Art of The Berlin Galleries – Italian Paintings Of The 14th, And The First Half Of The 15th Century

The centres of influence in those early days were Florence and Siena; and although the work produced at the time was principally found on the walls of churches in fresco, still the example of Margaritone (1216? – 1293?). who first painted on canvas stretched on a panel covered with plaster, was sufficiently followed to have left such easel pictures as are now found in transalpine museums.

This gallery offers us noteworthy examples of both these early schools. On the long wall to the right we select first the Florentines.

Cimabue (1240?-1302?) was not the first of the Italian painters, as Vasari terms him, but the last of the Greeks according to Lanzi; for although intelligent and skilful, and with more originality than any of his contemporaries he was still bound by the Byzantine pattern.

Italian art during the middle ages, such as it was, had been pure Gothic, and not until the middle of the thirteenth century did the Pisani make use of the Roman monuments and thereby resurrect the antique ideal. At the same time the Byzantine influences helped to turn the Italians from the great Gothic style, and to ameliorate its sculpturesque rigidity by a desire for beauty. Thus art became chastened and disciplined until the time came when the dawn of humanism led the Italian artists to turn to naturalism.

It was Giotto (1266-1337), the shepherd boy,

whom Cimabue found drawing his sheep on a rock with a sharp stone, who freed himself from the , imitation of Goths and Greeks by copying from nature. His treatment of the chosen subjects of sacred story became more vivid, more varied, more animated. His drawing became simple and natural without conventional forms or settled types. His colouring improved with varying tints. He was the first to employ foreshortening and perspective; and his rudimentary use of light and shade, whereby the shadows compel us to realize very concavity and the lights every convexity, was his personal contribution that laid the foundation for the supreme excellence of later Florentine painting: the expression of form. With him the functional line became suggestive, and significant, and expressive, and although he never rendered movement he suggested it admirably.

It is true that Giotto’s art was puerile, it held little more than pietistic illustration. Ruskin’s swinging of the censer before the great son of Bondone was a misplaced enthusiasm rarely surpassed in its exaggerated adulation. There was a timidity, an actual incapacity in Giotto’s art which must not be denied. There were imperfections which cannot be made out, as Ruskin did, to be the result of deliberate choice — they were in reality forced upon him by inexperience. Neverthe less, Giotto stands out, in the infancy of art, as the first great teacher and leader.

Giotto’s large mural paintings in the church of Assisi, and the S. Croce of Florence impress us with their monumental character, their processional gravity; and this same largeness of conception is seen even in the miniaturelike little ” Crucifixion ” (1074A) which we find here possibly the centre panel of a triptychon. The cross towers high above the groups below, while the noble body of the Christ is surrounded by ten angels floating about The Magdalene embraces kneeling the foot of the cross, and John supports the sorrowing Mary. Their features are no longer conventional faces, symbols of pious awe, but have the expression of living beings. To the right we see the believing Centurion among the Pharisees, and soldiers and horsemen fill the background.

Berenson does not accept the authenticity of this work which, however, must be ascribed to the later years of this early master.

His favourite pupil was Taddeo Gaddi (1300-1366), who, like all the others that followed Giotto, could not grasp the largeness of construction of the master, and frequently only distorted the expressiveness of his lines. A small home-altar (1079-1081), which was also carried along on travels, is by Taddeo. On the centre-panel is the Madonna Enthroned, holding the Child which caresses her cheeks playfully. The throne stands as in a niche, within a Gothic arch, and the diminutive figures of the donors are seen kneeling at the steps. On the narrow band outside the arch are seen the half-figures of fourteen saints, placed one above the other, and representing the seven holy choirs, the lowest figures being the patrons of Florence, Zenobius and the Baptist. The wings represent the scenes of the beginning and ending of the christology In the upper corners is found a most delicate depiction of the legend of the children’s patron St. Nicholas, who was especially interested in opposing the pernicious custom – even current in Italy up to a hundred years ago of selling children in the Oriental slave markets. We see in one corner a child serving the Sultan as page at table, when the Saint suddenly appears flying in the air. He takes up the child and carries him to the poor home of his sorrowing parents on the other wing where a happy reunion takes place. The colouring in purple and yellow, cinnabar and light-grey, red and violet, is of a delicate harmony.

