Gothic-Late Gothic

Annunciazione S. Martini - main image

It was in 13th-century Europe that the Gothic style took shape and developed, profoundly influencing art and culture until the 15th century. In a society characterised by the rise of seigniories, principalities, kingdoms but also religious movements, Gothic was the language used by painters, sculptors and architects called to court to translate the principles and ideas of those circles into imagery; principles such as love for nature, for creation and for light, viewed as a manifestation of divinity, religiosity, the study of man and his emotions.

Gothic architecture – The great churches

The Gothic style first emerged in architecture and sculpture and only half a century later in painting. Already by the end of the 12th century, signs of the new movement could be seen, as in the Abbey of San Galgano (begun in 1218), but it was not until the 13th and 14th centuries, with the construction of the basilicas of Santa Maria Novella (begun in 1279), Santa Croce (begun in 1294), the Duomo in Florence and the cathedral in Siena (begun in 1220), that it reached its maximum expression.

Unlike the Gothic style of the other side of the Alps, slender and vertical, lightened by large stained glass windows, Italian Gothic style is moderate, with massive structures finished with white, green and black marble that still dominate the medieval squares of our cities. The interiors of these majestic churches are decorated with frescoes often depicting stories from the Holy Scriptures for the faithful, educated in the principles of religion through the communicative power of imagery. Sculptures began to appear on the façades, which, like the frescoes, also become means for moral and religious teachings.

Two outstanding examples of Gothic architecture in Florence are Giotto’s Campanile (c. 1267–1337) and the structure of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, both in Piazza del Duomo. The Campanile is the majestic tower next to the cathedral, with a square base of about 15 metres on each side and almost 85 metres in height.

Entrusted to Giotto in 1334, the structure was later assigned to his pupil Andrea Pisano (c. 1290 – 1348) and then completed by Francesco Talenti (c. 1305 – 1369) in 1359. The exterior is clad in white, red and green marble with geometric and floral motifs interspersed with niches, inside which sculptures and reliefs illustrate the Christian virtues, the sacraments, the liberal arts, but also Biblical scenes such as the creation of Adam and Eve.

The great bell tower can be visited today, with its 398 steps to be climbed to reach the top. The Florentine cathedral, on the other hand, is the result of a very long period of work that began in 1296 and ended only in 1887. Today, all that remains of the Gothic style is the structure from a design by Arnolfo di Cambio (c. 1245 – c. 1310).

The Gothic in painting: The great altarpieces with golden backgrounds

It was in the 14th century, thanks to the Tuscans Cimabue (1240–1302), Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255–1319), Giotto, Simone Martini (1284–1344), the Ambrogio brothers (1290–1348) and Pietro Lorenzetti (1280–1348) that the Gothic style opened up in painting.

Emancipated from the influence of the sober, flat and monumental Byzantine style, it was through the intuitions, first of Cimabue and Duccio di Buoninsegna and then of the great Giotto with the study of space and the introduction of perspective, that a more naturalistic rendering of subjects was achieved.

An example of this is Giotto’s great Maestà, now in the Uffizi, dating to c. 1310, where Byzantine rigidity is now overcome to make way for a new three-dimensionality that makes space realistic. Faces and gestures are humanised for the first time; the Virgin lovingly holds the leg of her Child seated on her lap, details are surprisingly lifelike, such as the Marian flowers in the ampullae or the gnarled wood where Mary’s feet rest.

A further step was taken with the Sienese Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, thanks to whom subject and space both became even more real, and works were embellished with new elements, such as the punching of the backgrounds and the insertion of precious stones, all of which enhance the light-gold contrast.

Simone Martini’s 1333 masterpiece The Annunciation, now in the Uffizi Gallery, is the epitome of this: the Virgin recoils almost in fright, in a gesture that seems abrupt, at the arrival of the Archangel announcing her destiny. The scene takes place in a theatrical yet abstract atmosphere, emphasised by the brightness of the background and the precision of the details of the floor, the flowers and the book, half-open between the Virgin’s tapered fingers.

