It is difficult to love medieval Florence,* she was so hard and bitter in industry and politics; but it is easy to admire her, for she devoted her wealth to the creation of beauty. There, in the very youth of Petrarch, the Renaissance was in full swing.
It developed in a stimulating atmosphere of business competition, family feuds, and private violence unparalleled in the rest of Italy. The population was divided by class war, and each class itself was split into factions merciless in victory and vengeful in defeat. At any moment the defection of a few families from one parte to another would tip the scales of power. At any moment some discontented element might take to arms and try to oust the government; if successful it exiled the leaders of the beaten party, usually confiscated their property, sometimes burned down their homes. But this economic strife and political agitation were not all of Florentine life. Though more devoted to their party than to their city, the citizens had a proud civic sense, and spent much of their substance for the common good. Rich individuals or guilds would pay for paving a street, constructing sewers, improving the water supply, housing a public market, establishing or improving churches, hospitals, or schools. An esthetic sense as keen as that of the ancient Greeks or the modern French dedicated public and private funds to the embellishment of the city with architecture, sculpture, and painting, and to the interior adornment of homes with these and a dozen minor arts. Florentine pottery led all Europe in this period. Florentine goldsmiths decorated necks, bosoms, hands, wrists, girdles, altars, tables, armor, coins with jewelry or intarsia or engraved or embossed designs unsurpassed in that or any other age.
And now the artist, reflecting the new emphasis on personal ability or virtù, stood out from the guild or the group, and identified his product with his name. Niccolò Pisano had already freed sculpture from limitation to ecclesiastical motives, and subservience to architectural lines, by uniting a sturdy naturalism with the physical idealism of the Greeks. His pupil Andrea Pisano cast for the Florentine Baptistery (1300–6) two bronze halfdoors depicting in twenty-eight reliefs the development of the arts and sciences since Adam delved and Eve span; and these fourteenth-century works survive comparison with Ghiberti’s fifteenth-century “doors to Paradise” on the same building. In 1334 the Florentine Signory approved the designs of Giotto for a tower to bear the weight and scatter the chimes of the cathedral bells, and a decree was passed, in the spirit of the age, that “the campanile should be built so as to exceed in magnificence, height, and excellence of workmanship everything of the kind achieved of old by the Greeks and Romans when at the zenith of their greatness.”30 The loveliness of the tower lies not in its square and undistinguished form (which Giotto had wished to top with a spire), but in the Gothic traceried windows, and the reliefs, in colored marble, carved on the lower panels by Giotto, Andrea Pisano, and Luca della Robbia. After Giotto’s death the work was carried on by Pisano, Donatello, and Francesco Talenti, to whom the tower owes the culminating beauty of its highest arcade (1359).
Giotto di Bondone dominated the painting of the fourteenth century as Petrarch dominated its poetry; and the artist rivaled the poet in ubiquity. Painter, sculptor, architect, capitalist, man of the world, equally ready with artistic conceptions, practical devices, and humorous repartee, Giotto moved through life with the confidence of a Rubens, and spawned masterpieces in Florence, Rome, Assisi, Ferrara, Ravenna, Rimini, Faenza, Pisa, Lucca, Arezzo, Padua, Verona, Naples, Urbino, Milan. He seems never to have worried about obtaining commissions; and when he went to Naples it was as the palace guest of the king. He married and had ugly children, but this did not disturb the placid grace of his compositions, or the cheerful tenor of his life. He leased looms to artisans at twice the ordinary rental;31 however, he told the story of St. Francis, the apostle of poverty, in one of the outstanding works of the Renaissance.
He was still a youth when Cardinal Stefaneschi called him to Rome to design a mosaic—the celebrated Navicella, or Little Ship, showing Christ saving Peter from the waves; it survives, considerably altered, in the vestibule of St. Peter’s, inconspicuous above and behind the portico colonnade. It was probably the same Cardinal who commissioned the polyptych preserved in the Vatican. These products show an immature Giotto, vigorous in conception, weak in execution. Possibly a study of Pietro Cavallini’s mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere, and his fresco in Santa Cecilia, helped to form Giotto in those Roman years; while the naturalistic sculpture of Niccolò Pisano may have moved him to turn his eyes from the works of his predecessors to the actual features and feelings of living women and men. “Giotto appeared,” said Leonardo da Vinci, “and drew what he saw,”32 and the Byzantine petrifaction faded from Italian art.
