By 1300, the Tuscan city of Florence had grown steadily into one of the most powerful and prosperous in Europe. Its riches were based on the wool trade, which in turn had strengthened its currency and promoted a major banking industry. This was despite long and bitter conflicts between Ghibelline and Guelph factions, then, following the defeat of the Ghibellines, between ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Guelphs. In 1304, this civil war led to a fire which destroyed much of the city. Nevertheless, Florentine banks established branches across Europe, where they only increased the riches of the city’s leading families.
As its population grew to over seventy thousand, education flourished, with many children attending at least primary school, and a total of around six hundred in education equivalent to modern high schools. Some of those privileged to be well-educated were girls, although few progressed beyond primary level. Its original university was founded in 1321 as the Studium Generale, and gained papal recognition to grant degrees in 1349.
The arts flourished as well. The rich were only too happy to spend some of their income on displays of their wealth. Some was channelled through paintings for their family chapels, which had the added benefit that it would counterbalance some of their sins when they came to face their maker after death.
Although it would be a long time before oil painting was developed in Italy, the two dominant media of fresco and egg tempera were mature and more than capable of supporting contemporary styles of painting, even as they changed slowly through the fourteenth century. This is illustrated by a series of paintings telling the Biblical story of the raising of Lazarus.
Giotto’s early version of The Raising of Lazarus (c 1305), one of his frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, uses a composite image to tell the story. At the left, Lazarus’ sisters remain at Christ’s feet, but at the right the stone has been removed and Lazarus – still not looking in the best of health – has emerged from his tomb. Many of the figures have their arms raised or active: Christ’s in blessing Lazarus to achieve the miracle, others in amazement, but facial expressions remain fixed and devoid of emotion.
Giotto’s later version from Scenes from the Life of Mary Magdalene (c 1325) in the Lower Church of San Francesco at Assisi, has similar narrative elements, but the crowd is now tucked away off to the left, to be replaced by a more developed landscape. Some of the faces are now modelled to show what appears to be the beginnings of emotion: Lazarus’ sister looks to have been weeping in grief, for instance.
Giotto’s high reputation is well deserved. Here Lippo Memmi has painted the Resurrection of Lazarus (c 1325) in his frescoes at San Gimignano. His figures are much older in style, with simpler modelling of their faces and garments. His approach to the narrative is made more difficult, as Christ, Lazarus’ sisters, and the tomb are squashed together. Lacking separation in space, it is harder to envisage them as being separated in time, which could confuse some viewers. He does, though, use ample body language to help tell the story.
Giovanni di Paolo painted his Resurrection of Lazarus (1426) a century later, when the Renaissance was in full swing. But this panel from the predella in San Domenico, Siena, is still firmly rooted in Duccio’s panel, even down to its composition, and the chap covering his nose with his cloak. The positions and colour-codings of the various figures are remarkably similar, although di Paolo has started to elaborate their hair, clothing, and landscape behind.
Realist effects such as perspective projection were advancing slowly. Jacopo del Casentino’s Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple from 1330 makes quite a good attempt which does at least impart some idea of depth without appearing too dystopian.
Secular paintings were also starting to become less unusual, among them some of the most remarkable frescoes from before the Renaissance, painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.
These frescoes for the Council Room are overt social and political commentary forming a lesson in civics. In six different scenes, he shows allegories and examples of good and bad government in the city and country. The Effects of Good Government in the City (1338-39) is modelled after Siena, and intended to illustrate peaceful prosperity which results from wise politics. There are no beggars, no street crime. Life is peaceful and orderly, and the citizens are prosperous and healthy.
Essential to the prosperity of the city were the Effects of Good Government in the Countryside (1338-39), where crops were grown and livestock farmed to feed the city and provide the materials for its trade. This is a neat, almost manicured countryside with a patchwork of fields, and all the peasants fully occupied and working hard.
Then in 1348 came catastrophe in the form of the Black Death. Those who were able fled the city for its surrounding countryside, leaving thousands – perhaps a third of the population – to die in their homes or taking sanctuary in the city’s churches. This forms the eerie background to Boccaccio’s Decameron, and it set back the development of Florence for at least a decade, but it did bring about the end of the feudal system which had been at the heart of the Middle Ages.
Florentine literature, in the works of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and others, became so read throughout Italy that their native Tuscan dialect overtook Latin and became the standard language which is now Italian.
Bartolo di Fredi, in his spectacular frescoes in San Gimignano, tackles a crowd scene in his Israelites safely cross the Red Sea, but Pharaoh and his troops are drowned (1356). This depicts the Old Testament story from Exodus, in which Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea and leads the Israelites across, but their Egyptian pursuers are overwhelmed as the waters return, and drown them.
As in most other paintings of this period, di Fredi painted the elements and symbols within the story, but didn’t attempt to cast them into an imagined reality. On the right, the Israelites are making steady progress on the carpet of dry land which Moses provided them. On the left, the Egyptians are in the water, emphasised by the presence of fish and fishermen in the background.
By the latter half of the fourteenth century, Giovanni del Biondo and others were painting elaborate narrative triptychs, such as his Triptych of Saint Sebastian from 1350-75. Although still told against a background of gold leaf, its scenes are becoming increasingly recognisable as real-world rather than iconic.
Elements persisted long into the following century too, as seen in Giovanni di Paolo’s Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise from 1445.
By the end of the fourteenth century, the city of Florence had wealthy patrons with a love of art, a flourishing university and intellectuals, many of whom were humanist, and painters who were steadily moving towards a very different style from that of their predecessors.