It would be the tragic advent of the Black Death, which in the mid 14th century will hit the whole of Europe decimating the population and causing the death of many great artists – such as Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, Andrea Pisano, Bernardo Daddi (ca. 1290–1348), Maso di Banco (–1348) – that marked an inevitable change in society and consequently in the representation of the arts.

Loss and loneliness were new feelings to be interpreted and recounted, in art as in literature, hence great works such as the Decameron (1349–1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). In painting too, fear of death and divine punishment became the protagonists of the works: scenes representing the Last Judgement or the Triumph of Death multiplied in church frescoes, which in Tuscany may be admired in the frescoes by Buonamico Buffalmacco (c. 1290–1340) in the Campo Santo in Pisa (1336–1341) and by Taddeo di Bartolo (1362–1422) in the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano (1393).

The Late Gothic or International Gothic period

As always, politics enters into the heart of customs and social life; the Avignonese captivity of the Church of Rome, which transferred the papal seat to Avignon in France from 1309, was certainly one of the reasons for the rapprochement of the Italian Gothic to French taste, more refined and decorative in the ornamentation of clothing, objects and natural details.

In Florence, it was figures such as Starnina (c. 1354 – c. 1413) and Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1370 – c. 1425) who introduced the culture of the International Gothic, but the arrival in the city of Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1370 – c. 1427) from the Marche region was decisive. The celebrated Adoration of the Magi (1423) is one of the most representative works of this style, today preserved in the Uffizi. In this sumptuous work, the artist succeeds in inserting the long journey of the Three Kings, guided by the comet star, towards the Holy Family. Their eastern origin is underlined by the large multi-ethnic procession and the exotic animals travelling with them: the preciousness of the gold of the armour and robes emphasises their importance. The sumptuous carved and gilded cornice frames the refinement of the execution and the preciousness of the details of the fabrics and harnesses, as well as the richness of the naturalistic and costume details. The painting, commissioned by the wealthy banker Palla Strozzi, was originally intended for the family chapel in the church of Santa Trinita in Florence. Today, the work is in the Uffizi Gallery.

It is extraordinary to know that at the same time, in the same city, starting from such different ideas, ideas and principles, a movement was born that would take the name of the Renaissance: the other artistic and cultural current that would mark the end of the late-14th century and the neo-Giottesque style in Italy.

Already with the International Gothic, taste had turned towards a preciousness and refinement of decoration, with an almost fairytale-like figuration of Biblical scenes (as observed in Gentile da Fabriano‘s Adoration of the Magi) and manifested in sculpture mainly in the accentuation of reliefs and gilding.

An example of ‘in-between’ art is the different yet no less valuable result of the works of Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455), an artist who worked right between the Late Gothic and Early Renaissance periods. A sculptor, goldsmith, architect and writer, Ghiberti had the ability to fuse the elegant taste of the International Gothic with Renaissance naturalism in his art.

Thanks to the humanist scholars in the city who gradually rediscovered the Greek and Roman classics and their values, the spirit and principles of figurative art also changed. Of the classics, literary and philosophical as well as artistic works were rediscovered and reinterpreted. Having been absorbed into contemporary culture, the values of fidelity to nature, perspective and the centrality of man and his body became the principles of the artists who were to be the protagonists of the Florentine Renaissance.

An example of the new outlook is the extraordinary tile of the Sacrifice of Isaac (1401), now in the Bargello Museum. Created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the competition for the north door of the Baptistery of Florence, it is of such innovative force that it guaranteed his success. Ghiberti staged the tragic story by extracting perfectly proportioned figures from the flat background, created after a clear and in-depth study of ancient models.

On the decoration of the Door, Ghiberti worked from 1401 to 1429, modelling no less than 28 panels illustrating the Stories of the New Testament.

Photo: Annunciazione, 1333, Simone Martini

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