Moving to Padua, Giotto painted in three years the famous frescoes of the Arena Chapel. Perhaps at Padua he met Dante; he may have known him in Florence; Vasari, always interesting and sometimes accurate, calls Dante the “close companion and friend” of Giotto,33 and ascribes to Giotto a portrait of Dante that formed part of a fresco in the Florentine Bargello or Palace of the Podesta. The poet, with exceptional amiability, celebrates the painter in The Divine Comedy.34
In 1318 two banking families, the Bardi and the Peruzzi, engaged Giotto to tell in frescoes the stories of St. Francis, St. John the Baptist, and St. John the Evangelist, in the chapels that they were dedicating in the church of Santa Croce in Florence. These paintings were whitewashed in later years; they were uncovered in 1853 and were repainted, so that only the drawing and the composition are Giotto’s. A like fate befell the celebrated frescoes in the double church of St. Francis at Assisi. That hilltop shrine is one of the major goals of pilgrimage in Italy, and those visitors who come to view the paintings attributed to Cimabue and Giotto seem as numerous as those who come to honor or solicit the saint. It was probably Giotto who planned the subjects and drew the outlines for the lower frescoes of the Upper Church; for the rest he seems to have confined himself to supervising the work of his pupils. These frescoes of the Upper Church narrate in detail the life of St. Francis; Christ Himself had rarely received so extensive a painted biography. They are masterly in their conception and composition, pleasant in their gentle mood and flowing harmony; they end once and for all the hieratic stiffness of Byzantine forms; but they lack depth and force and individuality, they are graceful tableaux without the color of passion or the blood of life. The frescoes in the Lower Church, less mangled by time, mark an advance in Giotto’s power. He seems to have been directly responsible for the pictures in the Magdalen Chapel, while his aides painted the allegories illustrating the Franciscan vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. In this duplex church the legend of Francis gave a mighty stimulus, almost a new birth, to Italian painting, and generated a tradition ideally completed in the work of the Dominican Fra Angelico.
All in all, Giotto’s work was a revolution. We feel his faults because we know of the painting skills that were developed by the movement that he began. His drawing, modeling, perspective, and anatomy are painfully inadequate; art, like the medical science of Giotto’s time, was just beginning to dissect the human body, to learn the place, structure, and function of each muscle, bone, tendon, nerve; men like Mantegna and Masaccio would master these elements, and Michelangelo would perfect them, almost make a fetish of them; but in Giotto’s day it was still unusual to study, scandalous to represent, the nude. What is it, then, that makes the work of Giotto in Padua and Assisi a landmark in the history of art? It is the rhythmic composition, drawing the eye from every angle to the center of interest; the dignity of quiet motion, the soft and luminous coloring, the majestic flow of the narrative, the restraint of expression even in deep feeling, the grandeur of the calm that bathes these troubled scenes; and, now and then, the naturalistic portraiture of men, women, and children not as studied in past art but as seen and felt in the movement of life. These were the components of Giotto’s triumph over Byzantine rigidity and gloom, these were the secrets of his enduring influence. For a century after him Florentine art lived on his example and his inspiration.
In his wake came two generations of Giotteschi, who imitated his themes and style, but rarely touched his excellence. His godson and pupil, Taddeo Gaddi, almost inherited art; Taddeo’s father, and three of Taddeo’s five sons, were painters; the Italian Renaissance, like German music, tended to run in families, and prospered there through the transmission and accumulation of techniques in homes, studios, and schools. Taddeo began as an apprentice to Giotto; by 1347 he was at the head of Florentine painters; even then, however, he signed himself devotedly “Discepol di Giotto il buon maestro.”35 He became so rich through his industry as painter and architect that his descendants could afford to be patrons of art.
An impressive work long attributed to him but now ascribed to Andrea da Firenze shows how, in this first century of the Renaissance, Italy was still medieval. In the Capella degli Spagnuoli, or Chapel of the Spaniards, in the church of Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican friars set up about 1370 a pictorial apotheosis of their famous philosopher. St. Thomas Aquinas, comfortably substantial but too devoted to be proud, stands in triumph, with the heretics Arius, Sabellius, and Averroes groveling at his feet; around him Moses, Paul, John the Evangelist, and other saints seem but accessories; below them fourteen figures symbolize seven sacred and seven profane sciences—Donatus grammar, Cicero rhetoric, Justinian law, Euclid geometry, and so on. The thought is still completely medieval; only the art, in design and color, shows the emergence of a new age from the old. The transition was so gradual that not for a century yet would men feel themselves to be in a different world.
