Frescoes at Nerezi, Skopje (1164)
These realistic and sensitive Byzantine
murals predate the creative revolution
introduced in Italy by Giotto, during the
proto-renaissance era of the trecento
in Italy by almost 150 years. As a result
they might be considered the original
example of Pre-Renaissance Painting.
For more, see Nerezi Frescoes.
What is the
In fine art, the term "Proto Renaissance" refers to the pre-Renaissance period (c.1300-1400) in Italy, and the activities of progressive painters such as Giotto (1267-1337), who pioneered the new form of figurative "realism", which was fully developed by artists during the era of Renaissance art proper. Giotto's groundbreaking art did not however, represent the European or even the Italian mainstream. Derived from traditions inherited from Christian Byzantine art - which itself influenced the murals of Romanesque painting) - the style known as Gothic art, championed in Italy by the city of Siena among others, was still the predominant style of painting and sculpture. In fact the Gothic idiom survived well into the 15th century in the form of a style known as International Gothic, which became popular in many of the royal courts across Europe, notably France, Spain, Bohemia, and England. The Renaissance proper began around 1400 in the city of Florence, but its ideals and methods did not become a dominant force in European art until the mid-15th century. The main types of art practised during the Proto-Renaissance period included: fresco mural painting, tempera panel painting, book illuminations, relief sculpture, goldsmithing and other forms of metalwork. Most of the artistic developments of the trecento Proto-Renaissance period had a direct effect on Early Renaissance painting (c.1400-90) of the quattrocento.
The proximity of Rome and the Church's influence on all aspects of Italian culture, meant that most art (painting and sculpture) was religious art. Not surprisingly therefore, two churches form the gateway into the Renaissance proper. The first was the convent church of St Francis at Assisi. In the last decades of the 13th century, it was decorated entirely in fresco, by Cimabue (Cenni di Peppi), one of the most famous painters of the day. His assistant was a young man called Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), whom he employed after seeing the youth sketch his father's sheep. The fresco scenes of the life of St Francis were portrayed with much greater realism than contemporary styles of Byzantine art.
OF VISUAL ART
The second church was the Scrovegni Chapel (also called the Arena Chapel) built in the 1300s by Enrico degli Scrovegni, in Padua. This too was decorated with fresco murals, only this time they were wholly created by Giotto. He painted the entire biblical story of three generations of the Holy Family: the Virgin's parents, the Virgin herself and Jesus.The narrative is depicted with great drama in a comic-strip set of wooden panels, in three rows along the walls.
In contrast to previous artistic convention, Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel frescoes have a three-dimensional quality, a sense of depth and space, achieved through Giotto's unprecedented use of modelling, shadow and linear perspective. Not only do his figures look real, they possess a heroic stillness - an attribute which becomes a key hallmark of Christian art during the Italian Renaissance proper.
Giotto - The "Father
A pupil of the artist Cimabue, Giotto first painted in the Upper Church of San Francesco in Assisi. Then, between 1304 and 1310, he painted the massive cycle of biblical art in the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua (Arena Chapel).
After 1311, aside from longer stays in
Milan and Naples, his traces can be discerned in Florence. Other major
works have been partially preserved in the Frescos of the Bardi and Peruzzi
Chapels (created after 1320) in the Franciscan church Santa Croce in Florence.
Giotto was also active as a painter of altarpieces, and as an architect
(campanile of the Florence Cathedral). For more about the Florentine
Renaissance and the city's famous duomo, see: Florence
Cathedral, Brunelleschi and the Renaissance (1420-36).
What's more, in his religious history painting Giotto was able to simultaneously depict a succession of moments in time, thus vastly enhancing the current practice of pictorial narration. He arranged in a single pictorial frame scenes which actually occurred sequentially in the biblical text.
Giotto's most important students are Maso di Banco (active around 1330-1350), who developed a special sense for abstract surface effects (Bar-di-Vernio Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence. c.1330-1340) and Taddeo Gaddi (c.1300-1366) who introduced experimental illumination effects into fresco painting. Giotto also had a significant influence on the more conservative Sienese School of painting, in Siena - a fierce civic rival of Florence.
In addition, all subsequent Old Masters of the Renaissance era including the Italians Masaccio, Mantegna, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, as well as the Dutch and German painters Roger Van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht Durer were highly familiar with Giotto's work and acknowledged his contribution to the history of art.