Two small panels (1073, 1074) hail from a closet-door of the Sacristy of S. Croce in Florence. The Academy there shows twenty-two of these panels, twelve with the life of Christ, ten with the legend of St. Francis. They were ascribed by Rumohr, on Vasari’s authority, to Giotto, but they do not bear in the least the evidence of the master’s large construction. One of those before us shows in half-figures the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in a room. The other panel has the movements more carried out in dramatic vigour and portrays a miracle which St. Francis wrought in Florence, when a child that falls from a window is restored by the Saint unharmed to its mother.

Taddeo’s son, Agnolo Gaddi (died 1396), bears witness to the tendency, then already beginning to prevail, towards the obvious that pleases. The pretty, round faces of his half-figure of the ” Madonna and Child ” (1040), with pretty clothes and pretty colour are attractive but trivial. The Madonna in half-figure was at the time still rare in Florence.

The most gifted one of the group of Giotto followers was Bernardo da Firenze (died after 1366), whose identity with Bernardo Daddi is problematical. Bernardo’s small altarpiece with wings (1064), with the same subjects as that of Taddeo Gaddi, shows some progress made in the direction of landscape perspective and facial expression.

The Sienese school — shown on the right half of this long wall — lacked the strength and character expression of Giotto. It aimed rather at the expression of emotion than at perfection of form. This may be seen in the work of the great founder of the school, Duccio di Buoninsegna (1260-1339), who anticipated so much that is characteristic of all Central Italian painters, down to Raphael the ability for decorative illustration. Duccio in one great artistic quality, in the buoyant sparkle of his colour, was superior to Giotto; but this glamour of sensuous appeal cannot be compared with the more lasting power of the Florentine master.

A part of the predella of Duccio’s large altar-piece in the Duomo of Siena was given to the Museum in 1884. It is a panel-painting in three parts (1062A), the centre of which presents the birth of Christ, flanked by the full-length figures of Isaiah and Ezekiel. In a small hut the Mother is seen reclining beside a table on which the bambino lies. Angels full of joy and exaltation stand around and lean over the low roof, while in front of the hut a scene is shown, in smaller proportions, where the Child is being cared for by the women that have come to Mary’s assistance. The technique, with its greenish underpainting of the fleshstones and the gold lines to demark the forms, is still reminiscent of Byzantium.

His great follower, Simone Martiri (1284-1344), fell below Duccio in dramatic rendering of the gospel themes. He sacrificed restraint to the obvious portrayal of facile emotion. But his feeling for beauty, grace and splendour made him a master of magnificent colour. His Deposition of the Body ” (1070A) formed part of a small altar-piece, whereof the other parts are in Antwerp and in the Louvre. The anguish and sorrow at the grave is depicted with as much extravagance as may even to-day be witnessed at an Italian funeral.

His brother-in-law, Lippo Memmi (died 1356), was formed entirely under his influence. Of the two Madonnas (1067, 1081A) the latter is of exquisite decorative quality. The slender Mother who presses the Child against her breast grace-fully tilts her head upon her thin neck, and with half-closed eyelids has a dreamish look. The boy, whose little foot she supports in her hand, has the other foot firmly planted on her arm. He wears a white tunic and a red mantle for the nude Child was not yet customary and he holds a scroll in his loft hand. The childlike and yet thoughtful expression of the face of the little one is remarkably well rendered.

The Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro (flourished 1330) and Ambrogio (flourished 1342), bear unmistakable evidences of Giotto’s influence. Of Pietro the gallery owns two scenes from the life of St. Humilitas (1077, 1077A). In one he heals a nun and raises her from her sick-bed, in the other we witness the dying hour of the saint.

