Romanesque Painting: Italy
History, Characteristics of Italian Romanesque School.

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Romanesque Fresco Mural from the
Little Chapel of St. Sylvester (c.1247)
Church of the Quattro Coronati, Rome.
Artist Unknown.

Italian Romanesque Painting (c.1000-1200)
Characteristics of Wall Murals and Altarpieces

Contents

Introduction
Lombardy
Venice
Central Italy
Northern Italy
Italian Switzerland
Tuscany

For a general guide to Church murals, see: Christian Art (150-2000).


ITALIAN ROMANESQUE MURALS
In the eleventh and twelfth century,
church walls and ceilings in Italy
were extensively painted with
illustrations from the Old and New
Testaments of the Bible. This form
of Biblical art was designed to
promote the Christian message to
the largely illiterate congregation,
and serve as a focus of veneration.
Italian Romanesque murals are
marked by significant Byzantine
influence - derived from the icon
painting traditions - in style,
composition and colour. This
was due in part to the strong
artistic and mercantile links
between Constantinople and
Italian cities like Venice and
Ravenna.

EVOLUTION OF EUROPEAN ART
For a general review,
see: History of Art.
For events and dates,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For styles and schools,
see: Art Movements.

Introduction

In Italy, the period of Romanesque art lasted somewhat longer than in other countries. The rapid development of Romanesque painting, due to direct contact with the East, was intensified by the fact that Byzantine exponents of mosaic art, centred in Rome and elsewhere in the peninsula, were still carrying on their impressive work, which undoubtedly influenced fresco painters. Its continuance is due, moreover, to the late appearance of the Gothic art style, for in fact Italian Romanesque art may be said to reach its conclusion in the hands of Old Masters from the duecento and trecento such as Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319) - leader of the conservative Sienese School of painting - the older Florentine painter Cimabue (Cenni di Peppi) (1240-1302) and even perhaps Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) - all of whom paved the way for the quattrocento Early Renaissance, which emerged in Florence.

There are few paintings in Italy which do not show traces of Byzantine art from one source or another. Even in the north, we can clearly recognize Byzantine characteristics surviving in Ottonian art in the Christus Pantocrator of the apsidal vault of the church of Monte Maria at Burgusio, near Bolzano.

Of course, as in other countries, each artist reconciles the Byzantine influence he has undergone with local traditions and customs, adding moreover the weight of his own creative power. The importance of his personality will be determined by the total result, according to the share assumed by the various elements.

Note: For information about French 11th and 12th century mural art, see: Romanesque painting in France. For painting in Germany, see: German Medieval Art.

 

 

Romanesque Painting in Lombardy

In Lombardian Romanesque painting, the oldest fresco paintings are to be found in the basilica of San Vincenzo at Galliano, near Cantu, These date back to shortly before 1007, when this church was consecrated following its reconstruction, on the foundations of a fifth-century temple, by Ariberto da Intimiano, who became Archbishop of Milan in 1018. His portrait, transferred to canvas, is today in the Ambrosian Library in Milan.

The wonderful set of paintings in San Vincenzo has unfortunately endured many vicissitudes, but it remains one of the most important examples of Romanesque art in northern Italy. The paintings in the apse are more skilfully executed than those in the nave, and one may assume that only the former can be attributed to a master painter, the rest being the work of his studio, probably of the same period.

In the half dome of the apse is an immense standing figure of Christ, beneath whom the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel are seen bowing down in an attitude of adoration, overwhelmed by the brightness of the vision, while behind Jeremiah stands the archangel Michael, bearing a placard on which one can read petitio. Behind Ezekiel, on the right of the Pantocrator (Christ in Byzantine culture), must have been the Archangel Gabriel holding the inscription postulatio, which is now obliterated. (It must be remembered that the basilica was sold in 1801 and became a private dwelling; the municipality of Cantu bought it back in 1909, restored it, and then reconsecrated it in 1934.) Christ in his mandorla, supported by archangels, is here represented as Supreme Judge. On the lower register of the apse four panels represent scenes from the life of St. Vincent.

The mural painting on the nave walls, which some authorities have thought to be more recent, are nevertheless probably of the same period, but not by the hand of the master painter. In spite of their mutilated state they are remarkable for the balance of their composition. On the north wall we find in the upper register (the two nave walls are divided into three registers) the remains of the story of Adam and Eve, then in the middle, almost completely effaced, probably the traces of the story of Abraham, while at the bottom we can still recognize a life of St. Margaret of Antioch. On the south wall, a colossal figure of St. Christopher occupies a large part of the wall over several registers; his story is related on the lower register, while that of Samson is above it.

