History: Italy 1200-1400

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Italy 1200-1400


As demonstrated by Villard de Honnecourt, the late Gothic Italian artists began to demonstrate a humanist intent toward naturalism and observation. Under this notion, individual artists began to become well known for their talents as they produced and signed commissions while being sought specifically for their stylistic contributions.

This era comes just before the invention of moveable type by Guttenberg, which eventually allowed for the dissemination of knowledge in a much more rapid fashion. This is also the period before Georgio Vassari, who's "Lives of the Artists" titled the Gothic era as garish in comparison to the movements of the Renaissance following the accomplishments of Giotto. Stylistically, these last two centuries in Italy before the Renaissance demonstrate this constant movement toward naturalism and humanistic thought. The Proto-Renaissance was thus a "rebirth" of classical ideals that later gave way to the modern era. Guttenberg's moveable type soon would allow for publishers to reprint not only the bible, but other stories that were once forgotten or only read in specific social circles.

The rise of Humanism, strengthened by these early philosophical stories and texts began to give rise to a code of civil conduct, a new theory on education and a push for scholarly discipline. Humanism focuses on the concept of the individual within society and the use of one's own senses toward knowing. More artists seek recognition beyond their guilds and become widely known for their efforts. The enthusiasm for antiquity that was already evident in Italy began to spread across Europe. The surge of vernacular literature also gave rise to a more uniform language while Latin remained the official language of Catholic religion. Artistically, Medieval style and conventions still dominated, but there is a more formal attempt to break away from such conventions during the 13th and 14th century

These years gave rise to city states as empires broke up and latched on to the rise of cities in the Romanesque and Gothic eras. In Italy, each city state was governed by executive bodies, councils, and special commissions. Each kingdom had its individual sources for revenue and support and all began to see an age of economic prosperity. Politics were often tied directly to religion and the Catholic Church that encouraged many religious commissions.

In 1305 the Great Schism occurred in the Catholic Church. The Great Schism refers to n event were a French pope was appointed and settled in Avignon as other subsequent French popes did. This caused a divide in the religion as Italians believed that the center of the Catholic Church should remain in Rome and the Vatican. This tension led to propagandistic commissions on both sides in an attempt to sway parishioners

Fresco in the former Abbey of Saint-André-de-Lavaudieu, 14th centuryThough all of this great progress occurred during this time, The late Medieval era and the Proto-Renaissance witnessed and documented diseases never before witnessed in human civilization. During the 1340's the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) eliminated 25-50 percent of Europe's population in only around five years. These events led many to either move more closely to the Church to seek salvation or seek answers though a growing academic interest.

Further Reading

Sculpture: There was an interest in classical sculpture throughout the middle ages.

  • 5888149046_f7628aee9d_o.jpgpisano_pulpit_of_pisa</strong>cathedral_baptist
    Nicola Pisano, Pulpit of Pisa Cathedral Baptistry (1259-1260): The sculpting describes an interest in classical form unlike those before him. The marble reliefs and ornament for large pulpits and not portal sculpture as others though some aspects carried on medieval traditions such as the trilobed arches and lions. Classical elements include the bushy capitals, which were a Gothic variation on Corintian Capital, round arches rather than pointed, and rectangular relief panels much like Roman sarcophagi.
    The Annunciation and Nativity panel is reminiscent of Etruscan and Roman sarcophagi. The weight of figures closely resemble classical relief sculpture. Scholars have been able to find models on sarcophagi that Pisano would have known.


  • Bonaventura Berlinghieri, Saint Francis Alterpiece (1235): The continuing Byzantine style is evident on the altarpiece. The pose is frontal and flat with gold background emphasizing spiritual nature and connection with earlier works. The side scenes act as a contrast to the stiff frontality of Saint Francis.
    During this time there was an increasing role of religious orders and confraternities which helped to spread the holy ideas based on different saints and modes of piety. Saint Francis believed he could come closer to God by rejecting worldly goods and stripped himself in a public square and committed himself to a strict life of fasting, prayer, and meditation.  It was said that he received the stigmata for his actions. The robes that he wears became the fashion of the Franciscan Order.