Pietro’s younger brother, Ambrogio, is the renowned master of the frescoes in the Palazzo Publico at Siena. Here we find the middle part of a triptychon (1094A) on which the birth of Christ is shown in the conventional manner — for conventionalism was becoming the bane of the school. Not satisfied to allow the figures of their compositions to speak for themselves they emphasized the expression of their emotions by placing turbid outpourings on scrolls and signs.

In the centre of this wall hang the life-size half-figures of Sts. Peter, Paul and John, which formed part of the only large altarpiece which Ugolino da Siena (died 1339) painted for the Church of S. Croce in Florence. Two lower parts with Passion scenes, the Judas-kiss and the Bearing of the Cross, are found in the London National Gallery. These figures are intensely impressive and fairly light up the long wall with a golden glow.

On the short wall opposite us we find a ” Madonna ” (1072), which the catalogue ascribes to Memmi, but which is superior in vivid colouring to Lippo’s art. It is more likely by his pupil, Bartolo di Maestro Fredi (about 1330-1410), probably the most inventive artist of this time when Sienese art had fallen into disrepute. According to Italian custom the Madonna is seated on the ground, on a golden pillow upon the bright red carpet, and her blue mantle falls down in rich folds. The Child, unusually large, is wrapped in a wine-red cloth over a gold-brocade undergarment.

A small procession-altarpiece, such as were carried at the top of a pole in religious pageants, showing a ” Crucifixion ” (1062B), is by Francesco di Vanuccio (active 1361-1388), a Sienese artist of little importance.

Another pupil of Lipp:, Memmi was Andrea Vanni (1332-1414), who often collaborated with Bartolo di Fredi. A Madonna with Child, holding fruit in its hand (1654), is by Berenson considered an early work of this artist.

Allegretto Nuzi (died 1374) was of Fabriano, and belonged to the Umbrian school, although formed under Florentine influences. Umbrian art was even more illustrative than Sienese art, seeking only the mere reproduction of actual or ideal reality. The Museum possesses two small panels, a ” Madonna Enthroned ” (1076) and a “Crucifixion” (1078), which have a refined wistfulness.

His pupil, Gentile da Fabriano (1365?-1427), may well be considered the brightest ornament of this early Umbrian school. His ” Mary with the Child and Two Saints ” (1130) is one of the most precious treasures in this room. The Madonna is seated on a low arm-chair between two orange-trees. In the dusky verdure we do not see golden fruit gleaming, but little seraphim playing on musical instruments. The most beautiful maiden, the daughter of a prince, Saint Catharine, stands at one side, dressed in a mantle of ermine, and facing her St. Nicholas in his episcopal robes and mitre, protectingly presenting the kneeling donor. There is great naturalism, a feeling for beauty, a sense of colour, a glowing vivacity, about this picture which points to the advanced change in style from Gothic to Renaissance painting. Also the nude Child, standing on its mother’s knees, is evidence of the transition.

The further development is seen on the long wall to our left. The first decades of the fifteenth century cover the period of humanism, when humble faith was giving place to self-consciousness, when people turned from the ideals of the higher world to the more vital presence of life as it was. Art followed the same course, and forsook its neglect, if not hatred, of every thing that was of the earth earthy, and found a new revelation of beauty in nature and in man. And Fra Angelico (1387-1455), although expressing on canvas ardour of Christian feeling and the ecstasy of the blessed, did this in an almost earthly festive way.

I1 Beato Frate Giovanni Da Fiesole, commonly called Fra Angelico, belonged to the Piagnoni (a name given to the followers of Savonarola, signifying weeper, mourner, or grumbler), and his goodness, his humility, his quiet charm of manner, and his deep piety gave him the odour of sanctity. But Fra Angelico was above all else an artist, and a great painter.