Siena School: Duccio
Like Giotto, Duccio explored different but harmonious ways in which art could reference the viewer's experience of the everyday world without losing a sense of the sacred. Giotto - first at Assisi in the 1290s and later in the Arena Chapel in Padua (c.1305) - populated carefully designed spaces with three-dimensional figures in meaningful poses. In contrast, Duccio preferred to emphasize colour, decorative effects, and delicately articulated figures to present a more lyrical but no less human effect. See also: Duccio's diminutive Stroganoff Madonna (1300). (See also: Best Renaissance Drawings.)
Duccio's student Simone
Martini (1284-1344) presents a still broader spectrum of themes and
styles. He also made his start in Siena with a Maesta (1315), painted
as a fresco for the Palazzo Publico in a courtly variation on Duccio's
altar painting in the cathedral. Martini's further work in Italy increasingly
reveals influences from late French Gothic book painting, as evident in
the frescos of the Martin's Chapel in the lower church of San Francesco
in Assisi, and the artist in fact became a court painter in Naples to
Robert I of Anjou in 1317.
Two other noteworthy Sienese painters were the brothers Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c.1290-1352) and Pietro Lorenzetti (c.1280-1348) - in all probability students of Duccio. Their altar paintings and frescos, which also reveal some influence of Giotto, are more emotional and more lively than those of their Sienese contemporaries. Ambrogio's major work, the monumental portrayal of The Allegory of Good Government (1338-40, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena), is not only the first landscape and cityscape in European art, but also reveals an understanding of the city government of Siena in its innumerable details.
In 1309, anarchy in Rome led to the transfer of the papal court to the old southern French city of Avignon. The presence of this wealthy source of patronage attracted many artists including Simone Martini and, reportedly, Giotto. As a result Avignon blossomed as an artistic centre and became the launching pad for the dispersal of Italian art northward into Burgundy, central France, and the Netherlands. At the court of Avignon, the late Gothic observation of nature, poetry, mystical theology of the devotio moderna, united with Italian beauty of line. Book painting became the medium of the hour: at once luxurious and easy to pack and transport, illuminated books became collector items. They both enhanced the honour of courtiers and princes such as the Duc de Berry in Bourges (the brother of Philip II, the Bold, of Burgundy) and served in private worship.
Among the multiplicity of high quality
miniatures, the work of the Parisian master Jean
Pucelle (c.1290-1334) dominated the first half of the 14th century,
followed later by the Limbourg
Brothers (c.1380-1416). Commissioned by the Duc de Berry, they produced
manuscripts or 'books of hours', including masterpieces like Les
Belles Heures (1408, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters, New
York) and the Tres
Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413-16, Conde Museum, Chantilly)
"the most tender and finest creation of miniature art," according
to historian Johan Huizinga. With their detailed illustration of the annual
cycle of nature, these early 15th century books of hours represent the
first series of genre pictures in the history of painting. They anticipated
later religious pictorial inventiveness, and their deeply boxed interiors
prepared the way for the art of Jan Van Eyck "in miniature."
Between approximately 1370 and 1430, a
similar phenomenon appears throughout European painting from England,
through France, Burgundy, northern and central Germany, Bohemia, Austria
to Italy. Characteristics of the International Gothic style came together
in the sculptures of the "Beautiful Madonnas, in the panel paintings,
murals, and book painting of the age, as well as in goldsmith metalwork.
Sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, and devotional pictures functioned
both as a medium of diplomacy and as gifts between courts and governments.
A refined courtly culture - for whose style initially the Bohemian Habsburg
court of Emperor Charles IV, and later the courts of the Burgundian dukes,
set European standards - celebrated itself in painting in the form of
shimmering gold backgrounds, delicately changing colours, subtly moving
garments, preciously refined gestures, and the ambiguously smiling faces
of saints and angels. Stemming from the early years of the period, the
private chapels of Emperor Charles are comprehensive works of art which
incorporate precious stones with panel painting, frescos, and liturgical
In Burgundy, the Flemish pioneer Melchior Broederlam (c.1350-1411) pointed the way to the art of Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck, whereas in Germany, painters of the School of Cologne, in particular Stefan Lochner (c.1405-1451), and in the north the Masters Bertram (c.1340-1415) and Francke (c.1380-1430), combined the linearity of Bohemian courtly art with the richness of details found in French book painting and the early Dutch masters.
Note: Works reflecting the style of Proto Renaissance painting and illuminations can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.
For more about 14th-century fresco painting in Italy, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY