exists a heavily repainted portrait of Petrarch probably by Altichiero and his associates. Petrarch sits in his study surrounded by his books. It is probable that Petrarch advised on the painted scheme of heroes of antiquity which adorned the walls of the Sala Virorum Illustrium, one of the rooms in the Reggia which were heavily indebted to classical figures, reflecting the desire of the Carrara to portray an image of classical imperial might and power. Portraits of Petrarch himself appear in several other frescoes, such as the Healing by Christ in the Baptistery and several funerary chapels in the Santo and in the nearby Oratorio di San Giorgio. Men of letters were clearly more highly regarded than painters in 14th century Padua. On Petrarch’s death he bequeathed a Giotto painting of the Virgin and Child to Francesco il Vecchio.

Centre of Padua Baptistery A final example of learning in art from Padua is the remarkable depiction of the Creation in the centre of the dome inside the baptistery, painted by Giusto de’ Menabuoi in about 1370. This shows God in his earthly form as Christ creating the world - centred on Jerusalem in a remarkably accurate map of the then known world - surrounded by the seven spheres of traditional myth and the zodiacal signs of astrology.

Florence had no such strong university traditions as Padua. There was a half-hearted attempt to set up a university in mid-century after the Black Death but this seems to have fizzled out without making much impact. One of the reasons for this was that the mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans - and the Augustinians - all had important studia or schools associated with their main churches. That is not to say that Florence was lacking in learned men - both Dante and Boccaccio writing in the vernacular pushed forward Italian literary achievements to new heights.

Florence Campanile Hexagon from Florence Campanile The most striking evidence of the influence of learning on a work of art is probably the Florence campanile. This was begun in the 1330s under the influence of Giotto (who might well have brought to it ideas from his Paduan experience), and completed during the 1340s and 1350s mostly by Andrea Pisano and his associates. The scheme is a more compact and less complicated one than the Paduan Salone in the Palazzo della Ragione. It comprises some 28 lozenges (one is actually a triangle) set above an equivalent number of hexagons. In the upper lozenges are portrayed the seven planets (these include the sun and moon), the seven virtues (faith hope and charity - the theological virtues - and prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude - the cardinal virtues), the seven liberal arts (astronomy, music, geometry, rhetoric, grammar, logic and arithmetic) and the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, marriage, ordination, confirmation, the eucharist and extreme unction). In the hexagons we have more emphasis on human achievement. There are three scenes from Genesis, and then a mixture of inventors (herdsman, smith, musician, viniculture, astronomy, law etc), the mechanical arts (construction, medicine, horsemanship, sailing, ploughing, weaving and drama) and other occupations such as architecture, sculpture and painting. The placing of the various reliefs is interesting - for instance the sacraments face the duomo itself, while the south face, containing the most appropriate relief for the organising guild - the cloth weavers - faces away from the duomo.

Above these reliefs there are niches intended for statues of Old testament prophets and sibyls from antiquity - though these were not completed until the 15th century. The whole scheme is a mixture of Biblical scenes and scenes from antiquity - with some of the ancient planets portrayed in contemporary dress. Jupiter for instance appears as a monk and Mars as a knight on horseback.

Triumph of St Anthony One of the most influential studia in Florence was associated with the Dominican friary of Santa Maria Novella. And in the chapterhouse, now known as the Spanish Chapel, there is a set of frescoes by Andrea Bonaiuti which display evidence of great knowledge of learning, either by the sponsor or the painter or some other designer. The key fresco in this context is the Triumph of Thomas Aquinas on the west wall. Thomas Aquinas was one of the most important saints in the Dominican order, and was particularly revered for his writings which were widely believed to have been inspired by God. Instead of the usual practice of depicting scenes from the saint’s life, Bonaiuti has chosen to show Thomas Aquinas seated centrally on a throne, flanked by St Paul, the four evangelists and several Old Testament prophets. Above his head are the seven virtues, while on the throne itself is a depiction of wisdom, reflecting the fact that Thomas itself is holding open a book with a quotation from the Book of Wisdom. Under Thomas’ feet are three figures, identified by scholars as three famous heretical writers. On the next level down on the fresco are fourteen female figures, identified as representing civil and canon law, various theological arts and the seven liberal arts. Associated with each of these figures is a male figure acting as a historical representative of the particular art. Thus below Arithmetic is the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, under Rhetoric Cicero etc. The female figures are seated on thrones, each of which has a roundel which between them represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the seven planets (represented by pagan deities - often in contemporary dress). The whole scene is presided over by the figure of Christ leaning out of the border at the top and opening his arms to bless - and presumably impart wisdom to - Thomas Aquinas.

The whole effect of the painting, brilliantly executed in bright colours and with lifelike realistic carefully differentiated figures, must have been to provide its limited audience of Dominican friars a strong message about the wisdom and rightness of the learning of Thomas Aquinas.

Good Government in the City Good Government in the Country The Sienese painter with the highest reputation for learning was probably Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The paintings which display this learning to the greatest extent are the three famous allegorical paintings in the Sala dei Nove in the Palazzo Pubblico. The subject matter of these three paintings is subject to many different interpretations, but clearly the main purpose is to display the consequences of good and bad government. In Good Government for instance there are personifications of the Sienese Commune, peace, magnanimity and the seven virtues, and in particular the effects of justice being meted out in a fair manner. On the adjacent wall are the corresponding vices and other negative counterparts. The picture of the good city shows human activity being carried on in an organised calm way both in town and neighbouring countryside, all presided over by the figure of Security. By contrast the Bad Government city shows scenes of chaos, decay and war, presided over by the figure of Fear. In the borders of the paintings are medallions representing many of the same things that are to be seen in the Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione, such as the planets, the liberal arts, the zodiacal signs, the four seasons, and over the bad city figures representing notorious tyrants of the past.

Effect of Bad Government One of the main differences between these paintings and the other works we have been considering is that Lorenzetti depicts the human activities in a much more lifelike setting, and not as individual separate personifications. To modern eyes they therefore form a more striking depiction of the art of knowledge than the others.


Diana Norman (ed) Siena, Florence and Padua Art, Society and Religion 1280-1400 Yale University (1995)

John White Art & Architecture in Italy 1250-1400 Yale University (1993)

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