As part of the History-of-Art Tripos, first and second-year students are asked to choose from a variety of “special subjects”, that is to say modules focusing on a specific artist or period. This year, I opted for Italian Art and Architecture in the Age of Giotto, taught by Dr Donal Cooper. The course follows the development of the visual arts across Italy around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As an Italian student myself, I was curious to witness the Anglo-Saxon approach to this field. Indeed, I was pleased by the complexity of the content and the object-based method that led me straight into the material culture of those times. Furthermore, the module included an optional five-day trip to Assisi, Rome, and Naples. In this post, I will gather some comments about this exceptional experience.
Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi
In Assisi, Giotto was significantly involved in a variety of pictorial projects across the Upper and Lower Churches of the Basilica of San Francesco. While Giotto’s work can be certainly related to specific portions of the Lower Church, such as the Magdalene Chapel, his involvement elsewhere is debated. This is the case of the Life of Saint Francis cycle, which occupies the lower register of the Upper Church’s nave. The Basilica is an outstanding document of Medieval devotional practices. Its pictorial scheme was devised to accommodate the needs of different audiences: the pilgrims visiting the tomb of Saint Francis, the friars of the Sacro Convento, and the patrons of several private chapels located in the Lower Church. Needless to say, the Basilica as visible nowadays is far from its Medieval counterpart: the apse decoration has been covered by a later seventeenth-century fresco, the altar of the Lower Church, once surrounded by iron grates, stands now free in the middle of the crossing, and the tomb of Saint Francis has been moved to a nineteenth-century crypt below the floor. However, the art-historical research allows us to grasp a glimpse of the space’s original look and aura.
In Rome, Giotto was asked by Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi to paint an opulent altarpiece for the old basilica of Saint Peter, as well as the Navicella mosaic which once adorned the counter-façade of the church’s portico. In fact, it is not possible to know whether Giotto actually painted the Stefaneschi Altarpiece in Rome or not. However, a document confirms that he rented a house there in 1312 and he must have been working in situ in order to complete the mosaic. Giotto’s work in Rome raises a variety of contextual questions concerning the occasion of the commission as well as the role of patronage in the Roman curia when the papacy was moving to Avignon. Also, these works highlight the relation between Medieval artists and the rich classical background of Rome. Major sites such as the Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran show the hefty influence of ancient art. The area of St Peter hosted a notable paleo-Christian burial place whose decorations may have been source of inspiration for the artists of the time.
Frescoes by Pietro Cavallini in Santa Maria Donnaregina, Naples
The presence of Giotto in Naples is much more limited and confined to few fragments. According to Giorgio Vasari, the artist frescoed a chapel in the church of Santa Chiara, founded by the Angevin kings in the 1310s. However, little is known since the site was notably altered in the seventeenth century and damaged during the WWII bombings. Presumably, Giotto’s presence in the southern capital depended on the political aspirations of the new dynasty, who took control of the South of Italy in 1266 with the support of the papacy. Indeed, this was related to the works of other notable Italian artists such as Simone Martini, who received the commission for the St Louis of Toulouse Altarpiece by King Robert the Wise around 1315 (here you can read more about this topic).
Basilica of Maxentius seen from the Palatine Hill
At the end of five busy days spent following Giotto across Italy, I retain a better image of the complex Medieval art world. Giotto’s dynamic career reveals an interconnected reality, where artists traveled across countries in order to deliver their majestic creations to the rulers of Europe. Despite common stereotypes, the Middle Ages were a bright era when the arts thrived and new ideas developed in a fast-changing world. Long before the Laocoon group was unearthed during the Renaissance, artists learned from the classical models and studied ancient works of art to create new, impressive pieces. The extent of this can only be fully understood when standing in front of the actual artworks, as I am glad I did.