Italian Gothic Sculpture

The contrast with the Gothic art of the north which has been drawn so far continues in the history of its sculpture. The Milan Cathedral is the only one in Italy which rivals the profusion of northern Gothic sculpture as used for architectural decoration and its statues, themselves individually of minor merit, are in no sense connected with the history of Italian art. In amount of production the Italian Gothic sculpture cannot for a moment be compared with that of Northern Europe. It was also distinctly later in its earliest development, but in the artistic and, so to speak, professional quality of its more limited number of productions, it stands in reputation, and in fact, far higher. There is no Gothic sculpture outside of Italy which can be considered aside from its architectural connection. Sculpture, for its own sake, for the sake of form and science, is distinctly Italian in its origin as far as modern times are concerned. The northern Gothic sculpture had no sequence of perfected development. It rather retrograded in its later phases and was finally supplanted in the time of the Renaissance by the influences of its Italian rival.

The first development of Italian sculpture preceded by nearly fifty years the art of Giotto, and undoubtedly made the first break with the formalism of the Byzantine style or the crude barbarism of the more native art of Italy. It was distinctly a great and phenomenal genius, Nicolo of Pisa, who resurrected the arts of form in Italy. His epoch-making work is the pulpit of the Pisa Baptistery (1261). A somewhat later work of the same class by Nicolo is in the Cathedral of Siena.

As illustrated by the views, the style of Nicolo was founded on the antique. Some of the Greco-Roman sarcophagi, from which he made his studies, are still preserved in Pisa. His work, however, is simple and naive, original and profoundly thoughtful—as distinct from a mechanical and servile dependence on antique art. His son Giovanni followed in his footsteps with somewhat more distinct relations to the northern sculpture of his time. Among his many beautiful works, we may mention the reliefs of the Orvieto Cathedral executed with assistance of his scholars. There was an entire school of Pisan artists largely employed throughout Italy in the fourteenth century. The bronze doors by Andrea of Pisa, made for the Florence Baptistery, are among the important productions of this school. The reliefs from the designs by Giotto, on the bell tower (campanile) of the Florence Cathedral, are beautiful examples of Italian Gothic thought and science. The Italian fourteenth century was not, however, prolific in works of sculpture. The art of fresco was more popular and more affected, but all that was done was profoundly significant for the development of the Renaissance which followed in the fifteenth century. Before closing our account of the medieval art on the threshold of this ” rebirth,” we may turn a moment’s attention to the secular buildings of the Italian Gothic.

Among the most interesting Italian buildings are its secular monuments, the great town halls and civic palaces, especially interesting as reminders of the active municipal life to which the Italian art owed so much of its greatness. This was especially fostered by the public spirit of the citizens and by the rivalries of the various republics, each vieing with the other to produce some unique work of art.

The Palazzo Vecchio (old palace) of Florence is the most famous of these buildings. Beside it stands the grand Loggia Dei Lanzi (the portico of the lancemen, i. e., of the town guard). The town halls of Volterra and Prato are characteristic examples of these massive and fortress-like structures, which literally were town fortresses built to withstand the stormy outbreaks and civic convulsions in which the overflowing vigor of these municipalities found vent. The massive simplicity of these buildings is worthy of all praise. They are direct continuations of similar structures of older time and only in the arch of doors or windows do we find the means of dating them in point of style.

In marked contrast to these buildings are the private palaces of the Venetian Gothic. Here a pleasure-loving and opulent life flourished at an early day. The strong constitution of Venice saved her from the anarchy which so often befell the republics and petty despotisms of Tuscany and her buildings have none of the ominous impressiveness of those just described. The palaces of her nobles are, taken in mass, the earliest decorative private buildings of Europe. The same purely decorative use of Gothic forms, otherwise noted in the Italian Gothic, is also apparent here. The Palace of the Doge at Venice is the most splendid example of the style.

Various references in foregoing pages have indicated that medieval thought and culture, and consequently medieval art, were displaced in the sixteenth century by a movement of Italian origin known as the Renaissance. The beginnings of modern history, which for Northern Europe are first distinctly visible in the sixteenth century, must all be sought in Italy by any correct philosophy of history. Hence it will be observed that the history of medieval art, as sketched in this book, closes a century earlier for Italy than for Northern Europe. We have carried the history of the northern Gothic architecture, sculpture, and painting as far as the sixteenth century, but for Italy we have drawn the line at the close of the fourteenth century. Strictly speaking we cannot, however, specify a distinctly Renaissance art in sculpture and painting before 1425, or a distinctly Renaissance architecture before 1450. On the other hand the Italian Gothic period is fall of anticipations and forecasts of the approaching revolution. In Italian architecture the repugnance to the northern Gothic has this significance. In sculpture the Italian Gothic already exhibits, with Nicolo of Pisa, the antique influence which is characteristic of Renaissance art. The awakening interest in visible nature, as distinct from the traditional repetition of religious formulas in art, which is an equally characteristic phase of the Renaissance, is already distinctly visible in the painting of Giotto and his period.