The advance in technique is clearer in Orcagna, who stands second only to Giotto among the Italian artists of the fourteenth century. Named originally Andrea di Cione, he was called Arcagnolo—Archangel—by his admiring contemporaries, and lazy tongues shortened the appellation to Orcagna. Though often listed among Giotto’s followers, he was rather a pupil of the sculptor Andrea Pisano. Like the greatest geniuses of the Renaissance he was a master of many arts. As a painter he made a colorful altarpiece ofChrist Enthroned for the Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, while his elder brother Nardo executed on the walls vivid frescoes of heaven and hell (1354–7). As an architect he designed the Certosa or Carthusian monastery near Florence, famous for its graceful cloisters and its Acciaiuoli tombs. As architects and sculptors he and his brother executed the ornate tabernacle in the Or(atory) San Michele in Florence. A picture of the Virgin there was believed to work miracles; after the Black Death of 1348 the votive offerings of survivors enriched the fraternity that managed the building, and it was decided to house the picture in a sumptuous shrine of marble and gold. The Cioni designed it as a miniature Gothic cathedral, with columns, pinnacles, statues, reliefs, precious metal, and costly stone; it is a jewel of trecento decoration.* Andrea, acclaimed for it, was appointed capomaestro at Orvieto, and shared in designing the façade of the cathedral. In 1362 he returned to Florence, and worked there on the great duomo till his death.
The immense fame of Santa Maria del Fiore—the largest church that had as yet been built in Italy—had been begun by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296. A succession of masters—Giotto, Andrea Pisano, Francesco Talenti, and many others—labored on it till our time; its present façade dates from 1887; even now the cathedral is incomplete, and must in good measure be rebuilt by every century. Architecture was the least successful of the arts in Renaissance Italy; it took half-heartedly from the north some elements of Gothic like the pointed arch, combined them with classic columns, and sometimes, as in Florence, topped the whole with a Byzantine dome. The mixture was incongruous and—barring some small churches by Bramante—lacked unity and grace. The façade of Orvieto and Siena were superb displays of sculpture and mosaic rather than honest architecture; and the accentuation of horizontal lines by the alternating strata of black and white marble in the walls depresses eye and soul, when the very meaning of the church should have been a prayer or paean rising to the skies. Santa Maria del Fiore—as the Florentine cathedral was called after 1412 from the lily in the heraldic emblem of the city—is hardly a flower; it is, but for Brunellesco’s illustrious dome, a cavern, whose dark vacuity might be the mouth of Dante’s Inferno instead of a vestibule to God.
It was the inexhaustible Arnolfo di Cambio who in 1294 began the Franciscan church of Santa Croce, or the Holy Cross, and in 1298 the loveliest structure in Florence, the Palazzo della Signoria, known to later generations as the Palazzo Vecchio. The church was finished in 1442 except for the façade (1863); the Palace of the Signory, or Old Palace, was completed in its main features by 1314. Those were the years that saw the banishment of Dante and Petrarch’s father; factional strife was in its heyday; so Arnolfo built for the Signory a fortress rather than a palace, and designed its roof with machicolated battlements; while the unique campanile, by the diverse ringing of its bell, served to call the citizens to parliament or to arms. Here the city fathers (priori, signori) not only governed but lived; and the temper of the time appears in the law that during their two months of office they were not to leave the building on any pretext whatever. In 1345 Neri di Fioravante spanned the Arno with one of the world’s famous bridges, the Ponte Vecchio, now cracked with age and many wars, but still precariously bearing impatient traffic and twenty-two shops. Around these proud achievements of the Florentine civic spirit, in the narrow streets that led from the cathedral and Signoria squares, rose the as yet modest mansions of the worried rich, the noble churches that transmuted merchants’ gold into art, the noisy shops of traders and artisans, and the crowded tenements of an industrious, rebellious, excitable, intelligent populace. In that frenzy of egos the Renaissance was born.