The saint's head which is the only visible fragment of the remains of the mural decoration in the former monastery of Sant'Ilario, destroyed when churches and convents were suppressed in the nineteenth century, reminds us of the Galliano paintings, with which it is contemporary, through its qualities of geometrical stylization; the contours are clearly stressed by strong lines which give it an intense expression.

Romanesque Art
For building
design, see: Romanesque Architecture (c.800-1200).

 

 

Closely related to the story of St. Christopher at Galliano, with its bright colours (blue, green, red, ochre, yellow, black and white) and strongly marked outlines, are the remaining fragments - which are in very good condition - of the paintings of the Collegiate Church of San Pietro e Sant'Orso at Aosta; to see these one has to climb up ladders to the space between the vault (which was rebuilt in the fifteenth century) and the original ceiling.

On the left wall we find, successively: the Miracle of the Feast of Cana, the angels keeping watch at the sepulchre after the Resurrection, a fragment of the Resurrection, an archangel with an angel. On the right wall: the martyrdom of the apostle Peter, a king, Jesus and the apostles on the lake of Gennesareth, the storm on the lake of Gennesareth, the martyrdom of St. James the Greater, St. John at Ephesus, St. Andrew or the prophet Elijah at Patras; and on the entrance wall, on the left, a scene of martyrdom. Historians fail to agree as to the date of these frescoes: some scholars place them at the end of the tenth century, others at the end of the eleventh or the beginning of the twelfth.

They also disagree as to the period at which the abbey church of San Pietro al Monte at Civate underwent alteration, and even as to what form this alteration took. This makes it difficult to date these paintings, which were contemporary with the alteration. At the present time this abbey, which overlooks Lake Como from a considerable height, is decorated with paintings in the vestibule (narthex), nave and crypt. Their principal theme is the Heavenly City.

On the vault of the vestibule we see Christ the King, seated on a globe, with the Lamb at his feet. On another vault are the four rivers of Paradise, while in the nave, on the lunette which surmounts and includes the three arches opening on to the vestibule, is a Christ in Majesty framed by the battle of St. Michael and the angels against the dragon of the Apocalypse. On the left of Christ we see St. Michael and six angels, armed with spears, piercing the head and body of the dragon. The latter takes up all the lower part of the composition, while the right side is occupied by cohorts of angels taking part in the battle. Despite the heavy, almost archaic drawing of the faces, these paintings are probably only some fifty years later than those of Galliano, although they cannot be earlier than the first half of the twelfth century in view of certain borrowings from Greek models.

For information about Italian medieval book painting and gospel illuminations, see: Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts.

Romanesque Painting in Venice

The origins of Byzantine elements in the Romanesque painting of Venice and Friuli are far easier to explain than in the case of Lombardy, Piedmont and Latium. At Aquileia the frescoes of the cathedral, which had been commissioned by the Patriarch Poppo (1019-1042) are a typical example of the work of medieval artists trained in the mosaicist tradition. The paintings in the crypt are later than those in the apse but equally majestic, and they suggest a more considerable contribution from the inventive spirit of local artists. The battles of knights which adorn the footing of the crypt, depicted against a background of embroidered curtains, are purely Romanesque.

Romanesque Painting in Central Italy

When it comes to 11th/12th century medieval Christian art in Italy, the frescoes of the Basilica of Sant'Angelo in Formis, sited among ancient ruins five miles north of Capua in central Italy, show the strongest Byzantine influence in the whole of Italy. The oldest parts may date back to the time of Desiderius, Abbot of Monte Cassino, on which Sant' Angelo in Formis depended. On the side walls of the central nave is displayed a narrative cycle of the life of Christ, covering three registers. A large composition covers the entrance wall of the central nave, representing the Last Judgment, where we are conscious, however, that the artist has taken certain liberties with respect to his Byzantine prototypes: the intrusion of Roman formulae (in the larger dimensions of the crucifixion), and Western types (in the Last Judgment, where livelier expressions enhance the dramatic action).

The painting in the nave, and also that in the apse, with its Christ in Majesty holding a book inscribed Ego sum alfa et omega belongs probably to the second half of the eleventh century, while that of the Last Judgment may have been executed around 1100.

In Rome two small churches, San Bastianello - built about 1000 CE - and Sant'Urbano, which an inscription allows us to date to 1011, contain the remains of frescoes which anticipate true Romanesque painting such as, in particular, that in the lower church of San Clemente, the work of a highly talented artist.