  • Cimabue, Madonna Entroned with Angels and Prophets (1280-1290): Cimabue was inspired by the impulse toward naturalism such as Pisano. This image is still modelled after Byzantine examples of geometry and symmetry. Gold embellishments are also evident influences from the Byzantine. Cimabue constructs a deeper space for the Madonna and surrounding figures. Although it still remains part of Byzantine tradition but foreshadows the departure from it.
  • Giotto Di Bondone: Giotto was noted as the first artist of the Renaissance by Vassari:

    NOW IN THE YEAR 1276, in the country of Florence, about fourteen miles from the city, in the village of Vespignano, there was born to a simple peasant named Bondone a son, to whom he gave the name of Giotto, and whom he brought up according to his station. And when he had reached the age of ten years, showing in all his ways though still childish an extraordinary vivacity and quickness of mind, which made him beloved not only by his father but by all who knew him, Bondone gave him the care of some sheep. And he leading them for pasture, now to one spot and now to another,was constantly driven by his natural inclination to draw on the stones or the ground some object in nature, or something that came into his mind. One day Cimabue, going on business from Florence to Vespignano, found Giotto, while his sheep were feeding, drawing a sheep from nature upon a smooth and solid rock with a pointed stone, having never learnt from any one but nature. Cimabue, marvelling at him, stopped and asked him if he would go and be with him. And the boy answered that if his father were content he would gladly go. Then Cimabue asked Bondone for him, and he gave him up to him, and was content that he should take him to Florence.

    There in a little time, by the aid of nature and the teaching of Cimabue, the boy not only equalled his master, but freed himself from the rude manner of the Greeks, and brought back to life the true art of painting, introducing the drawing from nature of living persons, which had not been practised for two hundred years; or at least if some had tried it, they had not succeeded very happily. Giotto painted among others, as may be seen to this day in the chapel of the Podestà's Palace at Florence, Dante Alighieri, his contemporary and great friend, and no less famous a poet than Giotto was a painter.(Vassari)

    We see the high pedestal that Vassari places this artist in relation to the transition from the Gothic era to the Renaissance. Vassari notes the naturalism that is demonstrated from observation. He also presumes Cimabue to be his teacher and it is also presumed that he could have been influenced by many different styles or people, but the outcome is a major shift in expression. According to Vassari, Giotto is almost solely responsible for displacing Byzantine style, establishing painting as a major art form, and restoring a naturalistic approach which had been abandoned. This also expressed the dominance of sight for gaining knowledge of the world which pushed the early scientific revolution.

    • Madonna Enthroned (1310): The painting represents sturdy forms and architecture, a sense of perspective, and observation of the human figure is evident. The anatomical form is evident beneath the robes and it is obvious that a model was used for many of the people depicted.
    • Arena Chapel (1305-1306): Smarthistory documentary Part 1, Part 2,Part 3, and Part 4.
      There was a constant struggle with describing the three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface. Giotto uses fresco to produce this series of murals for a private chapel for a wealthy merchant that was near an ancient Roman amphitheatre. The design of the building seems to have been solely directed towards the painted interior. The mural series includes 38 framed pictures presenting the complete life of Christ. Giotto includes a faux marble veneer coupled with grisaille images resembling sculpture run across the bottom.
      The vaulted ceiling of blue symbolic of the realm of heaven. The same blue used in the backgrounds of the images. Individual panels are all framed with decorative boarders to separate them into registers. Please refer to the above linked videos for the specific descriptions of some of Giotto's innovations.
    • Duccio Di Buoninsegna: The Republic of Siena was another that commissioned many artworks. The area demonstrated a devotion to the Virgin as paramount for religious life in this city.

      The Maesta Altarpiece (1308-1311): This altarpiece demonstrates a major achievement. It has many panels painted both front and back with a 7’ high central panel by 13’ across. The panels have been removed and are now spread across the world in different museums. The painting has order taken from the Byzantine tradition with rigidity of figures. Duccio, however, individualized the faces and poses, softened the outlines and drapery, though, because of it being a center piece to the church, it limited the amount of experimentation that could be had. He still allowed himself more experimentation on the accompanying panels as can be seen in the Betrayal of Jesus where there is still the sense of religious drama and stage-like setting, however the bodies here also move with more life and form than previous artwork. 

    • Simone Martini, Annunciation (1333): Martini was a pupil of Duccio. He developed what came to be known as an “International Style” based on brilliant color, lavish costumes and ornate ornamentation along with splendid processions and was a counter to Giotto’s style. Martini's paintings consist of a flowing line and weightless figures within space-less settings. Symbol becomes extremely important:

      • Lilly: Virgin
      • Book: Knowledge
      • Gesture of modesty
      • Blue: Royal (costly color)
      Dove: God

Pietro Lorenzetti, The Birth of the Virgin (1342): Lorenzetti was also a pupil of Duccio. His work demonstrates a search for convincing spatial illusions. This was painted for a Cathedral as part of a series honoring the Virgin Mary.    The painting seems a sort of diorama of the narrative.  Characters are even cut by the architecture giving mor sense of a space. This was a large step in integrating architectural illusionism with the figure.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Peaceful City (From: Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country) (1338-1339): Ambrogio was the brother of Pietro and also a student of Duccio. These paintings were done as a part of a series of frescos that are in the public house of Siena, Italy.  The series represents the effects of good and bad government done as a sort of reminder by those in charge to keep with the program.    The mural project gave the artist the chance to study everyday life and use it as metaphor. It also gave the artist the chance to practice new ideas of perspective in depicting the cityscape and landscape in the paintings of the effects on the country.


  • The Republic of Florence:    Florence was another dominant city-state during the 14th century they demonstrated great pride due to their wealth from textile and creating the Florin as a monetary standard.

    • philopanoramica.jpgSanta_maria_del_fiore_-_retouched.jpgDuomo_Firenze_Apr_2008.jpg
      Arnolfo Di Cambio – Florence Cathedral (1296): Intended as the “most beautiful and honorable church in Tuscany.” The exterior modelled in the Tuscan fashion of marble-encrusted geometric design to match the Baptistry of San Giovani seen before. It demonstrated itself as very different from the Gothic structures being built. There is no emphasis on the vertical, no sense of stone tracery, no flying buttresses and it clings to the ground with an emphasis on horizontal elements. The geometric patterning suggests an emphasis on classical proportions. The dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi (1420-1436) is known to be a monument to the Renaissance.
      The nave was designed with the idea of spaciousness and a focus on the Altar as the horizontal drive pushes the eye to the end of the hall. It was designed to fit as much of the population as possible so the Aisles become a part of the nave. The piers also show off their supporting function.
      Giotto di Bondone - Campanile of the Florence Cathedral (1334): The bell tower was designed by a painter. It stands apart from the cathedral in Italian tradition. Gothic towers tend to shoot upward as one continuous element though this tower is subdivided into cubic sections becoming the sum of its parts. The Renaissance idea was to create structures that were developed as the sum of parts where each part was individual yet beautiful and logically worked with the whole. Thus there is less emphasis on emotion and more on intellect.


This module was produced by Professor Josh Yavelberg utilizing a mixture of open educational resources and notes from:

Kleiner, Fred. Gardner's Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective,|. Vol. 2. Cengage Learning, 2013.


Information Version
2019-02-13 14:23 Josh Yavelberg
Updated links
2017-06-07 22:24 SCantor Added link to site on Gutenberg and the first printed books from the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas) 16
2016-08-17 12:38 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 15
2016-08-17 12:13 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 14
2016-08-17 11:46 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 13
2016-08-17 11:21 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 12
2016-08-17 09:10 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 11
2016-08-16 19:34 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 10
2016-08-16 17:47 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 9
2016-08-16 17:37 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 8
2016-08-16 17:17 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 7
2016-08-16 17:15 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu 6
2016-08-16 16:55 lorena.bradford@faculty.umuc.edu I added an explanationa about who Villard de Honnecourt was, with a link to his sketchbook. 5
2015-10-19 13:15 Josh Yavelberg Fixed some video links 4
2015-10-11 18:07 jww 3
2015-03-14 18:35 Josh Yavelberg Fixed embedded videos and broken images. 2
2015-03-14 18:21 Josh Yavelberg Creation 1
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