He must not be judged by the few pictures by which he is most generally known —by the inane prettiness of the ” celestial dolls flat as paper, stuck fast to their gold background,” playing on musical instruments, which adorn the frame of the Madonna dei Linajuoli. These are artistically contemptible, inferior stuff such as even a great master may in a moment of weakness produce, but which cannot compare with the consummate power wherewith he rendered form in his great achievements.

At first Giottesque in his art, he gradually developed, influenced to a certain extent by the great Masaccio whom we shall see later. Without losing his early exquisite grace of line, his charm of bright harmonious colour, and his singular beauty of facial expression, his ever-increasing love of classical art, and his observation of nature gave him new qualities. His later work has all the religious conviction of his early years, but besides he draws and models with a skill that rivals the greatest of his Renaissance successors.

A very early example hangs here, a ” Madonna Enthroned” (60), which shows yet the somewhat hesitating steps. Somewhat more advanced are two small pictures about St. Francis (61, 62) which are very attractive, especially for their light-effect, and are also interesting because the Dominican monk has rarely pictured the St. Francis legend. One of his latest works, and that one of his master-pieces, will be seen further on, in the Donatello Room.

Fra Filippo Lippi’s (1406-1468) ” Mary as Mother of Consolation” (95), with its crowd of virginal faces, is as characteristic of this artist as the works we shall see later. But this panel may not be regarded as entirely by his own hand, and the assistance of pupils must be conceded. The merry frater was pastor of the nun-cloister of Prato, and so popular with his flock that all would gladly serve as models for his pictures, from which sad scandals resulted.

An early Veronese was Vittore Pisano, called Pisanello (1385-1455), who was associated with Gentile da Fabriano in the decoration of the Ducal Palace at Venice. The small tondo ” Adoration of the Magi ” (95A) shows the ceremonial visit of the Kings with all their gorgeous retinue. The painting has been sent from pillar to post as far as its attribution is concerned, but careful research has fully established its being by Pisanello. The admirably disposed landscape-background raised the first doubt as to its authenticity, but various de-tails, the elaborate mantle of the page with his back to us, the animals, notably the camel in the shed, are found in signed drawings by Pisanello, which leaves no doubt as to its origin. The high tree in the middle-distance is a botanical curiosity. The rear view of the horse is, however, typical, for Pisanello was considered by his contemporaries a great horse painter.

Another ” Adoration of the Magi ” (5) is by Antonio Vivarini (active 1435-1470), of Murano, one of a large family of painters on that outlying Venetian island. This early work was painted about 1440. The Kings descend from the reddish-shimmering city towards the quiet valley where the humble hut is surrounded by the golden shower of nature’s beauties.

At the exit wall we must still note two Sienese artists of this time. Stefano di Giovanni, called Sasseta (active 1427-1450), has a Madonna (63B) of fine brushwork, but which in its mannered, long drawn-out figures is exceedingly distasteful. He fell into an eclectic following of old types and motives.

The whimsical Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1482) has a ” Crucifixion ” (1112B) of ,exceptional interest. It shows excessive mobility of the figures of the group on the right, while the group of women on the left, although more quiet, is also agitated with pathetic emotions.

( Originally Published 1912 )

The Art of The Berlin Galleries:The Kaiser Friedrich Museum – History Of The CollectionThe Italian PaintingsRoom 29 – Italian Paintings Of The 14th, And The First Half Of The 15th CenturyRoom 30 – Florentine Paintings Of The 15th CenturySculpture In Marble Of Donatello And Desiderio, And Old Florentine PaintingsRooms 34 — Ferrarese And Bolognese Paintings Of The 15th And 16th CenturiesRoom 35 – Lombard PaintingsRoom 64 – The Carpets After Raphael’s CartoonsRoom 38 – Florentine Paintings Of The 15th CenturyRoom 37 – Umbrian And Paduan Paintings Of The 15th CenturyRead More Articles About: The Art of The Berlin Galleries