Among these paintings in the underground church - which do not form a coherent whole, being of widely differing periods - only those which decorate the vestibule and two pillars of the nave are of interest to us, for they are truly Romanesque. The hagiographic scenes of the Miracle of St. Clement's undersea tomb, of the Transference of St. Cyril's ashes from the Vatican to the Church of San Clemente in the year 869 (unless it represents the transference of the relics of St. Clement in 868), as well as three scenes from the life of St. Alexis, combined in a single composition, must be considered one of the masterpieces of Romanesque painting in Italy. (See also the influence of Carolingian Art.)

The painters who decorated the abbey church of Castel Sant'Elia, near Nepi, some fifty miles north of Rome, also made felicitous use of the models of draperies and various accessories, and the iconographical themes, provided by the Roman studios. Castel Sant'Elia has the greatest mural ensemble in Latium. In the apse: Christ between St. Peter and St. Paul. Behind them, separated by trees, Moses on the left, and on the right St. Eligius, a Roman soldier converted in 309. Below, in a decorative band where the Lamb occupies the centre in a medallion, the twelve sheep, six on each side, issuing from Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The cloth on which stand the vessels of the offering to the Lamb is represented with astonishing inventiveness.

On the transept walls, below and towards the apse, the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse were originally depicted, of whom only those on the right remain. Their draperies are remarkable for delicacy and firmness of relief. The paintings of Castel Sant'Elia have the richness of colour characteristic of the Romanesque school, with red, ochre and white colour pigments predominating, emphasized by deep blue.

It is probable that several painters, almost all at the same period - about 1255 - worked on the crypt of the cathedral of Anagni, some fifty miles south of Rome. This ensemble is extremely important, conservative in character and forming a single iconographical sequence.

One set of paintings is connected with the ceremony of inauguration of the crypt: first, 'scientific' subjects related to the service of dedication (the elements composing the universe according to the doctrine of Aristotle, which was very fashionable at that time although rarely illustrated ichnographically: Man the Microcosm is included, shown at different stages in his life), then the two doctors of antiquity, Galen and Hippocrates. Then come hagiographical scenes: the martyrdom of St. John the Evangelist in front of the Latin Gate, and several scenes from the life of St. Magnus, Bishop of Anagni, who was put to death during the persecutions of Decius: St. Magnus curing a paralytic, his martyrdom by beheading, and his deposition. On the other side, scenes from the Apocalypse: the Last Judgment, the elders of the Apocalypse, and in the vault of the apse Christ in Majesty with one unusual iconographical feature - the Sword of Justice issuing from his mouth.

Several of the vaulted ceilings are devoted to the story of the Ark of the Covenant: the Jews, having committed the sin of idolatry, lose the holy Ark - the Philistines carry the Ark away to Azotum - the four Philistine cities, Gaza, Dagon, Acaron and Ascalon, which kept the Ark in turn - Samuel reconciles the Jews with God, the destruction of the idol, the return of the Ark, Samuel speaks to the Jews - the story of the Ark's return. Another ceiling shows us Elijah's ascension in the chariot of fire.

Compared with Castel Sant'Elia and San Clemente, which it far surpasses in decorative splendour, the Anagni ensemble displays, apart from its Byzantine element, much closer observation of reality and a greater expressive force.

Whereas, in the case of the Anagni frescoes, the scholar Grabar dismisses on grounds of their arrangement the possibility of their having been modelled on illuminated manuscripts, the scenes which decorate the walls of the oratory of St. Sylvester in the convent of the Quattro Coronati in Rome suggest to him that the artist must have conceived his mural paintings as enlarged miniatures.

Built in 1246, this oratory is dedicated to St. Sylvester I, Pope and Confessor. On three of the four walls the story of Constantine and St. Sylvester is displayed: Constantine, who is suffering from leprosy and who might be cured, according to the doctors, by a bath of human blood, is reassuring the mothers who have come to implore him to spare their children; St. Peter and St. Paul appear to the Emperor in a dream; Constantine's envoys go to Mount Soracte to fetch the hermit; they invite Sylvester to return with them; Sylvester shows the Emperor the pictures of the saints he saw in his dream; Baptism of Constantine, immersed by St. Sylvester; the Emperor, cured, presents the tiara and the fregium (symbols of Papal temporal power) to the hermit; Constantine, on foot, leads the horse on which Pope Sylvester rides into Rome, which he had presented to him; St. Sylvester resuscitates the bull and confounds the rabbi; the country is delivered from the dragon, thanks to St. Sylvester.

This theme was certainly imposed upon the painter, for the Popes liked to stress the Holy See's doctrine concerning the subordination of Emperor to Pope.

Romanesque Painting in Northern Italy

Let us turn once more to northern Italy, where the great towns, as their prosperity increased, became centres of religious art whose influence spread into the remotest regions.

On a hill overlooking the mouth of the valley of Susa (the Mont-Cenis road) the small chapel of Sant'Eldrado, built within the precincts of the Benedictine monastery of Novalesa under the direction of Father Giacomo delle Scale, prior of the monastery from 1229 to 1265, is decorated with paintings which were disastrously restored in 1828. This is much to be regretted, for they are of great interest from an iconographical point of view; they depict the life of St. Nicolas, and show the infant, already dedicated to strict abstinence, refusing his mother's milk.

We must also note, on the road to Cuneo, at Roccaforte Mondovi, the church of Pieve di San Maurizio, where the whole of the right side-aisle and the apse are decorated with frescoes which from certain aspects (grotesques, and figures of monsters) recall the paintings in the church San Jacopo of Termeno. However, we are confronted here with the work of a painter who, although by no means ignorant of the Byzantine tradition, has also been influenced by the Romanesque art of Tuscany, as we know it in the lateral scenes of Pisan and especially of Florentine crosses: the figures have almond-shaped eyes with enlarged pupils. The colours, in which intense greens and blues predominate, have been laid on in uniform masses between delicately drawn outlines, and light and dark touches put on in conventional fashion without seeking an effect of relief, merely of colour and pattern. On the left wall of the side aisle, we find a scene showing the kiss of Judas which recalls the paintings in the crypt of Saint-Savin, although it lacks their classic power.

Still in Piedmont, at Novara, a series of paintings in different buildings are worthy of attention. First, in the vestry of the Duomo, an architectural decoration with a bishop's portrait is only of secondary interest, whereas close by, in the oratory of San Siro (all that remains of the grandiose Romanesque basilica destroyed in 1857), the story of the life of St. Syrus, first Bishop of Pavia, consecrated by St. Peter in 46 CE, covers the vault and the walls. These Romanesque paintings belong to the second half of the twelfth century, except that of the end wall which is thirteenth-century, and already Gothic.

On the upper part of the entrance wall, we see the widow of Verona imploring St. Syrus to restore her dead son to life. The scene is framed at the top by a red band which broadens out on the right to become the background against which is painted a group of buildings enclosed within the crenellated walls of the city of Verona, in great blocks of reddish tufa. The expressiveness of the widow's face is enhanced by her dramatic attitude.

On the left face of the pilaster, on the same register, we see St. Syrus raising the widow's son from the dead. On the right face of the same pilaster, St. Syrus baptizes the widow. Here again, an orange band at the top cuts off the blue background, in the centre of which the white baptismal font stands out, with green shadows on its outer face and blue on its inner face. A woman's figure is immersed in it; we see her head and naked shoulders, with long red hair hanging down her back. On the left, St. Syrus is laying his right hand on the woman's head to baptize her; the deacon stands behind him, upright and stiff.

These paintings are of exceptional quality, as regards both their artistic merits and their dramatic sense. The unknown artist who produced them in the second half of the twelfth century had not only a subtle sense of colour and a feeling for rhythm and space of a high order, but an intense expressive power such as is rarely found in Italian Romanesque paintings. Originality of composition, the easy grace with which draperies are depicted and figures grouped, are another prerogative of this great master, whose style is unequalled among extant specimens of contemporary work.

At Novara, again, the former town hall, which forms part of the Brolette buildings, dates from September 1208. The painted frieze on the south wall, below the cornice, is contemporary. The scenes represented on it have varied themes: knights leaving a town, commoners fighting, men struggling with wild animals, profane subjects, monsters, centaurs, even an erotic scene. The frieze is fragmentary in its central portion and the disconnected nature of the subject makes it impossible to decide whether the theme is taken from some romance of chivalry, whether it has any symbolic significance or is merely decorative in intention. The style is in the popular tradition of the end of the preceding century: lively, free and easy, rough and sketchy, with an amusing touch of caricature.

Romanesque Painting in Italian Switzerland

Overlooking Lake Maggiore in Italian Switzerland, the little chapel of San Vigilio, at Rovio, built at the beginning of the thirteenth century, preserves in its apse some Romanesque frescoes of the same period. A great Christ in Majesty, somewhat effaced, is enthroned in the vault of the apse, above the Virgin and the Apostle Peter.

In the apse of the church of San Jacopo at Grissiano near Naples, Christ in Majesty, supported by the Virgin and St. John the Baptist, with the symbols of the evangelists at the four corners, recalls the miniatures of the Ottonian school.

Under a Greek-key-pattern frieze interspersed, according to the classical tradition, with figures and masks, the triumphal arch displays a Sacrifice of Isaac which is a typical sample of an art where the last Byzantine formulae are giving way before a naturalism anticipating the Gothic school. The rocky background of the scene is inspired by the nearby Dolomites, and the painter has obviously found close at hand the woodcutter, with his donkey, who was the model for the servant accompanying Abraham and Isaac.

Romanesque Painting in Tuscany

In Tuscany, most of the Romanesque frescoes have disappeared. We can only trace a few specimens, such as the fragment from building abutting on the apse of the church of San Michele at Salzi, preserved in the Civic Museum at Pisa. On the other hand, the important contribution of Tuscan artists is represented by a whole series of monumental crosses, altar-pieces and tabernacles. Other artists were working at the same time and in the same spirit at Rome, in Latium and in the centre of the peninsula.

It was chiefly in Italy and in Spain (see: Romanesque painting in Spain), countries directly affected by Byzantine influence, that the art of easel pictures was developed. Examples of Orthodox icon painting, brought from Greece originally and then imitated in Venice and elsewhere, served as models. Then Italian artists eventually abandoned hieratic rigidity and strove to make their figures more flexible and more human.

See also: Russian Medieval Painting (c.950-1100), and its successor the Novgorod School of Icon Painting (and murals) (1100-1500)

Four panel paintings are typical examples of the Romanesque art of central Italy and Latium, still strongly influenced by the latest Byzantine trend. In the Virgin and Child tempera panel in the church of the Madonna del Serbo, at Campagnano, for instance, the rigidity of the attitudes, the fixed gaze of the eyes, the folds of drapery are closely akin to the portraits of princesses and handmaidens in the mosaics of San Vitale at Ravenna.

The altarpiece of the church of Santa Maria Assunta at Trevignano, where a Christ in Majesty is accompanied by the intercessory Virgin on the left panel and St. John the Evangelist on the right panel, dates from the first third of the thirteenth century. It bears the signature of its two painters, Nicolaus de Petro Paulo and Petrus de Nicolao; this is something exceptional at this time. These two artists were also responsible for the panel described above.

A figure of the Redeemer, in the Cathedral of Tarquinies, is treated in the same manner.

At Viterbo, finally, in the church of Santa Maria Nuova, a tabernacle, painted in parchment fixed to wood, is dedicated to the Holy Saviour. When open, it reveals - like the Trevignano triptych - a Christ in Majesty supported by the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist. When closed, the two leaves display the figures of St. Peter and St. Paul. On the back, we see an angel, also much influenced by the Byzantine art of the school of Spoleto.

Romanesque sculpture was often painted for effect. The art of painted wooden crucifixes, an Italian invention of the late twelfth century, is akin to that of mural painting. The figure of Christ, at first depicted as living but stiff and rigid, with wide open eyes, like that in the sacristy of the cathedral of Spoleto which is signed by Alberto di Sozio and dated 1187, is later shown as a dead body with closed eyes and hanging head, of greenish colour (Cross number 20 of the Civic Museum of Pisa).

The Tuscan painters, taking liberties with the Oriental canon, inscribe all round the figure of Christ small scenes from his life, done with grace and elegance, in colours whose splendour is enhanced by the contrast with the gilt background on which they are laid. Some of these artists, by the end of the twelfth century, were producing veritable masterpieces. Certain names have come down to us, though these are later than the Romanesque period properly so-called: Rainaldo di Ranuccio, Giunta Pisano, Bonaventura di Berlinghiera, Coppo di Marcovaldo, leading up to Cimabue, who heralds Giotto and, beyond him, the glories of Early Renaissance painting (c.1400-90).

Italian Romanesque paintings can be seen in some of the oldest churches and cathedrals in Italy, as well as in the best art museums around the world.

REFERENCES
We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Romanesque Painting by Juan Ainaud and Andre Held.

• For the meaning of medieval religious frescoes and altarpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
• For more about Italian Romanesque art, see: Homepage.


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