VIII. ITALIAN GOTHIC: 1200–1300

Medieval Italians called Gothic lo stile Tedesco; and Renaissance Italians, equally mistaken about its origin, invented the name Gothic for it, on the ground that only the transalpine barbarians could have developed so extravagant an art. The decorative exuberance and exalted audacity of the style offended the classic and long-chastened tastes of the Italian soul. If Italy at last adopted Gothic, it was with a reluctance verging on contempt; and only after she had transformed it to her own needs and mood could she produce not only the exotic brilliance of Milan Cathedral, but the strange Byzantine-Romanesque Gothic of Orvieto and Siena, Assisi and Florence. Her soil and her ruins alike abounded in marble, with which she could face her shrines in slabs of many tints; but how could she carve a marble façade into the complex portals of the freestone North? She did not need the enormous windows by which the chill and cloudy North invited light and warmth; she preferred the small windows that made her cathedrals cool sanctuaries against the sun; she thought thick walls, even iron braces, no uglier than stilted buttresses. Not needing pinnacles or pointed arches as devices of support, she used them as ornaments, and never quite appropriated the constructive logic of the Gothic style.

In the North that style had been, before 1300, almost entirely ecclesiastical; and the few exceptions were in such commercial cities as Ypres, Bruges, and Ghent. In northern and Central Italy, even richer than the Lowlands in manufacturing and trade, civic architecture played a prominent role in the Gothic development. Town halls, city walls, gates, and towers, feudal castles and merchant palaces took on Gothic form or ornament. Perugia began its Palazzo del Municipio in 12 81, Siena its Palazzo Pubblico in 12 89, Bologna its Palazzo Comunale in 1290, Florence its unique and graceful Palazzo Vecchio in 1298—all in Tuscan Gothic style.

At Assisi in 1228 Brother Elias, to accommodate his numerous Franciscan monks and the swelling crowd of pilgrims to St. Francis’ tomb, ordered the erection of the spacious convent and church of San Francesco—the first Gothic church in Italy. The commission was given to a German master builder whom the Italians named Iacopo d’Alemannia; perhaps it was for this reason that Gothic was known in Italy as “the German style.” Iacopo built a Lower Church in Romanesque groined-vault style, and upon this an Upper Church with traceried windows and ribbed and pointed vault. The churches and the convent make an imposing mass, not quite as interesting as the remarkable frescoes by Cimabue, Giotto, and Giotto’s pupils, or the tourists and worshipers who daily flock from a hundred towns to the shrine of Italy’s favorite and least-heeded saint.

Siena is still a medieval city: a public square with government buildings, open market stands, and modest adjoining shops that make no effort to attract the eye. From this center a dozen alleys pick their shady, hazardous way between dark and ancient tenements hardly ten feet apart, filled with a kindly and volatile people to whom water is a luxury rarer and more dangerous than wine. On a hill behind the tenements rises La Metropolitana—the cathedral of the city—in an unpleasant striation of black and white marble. Begun in 1229, it was completed in 1348. In 1380, from plans left by Giovanni Pisano, a new and gorgeous façade was added, all of red, black, or white marble, with three Romanesque portals flanked by jambs of splendid carving and surmounted by gables of crocketed design; a vast rose window filtered the setting sun; arcades and colonnades running along the front presented a parade of statuary; pinnacles and towers of white marble softened the corners; and in the high pediment a vast mosaic showed the Virgin Mother floating up to paradise. The Italian architect was interested in a bright and colorful surface; not, like the French, in the subtle play of light and shade upon recessed portal orders and deeply sculptured façades. There are no buttresses here; the choir is topped with a Byzantine dome; the weight is borne by thick walls and by round arches of gigantic span rising from clustered columns of marble to a vault of round and pointed ribs. Here is a Tuscan Gothic still predominantly Romanesque, all the world apart from the heavy miracles of Amiens and Cologne. Within is the white marble pulpit of Niccolò and Giovanni Pisano, a bronze Baptist by Donatello (1457), frescoes by Pinturicchio, an altar by Baldassare Peruzzi (1532), richly carved choir stalls by Bartolomeo Neroni (1567); so an Italian church could grow from century to century through the never-ending stream of Italian genius.

While Siena’s cathedral and campanile were taking form, a miracle reported from the village of Bolsena had architectural results. A priest who had doubted the doctrine of transubstantiation was convinced by seeing blood on the consecrated Host. In commemoration of this marvel, Pope Urban IV not only instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi (1264), but ordered the erection of a cathedral at neighboring Orvieto. Arnolfo di Cambio and Lorenzo Maetani designed it, engaged forty architects, sculptors, and painters from Siena and Florence, and worked on it from 1290 to its completion in 1330. The façade followed the style of Siena’s, but with finer finish of execution and better proportion and symmetry; it is a vast painting in marble, whose every element is itself a painstaking masterpiece. Incredibly detailed and yet precise reliefs on the broad pilasters between the portals tell again the story of creation, the life of Christ, the Redemption, and the Last Judgment; one of these reliefs, the Visitation, has already the perfection of Renaissance sculpture. Delicately carved colonnades divide the three stages of the lofty façade, and shelter a population of prophets, apostles, Fathers, and saints; a rose window dubiously ascribed to Orcagna (1359) centers the whole complex composition; and above it a dazzling mosaic (now removed) portrayed the Coronation of the Virgin. The strangely striated interior is a simple basilican arcade under a low wooden ceiling; the light is poor, and one can hardly do justice to the frescoes by Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, and Luca Signorelli.

But it was in opulent Florence that the fury of building which swept through Italy in the thirteenth century worked its greatest marvels. In 1294 Arnolfo di Cambio began the church of Santa Croce; he retained the traditional basilican plan without transepts and with flat wooden ceiling, but he adopted the pointed arch for the windows, the nave arcade, and the marble façade. The beauty of the church consisted less in its architecture than in the wealth of sculptures and frescoes within, showing all the skill of a maturing Italian art. In 1298 Arnolfo refaced the baptistery with that tasteless alternation of black and white marble layers which disfigures so many works of the Tuscan style by crushing the vertical elevation under a plethora of horizontal lines. But the proud spirit of the age—another cockcrow of the Renaissance—can be heard in the edict (1294) by which the Signoria commissioned Arnolfo to build the great cathedral:

Whereas it is sovereign prudence on the part of a people of high origin to proceed in its affairs in such wise that the wisdom and magnanimity of its proceedings may shine forth in its visible works, it is ordered that Arnolfo, master architect of our commune, shall prepare models or designs for the restoration of [the cathedral of] Santa Maria Reparata, with the most exalted and the most prodigal magnificence, in order that the industry and power of men may never create or undertake anything whatsoever more vast and more beautiful; in accordance with that which our wisest citizens have declared and counseled in public session and in secret conclave—that no hand be laid upon the works of the commune without the intention of making them correspond to the noble soul which is composed of the souls of all its citizens united in one will.32

As doubtless this expansive proclamation was intended to do, it stimulated public giving. The guilds of the city joined in financing the enterprise; and when, later on, other guilds proved slack, the wool guild took over the entire cost, contributing as high as 51,500 gold lire ($9,270,000) a year.33 Accordingly, Arnolfo laid out dimensions on a grandiose scale. The stone vault was to be 150 feet high, equal to Beauvais’; the nave 260 by 55; and the weight was to be borne by thick walls, iron braces, and pointed nave arches remarkable for their small number—four—and their enormous sixty-five-foot span and ninety-foot height. Arnolfo died in 1301; the work went on, with considerable alteration of plans, under Giotto, Andrea Pisano, Brunelleschi, and others; and the ugly pile, renamed Santa Maria de Fiore, was not consecrated till 1436. It is a structure immense and bizarre, which spanned six centuries in building, covered 84,000 square feet, and proved inadequate for Savonarola’s audience.

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